If I Ruled The World: Jeff Ponders the Comixology 4.0 Rumors….

June 28, 2015

Overall, it’s been a pretty great week for good news—subsidies for The Affordable Care Act upheld, gay marriage legal a nationwide right, Evangeline Lilly shitting on recent Ant Man comics—but, me being me, there’s a piece of unsubstantiated news (gossip, if you will) that has me in a tizzy.  Comixology 4.0 is coming, and it plans to integrate a social media platform into the app.

Assuming this is true, I can only respond:

unnamed(More Old Man Crabbypants after the link!)

There’s no real need to be obsessively crabby about this: I can pretty much explain my arguments in a few succinct bullet points.  (If only I had the internet savvy to realize I’m writing a listicle!  I should break out the latest WordPress SEO add-on and retitle this article:  “This Old Nerd’s List About Internet Comics Retailers Will Break Your Heart. (And The Third Point Will Make Apple Gasp in Shock!)”)

  • Let’s face it: it’s 2015, and most of us are aware that those who benefit from social media are marketers.  Social media is an easy way to provide continuous content (because it’s provided by the users) and that content is also rich in all kinds of marketable data, not least of which are the connections we have with one another. This is more or less okay to a lot of people because (a) most of us have been fortunate enough to never live in a true police state; (b) most of us can’t remember what it’s like not to be marketed to constantly; and (c) thanks to the “disruption” of the middle class, we have lots of disposable income for disposable goods because we’re not really expecting to own houses or pass on legacies or buy new cars or have our corneas past the age of 58. But we at least expect a certain amount of service in exchange for all that sweet, sweet privacy we’re giving up.  Is the fact that I’ll be able to inflict my list of five favorite Steve Englehart comics, or the six most disturbing Wonder Woman covers really worth giving Jeff Bezos one more data point that will allow me to be more easily replaced by his new Amazon clone?
  • We already have Facebook which is why I know how inherently creepy social media networks are.  I made the mistake of signing up for Spotify using my Facebook account because I was too lazy to come up with a username and password and now I literally don’t think I can log in to Spotify without it.  And, of course, like a super-dumbshit, when I decided to switch to paying for Spotify, I gave Spotify a credit card which Facebook now knows about and helpfully has associated with my Facebook account (along with every single insipid playlist than I am too dumb to hide).There’s a reason why Facebook can get away with this behavior, of course: they won.  They are the 21st Century AOL, the Internet’s nerfed version of the Internet, for that subset of people who want to go online  without worrying about what happens to them which, as it turns out, is basically….everybody.  My in-laws are on Facebook, my coworkers are on Facebook, my family members are on Facebook.  To badly paraphrase Stan Lee, “Facebook is all we need of heaven, and all we know of hell.”  We have the Brother Eye we deserve, and it’s called Facebook.

    Admittedly, other social media have managed to succeed since Facebook, usually by being microfocused on a single stripe of experience rather than an entire spectrum–Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Tumblr–and I guess it’s possible readers of digital comics will want a place where they can argue about who’s scalier, The Lizard or Killer Croc, but I feel like comic book fans, like music fans, have plenty of access to opinions: it’s access to the product that’s important.  Which brings me to…

  • Remember iTunes Ping?  Who in the name of God would try to re-do iTunes Ping?  The answer to that is: nobody smart.  That said, I can see why Comixology would think of it, because, like iTunes, Comixology has become a kludgy mess of undifferentiated product that it can barely sell to people actively looking at it. But I don’t think re-creating one of Apple’s largest failures is the sort of thing Comixology should be shooting for, especially since even Amazon, its parent company, doesn’t have the ungodly amount of money Apple has to just steamroll over its largest blunders.

If the Bleeding Cool article is correct (and boy are there people who are going to give me shit for even assuming that), my three points don’t even touch on the real reason throwing in a social media platform is a big mistake:  if Comixology is looking to counter the plateau of digital comics sales, creating an internal social media platform is a mistake.  Internal social media platforms don’t create new costumers, they only help retain old ones. 

Digital comics expanded like crazy over the last few years merely by picking the lowest hanging fruit:  lapsed comic book readers, comic book readers in towns without comic shops, comic book readers who either lack the inclination or the skill to torrent.  To decide to plug in a social media platform is to say, in essence, “well, that’s all we’re gonna get.  Might as well just make it even more insular from here on out.”

I would be very surprised if, in any of the meetings where they discussed the sales plateau, anyone spoke up and said, “Frankly, maybe taking the purchasing option out of our iPhone app might be a contributing factor? ”  I’d be triply surprised if someone said, “Also, maybe if we made it so our website wasn’t an unsearchable ball of shit?”

Because that is the horrible irony of Comixology:  the market leader in a field everyone said would free us from the tyranny of The Android’s Dungeon is itself the digital equivalent of a long windowless basement stacked to the ceiling with unmarked, inaccessible long boxes.  Just a few days ago, I went to the Comixology website to see if I was missing an issue of Afterlife with Archie.  So I put in “Afterlife with Archie” in the search field and…well, it crashed.  But the second time I searched on Afterlife with Archie I got this:

 

archie1

Those are the top twelve hits and only *one* of them is at all correct.  Now, if I scroll down (on my 21″ inch screen), I can actually see the “Issues” section and there, in fact, are the most recent issues of Afterlife with Archie for me to look over.

