Amazon's Comixology has provoked a fierce debate in the comic-book world, but creators say it could help revitalize the industry

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comixologyComixology

  • Comic books have had to adapt to a rapidly evolving industry in recent years, and Amazon's digital-comics service, Comixology, could lead the way forward.
  • Since Amazon acquired the company in 2014, Comixology has introduced an Unlimited subscription program with over 15,000 digital comics, and Comixology Originals, books that are exclusive to the service.
  • CEO David Steinberger doesn't rule out that the original comics could be developed into TV series or films in the future, as Amazon has first-look rights, but the focus right now is on comics.
  • According to Sensor Tower, the Comixology app has been installed by 7 million Google Play and App Store users since 2014.

Amazon is a media and retail giant, but one industry it has sunk its teeth into that often goes overlooked: comic books.

The company acquired digital-comics service Comixology in 2014, when it was just a seven-year-old company with an iPhone app. Since then, it has launched a subscription service called Comixology Unlimited, that gives access to thousands of digital comics for $5.99 a month, and launched "Comixology Originals" this year, a selection of creator-owned original comic books exclusive to the service.

As services like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix change TV-viewing habits, the comic book industry - which has for over eight decades been a mostly print industry - has had to adapt to unreliable sales and a changing media landscape, as well.

According to ICv2, a comic-industry analysis site, comic and graphic novel sales were down 6.5% in 2017. The industry has slightly rebounded in 2018, but sales are still down 1% as of August compared to that time in 2017, according to industry-research site, Comichron.

In response to a shifting status quo, DC Comics, home to some of the biggest characters in pop culture like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, launched its own streaming service this year, called DC Universe, with original TV series and a vast comic catalog.

READ MORE: A DC Comics exec gave us a rundown of its upcoming streaming service, and addressed the controversy over the violent 'Titans' trailer

Disney, which owns Marvel Entertainment, is launching a streaming service late next year called Disney+ and is already developing Marvel TV projects for it that would spin off from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Image Comics, which publishes "The Walking Dead" and other creator-owned comics, launched comics subscription service Image Direct in 2015. And Dark Horse Comics, whose most popular property is "Hellboy," announced this year a service called Dark Horse Direct, which will focus on selling merchandise.

"The goal is getting our products into as many hands a possible," Melissa Lomax, the director of e-commerce for Dark Horse, told The New York Times in July.

If you apply that philosophy to the entire comic-book industry - getting the products into as many hands as possible - that's what Comixology is all about, according to CEO David Steinberger.

"Our mission at Comixology is to make everyone on the planet a comics fan," Steinberger told Business Insider. "We now lead digital comics worldwide for Amazon."

Even though the publishers mentioned each have their own online services of some kind, they still see the value of working with Comixology. DC is the only major publisher that doesn't have its books on Comixology, which has a library of over 15,000 digital comics available for its Unlimited subscribers. And all of those comics are available on Amazon's other reading platforms like Kindle Unlimited and Prime Reading.

But if it sounds like Amazon could disrupt the comics industry like it has others (like the book business), many creators disagree.

comixologyComixology UnlimitedComixology Unlimited features a home page similar to streaming services like Netflix, with the latest comics and recommendations.

Creators say Comixology helps the comic business

We've seen other media adapt to changing times: TV with Netflix, music with iTunes then Spotify, and so on. Comic giants like Marvel and DC have also embraced movies to supercharge their businesses. But actual comics have a loyal, often old-school customer base, some of whom fear a company like Amazon could be the end of the industry as they know it.

This debate came to a head when comics website The Comics Journal published an opinion piece called "A Plague Comes to SPX" in September, and criticized Amazon and Comixology for attempting to "decimate" the industry. But comic creators and industry experts came to Comixology's defense.

Some background: Comixology sponsored the programming at this year's Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland and offered free copies of its comics history book, "Hit Reblog," which collects early web comics. The Comics Journal wrote "Amazon has proven time and again to be a straight-up reprehensible company" and "Comixology Originals and 'Hit Reblog' is doing what the tech industry almost always does - taking something that already exists and making it worse."

