Talking Digital Comics With ComiXology’s David Steinberger

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With the creation of iPhone/iPad apps for both Marvel Comics and indie publisher Boom! Studios so far this year, New York-based comiXology seems to be stepping into the position of the company most likely to help publishers transition into the world of digital comics. I spoke to the company’s CEO, David Steinberger, earlier this week about digital comics, creating a world where both digital and print can co-exist happily and why comic stores are already the future of record stores.

I saw the announcement about the partnership with Boom! Studios…

Yeah, we released a Boom! app this week.

Is this the second app, behind Marvel’s, that comiXology has created, essentially behind the scenes?

Yeah, it is. It’s exactly the second app.

How does that work? Do they approach you and say, we really want to get our comics out in the digital space and you’re the best people to do it, or do you approach the publishers?

In this case, Boom! has been partners with us for a long time. We’ve been selling Boom!’s comics through the Comics by comiXology app, and they’re also available through the web viewer, and they’ve been testing the waters with several different applications, and I think they felt like our performance has been really good and we have a good partnership. They wanted a little top level attention in the iTunes store, which is really the only way you can do it.

Something that I feel has been happening, particularly with the Boom! and Marvel apps, has been that comiXology has been really coming to the forefront in terms of digital comics and digital comics distribution.

Yeah, it certainly seems as if we’ve innovated enough in the space, and with our connections to retailers, we’ve gotten a lot of publishers behind us and, you know, we’ve been in the top ten iPhone app books for the last ten months. On the iPad, we’ve been top ten since launch. We have the biggest audience, we’ve innovated faster than any of our competitors, we’re the first ones to have true multiplatform – outside of some beta testing you may have seen out there. I think that we’re proving to have some value to these publishers, and I think that we do our best to be really good partners to the publishers, to let them experiment. I think it’s been working quite well.

Can you tell now what people are going for, in terms of the digital market? Is there a difference from the print audience?

It’s really fascinating, when you look at the top ten of our books. Recently, it’s been a lot of licensed material and indie material. We release new books every Thursday, so it’s partially up to what we release, but at the same time, we’ve been seeing a lot more – for instance, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep has been up there from Boom!… If we release Walking Dead or Invincible, that’s normally in the top ten, but for example, Wanted from Top Cow has been in the top ten since January. I think that what that indicates is that we are reaching an audience not so oriented towards Marvel and DC. Well, Marvel at least, as DC aren’t in there, so we can’t tell.

Our Marvel books do really well, but Kick-Ass, the book from Icon, Marvel’s sub-line, which isn’t in the Marvel app, has done tremendously well. I think it indicates, kind of like Star Trek went for IDW, that we’re getting a wider audience than would perhaps go into a comic book store. That’s kind of been our rallying call since we launched the website over three years ago, that more people would be into comics if distribution was better, if they knew what was coming out, if they could find their stores, and this really speaks to that.

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.

So how do you find these indie books? Is there a submissions process?

We’ve been out for ten months, and for the months before that, we worked with publishers. Before then, we’d been working with publishers for the site for two years, and we knew all the publishers and had, in essence, been doing PR for them by talking about their books on the site, and having a podcast and helping them sell their books, so at first it was simply demoing the project and telling them we were doing it.

At this point, we get a lot of submissions and we’re working really hard to innovate how independent and creator-owned works get onto the site, so in the next few months there should be some additions to the site to make that a lot easier. Right now, we take an email and take some samples of the work and look at it. Obviously, we do this guided view for the books, and that does take human interaction so there is a limit, at the moment, to how much we can process, but – as long as it’s professional quality, we lean towards stuff that’ll make the most money, of course, like anyone, but as we start getting into comics for kids, there are going to be more opportunities to getting comics onto there.

How do you decide on pricing? Or is that not something you get to define for publishers?

That’s the publishers. We give some advice, but – this is an early market, so to act like anyone or company can act like an iTunes of comics and dictate what price a comic should be, is crazy. For the most part, we give some advice, and we help lead publishers and answer their questions in terms of our experience and what we’ve seen, but we leave them to it. Mostly, prices fall between 99 cents and $1.99, but you also see, for instance, The Pro, which has been very high on our charts for the last few weeks, is $3.99. Sure, it’s an 80 page book, but it’s selling very very well. There isn’t a magic number yet, and even Steve Jobs had to give up on trying to dictate too heavily that every song had to be 99 cents.

