Biff, Pow! Amazon Throws Digital Comics a One-two Punch

Amazon and ComiXology did more than ruffle a few feathers over the weekend with the release of a new iPhone and iPad ComiXology app that removed in-app purchase options. Instead, users now must go to the ComiXology website to view and purchase titles, heralding in a new Amazon-controlled age of digital comics.

The digital comic game belongs to AmazonThe digital comic game belongs to Amazon

ComiXology announced only a couple weeks ago that it had been bought by Amazon saying, "We are confident that – with Amazon by our side, who shares our desire for innovation and a relentless focus on customers – we've only just begun." This weekend's update, however, isn't about focusing on customers; it's about Amazon owning the digital comic industry.

At the time I was skeptical about how Amazon would treat its new property, and even said, "Please, Amazon, don't kill the ComiXology app because reading comics in the Kindle app sucks."

Amazon released the updated ComiXology app, now named Comic - Read Comic Books & Graphic Novels by comiXology, without support for in-app purchases. The feature was disabled in previous versions, too, so avoiding the update to continue making in-app purchases is not an option.

The change means iPhone and iPad users have to go to the ComiXology website to find what they want to read, and to make purchases. Ironically, in-app purchasing was added to the Android version with the company calling it "one of our most requested features."

On first glance, sending users out of the app to browse and purchase doesn't sound like that big of a deal, and there's plenty of talk on the Internet from people saying as much. What they aren't seeing is that pulling purchases out of the app is more than a minor inconvenience, it's a fundamental shift in the comic industry -- a shift that builds a barrier to purchasing in a market that's been struggling to grow.

If this change were in the grocery market, for example, it would be like going to one store where you find and purchase what you want, and then a second where you can pick up and eat what you bought.

Alternatively, you could go to one store to buy apples, and another to buy bread, but you'd be able to walk out with your purchases in hand. That's the model comic publishers are facing: Lose out on convenience and impulse purchases, or start their own online store where buyers need to already know what they're interested in.

Putting the Hurt on Publishers

Publishers will miss out on the easy marketing ComiXology offered in-app for sales and other specials, too. Now readers need to sign up for an email newsletter, taking specials from something they just see to a proactive move they must make: instead of being told about specials, they have to go seek them out.

Buying comics is now a multi-step process that involves leaving the iPhone and iPad app, going to the ComiXology website, finding and buying titles, returning to the app to download purchases, then finally reading. Compare that to before the update where users could buy comics they see directly in the app and start reading while they download.

iPad users already got a taste of that thanks to Apple intentionally screening out stories based on sexual content. This is something I've experienced, and it felt far too much like Amazon's system for Kindle book purchases.

Apple blocked Sex Criminals from in-app purchases, which forced me to go to the ComiXology website. After I bought a couple issues, I then went back to the ComiXology app, found my purchase history and then downloaded them so I could start reading. It wasn't convenient, it was very un-iPad-like, and it left me disappointed in the overall experience.

Sure, it sucks that Apple is prudish about which titles are available for in-app purchase (yes, Apple really did block Image's Sex Criminals). The important point isn't that now Apple can't screen which titles are available; it's that Amazon has very intentionally created a cumbersome purchase system that won't do anything to draw in new customers. It's a move more likely to push away current digital comic buyers, and that's just plain bad for the whole comic industry.

Apple blocked Sex Criminals from in-app purchasesApple blocked Sex Criminals from in-app purchases

In essence, Amazon has taken away the digital version of the convenience store spinner rack and replaced it with a comic store away from strip mall where we usually shop. That, by the way, happens to be where most comic shops are: tucked away in a strip mall away from where you usually shop.

Retail shops are a big part of the overall comic market and totally worth a visit, even for first time buyers. Employees rarely fit the "I'm better than you" smug stereotype and are typically glad to share their enthusiasm and interest while helping you pick out some titles to read.

That in-person experience is great, gives people a way to browse and find new stories to read, and sets up customers for impulse buys. If that sounds a lot like the old ComiXology, that's because it is. ComiXology was, in many ways, a digital analog to traditional comic book shops.

Most of those brick and mortar comic shops don't, however, rake in huge profits. It's a hard market trying to find ways to stop declining sales and bring in new customers. To grow, they need to sell beyond the old school reader. They need fresh blood.

While digital comics can pull sales away from retailers, they also expose more people to the medium than otherwise would've come through the doors. Some of those people will like the comics they read enough to seek out their local stores, and in turn help stem the downward sales trend.

ComiXology could've been a big part of that, but many of the potential customers the app was drawing in won't have the incentive to continue since buying just became a little more inconvenient. That isn't to say the digital comic industry will whither and die under Amazon's care. Instead, it will probably continue to grow simply because of Amazon's size, or at least stay stable.

What Amazon has managed to do was alienate part of the industry's strongest supporters, and in the process hurt publishers who will see fewer sales as a result. Over time, those numbers could climb back up, but Amazon will have to find new customers to replace those it's losing now, and it'll have to rebuild the momentum ComiXology brought to the market.

Just as it is in the real world, shopping for non-essential products needs some level of convenience, and Amazon is trying to be that spot for the comic industry. Amazon already has a well integrated system for buying books through its Kindle devices, and that's exactly where the company will try to drive comic buyers.

Drawing readers into the Amazon ecosystem won't expand the market, which is something the comic industry has been trying to do for years. Instead, it will simply give Amazon the ability to drive out its competition in the digital comic game at the expense of the overall market. This is about Amazon controlling the market, not growing it.

[Some image elements courtesy Shutterstock]