Digital comics retailer ComiXology announced on Saturday that it was "retiring" its existing iOS applications for iPhone and iPad and replacing them with a new version that does not include the ability to make in-app purchases, one of the platform's most signature and popular features. The iOS app's storefront is simply gone, leaving only a reader app in its place. Going forward, iOS users will have to pursue the less direct path of buying their digital comics from ComiXology's Web interface and later syncing them to their devices using the new app. This process circumvents Apple -- whose iTunes App Store takes 30% of all in-app purchases from all vendors in the IOS marketplace -- and thereby presumably frees up more profit for comic book publishers and/or comic book creators.

Presently, ComiXology's branded iOS apps for DC, Marvel, Image and IDW are working as they have been. The Android app has also been updated, and users can make in-app purchases with a new integrated storefront instead of through Google Play.

The news comes just a couple of weeks after ComiXology and Apple rival announced that the latter was acquiring the former, and the new iOS process resembles that which Amazon's Kindle customers have followed to use those products on Apple devices.

ComiXology has facilitated over 200 million downloads -- not necessarily purchases, but downloads --  of digital comics, making it the largest provider of American comic books from nearly every major publisher as well as small press and independent creators. According to Apple, ComiXology is the highest grossing iOS app that is not a game. It's a big deal, and as a reading platform (on iOS devices, anyway) has been increasingly excellent. While the reading experience will not change as a consequence of this news, the discovery and purchasing methods are severely different.

Before, ComiXology's iOS users could simply launch the Comics by ComiXology app, navigate to the product or products they wished to buy, tap them, enter their user password (once, and sometimes not at all depending if one was already logged in properly), tap "download", and then tap "read". That's all a user had to do to enjoy digital comics with ComiXology and its magnificent interface, including the trademarked Guided View technology. The process was especially helpful at facilitating impulse and a la carte purchases, for when something unfamiliar catches your eye or a friend recommends you try a specific book.

Behind the scenes, 30% of the price went to Apple per the terms of selling in-app purchases on the iOS platform, leaving less to distribute to the content creators, whether they were comic book creators, publishers, licensors, etc..

Users unhappy with Apple's policies always had the choice to buy their comics from ComiXology's Web store and sync them to the iOS app later, even if it was less convenient. Going forward, that's no longer a choice for iOS users, but the only avenue available to them. Now ComiXology's iOS users must first visit using their iOS device's Safari Web browser or on their desktop or other Web-enabled device. ComiXology's Web store is robust, and includes products not available in the iOS version such as the famously "banned" Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, owing to Apple's oblique guidelines for adult content. However, the new process introduces obstacles that may have a significant impact:

To buy a single comic, the user must now go through a multi-page process: add the product to their "cart", navigate to the cart, confirm the contents of the cart, and then complete the order (assuming payment information is already on file with ComiXology, otherwise you have to do some data entry). If the user wishes to buy multiple products at once, they can add them to the cart before completing the purchase, like you might at If you're doing all this on a desktop Web browser, then you can read your new comics on the Web as soon as you've completed the purchase(s). If you're doing all this on your iOS Web browser, clicking/tapping "read' will launch the new ComiXology app (assuming you've downloaded it already -- otherwise you will be directed to download it from the iOS store for free), log in, navigate to the "In Cloud" section, choose which of your purchases you wish to download to the app (it can be anywhere from one to your entire purchase history, it seems), and then tap "read."

Obviously the new process takes longer (some might say much longer) and makes single/impulse buys less easy (some might say much less easy), but now creators and publishers don't have to worry about Apple taking 30% of the purchase price. EDIT: Or at least, that's the impression. Comics writer and digital comics publisher Chris Roberson, whose Monkeybrain Comics imprint has an exclusive digital distribution deal with ComiXology, tweeted "creators will be getting a bigger cut across the board" as a consequence of the new system. That was retweeted by ComiXology VP of Communications & Marketing Chip Mosher.

The trade-off will doubtlessly prove contentious for some time to come, and is practically identical to what Kindle users experience with the Amazon reader's iOS app, making it very easy to suspect that this change was put forth by Amazon in the wake of its recent acquisition of ComiXology. I've spoken to some tech pros and app developers who believe this Web-based system is a prelude to iOS users eventually buying all their ComiXology products on itself.



ComicsAlliance recently hosted a roundtable discussion about the Amazon/ComiXology deal which included journalists Heidi MacDonald, Matt D. Wilson and myself, as well as Roberson and his Monkeybrain co-founder Allison Baker. Everyone agreed Amazon's acquisition brought with it great potential of expanding ComiXology's already sizable reach to the truly massive and worldwide Amazon customer base, but Wilson specifically speculated whether Amazon would "step in" and "cut out" Apple as it had in with Kindle products, which is indeed what's happened (whether by Amazon's deliberate design or not).

Baker said, "I do know the majority of the sales for ComiXology go through iTunes -- almost all of them." As such, ComiXology and Amazon are taking a considerable risk by removing that very convenient and eminently user-friendly purchasing method away from existing customers and denying it to the potential millions who might avail themselves of ComiXology and our beloved medium through whatever means of discovery Amazon may have yet to reveal.

As you can hear in the embedded player above, my general belief is that the American comics market puts too much distance between itself and the American public by relying on expensive periodical formats and confusing distribution systems. Any "civilian" who wishes to enter the readership on a more-than-casual basis would be forced to figure all of that out. The advent of digital comics has effectively digitized the same problems and added more, such as the fragmentation that we also see in the digital music and video space, where arcane licensing deals, exclusive partnerships, proprietary formats and myriad pricing structures have given readers a whole new system of mysteries to unlock in order to enjoy a comic book on a screen.

One of my problems with the digital comics market is that because there is no true "iTunes for comics" (or "Amazon for comics," if you like), users' iPhone screens are cluttered with numerous comic book apps. ComiXology is the best of all the digital comics solutions, but it's now introduced another technological barrier between readers and comics in the form of this new purchasing process, and they've illustrated it themselves in these images from a Tumblr post about how to navigate between the Web and iOS platforms:




Fragmenting things further, as of this writing the DC, Marvel, IDW and Image iOS apps -- which are powered by ComiXology's technology -- are still permitting in-app purchases.

It's too early to tell how big an effect removing in-app purchases of digital comics from Apple's enormous digital marketplace will have on ComiXology's business, but the Twitter response so far does not seem favorable -- except among some content creators like writers and artists, of course, who no longer have to endure Apple's controversial commission of 30% on all in-app purchases (any similar terms with Amazon have yet to be made public, but Roberson and Mosher's Twitter activity suggests something more optimistic).

For its part, ComiXology has made all its users' previously purchased comics available for free download in its new iOS app, and is offering existing customers a $5 eGift Card credit to "ease the transition."

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