Gerry Conway: The ComiXology Outrage 0

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NoEyes-Punisher-ComixologyThe following is from Guest Columnist Gerry Conway.

Known forever to fandom as "the man who killed Gwen Stacy," Conway is also the co-creator of The Punisher, Firestorm, Power Girl, Man-Thing, Werewolf-by-Night, The Jackal, Killer Croc, Tombstone, Tarantula, Count Vertigo, Vibe, Vixen, Commander/Citizen Steel, and many other popular (and not so popular) characters for Marvel and DC Comics.

Gerry sold his first story to DC editor Murray Boltinoff a few weeks before he turned sixteen. At eighteen he was writing for Marvel full time; by twenty, he was scripting Marvel's flagship title, Amazing Spider-Man. His most recent work in comics is "The Last Days of Animal Man." His most recent writing project is the young adult novel, “Arkham Academy.”

Gerry-ConwayAnd so, as we could have predicted, Amazon wrecks Comixology.

What has it been, less than a month since Jeff Bezos bought the most promising tool for renewing the mass distribution of comics in the digital era? I'll give the man this: he's moved faster to undermine an existing technology for the benefit of his own company than General Motors did when it sabotaged Los Angeles's public transit Red Line for the benefit of the bus fleet they wanted to sell the City of Angels. Job well done, Jeff.

For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, as of yesterday, Comixology removed the storefront from its digital reading app for comics on the iPad and iPhone. It didn't replace it with anything, just a link that takes you out of the app to the Comixology website. No big deal, right? Just one (or two, or three, as it turns out) additional step for the fanatic comic book reader to access comics on his digital reader. Nothing to get upset about.

Wrong. This is a very big deal, because it strikes to the heart of what made Comixology's app a near-perfect venue for discovering and falling in love with new comics, a venue creators and publishers have been searching for since the collapse of mainstream newsstand distribution in the late 1970s-early '80s: it destroys the casual reader's easy access to an impulse purchase. And that's a terrible development for the future of comics.

I'm going to say something that I hope you won't misinterpret (oh, who am I kidding, this is the internet, of course it'll be misinterpreted): comics have been struggling in a ghetto for thirty years. That ghetto is called the comic book store. Please don't hate me, comic book store owners -- I love you, I love your dedication to the form, I fully support you, and never want to see you replaced. Yet the fact remains that for someone to discover a comic book today for the first time, he or she pretty much has to be a comic book reader already, or know someone who's a reader, and he or she has to be comfortable immersing themselves immediately in a very specific sub-cultural experience by stepping through the doors of a comic book specialty shop.

Thanks to movies and games and other media, of course, many people do so, but not as many as once did (ask any comic book store owner) and not with any consistency. There just aren't that many comic book stores and they just aren't that easily accessible. (How many comic book stores are there at your neighborhood Westfield mall?)

Comic book publishers know this, and that's why they've embraced digital distribution while still trying to support the comic store experience. Comixology provided a fabulous tool to do so -- a way to easily introduce casual readers to new comics and provide quick and easy access to the vital impulse buy.

Impulse buys are crucial to hooking new readers to new books. I bought my first comic by impulse at a candy store around the corner from my parents' apartment in Brooklyn in 1961. (Yes, I'm very old. Age makes me cranky sometimes but it also gives me perspective born of experience.)

fantastic-four-no-4-1961That initial impulse purchase was Fantastic Four #4, and after devouring it I rushed back to the store where, surprise, issue #3 just happened to still be on sale. Bought it too, and I was hooked. From then on I bought every comic I could find with a superhero on the cover, along with tons of other comics with science fiction themes, or pure adventure, or even some with Ducks. I became a regular reader because the store was right there, on the corner, and it was easy. It had to be easy because comics were simple, quick fun -- candy for the mind, a quick fix of entertainment. You don't make quick entertainment hard to access. You may it simple and easy -- an impulse buy.

Comixology's in-App storefront did that. It provided quick and easy access to comics from the majors to the indies, one-stop shopping at the point of sale, at the moment where the customer is most vulnerable to the casual pitch: while he or she is actually reading a comic, and is in the comic-reading frame of mind, and is mildly (or intensely) interested in another nibble of brain-candy.

By forcing readers to leave the app and go searching the Comixology website, add books to a cart, process the cart, return to the app, activate download, and wait for their purchases to appear, Comixology has replaced what was a quick, simple, intuitive impulse purchase experience with a cumbersome multi-step process that will provide multiple opportunities along the path for the casual reader to think twice and decide, ah, never mind, I don't really want to try that new book after all. I'll stick with what I know. Or worse, when a new casual reader opens the Comixology app for the first time and sees that THERE ARE NO COMICS THERE, and that he or she will have to exit the app and go somewhere else and sign up for a new account, maybe he or she won't bother buying a comic in the first place.

