Adapting And Selling Digital Comics

Batman Faces His Greatest Enemy: Pixelation

Digital Dynamo Battles The Finicky Fan

Print vs. Digital: Are They Actually In Cahoots?

As difficult as the transition from print to digital has been for publishers, one niche market—comics—has used the transformation not only to boost electronic sales, but print as well. Adapting graphics to be viewed on screen, reaching out to audiences new and old, and getting publishers on board, are all key components of the strategy that’s led comiXology to dominate the digital comics field.

With the advent of digital publishing, digital comics have more than doubled their sales in the past few years, and comiXology, a digital comics platform, is leading the way with mobile reader apps for the iOS, Android, Windows 8, and other devices.

What’s at stake:

Millions of dollars in sales. Capturing a potentially immense (and previously unreached) fan base.

ComiXology, which launched in 2009, hit 200 million digital downloads earlier this fall, and its momentum keeps growing:

Sales of digital comics hit $70 million in 2012, a $45 million dollar jump from 2011, or a 180 percent increase, according to ICv2 Privately-held comiXology does not disclose revenue, but, according to Crain’s New York, the company posted $19 million in sales in 2011, and close to three times that in 2012. According to those numbers, its sales could account for roughly 85 percent of the digital comics market.

Before comiXology launched, the comics market was dominated by print. Digital comics were few and far between, as publishers struggled with adapting the highly visual format to digital screens while preserving unique characteristics like halftones. Unlike books, where content can be more easily ported from the original text file to accommodate a variety of digital formats, comics graphics are so easily converted between mediums.

Today, many of comiXology’s early competitors have quit, or pivoted. For example, Graphicly, which once proffered its own digital format for comics, now operates as a more general eBook publishing platform.

Its major competitors at the moment are familiar names: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple. Amazon is a formidable opponent for anyone. Earlier this summer, two of the biggest publishers in the world, Random House and Penguin merged, part of a move designed to win more leverage against the e-retailing colossus. But if the numbers are right, so far, comiXology has managed to do more than just hold its own.

The only major publisher that still handles its own digital publishing is Dark Horse Comics, which controls the Star Wars comics universe. Still, comiXology, which operates on iOS, Windows 8, web browsers, Android and Kindle Fire, boasts over 40,000 titles on its platform, including those of the industry’s two biggest publishers, Marvel and DC Comics, which joined in 2009 and 2010 respectively. And they plan to keep expanding.

Catering to the fans is the first priority, whether that means building an intuitive reader for a beloved medium, understanding the way that comics fans think and buy, or taking advantage of the flexibility of the digital format.

  • The tech matters. comiXology knew that, above anything else, the tech had to work. “From the beginning, we were thinking about handling multiple screen sizes at multiple resolutions,” says comiXology CEO David Steinberger. Considering the huge number of devices and platforms that have proliferated in the last few years, keeping up is a challenge. “We’ve hired very, very good engineers,” Steinberger says. “We want to make sure our customers have a good experience and don’t have to buy new devices to keep up with the app.” They’ve put their money where their mouth is. In early September, Jeff DiBartolomeo, previously a founding engineer for HBO Go, was named their new CTO. Though not a comics lover, he expressed his excitement at comiXology’s role in the “transformation” of a medium.
  • Exclusive is important (sometimes). While most of comiXology’s content is not exclusively available through their app, it doesn’t need to be. Their one major exclusivity deal is with Marvel. Though Marvel’s trade paperbacks, collected single issues bound in one, are still distributed by Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, single issues are only available at comiXology. That might not seem like a big deal, until you realize that the content in those single issues only becomes available in trade paperback format every six months or so. Till then, comiXology is the only way fans can get their hands on digital copies. “Honestly, it’s okay with us if people distribute elsewhere,” says Steinberger. “We would take exclusive deals, but we’re a strong believer in the market.”
  • Remember the reading experience. “The main differentiation for Guided View compared to anything else is that we mask adjacent panels,” says Steinberger, referring to the blur-out comiXology’s app provides between each story box. “If you think of comic books as panels and gutters (the space between), what people have said is that [Guided View] preserves a tension and an excitement about the next panel. We also took a lot of time to really make sure that the movement between panels is very smooth, since most systems that you see out there are very jerky, very thoughtless.” There are even some ways the digital format can surpass the physical. For the iPad with Retina Display, they released a high-definition comics format known as CMX-HD. “Some readers prefer it above reading in any other way,” Steinberger says.
  • Make it easy for the publishers. For the most part, publishers provide high resolution files to comiXology. There, a team that includes comics creators and filmmakers (“people who really understand story and timing,” as Steinberger calls them) converts them into the company’s proprietary format and checks the masking, preview, and other user interface features to make sure it all checks out. “There are very few publishers that after a comic or two don’t completely trust our team to take care of it.” ComiXology also provides the platform to publishers for their own apps. “So if you download the Marvel Comics application from iTunes or Google play that’s actually comiXology’s platform,” says Steinberger. “Most publishers don't want to think about how the technology is working and how it will display on five different devices.”
  • Capitalize on the capacity of digital. “There’s a lot of content being made for Guided View now,” Steinberger says. “Guided View native format is taking advantage of the panning and the fading that we do and using it for storytelling purposes in digital.” Marvel, for example, puts out a series of comics called Infinite Comics, which are designed specifically to be read in digital. “It expands what it means to be a comic book,” says Steinberger. Earlier this year, the company also launched something they call “comiXology Submit,” which lets readers submit their own comics. The company reviews these submissions, and if they meets their standards, comiXology will publish, with a 50 percent split on revenue. Currently, there are over 150 series through the platform, with 40 percent of signups coming from outside of the US.

With all its success, you might expect to find that digital comics have cannibalized their print counterparts. In fact, it’s the opposite.

“In the past two years, the print comic market has been growing,” says comiXology CEO David Steinberger. “We bear some of the responsibility for the growth in print because we’ve exposed more people to comics.”

Sound like a boast? Look at the numbers. As digital comics sales rose from $25 million in 2011 to $70 million in 2012, print comics rose from $640 million to $680 million in the same period, according to ICv2.

“There has not been a massive shift from print to digital,” says Steinberger. “We’ve expanded the market but the market itself is pretty mom and pop to start with. We didn’t mean to disrupt anything. There wasn’t that much to destroy and we’ve always believed that the more available the books are, the more people will read them.”

He could be right. One positive sign is the deterioration of the traditional gender split among the comics readership, which has long been known to be overwhelmingly male. At its launch in 2009, only 5 percent of comiXology’s users were women. Today, they’re 20 percent of the base.

“We’re really a great experience for anybody who knows what they're looking for but not yet great for people who have no idea,” says Steinberger. “With 42,000 books it’s harder to browse and find the one that will get you really excited.”

One way the company is combating that problem is by going international. First stop: France. The French market represents about $700 million, according to Steinberger, while the U.S. market is closer to $750 million. But while France hosts around 65 million people, the U.S. has a population of more than 313 million. By those numbers, if Americans were as comics-mad as the French, the market would be closer to $3 billion.

“Print in France is very widely distributed, very available to everybody and has a lot of different genres and types,” says Steinberger. “The distro here for the last 30 years has been quite bad. It’s our opportunity to expand the market. Our mantra is bringing comics to everyone, everywhere. For almost everyone there’s a comic you could love and it’s our job to help you find it.”