ComiXology, the market-leading digital comics distributor which just confirmed that it shipped its 100 millionth download this week, is known for its industry partnerships. Everyone from leading mainstream comics publishers DC, Marvel and Image to boutique literary presses like Fantagraphics and Abrams ComicArts has inked deals to make their titles available digitally using ComiXology’s popular Guided View format and list titles in the company’s extensive online storefront. But now, ComiXology CEO David Steinberger has unveiled a partnership few expected. ComiXology is partnering with… everyone.
The company announced a new program called ComiXology Submit on October 11, just in time for the start of New York Comic Con. While the name may sound like a command issued to the marketplace it has conquered, it’s actually meant as an open invitation. For the first time since the company’s earliest days, ComiXology will accept work from independent creators and small presses to run alongside the biggest-selling titles in its catalog.
This marks a reversal for the company, which had gained a reputation for indifference, if not hostility, toward self-publishing in its rush to embrace the industry’s giants. It is also a move with enormous consequences for digital publishing, creator rights and a comic industry already buffeted by huge disruptions in its traditional marketplace, supply chain and practices.
According to Steinberger, a private beta test of Comixology Submit for early adopters opened this week. In about 30 days, he expects it will be open to everyone, and will be running at full scale by the end of the year. The program details are straightforward. Once the site officially launches, creators can go to the Comixology Submit portal, fill out a form and upload a PDF of their comic.
A panel of three ComiXology reviewers will assess each submission on the basis of one criterion: "will somebody buy this comic?" Creators are notified of the result by email. Those rejected can resubmit after making modifications. Everyone else gets to sell their books in the world’s largest, highest-volume digital comic store.
The editorial filter may raise a few eyebrows, but Steinberger says the policy is in place to help creators succeed, not create bottlenecks. He pointed to examples of edgy and unconventional work already in the storefront to indicate the reviewers’ value-neutral approach to quality control. "We want to frustrate fewer people," Steinberger says.
ComiXology will handle the technical details of formatting the story into the company’s Guided View display engine. All titles accepted through the Submit portal must be priced for sale, not free, but creators set the retail price. ComiXology then splits the profits (proceeds after taxes, currency conversion, transaction fees and third-party platform fees) on a 50-50 basis with creators. Doing a quick back-of-the-napkin calculation, Steinberger indicated that a creator would receive $1.05 for a title sold for $2.99 at retail on ComiXology’s iOS app processed through Apple, for example.
Creators own all rights, and ComiXology makes no claim on any future proceeds from the exploitation of the intellectual property. If a title is a hit, creators can pursue print deals, licensing and any other opportunities free and clear. Even digital distribution rights are non-exclusive. Creators can take their work to other digital comics publishers or directly to mass-market storefronts like Amazon or Apple while listing on ComiXology.
Steinberger acknowledges that ComiXology has taken a lot of flack for turning its back on independent creators as it consolidated its position with top publishers. Several of the company’s competitors, including iVerse Media and the now-moribund Graphicly, positioned themselves aggressively as more grass-roots creator-friendly brands and recruited a lot of top independent talent to their platforms – although they may have been hemmed into that role by ComiXology’s relentless pursuit of exclusives.
Steinberger says that was all part of a bigger plan. "Back when we first launched the digital service in 2009, we were all about indies because we didn’t think the big players like DC and Marvel would have anything to do with us." When he and his partners had the opportunity to scale up on the backs of industry giants by negotiating favorable deals and white-label technology licensing agreements, they made that the priority in order to grow the business and create a sustainable model.
"Today we have an audience that can make a difference to those independent creators," Steinberger says. "We aggregate more comic readers than any other platform. Now anyone has the opportunity to have their work share [virtual] shelf-space with the top-selling and best-recognized titles in the market, and benefit from the best [digital comics reading] experience."
Steinberger says the site’s prime real estate, the storefront main page, will remain curated based on quality. Independent creators will have as much shot at high visibility as any other titles if they are good. He also said the company is looking into ways to make additional promotional support to creators and expose less-seen work.
He also noted that fans of independent work can now buy with confidence, knowing the platform is big enough to survive and preserve their investments. This is important in a marketplace where each distributor has a proprietary reading application and file format, and the collapse of the distributor can potentially leave readers with no way to access content they purchased or transfer those purchases to other applications.