Spike Trotman, a cartoonist with a Comixology Original mini-series called "Delver," tweeted in response, "deciding Amazon's sponsorship of SPX-- which, again, they've *already been doing for years anyway*-- is somehow the first step in their nefarious SPX takeover plot isn't just alarmist as hell, but utterly discounts decades of precedent." (You can read the full thread here.)

Comics journalist Brigid Alverson wrote in a blog post, "Comixology Originals pays creators to make original comics, which makes a lot of sense in that context, because some of those young creators will grow up to be wildly successful authors, making lots of books that people will buy on Amazon. That's the sort of long-term thinking that frankly, we could use more of. I don't think this is part of Jeff Bezos' strategy, of course, but I do think the Comixology folks are strongly motivated by a love of comics as both a medium and a business."

Richard Starkings, creator of the Comixology Original "Elephentmen," which had previously been published by Image, told Business Insider that it's "inevitable" for the comics industry to flirt with digital, and that it will only help the print business.

"The beauty of Comixology is that your catalog can stay in digital for a long, long time, especially if you're the rights holder," Starkings said. "We didn't used to have that. The beauty of digital, everything stays."

He added: "20 years ago there were 10,000 comic book shops. We have maybe 1,600 to 2,000 now? But I think you'll see a growth in comic-book stores. You have to be close to a hobby to enjoy it and once you're enjoying it you want more of it."

comixologyComixology Unlimited

The future is now

Steinberger wouldn't reveal how many subscribers Comixology has (except that "half of our new buyers are coming in through the Unlimited program, which is what we want"). But mobile-app analysis company Sensor Tower provided Business Insider with a look at how many times the Comixology app had been installed since 2014 on Google Play and the App Store.

According to Sensor Tower, the app has been downloaded 7 million times in the last four years, with the US accounting for 41% of installations. India is the app's second-largest market at 11%.

This past year saw 2.1 million installations (October 2017 to October 2018), which is 22% higher than the previous period between October 2016 and October 2017. Most of that increase came internationally, particularly in India.

There aren't many similar apps to compare this to, but it falls in the ballpark of the apps for Marvel and DC Comics, which have been downloaded 8.2 million and 4.2 million times, respectively, according to Sensor Tower.

As Comixology beefs up its unlimited plan and original comics, an increase is likely - especially with Amazon in its corner. Amazon has zeroed in on video in recent years, going to head-to-head with Netflix as a streaming service with Amazon Prime Video, and distributing some critically acclaimed films like "Manchester By the Sea" through Amazon Studios.

It makes sense that Amazon would take advantage of the original stories in Comixology's library and develop them into TV or films in the future. Amazon has first-look deals on every Comixology Original.

"I think part of the reason creators like to work with us is that there is a direct line to being able to be looked at for something in Prime Originals," Steinberger said.

Does Starkings ever imagine his comics adapted for the screen?

"You ask any creative that question they'll always give you same answer: Yes," he said.

READ MORE: Disney revealed new details about its Netflix competitor, Disney+, including 'Star Wars' and Marvel TV shows

Amazon isn't the only major company that could move the industry in a new direction. Netflix acquired comics publisher Millarworld last year in an exclusive deal to develop TV shows based on Millarworld comics (which are included on Comixology), and even Spotify partnered with Nerdist to offer "Archie" motion comics this year ("I have yet to see [a motion comic] that makes reading better or tells a better story ... But I love the idea that we and others get to experiment," Steinberger said).

Comixology doesn't see these emerging platforms as competition, but partnerships - its main focus is comics, and making them accessible for readers new and old. That means comics of all kinds, and Comixology is in the process of translating over 30 volumes of Japanese manga for the Unlimited service that have never been released in the English language before. The real competition would be with a platform that wanted to host an exclusive library of original comics digitally, like DC Universe.

The comic business is in a constant state of flux, but with more and more companies investing in the industry, the future -and the present - look bright.

"The first time I ever saw someone reading a comic in public was on a subway train in New York, and it was on an iPad," Starkings said. "When I saw that, I thought 'the future is now,' and that was five years ago. To me it's not the future, it's the past and the present."

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