Digital Comics Pioneer comiXology Discusses Its Past and Future

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Jan 24 2011 at 9:43am

Posted in Interviews

comiXology Digital ComicsThis week, Digital Comics Month starts off with an interview with comiXology CEO David Steinberger. Founded in 2007 as an online comic book resource that allowed users to create “Pull Lists” of comics, comiXology has since expanded, offering Retailer Tools to traditional brick-and-mortar comic shops that allow their customers to pre-order comics via their websites.

In 2009, comiXology launched its Comics by comiXology app, which allows users to purchase and view digital comics through a variety of platforms. Today, comiXology has partnered with several comic book publishers, including Marvel and DC Comics. Also, shortly after we interviewed Steinberger, comiXology and pop-culture news source ICv2 announced a strategic partnership that will focus on expanding comiXology’s relationship with comics retailers and further building on their Retailer Tools. Read on for our interview: How long have you been distributing digital comics? When, and how, was your company founded?

David Steinberger: We have been distributing digital comics since June 2009 when we launched our Comics by comiXology iPhone app.

comiXology started in 2007 as an online community for comic book fans, allowing readers to identify upcoming releases and develop Pull Lists (individual pre-orders) from local brick-and-mortar comic shops. displays weekly listings of new titles that can be viewed by issue: displaying cover art, credits, description, price, page count, and other information. In addition to developing Pull Lists, registered users can rate and comment on comic books. The site also includes weekly columns, blogs, news and podcasts. What drew you to digital comics?

DS: We are first and foremost avid comic readers and saw that a lot of media formats were making the transition to digital when the iPhone came out. The iPhone was the tipping point for us when we saw the potential of the platform. Reading comics on your computer has its pros and cons, but having them portable through a mobile device was the linchpin to making digital comics viable. What did you think when you first heard about the possibility of reading comics in a digital format?

DS: When I first heard of it, the only way to do it was through illegal scans of cbr and cbz files that didn’t benefit the publishers or creators. I found the experience really lacking as it just isn’t a great way to read a comic, in my opinion. Who is buying your digital comics? Is it your usual audience, or do you think you’re reaching a more nontraditional demographic?

DS: We get some of the traditional audience, but firmly believe we’re reaching a much wider range of consumers with our content. We’re reaching a much wider audience than your standard Wednesday comic shoppers. The last time we polled our customers, less than 20% were regular comic book buyers before they used our app. Do you currently offer day and date comics? Will you offer more of those in the future?

DS: We do offer some day and date comics, with The Walking Dead being our most popular. We leave that part of the decision making to the publishers, though. That said, it certainly looks like day-and-date comics will continue to become more plentiful this year. Currently, customers are still buying standalone issues. Are you planning to offer digital “graphic novels”?

DS: We offer some collected editions, like The Walking Dead, Atomic Robo, and others. They are very well received and we expect to sell more and more collected like that. How have iPhone-sized versus iPad-sized digital comics fared?

DS: The iPad audience, just in sheer numbers, is much smaller than iPhone/iPad devices. However, it’s closer to what a traditional experience of reading a comic book is like, so people tend to read and buy more on the iPad.

We are seeing creators embrace the “digital first” mentality, like David Gallaher and Steve Ellis’s Box 13 and Alex De Campi’s Valentine, which are specifically created for a digital device. Right now, many publishers are going through several distributors at once. Will that continue, or do you plan to require exclusivity?

DS: We won’t ever require exclusivity, but some publishers find it easier to go with the distributor that will make them the most money across a wide range of devices, because it’s simpler and better for the consumer. DC, for instance, saw the value in working with us and PSP only. How does iTunes figure in your service?

DS: iTunes powers our in-app purchases on iOS devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad). They aren’t connected to or our Android app. In fact, you can buy comics on the Web or on our Android app, and that purchase will appear on your iOS devices. What are the advantages of your service, compared to other digital comics distributors?

DS: First, our Guided View™ has been recognized as the best reading experience for small devices. Second, we have the largest library of comics–we’ll pass 6,000 comics shortly, and are the only multi-OS platform with DC Comics. Third, we have the best and most consistent app experience across multiple platforms with iOS, the Web and Android. How do you feel publishers have responded to the digital comics format? Have there been any changes in the way they produce comics that you’ve seen?

DS: Publishers have responded positively, as it’s a great channel to reach new readers and make some incremental revenue. Most major publishers have not adjusted how they produce comics, although I have heard tales of lettering sizes getting a little bigger to have them more readable on the iPad, but haven’t actually seen that other than digital-first comics. What have been some of the major challenges of bringing comics into the digital age?

DS: The single biggest challenge has been making comics a great experience on small devices. Then, for older comics, you have the whole source-file issues . . . scanning, cleaning up, fixing mistakes in lettering . . . this all takes a long time, if you can find a source file or document at all! Second to that is prepping the comics for mobile distribution. That also takes time. What do you think of the piracy issue that comes along with digital distribution?

DS: Piracy of comics was in full bloom long before legitimate digital distribution of comics appeared. The way this question is written implies that digital distribution increases piracy. I think it’s exactly the opposite. A well-stocked and -crafted store with a great reading experience at a reasonable price will reduce piracy, not increase it.

The fact is, the people who scan and post the Wednesday comics every week are going to continue to do that. You can battle it through legal challenges, and the publishers have done that, and you can battle it by making the material widely available for a better experience. We’re supportive of both methods, but think having material widely available is the best tool to combat piracy. What are your plans for future development?

DS: We don’t really reveal our future development plans. We’re always looking for ways to improve the experience. We focus on great reading experiences, a great discovery process and other features like social integration. We are, of course, also considering other platforms we feel will be important in the future. If one of your digital comics readers wanted to get the hard copy after they read the digital comic, how do you help them find out where to get a copy?

DS: We have a print retailer finder built right into our apps. They can just look up their local shop. What do you think digital comics will mean for traditional retailers in the upcoming years?

DS: Digital, first and foremost, is a great way to give people who don’t read comics a taste of what we love. That’s a gateway to becoming a regular Wednesday shopper, and the retailers will have to capitalize on that. Traditional retailers should continue to focus on what makes a great store, and how to get people to know about their store. Our online tools for retailers, for instance, have been proven over and over again to increase comic book purchases at traditional stores. Do you think digital comics spell the end of floppies?

DS: I doubt it. This question came up with the great surge in trade paperbacks in the first decade of the century, too, but that didn’t spell the end of them. Part of the reason floppies work is that it fits well [within] the production capabilities of the creators. It takes time to craft 22 pages, and being able to give fans something every month makes sense. Do you honestly think digital stores and the traditional direct market can both continue to thrive?

DS: Yes, there’s no doubt in my mind that the comic market as a whole can thrive, both digitally and physically. Otherwise we wouldn’t continue to develop new tools for retailers! Do you have any retailer incentives or plans to include traditional retailers in your digital comics program?

DS: Yes, we have a lot of announcements to make about this important part of our business that will benefit retailers both in print and digitally.

Our thanks to David for his insightful and thorough answers! Next up for Digital Comics Month: our interview with Boom! Studios will go live on Wednesday, January 26.


Have you purchased comics from comiXology? What do you think about their Guided View™ feature? Post your comments below!