But let’s say I’m someone who really is new to comics.  I’m at the computer by myself and I vaguely remember my friend at work telling me that there was this Archie comic where Jughead gets eaten by a zombie and I watch Walking Dead on TV and I used to love reading Archie comics as a kid.  So I go to Comixology and I put in “Archie Zombies.”  Here’s what I get:

Archie Zombies

Those are not great results.  Call me spoiled, but I expect better search results from a store selling me stuff than that. In fact, if I go to Amazon—you know, the company that owns Comixology—and search on “Archie Zombies,” what do I get?

archie zombies2

Right? This would’ve been a more helpful search result for my first search than the one I got from Comixology using the actual title.  Check out what happens when I search on “Allison [sic] Bechdel” in Comixology:

bechdelComix

and here on Amazon:

Bechdel Amazon

Oh, sure, Comixology is great when you went to discover the work of other comic creators with the same first name—you can’t take that away from Comixology, no sir—but Amazon actually gives me more of Bechdel’s books.

Especially galling is that “Recent Releases” tier always being at the top.  I mean, look at the “recent results” for someone like Jim Woodring:

Jim Woodring

and tell me that’s not the digital equivalent of going into a really terrible comic book store and having the clerk say, “Never heard of the guy.”   To be fair, Woodring actually is in the Aliens Omnibus and he has an accurate creator section right below the Recent Releases and right below that is an issues section that features both Fran and Congress of the Animals.

But new customers don’t think in terms of “Recent Releases.” New customers aren’t going to understand why when they ask for “Batman #1,” they get this:

Batman number 1

or if they are hardy enough to scroll all the way down to issues, their choices appear to be this:

Batman two

This is why I find the idea of Comixology’s social media platform odious: because at the core of it, the best care scenario is they are hoping you, the consumer, will create a list that will help someone who wants to find the most applicable Batman #1 for their needs. And in return for you doing their work, you’ll get a tier of exclamation points to rise through, so that at the top you can claim that you are the service’s number one Excelsi-lister! (Or whatever.)

So, yeah.  If I ruled the world (and by the world, I mean Comixology), I would do a bunch of things before even thinking about integrating a social media network that allows me to share my pull list with Graeme and you and Amazon.  I would fix the search engine.  I would fix site navigation so that things like sales don’t have two different appearances, depending on if you click on the banner on the main page of the sale on the sale page. I would use Amazon’s powerhouse search results (already built from the refinement of many, many people searching for graphic novels or comic artists they’re barely aware of) and—this is where things get crazy—I would integrate with Amazon to sell people comics that aren’t available digitally.

See my example above with Alison Bechdel? Part of the reason why Comixology gives so many false results is that Alison Bechdel only has Fun Home and Are You My Mother available digitally, whereas Amazon has print copies available of the Dykes to Watch Out For companions.

But Comixology is Amazon: with a little bit of finessing, Comixology can go from being the biggest distributor of digital comics on the Internet, and become the biggest distributor of comics and graphic novels period.  It would require a bit of explaining—’this title is not available digitally, but we can ship you a physical copy of the book in two days if you click “here'”—but it’s a way to take one of the few media that’s held its own against the proliferation of digital and use that to Comixology’s advantage.

I wouldn’t stop there, of course: in order to make that experience really work, you would have to hire writers about comics who could curate the experience, so that people who came for Fun Home can find out about Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby or Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant or Ariel Schrag’s Definition or undoubtedly better books than what I just thought of in less than two minutes.  (I do think what I came up is still better than Comixology’s “Recent Results” which include “The Super Wizard Returns, Chapter One” and “Mass Effect, Vol. 4.”)

It’s a big jump and not without a lot of challenges (and a lot of money).  But do I think it will help the company much more than “Rate All The Robins From Best to Worst” polls and “comixx that kick axx” lists.  Maybe I’m wrong.

Maybe, if we’re lucky, Rich’s rumor is wrong and Comixology 4.0 just includes greater sharing tools of comic panels to social media like Facebook and Twitter, making this one of the more absurd thought experiments you’ve ever read (most of).

Either way, I hope we get Comixology to be more proactive with its powerful position within the comics industry and not engage in the passive, third-best “hey, we’re sponsoring the bar at ComicsPro! Bud and Bud Limes are on us!” approach to sales and distribution the industry has been mired in for so long.

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14 comments on “If I Ruled The World: Jeff Ponders the Comixology 4.0 Rumors….

  1. Jeff Lester Jun 28, 2015

    You know, I couldn’t really find a place for it in the rant but I very recently gave up on my old, old iPad Comixology app (like, it’s the one that still has the tab for the store in it) to try and the most recent incarnation of the app with Smart Lists and a Cover Browser and….I really like it so far?

    Being able to jump back and forth very quickly between issues of a title on my device and the issues of the same title I have yet to download is very peppy, the smart lists seem like they might be helpful (although maybe not so much if in-app purchasing is still disabled). So it was kind of a bummer to come from such a complainy place about Comixology when they have some things in this app I’ve wanted for a long time. (If they could just get a slideshow display option in that cover browser I would be so happy, you guys!)