This is a disaster.

So why did Comixology do this? Why did they take a successful platform with a proven track record for introducing new casual readers to comics, and turn it upside down?

The answer, of course, is simple. Comixology didn't do it, because Comixology as a company no longer exists. It's a software product and a website; it isn't an independent entity anymore.

It's Amazon.

DC Comics Amazon StoreAmazon did this. It did it for one reason, and one reason only: to advance their proprietary hardware platform, the Kindle, at the expense of Apple's platform, the iPad and iPhone. They have deliberately degraded the iPad and iPhone Comixology app so that users of the Kindle will have a better reading and purchasing experience. That's all this is about. They've destroyed the future of digital comics to give an advantage to their hardware platform -- and, in passing, to leverage their control of digital comics distribution to do to comic book stores what they've already done to brick-and-mortar book stores.

Now, I've heard some folks say that Amazon is just trying to avoid paying Apple's "greedy 30% fee" for in-app purchases. This is such nonsense it almost doesn't require a response, because there are people out there who have a knee-jerk reaction against Apple that goes beyond critical thinking, but in the hopes of reaching more open-minded readers who might be tempted by that argument, let me address it.

Apple charges 30% for in-app purchases of eBooks, music, video, games. Amazon charges 30% for digital distribution of eBooks, music, video, games. Same deal. Period.

There's a long and fruitless debate to be had over whether or not Apple "deserves" to make a profit off its App Store. Anti-Apple deniers say no, and their arguments usually boil down to just a dislike of Apple making a profit (or what they consider a "greedy" profit). The fact is, Apple provides a storefront for developers to sell their apps, and as any store owner would, asks for a piece of the money the developers make as a result. Mall owners ask store owners to pay rent. It's a normal business transaction. Happens every day. Apple's App Store provides developers with access, and gives them three ways to pay for the privilege: developers can charge for the app directly (and Apple takes a cut, 30%, same as Amazon); developers can provide the app for "free" and Apple will place ads in the app (ad-supported payment, like Google search); or developers can offer in-app purchases (and Apple takes their 30% cut, one step removed).

StrangersinParadise_AbstractStudio_iPadWhat Amazon is doing is finessing Apple's deal with developers by providing an app for free, yet not paying Apple's fee for the privilege. In effect, Amazon is a store owner in a mall who isn't paying rent to the mall owner. And anti-Apple deniers think that's fair, why? Because they just don't like Apple making a "greedy" profit. But it's okay for Amazon to make that same "greedy" profit while taking advantage of a loophole in Apple's deal with developers. To me, this is blatant hypocrisy or blind economic naïveté. But believe me, Jeff Bezos knows exactly what he's doing: he's screwing Apple, and he's screwing the future of comic books. If you let him get away with it because of some bizarre anti-Apple bias, you're screwing yourself, too.

Again, why is this a big deal? So what if the iPad digital comic experience takes a hit, there are other hardware platforms, right? What about Android tablets?

Leaving the quality of the technology aside (pro or con), the fact is that at least 80% (probably more depending on your source) of all mobile digital purchases occur on the iPad or iPhone platform. In other words, if you're a publisher you want your books easily accessible on the Apple platform because that's where the money is, that's where your readers are. Comixology just made that more difficult. And there will be consequences.

For one thing, the mainstream publishers will keep their dedicated apps with storefronts, and if Comixology forces them to remove the storefront, they'll likely develop new, proprietary apps, much like Dark Horse has done. For fans, this will be an inconvenience, but for independent publishers it will be a disaster. Independent publishers who want easy impulse-purchase access to the Apple platform will be denied it, putting them at an even greater disadvantage when readers of the major publishers get into the habit of just browsing their favorite company's store because dealing with the Comixology app is too much of a hassle. Independents will take a hit, and it'll be one more blow against diversity of genre, a blow to new creators, and a blow to new readers.

There is no upside to this development, people. There are no positives. (Yes, yes, I know, now Apple can't prevent Sex Criminals from appearing in the Comixology in-app storefront...because there is no in-app storefront; this is progress?) I'm outraged and deeply concerned for the future of digital comics. You should be too.

Shame on you, Comixology. Shame on you, Amazon. Shame on you, Jeff Bezos.

And shame on you, supposed comic book fans, if you don't make your voices heard against this.

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