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Baltimore Comic-Con 2012: Interview with John Roberts of ComiXology

I wrote about digital comics earlier this month.  I explored whether the time had come for digital comics.  So I was very glad to have the chance to interview John Roberts, one of the co-founders of ComiXology while I was at Baltimore Comic-Con.

John Roberts: ComiXology Co-founder
Me:  I’m here with John Roberts, co-founder of ComiXology.com.  For anyone out there who possibly doesn’t know what ComiXology is - could you give me a quick overview?

John Roberts:  We are the leading digital distributor of digital comics.  Every Wednesday we are the top grossing iPad application in all of iTunes.  We carry most major publishers: Marvel, DC, Image, Dynamite, Boom.  We have all the day and date stuff - so the same day you can buy it in stores you can buy it on ComiXology.  

Me:  I don’t have an iPad or Android tablet so I was skeptical about ComiXology at first.  But what really got me hooked was the fact that Marvel raised the price on all their books and then throw in the free comic up on ComiXology.  Have you had a lot of people with similar stories?

JR:  Yes! Yes!  There’s been a lot of great ways to introduce people to digital comics.   The Marvel way is a good one.  DC has their combo packs where you can pay and extra dollar and get the digital version as well.  So we’ve been introducing a lot of people that way as well.  This weekend we were giving away The Walking Dead Vol 1 for free if you signed up for our newsletter.  And we do a lot of social media marketing to try and get people into it.  And one of the things I should point out is that you don’t have to have an iPad or an iPhone or a Kindle to read comics. We have a website where you can read them online and anything that you buy on the website will appear on any of your devices.  So if you decide you want to upgrade to an iPad or Android device in the future, all your comics are going to follow you.  

Me:  How did you guys come up with the guided view feature?  Because let me tell you, that is what allows me to actually read the comics on my computer.  And for me there’s an added bonus:  Usually when I open a comic book page I end up spoiling myself.  But by going guided view I see it panel-by-panel.

JR:  Actually that is one of the things people like most about guided view - every panel is a reveal.  So when you read a comic and you open up the page - yesterday at a panel it was mentioned that the only real surprise in a comic book is the very first panel on the left page.  Because that’s the only thing you can see.  Out of the corner of your eye you’re looking at the last panel of the right page.  So with guided view a reveal becomes a true reveal.  And the reason why we came up with guided view was that we wanted to be able to preserve the page.  We didn’t want to redesign the page.  We didn’t want to create panels specifically for the iPhone.  We wanted to take the page as it existed.  We didn’t want to destroy it, but we wanted to allow you to read it in chunks on a smaller device.  And a lot of people like reading comics that way.  Just like you said you like to read it on the web, alot of people like it on their iPads.  As a result of that, people are now starting to tell stories in guided view only methodologies like Alex DeCampi, Riley Brown, Marvel introduced the infinite comic.  And these are all told using panel to panel storytelling as opposed to full pages.  

Me:  One of the things I noticed right away with ComiXology was that just like Steam for video games you guys are ALWAYS having sales.  One thing that really got me hooked was the Nightwing 101 Sale.  It showed me that I was able to get Detective Comics #38 for 99 cents and read the introduction of Robin.  If I would have tried to get that in real life I would have probably had to mortgage my house or something like that.  Can you talk about how you decide to do the different sales and the price points?

JR:  I should point out that the Apple pricing structure is in 99 cent chunks so 99 cents is the lowest you can go.  So we’re priced most of our stuff at $1.99 so that allows us to do sales where we can put large amounts of content on sale for 99 cents.  And the sales vary - some of them are dictated by the publishers if they want to promote a specific thing.  Some of them are dictated by us.  Like we really want to market this thing.  The sales allow us to introduce people to content they might not normally read.  The 101 sales have been really good because people end up going and buying the entire series because they want that content and this is a great way to introduce them to it.  

Me:  I know I’m a big Image fan and recently Image teamed up with you guys to give away all their #1s and I have a feeling I’m going to end up getting a lot of new books.  

JR:  See, that’s how we getcha.  Right?  The Walking Dead #1 is free and that introduces a lot of people who have watched the TV show.  They come in they can download issue #1 for free, they can see what it looks like, and then they start buying the digital collections or the individual issues.  Now we have guys who, there are over 100 issues, are able to get caught up rather quickly.  

Me:  So, just talking about pricing, I know you mentioned that Apple might be some kind of limitation because of their 99 cent chunk, but is there a possibility in the future of being able to do some crazy stuff because it’s digital.  Say, maybe, “hey we’re going to have all of Batman #10-15 where you can get it all for $10” or something like that or maybe something where as a book gets older it slowly gets cheaper unless it gets popular and then it can slowly increase in price again.  You know, the kind of economics you can only do with digital - that you can’t do on the store shelves.

JR:  Yes, we are looking for ways to experiment in that regard.  And we have a couple things in the pipeline and we hope to be making some announcements soon.  So we’ll make it easier for you to buy your favorite content.  It might be mostly web-based, but we’re going to be doing some exciting things.  

Me:  OK, so the final category I wanted to ask you about was basically the restrictions you have to put on there because the publishers want to make sure that this stuff doesn’t get out on the web and everybody just gets all the comics for free.  I support supporting the creators and buying the content, but is there any way - and I don’t know if this is a limitation on the contracts you have - where you can share with someone for a limited time?  I know for myself I’m buying Saga right now because my brother lent me the physical copies of Y: The Last Man.  And I’m sure there are stories like that all over the place.  But I know in some cases your hands might be tied.  

JR:  We’re constantly looking at new ways to innovate.  We consider ourselves a consumer experience company so what is best for our consumers is what we want to provide.  So we’re actively working with our partners to create an experience that our users are going to enjoy.  So things like sharing and stuff like that are things we’re constantly talking about.  I can’t speak to any specifics right now, but I would say “keep watching twitter” because that’s where we’ll announce it.  

Me:  OK, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me.  Is there anything you want to end with.  Anything I didn’t cover that you want to make sure the Player Affinity readers know?

JR:  I would just say, the big thing is that it’s a buy once read anywhere platform.  You can always download it whenever you want.  It’s a cloud-based system.  We have a lot of military personnel who use our system because that’s the only way they can get comics.  And if you have content on there you don’t have to keep it on there because you can download it whenever you want.  So, unlike a long box, which takes up physical space, you have a single device that can have your entire library at the touch of your fingers.

Me:  Ok, thanks.


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