Comixology, a digital comics distributor and marketplace, marks its fifth anniversary this year as it emerges as the clear leader in the digital comics space. The company’s Guided View technology, a much imitated function on its Comics by Comixology app, which allows readers to read digital comics easily on mobile devices, is widely available across all platforms, including iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, and the Web. The company has also made strategic deals with most of the comics industry’s heavyweight publishers, including Marvel, DC, and Image, to help it attain a market share that significantly dwarfs the efforts of its competitors, such as iVerse and Panelfly.
Comixology has 75 full-time employees and offices in Los Angeles and New York City. In June, the digital vendor reported that it expects to generate more than $70 million in retail sales in 2012, more than three times the $19 million it reported for 2011, and it’s estimated the company accounts for as much as 80% of all digital comics sales, according to the pop culture trade news site ICv2.com. After reporting about 50 million downloads earlier in the year, Comixology surpassed 77 million downloads by the summer.
But Comixology isn’t just a publishing success story; it’s a technology Cinderella story as well. After winning a business plan competition at NYU Stern’s Business School in 2007, the company attracted seed funding from investors that enabled it to develop its app, which is consistently ranked among Apple’s top 10 highest-grossing apps.
The company’s market leader status is due in no small part to cofounders David Steinberger, John D. Roberts, and Peter Jaffe, and their dutiful efforts to understand the comics industry inside and out. “We’re comic book people,” Steinberger told PW. “We’re concentrated on making a great experience for comic books in digital.” They initially set out to do that by creating the applications iCos and PullList to help comic book shoppers create digital pull lists (reserved issues of a consumer’s favorite comics) of new comics releases each week—from the beginning Comixology worked to support comics shop owners and connect physical retailers to digital delivery.
Comixology then created Retailer Tools, a program initially designed to track retailer inventory digitally. During this time, the company also positioned itself as a digital content portal, featuring promotional and original digital comics, including early digital-only comics. All the while, Comixology was developing its Comics by Comixology app, first released for the Web in July 2009, then for mobile devices; the tablet-compatible app coincided with Apple’s launch of the iPad in April 2010 in a perfect storm of planning and good timing.
From there, the company was well positioned to “show off Guided View very early to publishers,” Steinberger explained, adding, “we also empowered publishers to reach their audiences directly through doing white label apps with Marvel, DC, and Image’s Walking Dead.” With deals in place to power most of the major comics publishers’ apps, Comixology was in a secure position when DC Comics arguably ushered in the digital age of comics with the announcement that it planned to go “day-and-date”—comics industry jargon for simultaneous print and digital release—with the New 52 relaunch of its superhero line in August of 2011, spurring most comics publishers to follow suit.
Nearly one year later, in a twist that very few in the comics industry would’ve predicted back in 2010—at the time, nervous comic shop retailers saw digital as the death knell of print comics—many retailers now say digital comics sales and digital sampling appear to be driving growth in print sales in what’s turned out to be a boom year for periodical and book-format comics.
Indeed, there’s evidence that Comixology is expanding the comics market beyond the notoriously insular direct market (as the comics shop market is known) to a broader market of comic book retailers and consumers. “It’s been a huge thing—a much bigger thing than we ever expected,” Steinberger said of the Comixology app. “Tons of people use it on their iPads, which we didn’t expect.”
So what’s next for Comixology? The company flirted with offering its Guided View technology to the general public as an e-comics publishing platform, but the technology still requires a lot of specialized support. Nevertheless, the company continues to develop Guided View as a tool for creating, and the growing popularity of self-publishing makes many comics artists hopeful that Comixology will release authoring tools for the technology sooner rather than later. While Steinberger’s not committing, he acknowledged that it’s still on their minds: “I want to get tools out in the market that allow people to create their own Guided View [comics]. We’re working on that right now. ” But he also maintains that Comixology’s customers—and the quality of their experience—come first. “We’d rather have a great customer experience in the reading than just open up the floodgates to anything and everything.”