NYCC ’17: Learning The Real True Origins Of ComiXology

by James Ferguson

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of ComiXology, members of the company gathered to recount the humble beginnings of the digital comics service at New York Comic Con. Panelists included ComiXology CEO David Steinberger, Co-founder John D. Roberts, Senior Digital Editor Tia Vasilou, and Community Support Matt Kolowski.

Stenberger went through a brief slideshow timeline dating back to 2006 when he and Roberts started talking about a way to track a comic book collection. Roberts was working for Marvel at the time and was developing a product to figure out what comics were being released each month. He had a problem where he’d go to the shop and forget to pick something up as he didn’t know what was coming out. Diamond produced a tab delimited list that could easily be put into a searchable database. Roberts used this to create iCOS and the duo realized this was something they could build a business around.

In 2007 they entered into a business plan contest in San Diego and lost horribly. The site was still being worked on during the competition so as people were being shown around the booth, Roberts was behind-the-scenes frantically coding away. ComiXology was little more than an idea at the time but they learned a lot about the industry.

Around the same time publishers were getting worried about pirated comics as their work was being scanned and put online through bittorrents. They wanted to do something about digital comics but were hesitant because they were concerned about offending retailers. ComiXology started working with retailers for a pulllist product, but made it clear that in the future they would be releasing digital comics.

Fast forward a bit and Apple announces the iPhone. In 2008, ComiXology releases the Pullist app, although in November of that year they ran out of funds. Steinberger showed a snapshot of an actual AOL Instant Messenger conversation between him and Roberts from then.

In 2009 ComiXology launched retailer services and sites. They had a guy from Google Maps that would come over at night to work on the app because he loved comics. Steinberger spoke with publishers about digital comics and got letters of intent from them stating they would provide the assets to create them. One such letter came from Chip Mosher who worked for Boom! Studios at the time. He now works for ComiXology. These letters were used to secure additional funding.

The digital comics app was launched and Steinberger showed a video demo of the original app experience. It had the guided view technology that ComiXology is still known for. 80% of customers to this day say this is important. Every panel was treated as a reveal. At first, this was done by hand, drawing slices in Photoshop. This was how they did hundreds of comics. A javascript was later written to cut time down a bit. There is now a 100 page guide to edit for a great reading experience. The panel selection is all done by human beings. This work allowed them to work faster and adapt as needed.

The ComiXology app broke the iTunes store many times. Steinberger showed an actual error message they received which said “You may only have 1,000 In App Purchases per software.” At the time, they had hundreds of comics in the store. These rules stayed in place for other apps, but exceptions were made over and over for ComiXology to extend it.

The ComiXology iPhone app originally cost money to buy as Apple was hesitant about how to handle in-app purchases. To alleviate that, ComiXology released free content every week including a comic called Box 13 that is still available to this day. That comic was made specifically to be read on an iPhone.

Days after Disney bought Marvel Comics in 2009, ComiXology received a call saying that Marvel wanted an app for the upcoming iPad. They didn’t get to see the device itself while building, however they learned that the Marvel app was put on test devices for journalists to review. The next year saw the launch of the dedicated DC app.

Kolowski recounted how he joined the company. He was an avid user and frequently sent in bug reports which were often answered by Steinberger and Roberts themselves. He tracked them down at Baltimore Comic Con and impressed them.

Before the release of the 3.0 version, the app would try to load the entire store on local storage. They would have to actually tell people to go have a coffee and put the iPad down because it will take a few minutes. Roberts offered some advice to any entrepreneurs that might be in attendance. “Customer service is crucial.” If you can turn an angry customer around, you will turn them into an evangelist for your product.

The rest of the timeline moved pretty quickly. The Android app launched in 2010. They surpassed 100 million downloads. Comics went same day and date as print with the launch of the New 52 from DC. ComiXology Submit launched at SXSW 2013. Then in 2014, ComiXology was acquired by Amazon.

Vasilou told a fun story about how she joined the company. She was finishing her PHD in Art History in Massachusetts and was constantly using the ComiXology app. She heard about a hiring mixer at Emerald City Comic Con and had to go. She cashed in all her frequent flyer miles to get out there and bummed a pass off of someone walking out of the convention to get in. She had downloaded pictures of Steinberger and Roberts on her phone so she knew who to talk to. That would definitely not work today.

ComiXology continued to expand in the next few years. 2014 also saw Manga included in the app. ComiXology Unlimited was launched in 2016. They found that subscribers tend to buy more comics ala carte and read 60% more comics. They also discover more new publishers. There are currently more than 500 complete series available on ComiXology Unlimited.

ComiXology Originals debuted earlier this year, as well as Guided View on Amazon Kindle. Early next week will see the launch of a recommendation engine available in ComiXology Unlimited, based on Amazon’s stellar recommendation algorithm. It will be rolled out on the web first and then to the apps within the next month or so.

The panel was opened up to Q&A. A fan asked if DC Comics would be coming to ComiXology Unlimited. Steinberger said that of course they want DC in the mix. If they could get Marvel, theres definitely a chance.

A librarian asked if ComiXology considered a stand alone service for libraries. This has been the subject of recent discussion internally and would be a great product.

When asked how they convinced creators and publishers to join up in the first place, Steinberger said the original app launched with only 80 titles, but it was more than their competitors at the time. It helped that they worked to promote comics for over a year first through the fan site and retailer site. It was about trust. Steinberger said he would create demos of the app using specific creators’ work in his hotel room and then show them to those creators at a convention. He added that those first eighty titles were really fanboy stuff for them as they went after creators they loved. Roberts pointed out the very first title added was Atomic Robo.

One final question touched upon the possibility of restoring in-app purchases for Apple products. Steinberger said they talk about it a lot. In the meantime, they’ve made it as easy as possible to bounce between the web and the app.