Steinberger says the ability to finally "deliver on the promises" that the company made to self-publishers in the early days is a matter of intense personal satisfaction to him, and particularly to his co-founder John Roberts, who has "always been the advocate for the ‘little guy’ within the company."
ComiXology’s rediscovered enthusiasm for independent creators comes at a pivotal moment for the industry. Whereas last year at this time, comic mavens earnestly debated the merits of releasing digital editions on the same day as print ("won’t it cannibalize the fragile retail market?"), today the full effects of the market shift are starting to be felt.
The traditional brick and mortar direct market didn’t collapse; in fact, it grew. Digital-first and digital-only releases are becoming more commonplace as fans loosen their attachment to comics as objects and collectables. Digital distribution has opened the market to readers who would never set foot in a comic book store, and allowed readers and publishers to take risks sampling titles that fall outside the "mainstream" (e.g., sci-fi/fantasy/horror and superhero genres) that dominates, and some say, stultifies the medium.
Entire production houses and studios have spun up to take sequential art stories directly to market via existing platforms—not just ComiXology, but Amazon, the web and the various App stores—skipping publishers, printers and retailers altogether. In recent years, single issue comic books, as opposed to their upmarket cousins, graphic novels, seemed like the unwelcome guest at their own party thrown by entertainment industry giants; now they have reemerged as a viable format thanks to the explosion of tablets and the maturation of a paid digital content market.
ComiXology’s rapid growth is a central part of this story. Starting in September, 2011, when the company’s exclusive agreement to distribute DC’s "New 52" single issues fed into a burgeoning market for tablet-friendly content in the wake of the iPad and the Kindle Fire, ComiXology has been on a near vertical ascent. The company started the year by announcing 50 million downloads shipped since 2009. It just passed 100 million ("with a higher run-rate," says Steinberger) and there’s still another quarter remaining.
Is the Bastion of the Establishment Now Supporting the Resistance?
The creation of new channels and new markets has disrupted the plantation-style economy that has long existed at the top of the comics business, where owners of lucrative characters-cum-transmedia-franchises (Batman, The Avengers) farm their properties out to tightly-managed creative teams on a work for hire basis.
Recently, some of the industry’s top talent has engaged in very public breakups with the big publishers for a variety of reasons. Simple burnout and disgust with business-as-usual might play some role in the exodus, but the prospect of a viable career outside the system is doubtless a big motivator. Some folks moved to more creator-friendly surroundings; others organized independent projects, aided and abetted by crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, to reach directly to readers without the intermediary of publishers.
Now, ComiXology, the adolescent 800-pound gorilla nurtured by those very same big publishers, has thrown its weight behind the DIY model—first by partnering with one of the flashiest of the digital-only newcomers, Monkeybrain Comics, and now by opening its platform to indies.
ComiXology’s approach and timing are characteristically impeccable, but it all begs a big question. The ComiXology Submit program uses the company brand to attract talent and readers alike, offers attractive business terms and a solid distribution platform, and has an editorial process in place to vet submissions. Is an evolution in the works?
"We are not a publisher," insists Steinberger. "We’re not set up to be one; we don’t aspire to be one. Publishers have value to many readers and creators that we can’t replace." He ticked off all the important differences: no page rates, no contracts, no guarantees, no editorial guidance, no enforced consistency around stories and art, no portfolio of popular characters that attract creators and readers alike.
"We don’t want to have editors. We want to be a full marketplace, to connect creators to readers even if their work falls outside the [traditional comics] market."
Still, there are limits. While the company may be shifting toward a more populist market stance, it remains proudly conservative in terms of aesthetics. ComiXology has never shown much interest in advancing the medium of comics through the embrace of new formats and new theories of storytelling. Guided View, derided by some as "pan and scan for comics," is optimized to present the traditional printed experience on digital devices. Those creators who want to experiment with motion comics or push the envelope with more sophisticated digital formats will still need to go elsewhere.
Nevertheless, by placing a big bet on independent and self-published creators to expand the market, ComiXology has the potential to do more than just "deliver on the promise" that the founders made to indies back in 2009. They could dramatically affect the balance of power in the world of comics, pop culture and publishing… again.
Rob Salkowitz is author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture (McGraw-Hill, 2012) and several other books. Follow him @robsalk.
[Cartooning Image: Maksud via Shutterstock]