“We have a new type of rule now. Not one-man rule, or rule of aristocracy or plutocracy, but of small groups elevated to positions of absolute power by random pressures, and subject to political and economic factors that leave little room for decision. They are representatives of abstract forces who have reached power through surrender of self. The iron-willed dictator is a thing of the past. There will be no more Stalins, no more Hitlers. The rulers of this most insecure of all worlds are rulers by accident, inept, frightened pilots at the controls of a vast machine they cannot understand, calling in experts to tell them which buttons to push.”
― William S. Burroughs,
Unofficial ‘Cave Canem’ notice: I wish I knew how to integrate things a little better. If I did, this post would be one part industry speculation, one part graphic novel reviews, and one part informed expert advice. But because it’s me, it’s just gonna be at best a jumble of stuff, all of which will boil down to: “Hey, I merged my Comixology and Amazon accounts. Wanna hear about it?” If your answer is “eh, why not?”, then join me after the jump!
Out of all the stuff that needs to be covered in the comics industry, I know the strange and ongoing merger of Comixology and Amazon is not the most important. It’s probably not be in the top ten or twenty most important stories to cover in the comics industry. Thanks to the reported flattening of digital sales and the continuing increase of sales in the direct market, it may not even be in the top fifty.
But you’d think at the very least it would be one of those emergent stories, wouldn’t you? The single largest seller of digital comics being snapped up by one of the largest sellers of everything really looks and smells like it’ll prove one day soon to be an important story about the FUTURE OF COMICS, especially when you look at what happened to record stores and bookstores and video stores. But, god bless it, the comic book market is such a strange, aberrational beast that the big important story about the FUTURE OF COMICS is actually whether the entire market is in danger of crashing due to publishers exploiting speculation in order to bolster sagging sales. (SPOILERS: it is.)
And yet. Things took one giant step toward the weird last week when Amazon yoked Comixology more closely to itself, offering the option to link one’s Comixology account to one’s Amazon account. With this option—which will one day not be optional at all, we were told, as “at some point in the future, the only way to sign in to comiXology will be with your Amazon account”—came the opportunity to have comics and graphic novels purchased for the Kindle imported into Comixology.
Also included in this option? The removal of Paypal as a form of payment which, like the removal of in-app purchasing within Comixology’s iOS app, is one part capitalist nipple tweaking of the competition and one part brutal market jostling as Amazon comes one step closer to trying to make Amazon Payments a thing. If I was Todd Allen—as opposed to just a guy who steals his points from emails—I could talk more knowledgeably about what that move alone might mean for the future of not just online payments but in-the-world cashless transactions. But since I’m me, you get to hear about the merging of the accounts and what it means for your opportunities to search for digital bargains.
PART I: TRANSITION ZONE
After a long weekend of worrying about what might happened if I merged my accounts—I’ve never used Paypal to pay for comics on Comixology but what if I wanted to start? What would it mean for the ability to do in-app purchasing for iOS apps I also don’t use, like the Marvel, DC, and Vertigo apps where savvy shoppers can still buy in-app and therefore take advantage of gifted iTunes cards?—I decided it was worth the risk to get the handful of graphic novels I’d bought for the Kindle onto a platform where they’d be readable. Over the years, I’d picked up a number of titles which fall into a few categories—Viz manga I picked up because it was markedly cheaper for the Kindle, 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd collections that were hugely cheaper for the Kindle, Marvel collections I’d picked up because they were markedly cheaper for the Kindle, and Deal of the Day graphic novels which are usually far and few between.
Those categories are sorta/kinda important because I went into the merge with certain expectations. I expected, for example, my Judge Dredd collections weren’t going to end up brought over to Comixology since Comixology doesn’t carry any of the 2000 A.D./Titan/Rebellion material. I assumed the Marvel and Deal of the Day stuff would come over and be just fine. I expected my Viz manga to be brought over and look great. I figured it’d be a relatively smooth, quick transition since it’s basically just a comparison and syncing of two databases.
It took no time at all for Comixology to find the fourteen Kindle books it could add and throw them onto a handy new “From Kindle” smartlist. And as I expected, none of those books were the Judge Dredd collections I had bought. So that’s two out of the four assumptions cleared.
