Monday, January 28, 2013

Thoughts on ComiXology Europe

The comic news item of the day, for my money, is comiXology's announcement that they're opening a branch office in Paris in order to start offering digital comics that were written in non-English languages. Let's unpack this.

The comiXology site launched in mid-2007, but they didn't really start doing the whole digital comic reader thing until mid-2009. They did reasonably well, and sales skyrocketed when the iPad was released not quite a year later. They currently have licensing agreements to distribute digital comics from many comic publishers, including Marvel, Image, IDW and Archie. They even have an exclusive agreement with DC.

The interesting thing about comiXology's success -- or at least the piece I find most interesting -- is that it's because of a combination of savvy and luck. They saw the need for a good digital comics reader, and no one was really doing anything decent, so they created their app. That wasn't their idea or goal when they started in 2007; that was something that they recognized was missing from the marketplace after they started.

The timing of the iPad was fortuitous, but they also knew well enough to get things rolling with it as soon as possible, so that when the iPad finally was released, they had an iPad app specifically ready to go on Day One, but they had also spent enough time courting many of the comic publishers so they had a good library of content on that same day. They took excellent advantage of the opportunity the iPad provided.

From what I've heard from them, they mostly look at the iPad as a lucky break. But whether they downplay their own work here or not, that they took advantage of that break speaks well to their business savvy. I think the only nut they haven't quite cracked here in the U.S. is getting Dark Horse on board, and that really boils down to the personal feelings and desires of Dark Horse founder/owner/president Mike Richardson who, to date, I personally haven't heard specifically address the "why aren't you on comiXology like everybody else" question yet.

In terms of the current state of European digital comics distribution, I know almost nothing. I seem to recall seeing a 2000 AD-specific app for iPhones more than a couple years ago and The Dandy went digital-only last month, but that's about the extent of my actual knowledge there. I get the impression that the European digital market today looks a bit like the American digital market from four years ago. That is, a handful of publisher-specific apps and no one with a good digital reader and a good library to work with. One might simplistically argue that the US is a more fertile ground for innovations like that but, while there may be some truth to that, I suspect there are a number of other factors at play here as well. But in any case, comiXology is stepping into this market, I believe, with almost no real competition.

Why open an office actually in Europe, though? Wouldn't the issue for them basically just be snagging some licensing deals and dropping those works into their current platform?

Well, there is that part of the equation, certainly. And there are probably some legal considerations. (Most countries have different rules for businesses operating with the country than from without.) But the other big concern that I expect they have regards digital developers. The people who work on and develop the apps themselves. If the comiXology guys are smart -- and I've seen plenty of evidence that says they are -- they won't simply drop their current app into a European market. Rather, they're likely going to go through and re-tool portions, if not the whole thing, to tailor it specifically to a European mindset.

Not that they've said anything about Asia, but let's use Japan as an easy example. Japanese kanji reads right to left, instead of left to right like English. And while comiXology does easily allow people to read a book in either direction, the panel focus portion wouldn't quite work with a simple "do this in reverse" script because the Japanese still read top to bottom. Simply reversing the current script would focus on the bottom panels first, and then work their way up the page. That would need to be entirely re-worked for a Japanese market. I don't know that the changes would be that drastic between American and European markets, but the best way to tackle whether or not that's even an issue is to get native developers. People who are embedded enough in their society that anything that goes against an assumed cultural norm stands out immediately. It's hard, almost impossible, to really get that from across an ocean by someone who just knows the language.

I'd also like to point out that the comiXology guys are looking beyond the American direct market system. I've railed against people for not doing that before, talking about "comics" and only meaning Marvel and DC. I want to make very positive shout-out to these guys for not only acknowledging but acting on a much broader and more diverse market than the superhero/fantasy pieces that fill U.S. comic shops.

And, if they're able to secure some really good deals, we might see them ALSO be able to distribute some translated European works here in the States! And if that happens, they will have a much, much bigger market available to them than Diamond does now, but without the exclusivity deal that currently has the hamstrings of retailers cut.

Kudos to the comiXology folks! They are proving themselves to be wicked smart on the business end of things, and I expect they're going to make some major leaps forward in the next year or two. Sign me up as soon as they have an IPO!

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