    Anyway, just a little dash of genuine optimism to balance out all the whingeing. Carry on!

  2. Eric R Jun 28, 2015

    So….what about those reviews we were promised two weeks ago?

    Joking aside, it is kind of impressive just how bad some of comixology’s site is. Aside from the search issue you talked about, if you go a creator’s page and then click on a title comixology brings up all issues from that title, not just the ones the creator worked on, which is incredibly frustrating. It is amazing they are basically the only digital comics service and yet fail in some really fundamental ways, which I guess does help to truly make them the Diamond Comics of digital comics in more ways that simply being a de facto monopoly, especially now that they starting to carry Dark Horse stuff. I do agree agree that a better integration of comixology and Amazon would be beneficial to the companies and readers, especially if it means a better functioning website.

    • Jeff Lester Jun 29, 2015

      I cut a huge chunk complaining about how useless the links from the creator’s page are, so I very much appreciate you including it, Eric. It is just ridiculous bullshit.

      As for those reviews, I got sidelined by a surprise family visit which cut into my binge-reading time. I’m about a third of the way through Solanin and hope to have that finished in time to write about next Sunday and then it’s on to some Ennis….

  3. While we’re on the subject of digital comics, did anybody notice that in Antony Johnston’s postmortem on UMBRAL’s sales, he basically tossed off the fact that digital sales on the first issue were something like 2% of the physical sales? That seems insanely low to me (I was under the impression that digital sales hewed more towards at least 10-15% of physical sales), and, presuming that’s not an extreme outlier, not really indicative of a healthy digital marketplace.

  4. Another thing that Amazon does that Comixology has no idea about is recommending you stuff.

    Before I gave up on comixology I was basically just reading sci-fi Image comics. And everytime I logged the screen would be dominated by “Avengers #41 came out this week! Also do you want to preorder this Batman comic!?”.
    If I log on to amazon the page is covered in things based on my searching and purchasing history.
    Even the most basic level of this isnt implemented. If youve read 6 consecutive issues of Saga it should have something prominent saying “hey, the next issue of this series you seem to like is out, click here to get it”.

    But yeah, comixology being the digital equivalent of the Androids dungeon is amazingly spot on.

  5. On a similarly related note, from working in the tech industry I can tell you its way way harder to sell managers on cleaning up existing features over implementing new ones.

    New features mean more stuff for marketing and cleaning up existing features is an admission that you didnt do it perfectly the first time.

    Amazon bought comixology and there first move was to give a middle finger to Apple and take away purchasing on the app. It wouldnt exactly inspire confidence if there second move was “to make this thing they spent all this money on less shit”. Introducing social media stuff looks like moving onwards and upwards to a casual observer looking at this from a business perspective.

    • Jeff Lester Jun 30, 2015

      Yeah, that is depressingly easy to believe, Dave. It’s exactly what I’m worried about.

    • Anonymous Jul 1, 2015

      Dave, I too work in a tech-related field, and the same thing happens all the time at my company, too. When we release a re-jiggered product, all the attention goes to the new bells and whistles and not so much on fixing the problems that existed when the product first shipped. When we lobby to fix them, we’re told that these bugs are now “features” the “users have come to expect” so we would now be “disappointing” said customers by not including them. Of course, when the product is released, no matter how positive the reaction to the new bells and whistles, consumers alway lament the fact that we didn’t even spend an iota of time to fix what seem like minor bugs. The word frustrating doesn’t even begin to cover what that is like.

      Sorry to keep it vague and anonymous, but my company doesn’t like us trash talking it in public. Just wanted to let you know I feel your pain, Dave.

      Jeff, great takedown (if I may call it that) of social media, particularly Facebook. You sometimes see pieces like that in mainstream press, but they don’t really get to the heart of the matter because the articles are written under a veneer of jealousy and with a pressing need to not come off as un-hip.

      • Jeff Lester Jul 1, 2015

        Thanks for this, Anon: it’s depressing to think tech companies sometimes act exactly like we cynically imagine they do.

        • It less cynicism and more try to keep youre head above water.

          Competition is a real thing, developers are expensive and people buy/use stuff because of feature sets more than how well that feature set is implemented.
          Decisions that developers make now can cause issues for developers 1 month, 6 months, 6 years down the line. New devs are brought on and have to learn the existing product/software design on the job and the most experienced developers often get moved off developing new stuff and on to being gatekeepers to the bigger mistakes the young devs make.

          Im guessing that when comixology was first developed the focus was on how most customers interact with a comic shop. They want to see whats new this week and they want to see what everyone else is reading so their not left out of the loop. Thats why the new releases and the “top selling this week” is so prominent of the front page. Most readers go to either the DC or Marvel section first, so publishers were given way more importance than creators. Design decision under the hood were also probably made with similar priorities. Its comical how bad their search is, but I imagine it would be a big deal to tear it up and start again.

          tl;dr – there is no malevalent cynical force ruining everything, just the inevitable entropy of all systems.

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