Why 'Amazon meets ComiXology' could be a great crossover

Written By Sun-Times Wire Posted: 04/11/2014, 03:48pm

A friend of mine at this conference where I’m speaking this week invited me to get coffee. “I can’t,” I apologized. “Amazon has just bought ComiXology, and I have to go to the roof deck for a phone briefing.”

He’s a fellow comics fan. “My God,” he said. “Between this and Stephen Colbert replacing Letterman, this is a huge day for nerds!”

He wanted to know what I thought about the transaction. I told him exactly what had occurred to me when I got the phone call that set up the briefing.

“I’m hoping that this ultimately ends with ComiXology making comics on Kindle better,” I said, “and not Amazon making ComiXology’s comics … like Kindles.”

I have cleaned up the language a bit. ComiXology’s books are a joy to read, with a “guided panel view” mode that’s created by a storyteller’s perspective, not an engineer’s. Its comics are sumptuous, ultra-definition, fully zoomable pages that allow me to appreciate the meticulous craftsmanship that goes into a great page of art. I buy all of my comics digitally because reading a ComiXology comic is far more enjoyable than even the printed editions.Comixology

How’s the Amazon experience? It’s the exact reverse. I bought Lucy Knisley’s fantastic graphic novel “Relish: My Life in the Kitchen” as a Kindle edition. I got through about a third of it before I went back to Amazon.com and ordered the printed paperback. The Kindle was just too hard to navigate and read.

The iBooks edition of “Relish” is better, but still falls well short of the ComiXology standard. It just goes to show how tricky presenting comics on a mobile device is. When you hold a printed comic closer to your face, you see more detail. When you do that with an iPad, you just see bigger pixels. The company that cracked the problem was the one that fully understood how people read comics. Developing a digital comics reader isn’t about letting the user make the word balloons bigger; it’s about supporting a form of storytelling in which the story doesn’t always happen from left to right, top to bottom. The path changes from page to page … and the reader might choose to wander off that path at any moment.

ComiXology developed a great store and reading experience. It also struck deals that brought every major publisher — with one exception — into the same storefront. Over the years I’ve built a large library of digital comics from all corners of the comixsphere, and it’s completely portable as I move from device to device.

I spoke with ComiXology CEO David Steinberger and Amazon VP of Kindle Content David Naggar about the acquisition.

“We’ll remain just as we are,” Steinberger said, “just with a very talented parent.” He will continue as ComiXology CEO, the company headquarters will remain in New York, and all of ComiXology’s employees received Amazon offer letters.

So how will ComiXology change, as an Amazon subsidiary?

“The Kindle and ComiXology stores will remain separate, for now,” Nagar said, explaining that there are no plans to make any changes to ComiXology. Its customers will still have their libraries and will continue to buy and read comics through the ComiXology apps and website. The only change, presumably, will be the discrete addition of an Amazon tattoo somewhere in the store and software.

It appears that this acquisition was a simple case of Amazon respecting what ComiXology had built, appreciating that the company was a good fit for them philosophically, and then striking a deal.

“We flew under the radar for the first few years,” Steinberger said. “We worked really hard to have a great user experience. We always felt like we needed to get a certain distance before the big players’ eyes would be on this market. We got into the right position, in that Amazon saw a lot of really great things in us and the similarities about how we treat customers and how we approach the market.”

Steinberger sees this acquisition as good for comics, not just ComiXology. “This is an opportunity for comics and to see our original vision through: Get more comics into the hands of people who don’t know how much they’re going to love them.”

I asked about opportunities such as ComiXology enhancing the experience of Kindle-format trade paperbacks. “It would be great for Kindle customers to benefit from the ComiXology experience,” Nagar said, but he had no announcements to make in that area. It’s still early in the acquisition process; neither party would mention a dollar figure and surely they’ll be brainstorming ideas as they go.

Overall, it seems like quite a gentle acquisition. While I certainly expect that eventually, ComiXology technology will find its way into Kindle graphic novels, and ComiXology content will find its way into the Amazon customers’ related recommendations, this is a marriage in which each spouse gets to keep their own names and identities (and apartments). ComiXology can now scale in ways that it couldn’t have done otherwise, and Amazon instantly gets a thriving, growing content market that took ComiXology seven years to figure out and develop.

Amazon has generally been an excellent caretaker of the companies it acquires. Its 2008 acquisition of Audible.com is the most obvious precedent for this deal. It made perfect sense that a company founded on book retailing would buy a company that sells digital books in a format that (like digital comics) was just out of Amazon’s business expertise. Audible continues to exist, its users’ contents (and even original logins) continue to work, and any search for a printed book on Amazon also uncovers the Audible edition.

Or, look at IMDB and Digital Photography Review, the terrific photo news, reviews and community site. Both are owned by Amazon, though you’d have to dig deep to find Amazon’s tattoo, let alone its influence.

Which isn’t to say that I, or any other ComiXology user, are wrong to worry. Yet again, a service that I love and even count on has been bought by a much bigger company. The people who have run it so far have done great. Why would I be thrilled to hear that there’s been a big change?

I’m reassured that this isn’t going to be like an Apple acquisition, in which the company simply vanishes into the collective. Or a Facebook acquisition, which always reeks with the mystery of what Facebook will do with the user data. When Google buys a service, I worry that it’ll play with it for a while and then stop supporting it when it gets bored.

If ComiXology were to become an arm of Amazon’s Kindle business, I’d be waving red flags. As it is, I’m convinced that this deal be as good for ComiXology as it was for Audible. Consumers will have the same great experience they’ve always had, and Amazon might be able to steer new readers into some great comics.