The walled kingdom of digital comics

The Register is a UK newspaper that that makes tech and business news a lot less boring by cloaking it in cheeky slang. An item that popped up today, iPad media apps: Stealthed hobbits thwart Google's flaming Eye, caught my attention because it relates to the changing landscape of comics.

The point of the article is that iPad and iPhone apps are not accessible to Google and other internet search engines. This may not seem like a big deal, but in January, Apple will unveil the Mac Apps Store, and more and more content will be walled off in separate applications. I already use comiXology's web app and the Mac version of the Kindle reader, so a Mac app is only a small step away from what I'm doing now.

It's time for comics publishers and app developers to devote some serious thought to the question of how readers are going to find comics on their mobile devices. Already I have a hard time finding things in the app store, and the lack of a dedicated comics section makes it even worse. Unlike Google's robust search engine (if I search for "Joseph Smith," it knows to give me hits for "Joe Smith" as well, and it will ask me if I'm really looking for "Jo Smyth" if there are more hits for that), the iTunes store only responds to a handful of exact keywords.

David Steinberger, the CEO of comiXology, addressed this very point when I talked to him last month:

We have a Walking Dead app, we have a Scott Pilgrim app, and the reason is so people can find them. I have 150 characters and keywords I can put on my app to make it metasearchable, Apple doesn’t have any way to put into “what’s hot” any of my in-app purchases. If we stuck Walking Dead in our app, someone who searches will find the TV show, not the app.

The problem with this strategy is that single-comic apps are likely to get lost in the deluge of content; one of the nice things about multi-comics apps like Comics and Comics+ is that they present the comics in a neatly organized, easily browsable storefront. The iTunes Store doesn't. They just throw the apps up there in some apparently random order—I'm guessing it's by popularity, but that's not how people search for comics.

Added to this is the fact that different apps carry different comics. You're going to find more up-to-date Marvel comics in the Marvel app than in Comics or Graphic.ly. That makes perfect sense for publishers, of course—they want to drive people to their apps—but for users it's just a nuisance. My iPad is cluttered with single-publisher apps, and I have enough to think about already without remembering which comics are in Comics+ and which are only in the IDW or Archie apps. The fact is that the mobile devices space (iPhone, iPad, Android—don't get me started on Android) is not easily searchable at the moment.

In the 1990s, comics left the mainstream and went into their own little ecosystem, a hortus conclusus where only those who had special knowledge (where the stores are, what comics are coming out in two months and need to be preordered now) could buy them. That system produced a narrow but deep customer base, devoted fans who make the pilgrimage and buy the comics as much because of the inconvenience involved as despite it.

Digital is supposed to be the alternative, but it could end up being just as Balkanized if the publishers insist on running things for their own convenience as opposed to making them user-friendly. Here's an example: As I noted the other day, the IDW folks are allowing iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch users to download the first two issues of Kill Shakespeare for free. The idea is to bring in new people, so one would think they would make it easy for those new people to find the comics. Sadly, no. The press release had links that said "Click here to download from iTunes," which might lead the reader to believe that if they clicked the link, it would take them to the location of the comic in the iTunes store. Nope. It takes you to the IDW Publishing section of the iTunes store, which features a number of single-comic apps, but not Kill Shakespeare. Kill Shakespeare is not sold as a single-comic app. You have to access it through the IDW Comics or Comics+ app, information that was not spelled out clearly in the press release. A search for "Kill Shakespeare" in the app store returns no results. So we're back to people needing esoteric prior knowledge in order to find their comics.

This is not the way to move comics to the mainstream. Someone needs to figure out a way to index comics across all the apps (hey, that could be an app itself!), to make the app stores more searchable (including indexing in-app purchases), and to reliably link to a product within an app from the outside world (the internet). As long as I'm dreaming, Apple should add a comics section to their app store. Without these things, only the already converted will be able to find digital comics.

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