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Comixology: An Amazon insider explains what happened and what could be next for digital comics

Here's why ComiXology ended up in the crosshairs of Amazon cuts.

Image credit: Amazon

In the aftermath of massive layoffs at Comixology, the comic book industry has been grappling with how to react, how to survive, and how to recover what has been lost from the juggernaut that is Amazon. Although Amazon describes themselves as "World's Most Customer Centric Company," instead of explaining themselves, are acting as a a black box. Without clear answers, speculation about what Amazon's motives are has been all over the map.

As someone who worked within one of Amazon's core shopping design teams for nearly six years, I've got educated guesses about why this all happened. Moreso, I understand what Amazon misunderstood, informed by 11 years I spent in comics publishing including two at Marvel, and recently as one of the leads in the online comics school Comics Experience.

In 2009, as editor-in-chief of Harris Comics, I met with several startups looking to drive the nascent digital comics market. One of the companies I met was Comixology and it’s CEO David Steinberger. What struck me was from the jump Comixology’s focus was on creating a unique user experience tailed to the needs of comic book readers. Amazon hates bespoke experiences. They think it slows engineering down, creates redundant costs, and becomes quickly outdated. Yet a bespoke experience is exactly the customer experience comic book readers want.

What is going to happen to all the digital comics I've bought from Comixology for ten+ years?

Image credit: Amazon

In short, nothing.

You'll still be able to read and download anything you've ever bought from them. This may seem surprising. The recent moves of Warner Bros. Discovery and other companies have given the impression that every large corporation is looking to get a billion dollar tax break by canceling or erasing shows, movies, and more content en masse. That will not happen here. Digital comics are sitting on Amazon Web Service servers (AWS) and cost virtually nothing to keep hosting and selling. And unlike those entertainment corporations, Amazon's focus is on fulfilling available product selection, one of the crucial parts of Jeff Bezos' infamous flywheel.

Amazon believes having every possible item on Earth for sale is essential to having the best customer experience and the world's lowest prices. Any potential customer would want to check Amazon first for something, no matter how niche it may be. (In the early days of the company as just an online bookseller, Bezos launched a project to ensure that at least two copies of any book in the world was always available for sale.)

Digital comics especially become perfect long-tail products, selling small amounts individually but generating high gross profit margin across the entire catalog. As the recent success of the original Authority series demonstrates, any comic no matter how old, is just a movie announcement away from becoming a bestseller again. The losses of removing digital comics already on AWS servers outweigh the gains.

All that being said, certain single issue catalogs like Marvel's are exclusive to Amazon when they debut. Marvel being Marvel, they wouldn't go exclusive with a specific retailer unless the fee to do so was an offer they couldn't refuse. Things have changed though. Amazon had to take out an $8 billion loan to cover operating expenses, after losing its discipline and overspending during the pandemic. This version of Amazon will now have to live up to its 'Frugality' leadership principle and spend only where they have to -- where it critically impacts customer experience, selection and pricing.

A now frugal Amazon may go back to Marvel and try to negotiate a lower exclusivity fee. I don't expect Marvel's single issue comics to ever be pulled entirely, but I can see a world where key issues are no longer available day-and-date in exchange for a slightly lower fee to Amazon.

Who will actually be manning the digital comics store if the Comixology employees are gone?

Image credit: Amazon

The Medialines and Kindle teams.

Amazon was already selling digital comics before it acquired Comixology and will continue to do so long after Comixology is gone. Amazon's retail organization is really made up of thousands of startups each owning and maintaining key features specific to a product category or service (like credit card payments). I had a 40,000 ft view of many of the newest features impacting how a customer evaluated and bought any product. Those features are clustered into four page templates: Consumables (groceries and household goods); Softlines (clothing); Medialines (books, music); and Hardlines, (pretty much everything that isn't covered by the other three).

The Medialines teams own features that let you preview a book’s content; subscribe to an author’s updates; toggle between hardcover and paperback and ebook, etc. Digital comics inherited all of these.