And all my Marvel and Deal of the Day stuff ported over and was fine…or so it seemed at first.
I’ve talked about it on the podcast and written about it here but there are these weird pockets of price discrepancies between some Marvel collections on Amazon and on Comixology. After feeling flush and dropping $19.90 on the single issues of Skull The Slayer (and the two connected Marvel Two In One issues) because the Comixology digital collection of same was $19.99, I discovered that the Kindle collection was $9.99 on Amazon. Instead of saving ten cents, I could’ve saved ten bucks. Intrigued, I hunted around and found a few other books with similarly large discrepancies, ultimately pulling a trigger on Super-Villains Unite!, the complete collection of Super-Villain Team-Up (plus a related issue of The Champions and three issues of The Avengers). On Comixology, the digital collection was a penny less than thirty bucks. On Amazon for the Kindle, it was $16.19. I bought it and read it. And, apart from the Kindle app’s inability to handle double-page spreads, I loved it. (There are only about three double-page spreads in the entire book, thank goodness.)
But I was pretty excited to open the Comixology version of this book and revisit it, in part to check out those double page spreads in the Comixology app but also to gloat over my brilliant financial skills. I’d done it! I’d gamed the system!
And so you can imagine my excitement when I opened the Comixology app, saw Super-Villains Unite! in my “From Kindle” smart list, hit the download button and got….this:
Repeatedly. It happened so many times, despite me fully closing the app and fully rebooting the iPad, that I decided I should indeed use the Report button to complain. And when I did I got this pop-up screen:
which was pretty underwhelming. The report clearly filled in my email address but did it also pre-generate the book title or file size without showing me? It didn’t look like it, but surely it would, right? Was I supposed to type that in the big, amorphous, no-instructions-provided text box? Was I really supposed to try and type a detailed explanation on the iPad’s touch keyboard with its predictive second-guessing? Sorry to not build this story with the maximum amount of suspense but: no, it didn’t, and yes I was really supposed to. The resulting reply I found three days later in my spam folder read: “Same if you reboot the device? If so, can you let me know what book you‘re trying to download?” Because there was no case number in the email, I’m not sure if I should reply a week late with an answer and hope the rep can track what I’m talking about or just submit a new, more complete error message from within the app (and check my spam folder much sooner).
Of course, knowing I would be writing about this for you lovely people, I couldn’t just let it rest at that, could I? After all, one book does not a long-winded column make. So strictly in the interest of science, to see what if S-VU! was an anomaly or not, I purchased another big Marvel collection: the Moon Knight Epic Collection: Shadows of the Moon, reprinting issues #5-23 of the Moench/Sienkiewicz run, for $14.49, a full $10.50 less than what the collection costs on Comixology. Almost as large in file size as Super-Villains Unite!, it downloaded on Comixology just fine after being purchased and seems pretty great: there aren’t a lot of double-page spreads in the collection but the wrap-around cover from issue #18 looks great.
So that leaves manga which is…a much more complex situation than I’d figured. Right around last time this year, I’d gotten a bug up my ass about how Viz was handling the digital end of its mature format manga, in particular one of my all-time favorites: Kazuo Umezu’s The Drifting Classroom. Viz is more than happy to sell you a digital copy of the first volume for $6.99…but it won’t let you read it on Viz’s app, which it keeps age-controlled, and it still hasn’t bothered with developing an app specifically for its mature content even though it’s launched three other specialty apps since.
So I bought the first three volumes of Drifting Classroom and, as was the case with a lot of my graphic novel experiences with the Kindle app, gave up. The pages weren’t outright horrible but it was far from a great experience: the worst part for me was after a double page spread where the two sides of the image were badly joined, the gutters disappeared entirely pushing images in landscape view right next to each other.
I assumed the problem was with overall crap formatting of the Kindle app, which was intractible with its gutters, didn’t allow pinch and zoom action, and featured a laughable facsimile of guided view. The Comixology versions had to be superior, right?
Well, no. A quick flip-through of the Comixology and Kindle version of Vol. 1 of Drifting Classroom showed exactly the same formatting errors in both versions. But I should say I got off lucky–at least Drifting Classroom enabled me to view the double-page spreads as such.
