Last week was a big one for digital comics distributor Comixology, after it unveiled a major upgrade to its iOS devices app and launched its Digital Storefront Program—a project that allows physical comics shops to sell digital comics—with over 100 participating retailers.

The Digital Storefront Program allows brick-and-mortar retailers to sell digital comics via a website set up by Comixology, with the retailer getting 15% of each sale. Retailers who have a DC-branded storefront get a larger cut of each sale. Since the launch of the Comixology iPhone app in 2009—with its Guided View technology, which automatically takes the reader panel by panel through the comic—the vendor has been one of the leading digital comics vendors and app developers, producing iOS apps for DC and Marvel and other major publishers. Comixology digitally distributes the comics of more than 40 comics publishers.

Comixology CEO David Steinberger sees the digital storefronts as a way for customers to buy digital comics while staying loyal to their comics store. He cited an acquaintance who downloads a digital comic every Wednesday (the day new comics are released) but also buys a print copy from his local comics shop. "I think this is how Wednesday shoppers are," said Steinberger. "They say 'Is my store doing this? We will buy from them rather than you.' They want the local store to get part of the action."

The program was announced in January, but Steinberger said it was accelerated after DC Comics announced that it was relaunching 52 of its comics series (dubbed the “new 52”) and releasing them digitally on the same day they come out in print. "Our original plan was to roll out a couple of stores, work through some issues, and keep working," said Steinberger, "but you can’t tell retailers you are going to do a digital storefront for them and have a same day as print [program] start with one of the major publishers and say we are only going to have ten ready."

Nonetheless, some commentators were critical of the program. At pop culture news site Bleeding Cool, blogger Rich Johnston called out several aspects of the agreement, including certain Terms of Use, such as a nondisclosure agreement that could prevent public criticism of Comixology’s performance; the fact that Comixology controls all sales data and a requirement that retailers waive their right to participate in any kind of class action suit against the digital vendor. Comics retailer Brian Hibbs, the owner of San Francisco’s Comics Experience and an influential voice in the comics retailing world, expressed a more general concern, saying, "I think the root core of the problem is that Comixology wants to be the retailer of digital, and not the distributor." He sees sales of digital comics supplanting sales of physical comics, rather than expanding the market, and because Comixology, not the retailer, has access to the sales data, he worries that the result will be that Comixology will eventually do an end run around retailers and market directly to their customers.

Steinberger stressed that Comixology has partnered with retailers from the beginning. "We don’t think the print market is going anywhere," he said. "We don’t think retailers have to jump into digital to live." If they do choose to have digital storefronts, though, the fact is that Comixology, not the retailer, has the license to sell the comics digitally. "We have the licenses to sell the products, so we are the seller of record," he said. "We handle the credit card charge, we absorb the credit card charge, they don’t have to set up an online store and readers. Especially if you are multiplatform, this is an expensive business.

Comixology has no intention of marketing directly to retailers' customers, Steinberger said. In fact, Comixology won't send their newsletters to readers who sign up through the digital storefronts; instead, he encourages retailers to do their own marketing, using the links Comixology provides to every individual comic available through the service. "If Joe Comics Buyer doesn’t have a Comixology login and creates a login via [retail store] Samurai Comics, they don’t get on our digital newsletter until we get a newsletter that points to Samurai," he said. "Samurai, meanwhile, has its newsletter. We had a Wanted sale, and anyone who launched on Tuesday could send a newsletter to their customers saying 'Here’s the sale, here’s the link.' They can send out a newsletter saying ‘You want to get caught up on new 52? Here’s the links!'" The storefront also allows retailers to sell back issues without having an extensive inventory on hand. At the moment, the storefronts do not allow retailers to feature or promote certain comics, but features like that are in the pipeline, Steinberger said.

Steinberger said that the Terms of Use have already been modified to deal with some of the concerns expressed by retailers. With regard to the class-action suit clause, he said, “I hire good lawyers like any company that wants to stay in business. I’m not a legal expert. The Supreme Court has ruled that you can put that kind of thing in a contract, and I’m going to say yeah, we should have the protections that are granted us by legal means.”

The new upgraded version of the Comixology iPad app was met with much more universal approbation, with critics and users hailing its ease of use. (A video released by the company shows the highlights of the update.) Comics by Comixology was one of the first apps to allow readers to buy multiple comics within a single app, and Steinberger said it was having stability problems on older devices. Some of the changes are purely technical: The new app loads much more quickly than the old one, and users can now download comics in the background and even prioritize their downloads.

The app has also vastly improved as a marketing tool. Comics are organized not only by title but also by story arc. This is significant because superhero comics often include “crossover events,” such as DC’s Blackest Night, in which the storyline is carried through several different titles.

The update also contains several marketing features that will be familiar to users of Amazon and other online retailers: The last page of each comic includes a link to the next issue and suggestions for further reading. In addition, the app includes a “Starting Points” feature with suggestions for readers who are new to comics as well as staff picks and a selection of sci-fi comics, movie tie-ins, and other categories. These ad hoc pages are designed to be modified quickly; with Hurricane Irene heading toward the East Coast, Steinberger had a “Good Comics for Bad Weather” page up by Saturday.

In the long run, despite brick-and-mortar retailers’ qualms, Steinberger believes that Comixology increases sales of print comics. Comixology—which is also an online resource for news and commentary about the comics industry—was founded in 2007, before digital comics were on the horizon, and it has always positioned itself as a way for readers to connect with publishers and retailers. In addition to the digital storefront, Comixology’s website provides catalog information about each week’s new comics and allows users to create a “pull list” reserving the comics they want each week and send it digitally to their retailer.

“They make more sales because we make the data available,” Steinberger said. “There are more sales on the print side because of it. Some of our [retailer] guys are seeing a 20% increase because people can go to their site 24 hours a day.”