From Amazon’s perspective, when Comixology was acquired there were now two separate product development teams serving the same audience. Yet a lot of work was done to consolidate different code bases (Comxiology was written in PHP), and the different data sets of catalogs (Amazon’s, Comixology’s, and Dark Horse’s), so a customer could find the same digital comics for sale on both and Meanwhile, some of Comixology’s key features like Guided View were incorporated into the Kindle app. This, just the tip of the iceberg, was a large amount of work in a short time, and ultimately stifled Comixology’s ability to build-out and improve on the existing customer experience after they were acquired. Instead of recognizing that work, Amazon has now calculated whether Comixology’s engineers, product managers, staff etc. were redundant. The Medialines/Kindle engineers already maintain features for every book reader on Earth. Couldn’t they do the same for the subset of readers who read comic books?

This is where Amazon’s view of customer experience clashes with those of comic book readers.

Why did Amazon undermine the reading experience for digital comics?

Comixology Website
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One of the other key segments of the Amazon flywheel, and perhaps it’s most important, is customer experience. This is interpreted internally as increasing the convenience and speed for buying something and getting it delivered. And when it comes to digital comics, this means devoting engineering resources to faster purchasing, and downloading to your device.

(This became extremely important after Amazon made Comixology pull direct purchasing from the native app. This was done to not pay the 30% Apple tax that comes with any digital purchases made on apps downloaded from the AppStore. Instead’s mobile web purchasing experience was reengineered to become as fast as if a customer was purchasing from a native IOS app.)

If Amazon’s built a way to sell one digital copy of one comic with one click (or less with an auto-pay subscription), they've done their part for comics. And from an engineering perspective, building services for all Medialines and Kindle customers meant that digital comics readers inherited all the goodness that every other book customer did.

What Comixology provided though was a customer experience perfected for the quixotic needs of the modern comic book reader. (There was a recognition by Amazon Japan that manga readers needed their own Kindle device, and they built one! And Amazon let it go out of stock.) Instead of preserving that bespoke experience for digital comics customers, Amazon plugged the same data set into the Kindle app as they would books, and deprecated the separate Comixology app.

What came next was horror.

This was not the UX digital comics readers grew accustomed to. The Kindle app leverages UX metaphors rigorously tested to work for book readers, but not used on browsing libraries with thousands of single issues with complex series, miniseries, and event titles. What needs to be understood is this wasn’t done with malice: instead Amazon continuously listens to the feedback of millions of book readers. The feedback of those millions is always going to outweigh the feedback of only thousands of digital comics readers. It's just math. And Amazon keeps themselves beholden to math.

Kindle’s defaults reorganized comics libraries in ways newspaper and magazine readers were accustomed to, automatically grouping them in unexpected ways, and making it seem on glance like Amazon had erased comics from a customer's library.

Pull to refresh to see newly purchased comics was slow to come to the app, since the Kindle app didn’t need it. Previously, digital comics purchases were sent directly to the Comixology app, but ebook purchases were not. The latter was part of the supposed convenience of ebook purchasing: Amazon would ask which app or device to send an ebook to first, assuming a customer had several such devices. Meanwhile comic book readers, who might only ever be reading on their web app or one mobile device, were confused as to where their purchases were.

Dueling sort/filter menus led to dead-ends with finding specific comics, even ones already downloaded onto a device. Confusing call-to-actions newly labeled as icons made users believe functions were altogether missing.

The webbrowser was seemingly broken but this was more because the Kindle’s web reader wasn’t optimized for digital comics with guided view. (Comixology co-founder John Roberts product managed Kindle Comic Maker, a new tool to upload digital comics to Kindle Direct Publishing in a way the Kindle web viewer could understand, but Amazon did little to publicize it).

Amazon loves to talk about how everyday was Day 1. From Day 1, Comixology put the comic book reader at the center of everything they did. Whether Amazon does the same going forward is to be determined.

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