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In case you missed it, Amazon announced last Thursday their intent to buy the popular digital comics provider comiXology. The deal is expected to close in the second quarter of this year, and terms were not disclosed.
Maybe this explains why my Prime membership went up in price? OK, probably not. But this is a major shift for the industry, as the biggest seller of digital comics will be owned by a mega Internet company. It’s really too soon to know exactly what this will all mean, but here are a few thoughts I’ve had after shifting through the announcement and some of the reactions to it.
1. My first thought is, “Congratulations to comiXology founders David Steinberger and John Roberts, and the whole comiXology crew on the sale.” comiXology came into comics perceived as a potentially disruptive force to the industry; knives and guns came out as many people rallied around print comics. But they’ve proven to not be the end of the industry as we know it, as they’ve made the effort to partner with retailers through their digital storefront initiative, sponsor things like the CBLDF and the Eisner Awards, and generally support the medium in all its forms and formats. They’ve also built a pretty stellar comic-reading app, making it easy to buy and read comics every Wednesday anywhere you can get internet access (even if that’s thousands of miles from a comic shop). I use comiXology myself to buy comics, from batches of cheap single issues to the latest stuff from Monkeybrain. They’ve been at the forefront of digital comics, building a better mousetrap and setting the standard for what digital delivery looks like. So kudos to them.
2. As a user of comiXology’s services, my next thought is, “What does this mean to me as a consumer?” Reading the interviews with Steinberger and Amazon’s David Naggar it sounds like it’s way too soon to tell, as Naggar said Amazon isn’t coming into this with an agenda beyond buying the market leader in digital comics. Both of them told CBR that nothing would change for end users for now. “For now” being the operative word, because change will no doubt come in some form down the line.
I do take a bit of solace in knowing that it’s Amazon who bought comiXology and not, say, Microsoft or Apple. I think Amazon has a much better track record of keeping what made their acquisitions unique intact without screwing them up or having them disappear into the ether. I am also an Amazon user, so if I end up having to, say, use my Amazon password to access comiXology at some point, that’s really not a big deal for me. I used Zappos before and after their purchase by Amazon, and nothing really seemed to change much — Zappos also has a unique corporate culture that Amazon seems to have pretty much left alone (Amazon has even started using some of Zappos’ ideas themselves). Amazon could leave cX set up the way they are, not wanting to ruin the secret sauce that makes comiXolgy work.
One potential change, just from looking at how Amazon operates, is losing the ability to buy comics directly through the iOS apps. If you’ve ever used the Kindle app on your iPad, you know that you can’t buy books directly; instead you have to buy them via their website and then download them to the app. I don’t think it’s likely, though, that they’d do something like that, as it would really tamper with comiXology’s existing business model and make it a lot more inconvenient to buy comics.
One thing I don’t want to see happen is my comiXology reading experience becoming more like the Kindle comic-reading experience. They are definitely a night and day experience, and I would think that one of the reasons Amazon would want something like comiXology is because they have created such a great reading experience. So if anything, maybe comics on the Kindle will become easier and more pleasant to read now that they have in-house experts.
3. How will this affect comics retailers? comiXology provides a couple of retailer-friendly services: the above-mentioned digital storefronts and their popular print comics pull-list service. It doesn’t sound like the pull list service is going anywhere. But Heidi at The Beat points out that retailers who use those services may not be happy with the fact that Amazon now has access to lists of their customers. While digital comics may not be the enemy of brick and mortar stores, Amazon is another animal entirely, as their pricing strategies could be described as “aggressive” if you were trying to be nice.
In a roundup of various reaction to the news, Graeme McMillan received a statement from ComicsPro, the comic retailer trade association: “There’s always a concern when a huge corporation that shows little need to turn a profit tries to convert a niche market into a commodity. Fortunately there is a tactile element to comics that no deep-discounting web entity will ever be able to replicate. So as long as there continues to be fans for the real thing, there will be comics and comic book stores.”
4. comiXology hasn’t operated without controversy over the last few years. Does being owned by Amazon make some of the things that have happened less likely to happen again, or more? Or does it even matter? Let’s poke around at some of them.
One of the common criticisms I’ve heard (and seen in our comments section on many occasions) is the ownership issue. You’re essentially “renting” your comics on comiXology and can’t download them to your own computer’s hard drive. I doubt this will change under Amazon, based on the Kindle model, as you also don’t actually own any Kindle books you might purchase. However, maybe comiXology being owned by a bigger company will help alleviate some of the fears that “cX could go out of business, and my comics will disappear forever.” I guess Amazon could end up shuttering comiXology at some point if they don’t remain profitable, but that just doesn’t seem very likely.
You might remember back during South by Southwest 2013, comiXology’s servers crashed when they and Marvel gave away a whole bunch of first issues. Amazon is pretty good at the large-scale back-end/technology stuff, so maybe something like this could be attempted again and work as intended. One of the benefits of the deal should be that comiXology and Amazon both now have access to a group of smart people with expertise in areas that could benefit the other; it’s just a matter of taking advantage of the opportunity. My colleague Corey Blake wondered if comiXology, a group that obvious knows and loves comics, could one day curate Amazon’s comics section, for example.
Finally, you may remember the whole Saga #12 thing, where comiXology decided not to add the comic to their iOS store due to their interpretation of Apple’s content policies. Eventually the comic was listed in the app store, but not long after a whole bunch of comics were pulled from their app “in order to comply with the Apple App Store guidelines regarding adult or inappropriate content.” This is more of an Apple issue than anything else, and I wouldn’t think being owned by Amazon would affect a similar situation one way or the other. Apple’s vague guidelines apply to everyone, right? Except apparently the late-night section on the HBO GO app.
5. Looking at it from an industry perspective, how much of the overall comic market will be going through Amazon, if you add up the various digital comics they sell themselves, plus comiXology, plus all the print editions in their online store? More than goes through Diamond? I wouldn’t even know how to add that up. Amazon has grown from being an online bookstore to selling, well, just about everything you could imagine. I used to think of them as a good alternative to someplace like Walmart; you could argue the case that now they have become the Internet Walmart.
6. Finally, what sort of opportunities does this acquisition give not only comiXology, but the industry as a whole? I’m thinking in terms of cross-promotional opportunities within Amazon, such as getting free comiXology comics when you purchase a comic book movie, or even just getting a digital copy when you buy a trade paperback. Amazon is pretty good at telling you what else you might like when you buy something, and maybe comiXology could benefit from that. Lately I’ve been getting emails from Amazon telling me that I can download free books as part of my Prime membership. How long before I start getting emails about free comics – and more importantly, how long before all those non-comic readers who have Prime start getting emails telling them they can download comics for their kids? I have the Amazon Prime app both on my Playstation and my TiVo; if that was somehow integrated with comiXology, could I start seeing those double-page spreads on my flatscreen TV? There are a lot of possibilities for this acquisition to grow the number of comic readers out there, which is always a good thing.