by Rob Salkowitz
People need to calm down about the change to comiXology. At least, fans should calm down. Retailers should probably start to panic.
Over the weekend, comiXology announced a change to its iOS and Android apps that removed in-app purchasing functionality. You might have heard about it. In terms of fan reception, it registered about an 8 on the Affleck scale, and the aftershocks haven’t even started.
A couple of notable responses came from comics writer Gerry Conway and the pseudonymous “Cornelius Stuyvesant” here on The Beat. Both made the valid observation that in-app purchasing made it easier and more convenient for casual fans to buy on impulse, following characters and storylines seamlessly across convoluted arcs with a click.
Both expressed concern that complicating the buying process by forcing readers to the website would undo all the progress the comiXology had made driving comics into the mainstream and unravel the uneasy (and unlikely) truce that the old independent, straight-shooting comiXology had brokered between publishers and technology providers that did so much for so many. Bad old Amazon comes along and suddenly people start shooting with live ammunition. Clouds gather, the Silver Surfer is sighted, Galactus lands, game over. We’ve all read that story.
Some of this is a problem of comiXology’s own making. Pre-acquisition comiXology did so many things right that any departure from their strategy is bound to look like a mistake. But change was inevitable, and anyone coming in on top of the company’s current leadership – be it Google, Disney, a new board of directors that would have been seated following an IPO, or Apple itself – would have caused some kind of disruption. Most would have been as bad or worse than this. Here’s why.
Amazon is not the fans’ problem. Yes, Amazon is a rapacious predator. But the ones who have problems with Amazon are the partners who do business with them, the people who work for them, and whoever is unlucky enough to compete with them. Customers don’t generally have a problem with them. In fact, Amazon is really good with customers. They keep finding ways to stock and deliver more stuff faster, cheaper, to more places and in more formats than anyone else, often at the expense of profit margins. That’s how they win.
Removing the storefront from the apps inconveniences customers and seems to create a problem where none existed before, and that’s definitely Amazon’s doing. But to suggest that putting digital comics distribution in the hands of the most successful mass market retailer in world history is somehow an apocalyptically bad thing for expanding the comics audience in the long run seems… well, a rash judgment.
The critics may be right, but Amazon knows a thing or two about selling stuff. Let’s maybe give them the benefit of the doubt, even as we grind our teeth at the injustice of having to make an extra click or two to complete a purchase.
Numbers don’t lie. Another thing that Amazon is rarely accused of is stupidity. This is probably the most data-driven company in the world. They don’t make a move without running numbers on a scale that would warm Nate Silver’s heart.
They just invested an undisclosed, but probably fairly large, chunk of money and prestige in acquiring comiXology, and dumping the storefront was their first big move. Maybe they just can’t wait to flush all that down the toilet by alienating their audience and picking a senseless, short-sighted fight with Apple.
Or maybe, just maybe, the numbers add up. Maybe despite the one-star reviews and the outcry and the intuitive reactions of know-it-all fans, this is a move that will broaden the audience in the long term. I know, what are the odds?
Overturning the Apple cart. Finally, let’s not let Apple off the hook. The 30% rake on revenue apps is extortion; dissatisfaction with that model has been bubbling under the surface for a while, and there is probably a chorus of app developers and content providers cheering this move.
Worse than the money is the heavy hand Apple exercises over the apps themselves. The approval process for getting into the store in the first place is legendarily opaque and arbitrary; imagine the ongoing hassle of having to get nearly 50,000 comics through this with zero guidance and the total indifference of Apple’s bureaucracy. When comiXology was independent, they had to swallow that as a cost of doing business, even when Apple hung them out to dry, as happened with the Saga situation last year. Now, they can fight back. Is that a bad thing for comics?
A nightmare waiting to happen for retailers. Getting rid of the in-app storefront was a big move, but let’s face it: people will adapt, and Amazon will find a way to broaden the market through other means.
That’s when the trouble will really start. Remember, independent comiXology only sold comics. That helped the direct market, even though no one thought it would, because people who read digital comics came into the stores to buy toys, t-shirts, graphic novels and other merchandise.
By coincidence, Amazon sells toys, t-shirts, graphic novels and other merchandise. With one click and next-day delivery! Comics publishing in the US is about a $750 million annual business all-up; licensed merchandise is something like $50 billion, depending on how you count stuff like Disney and Harry Potter. Guess what Amazon cares about more?
Retailers are fretting that comiXology might share subscriber data with Amazon from their affiliate storefronts. Rest assured, Amazon is about as interested in that as they are in the change you find in your pockets when you do laundry. They are not coming to drink your milkshake. They are coming to drink your planet.
When Amazon bolts a one-click discovery engine onto comiXology, it’s not just going to point to related story arcs and other digital comics you might like. It’s going to give you the whole merchandise universe from licensed products to DVDs and streaming video to unrelated consumer items that Amazon’s bottomless database says you will probably buy.
I’d also bet the discovery feature will work both ways. Buyers of related and unrelated merchandise will be pointed to comics they might like, buyable at a click from Amazon’s comiXology store.
I wonder if we’ll still be talking about the huge mistake Amazon made killing the iOS storefront once they get that cranked up?