Unbound: ComiXology's bricks-and-pixels store

It would be easy to miss the significance of comiXology’s Comics application for the iPhone and iPod Touch. After all, comics apps are, if not a dime a dozen, at least cheap and plentiful.

But Comics isn’t just a comic or a comics reader, it's a portal that offers a possible way out of the death spiral that independent pamphlet comics seem to be locked into.

Consider the problem: Most comics are only available in comics stores, not on the mass market; prospective readers must often pre-order comics sight unseen; and Diamond won’t carry comics that don’t meet certain minimums. The barrier for new comics is getting higher, and readers have fewer opportunities to discover new comics.

ComiXology provides a digital solution to that impasse that keeps the retailer in the loop: It allows readers to sample comics for free and buy them for their iPhone or iPod Touch, but it also helps them find the print comic in a brick-and-mortar store. ComiXology CEO David Steinberger says he hopes to allow readers to preview and pre-order comics before their official release, helping marginal comics to reach Diamond’s threshold.

The iPhone application is an extension of the comiXology website, which features a complete listing of the comics available in Diamond Previews each month and allows readers to create a digital pull list.

Here’s what Steinberger had to say about the new application, which was announced at San Diego Comic-Con:

Brigid Alverson: How is the comiXology app different from all the other comics apps for the iPhone?

David Steinberger: You can browse a comic store in the iPhone application and purchase it right there, unlike the current comic applications where, say, you buy Atomic Robo number 1, it’s an application itself, then you buy Atomic Robo number 2—you can buy them and it’s all the same application.

The second thing is the reading experience. One thing we thought was missing in iTunes comics was the sense of the page. We keep the page intact and use what we call guided view, which in essence covers up the panels on the left and right. If you buy from UCLICK or iVerse, which have blazed the trail, they have gone into Photoshop and taken out a 480 x 320 pixel image to frame the panel, and you scroll through that to read the comic.

We thought we could show the entire page if we wanted to yet still frame it to 480 x 320 by zooming into panels and framing it in a certain way. Instead of using Photoshop to pre-drop-out the other panels, we do it on the fly.

Brigid: So you can take any comic and put it into your reader, without having to chop it up first?

David: Yes. We launched with over 100 comics, we have 40 in the queue, and we are going to add comics at a fast pace because we don't have to cut out backgrounds and get Photoshop artists to move text boxes around or whatever the processes are.

The third thing we bring to the table, because we have been around a long time and we sell tools for retailers and we have these pull list services, is that it was a no-brainer to connect this to retail stores. You can use the location awareness of the iPhone to find a location to buy the comic from.

We sell a service to retailers to have customers make their pull lists through comiXology. We have 60-80 previews [on the website] every week. By the 15th of the month we will have everything in Diamond Previews up. People can pull them on comiXology or the iPhone application and stores will get that.

Our stores also have an affiliate program: If someone is connected with Isotope Comics [a San Francisco retailer], I’m tracking the purchases you make and I’m sharing the revenue with the retailer. [The store will] they receive a portion of our revenue for every single comic purchased by their customers. We haven't finished the legalese of the affiliate agreement, but will be back-paying from the very launch of the app.

You are going to see some experimentation from us of doing a pre-release of a comic to stimulate ordering by the retailers from Diamond. This is going to be a really interesting six months.

We told retailers we will get into digital comics, it is inevitable, but we can do this in a way that supports you guys. We will experiment with coupons in comics that get you a free comic in the application, or a coupon in the application that gets you free comics, that will tie these things together in a try-before-you-buy architecture.

The advantage is, as Star Trek Countdown on the iPhone showed, IDW said they had sold as many on iPhone as in print. They met their projections and reached a huge audience in the iPhone that wouldn’t stop into a comic book store or don’t know what one is. That’s good for comics, period.

We all know there is a distribution problem. One of the comics we have is Warlord of Io, by James Turner. Diamond dropped it. This is the guy that does Rex Libris, he’s a celebrated cartoonist, and this is an opportunity for that to still have life and have exposure and still get money. We are really excited to put it in the store and say hey, this is a good work, it deserves an audience.

We have 30 comics that come free with the application, and we will continue to add free ones. A lot of our number ones are free. That 99 cent purchase is a barrier for people, but if I put Walking Dead number 1 in for free, I will get way more downloads of that.

Brigid: Is there a backup outside the iPod?

David: We’re hoping people are going to buy a ton of stuff, so we have to be mindful of how much space we take up on your iPhone. There are actually disk usage settings in our application, so you can delete comics or make sure they are saved, or it will auto-delete the older ones. However, you never have to buy them again. That’s the reason we make a login, so we can track your purchases. If you want Walking Dead 2 after deleting it, you can download it again. It’s a thing you own.

Brigid: It seems like your store leans toward single issue comics.

David: As we get more sophisticated with the product, if you download Walking Dead number 1, then you bought number 2, you will be able to buy the next 10 for 8 bucks, for $2 off, like a virtual trade. We’d like to do that, but figuring that out with Apple is complicated.

Brigid: Does Apple tell you what to do?

David: Yes. Apple has managed to get a huge audience, tons of devices, and they make it easy to find these things and easy to buy them. We are the number one selling book application, and we are featured in the iTunes store. Having to work with someone like Apple is a positive and a negative. They are so focused on their device and the applications for their device being so excellent, they let just about any application in there but there’s a quality and a stability in each application and they check every single one of them. They make applications easy to find, and they can do things like put you on the front page. Nobody else in the mobile market has that now. That’s why we did the iPhone first. Of course, that also means I have 40 comics waiting to be approved by Apple.

Brigid: Do they approve each one?

David: No, but they approve each listing. So we have the application out, but we have to hold off on putting more comics in until Apple approves them. We will add a ton of them every week, but there will be a gap before we get on a weekly schedule because that’s how long it takes to get approved. Apple is terrific, and I know they are working on improving the process so we can get stuff out faster. If we get people excited and buying, that benefits Apple. In the meantime, I’m looking at putting out a few more free ones out that Apple doesn't have to approve.

Brigid: Do you plan any straight-to-iPhone comics?

David: At San Diego we announced a couple of original series. We have David Gallaher and Steve Ellis, they are starting a new series, Box 13, that will start in September and will run weekly for free in the applications. We have the print rights, the media rights, so I will be shopping for publishers for it. It’s made for print with the iPhone in mind: He is going to take all the tricks that we use and work on things that will not only have impact in the device but also read well in print. There is another one, X the Unknown, inspired by the software itself, by Tim Smith 3 and Id Ego that will start sometime this fall. I will have another announcement in a few weeks—another creator saw the application and said “You know what? I’m going to do that.”

Brigid: Do you work with publishers or creators?

David: We do both. I think you are going to see the creator-owned category expand a lot. Smoke is in there, by Alex deCampi. She published that through IDW, but the rights reverted to her so we were able to deal directly with her.

We just took out a license for Spike’s Templar, Arizona.

Brigid: But that’s available online for free.

David: You can’t get to Spike’s stuff on the subway. It’s more convenient, and people are willing to pay a premium for that.

Brigid: There are rumors that Apple is working on a larger version of the iPod that would be ideal for comics reading. What will you do if that comes out?

David: If it comes out, we will be on it. Our licenses cover it. Our method is future-proof. We have to consider what are the things that are going to happen with screens and devices and build in a process and work flow that keeps that in mind.

DC Rings In 2020 with New Year's Evil One-Shot Anthology

More in Comics