Talking Digital Comics With ComiXology’s David Steinberger

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You mentioned the website, and I mainly think of comiXology as a digital distributor, and didn’t realize until recently that you also have a website full of your own content as well…

Yeah, we’re kind of Frankensteinian at the moment. All of this has been part of our business plan, but at the beginning, we were simply an informational site about what you could expect to find at your stores, and making virtual pull lists for comic books. We established ourselves as premier in retail comics, not selling books, but helping [print] retailers, we actually have retailers who subscribe to our services, and now we’re this odd, fairly compelling mix of the entire industry. According to some of the estimates out there, we represent 2% of the buying market in North America, and we sell these retailer services so that people can preorder books and then buy them at their local stores. That was our first application, simply called comiXology. That’s why we have the retailer finder in the digital app, because we feel that distribution has been so poor during this time of great popularity thanks to movies and massmedia over the last ten years. Distribution just hasn’t kept up. There’s been some pieces lacking, because of the monopoly [from Diamond Distributors] and the distribution system in print comics.

We’re concentrating on getting great user experiences on the web, on the iPad and the iPhone, but we feel that there’s an opportunity for print comics as well, as people get to know comics through greater distribution in digital.

Have you had any feedback from retailers about digital distribution? I’m thinking about some of the retailer commentary I’ve seen about Marvel’s same day digital release of the Invincible Iron Man Annual, for example… Retailers seem to think, “That’s great, if it brings people back to the stores.”

The retailers who’ve been with us the longest have realized that they actually get more customers through the retailer finder in the digital app. They get people coming in to buy the Walking Dead in trade paperbacks or hardcover editions, that’s a story we hear quite a bit. I think our guys get that, this is happening one way or another, and it’s better to have a partner like us whose vision is one unified market instead of someone who thinks that digital is a replacement to print, or is looking to kill off the print market. I don’t think that’s anyone’s intention, as far as something like Marvel going day-and-date.

The fact that they choose us, in terms of publishers, is because we take the care and time to have a retailer finder on the app, and we’ll continue to innovate on that, and help retailers and print. We haven’t lost any retailers. Any time we have a big announcement, we actually have more retailers sign up for our services. It’s very counterintuitive, but retailers as mom-and-pop operations can’t necessarily create really intricate websites and keep up with 1200 items each month. I think they can see a real value in what we can do. Of course, some retailers won’t touch us with a ten foot pole, but the guys we deal with, it’s probably a 90-10 rule: They’re doing the greatest amount of sales, but they’re also seeing a 20% increase in sales because suddenly their customers have all the information about what’s coming out in the upcoming months.

I admit that it’s a counterintuitive model, but the comic book market is not like any other market out there. It’s not going to follow the same sales trajectory as music, because it already has terrible distribution and is already a niche-slash-boutique print market. The stores are almost a cultural center. You could compare it to vinyl, to these vinyl boutique that are popping up in urban centers and celebrating the culture of vinyl, of record stores, having a very personalized experience. That’s what comic stores already are. I don’t see any danger to that through digital, and the [print] market that’s there is really dedicated. I think there’s a really good chance that more people will get into comics through getting to know them. The fact is that we have 1700, 1800 comics in the app, and most of them aren’t even available in all stores. It’s alternative distribution for books that don’t have that much distribution in the first place.

Exactly, there’s a large amount of comics out there that don’t even make it to a lot of stores, because the retailers can’t afford to take the chance, especially when there are so many Marvel or DC books to keep up with that are less of a risk.

I completely agree, and I think you’ll see a lot of talent emerge because of this opportunity. And again, it’s long tail. The fact that Hack/Slash is in our top ten right now, and that’s something that you couldn’t find a lot of the suburban or mall-oriented comic stores that don’t have that much space, means that there’s an audience out there that may not have known about that series. And that’s also a benefit of our tools for retailers, and their customers, because the retailers find that they get orders for books that customers never would have found on the shelf. I hate to use the word synergy, but there’s a complimentary aspect of digital to print, because you don’t have an Amazon of comics, by which I mean some place that has a warehouse that goes on for miles and has every book that was ever published, and you have the advantage of the digital space where these indie guys can get their book up beside everyone else as long as it’s of professional quality, and suddenly they have an audience as well. They can get put into the right genre, and they can be discovered by an audience looking for that type of material.

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