Frankly, the price has to be set by the customer, what’s acceptable to them. To be able to experiment with a wide range of prices and compare it to print is much better.

Do you ever have a moment of having to tell a publisher, no, that’s too expensive?

Depending on the length of the book… You haven’t seen a lot of book publishers in here yet. You haven’t seen many of the, I don’t know what you’d call them, the literature publishers’ comics move into digital yet. Partially because they’re looking at it the same way they look at the eBook and eReader market, and thinking that the digital needs to be as close as possible to print so as not to cannibalize that, but they’re a lot more cautious about that. Certainly, we’ve had publishers tell us that they want to do a $15, 50 page comic, because that’s what it retails for in the bookstore, and we respectfully tell them no. But the iPad changes things quite a bit. There was a lot of work in trying to get a comic to work on the iPhone, and it’s more a – some people call it digital snacking, think that the iPhone is a digital snacking device, something where you’ll fool around for a few minutes at a time, and that works really well for a 22 page comic. But for an 80 pager, it’s a little more difficult to get people to buy things that aren’t cheap and quick to consume. On the iPad, I think there’s a lot more potential for something longer form, and for people to pay more money for that. I think The Pro is a good example of that, even though it’s only four bucks.

This has been a big debate in the comic community, especially lately with Marvel and the day-and-date on Iron Man with it being a little more expensive for digital; there’s an assumption that it has to be cheaper for digital, because it’s assumed to be cheaper to get the comics into digital, because you’re saving on printing costs. There’s some value to that, but at the end of the day, again, the cost has to be set by the consumer and what they’re willing to pay, for the convenience of not getting it mailed to them, or having to walk to the comic book store, or – especially in urban areas – not having to fill up every last area with shelf space. But I think there are limits, yeah. I think once you get into, these are never going to be hardcover value books. They are digital, they aren’t physical, and to try to sell something for twenty bucks that sells for twenty bucks in hardcover, you’re going to have a tough time selling that, sure.

You’re about to celebrate the release of your first print comic, right?

Yes! Yes, it comes out this Wednesday, Box 13. We got our comp copies last Friday. It’s published by Red5, but co-published by us, we have our logo on the cover and our names are on the inside, and it’s great. It looks amazing, they got some beautiful paper, and the printers did a great job. It’s very cool, you know?

The reason we made this was, I don’t know if you remember but Apple used to require that App purchases had to be sold, you couldn’t give them away for free. We released right when they did in-app purchases, mid-July last year, so we had to sell it for 99 cents. We were looking for two things, one was a way to get people to buy the app – which turned out not to be so hard, because there was so much free content in it – but the second thing was, to get people to open it up every week to see what was new and to shop. And the reason we thought of Box 13 was a comic that was (a) made for the device size and worked with the technology properly, and (b) was something for people to look forward to every week and get them to open the app. So when Apple changed the apps to be free, all the comic book apps moved to be free, but it had a great response, and was part of our experiment to be part of one holistic experience. We thought, we’ve built an audience for it in digital, let’s see how it does in print.

I don’t think we’re going to be a big producer of our own comic content. You will see some more Box 13 for sure, but it’s not really going to be our position in the market. We’re much more about empowering the market, and the industry, to get into digital and become more accessible in print as well. This just happened to be a fun project by a couple of great creators. It’ll be really fun to see our names in the comic stores.

What are you working on right now that people should be looking for in the future?

We’re launching the store portion of our website, which should be opening shortly, so you’ll be able to buy comics on That’s a huge deal for us, because it allows creators and publishers to link directly to the product. It’s a really great opportunity to make it more sharable, and the fact that you won’t need to have an iPhone or an iPad to buy comics will be a big deal. We’ve got a couple of good publisher announcements over the next few weeks, and San Diego Comic-Con should see some more things being announced.

The website, I think, puts a big stake in the ground to show that we’re not a one-trick-pony about buying things on the iPhone, we are literally the only company where you can buy on the iPhone or the web and read either place. All the other stores, you can’t transfer your purchases to any other device. We’re going to keep adding extentions to platforms, you’re going to see us working diligently on that, and more ways to make the industry more cohesive in terms of digital and print. Considering we just added our fourth employee, that’s probably enough [Laughs].

More On Techland:

Marvel To Release Digital Iron Man Same Day As Print Version

A Comic Pundit’s Thoughts On The iPad And Digital Comics

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