After I joined my accounts, I did a bit of crazy-eyed shopping, buying stuff that seemed interesting for the Kindle at stupid cheap prices and then opening the purchase up in Comixology to read it…which is how I ended up with Future Diary, a sort-of shonen take on Death Note. The art is nothing to write home about, but the story is engaging and fun. Unfortunately, nobody had bothered to enable side-by-side landscape reading in the Comixology app, so if I really wanted to read Future Diary in the manner it was designed to be read (it averages about tow double-page spreads per chapter), I actually had to read it on the Kindle app where side-by-side landscape reading was enabled.
Frankly, the only reason I even thought to open up Kindle app was, again, because I was writing about the experience here and wanted to be thorough and confirm that, like Drifiting Classroom, the book was the same on both apps. It wasn’t.
(BTW, back in 2013, Comixology co-founder John D. Roberts advised creators not to use double-page spreads because “when you move from portrait view to landscape view, it can become a little jarring.” I’m the (old, not-especially-attractive) poster child for digital comics buying and even I find that statement either arrogant, naive, short-sighted, or all three: manga is an enormous market, one where the double-page spread is an important rhythmic “beat.” It’s going to take a helluva lot of digital sales for creators and companies for anyone working in that field to even idly consider phasing it out.)
Nevertheless, someone didn’t flip some switch somewhere, and the Comixology version of Future Diary Vol. 1 is a frustrating, curtailed reading experience.
PART II: INTERZONE
And here’s where we get one step closer to the heart of things: who would I complain to about that bad experience? Comixology? Amazon? Viz?
I don’t see why Viz would be at all game for that. For whatever reason, Amazon has the first five volumes of Future Diary priced for a $1.50 less per volume than on Viz’s digital storefront (where it is both purchasable and readable inside the app). Is it really in Viz’s interest to fix that for Amazon? I can’t imagine they’d make it a high priority. As for Comixazon (Amazology is probably a better portmanteau but Comixazon stresses my preference), there’s barely a problem as far as they’d be concerned. It reads fine on the Kindle app? Read it on the Kindle app!
[DECEMBER 14, 2015 UPDATE: Well, as Samuel Jackson once memorably noted, “When you make an assumption, you make an ass of you and umption.” Because of this post, I got a tweet from Comixology Support (@cmxsupport on Twitter) asking about Super-Villains Unite!, and they then—in a horrifying contradiction to my paragraph above—promised to check in to see what they could do on Future Diary. It was something they were able to fix on their end, I got a message on the app saying an updated version of Future Diary was available and asked if I wanted to download it. I did and, sure enough, I now had double-page spreads available to me in the Comixology version of Future Diary, just the way the Gods of Manga intended. So before we go on with the rest of my kvetching, let me first acknowledge that Comixology Support is currently pretty god-damned great, and apparently we haven’t quite reached the insecticide snorting stage of Interzone just yet.]
[DECEMBER 14, 2015 SECOND UPDATE: And they fixed Super-Villains Unite! so it no longer bombs out on the downloading for me, so they are two-for-two on responding-to-and-fixing-complaints-made-by-a-crazy-person-on-a-blog.]
Oh, but here’s a fun part: the Kindle to Comixology transfer is a one-way street. If I had bought Future Diary on Comixology, I couldn’t read it on the Kindle app, even though that’s the superior experience, but when I buy a digital graphic novel on Amazon I can read it wherever the better experience is. (As long as both services have it of course: whatever’s kept 2000 AD/Titan/Rebellion from doing business with Comixology so far, I can’t imagine they’ll be changing their stance on that anytime soon.)
It’s an amazing slanted table Amazon has set up, something like the internet shopping equivalent of The Mystery Spot, where the eye is tricked into thinking everything is square when it isn’t. On one platform, you can buy things for dramatically less, you can pay with a gift card anyone can buy you pretty much anywhere, and you can return the book for a refund within a seven day period. On the other platform, you pay more, you can pay with a gift card if you can find someone who’s arsed enough to get you one in the single place they’re available (the Comixology site), and there are no refunds whatsoever. I’m sure Comixology had no illusions about what would happen when they were bought, but Amazon is actively grooming Comixology’s core audience away from shopping on the Comixology website or app (in the iterations where you can still do that).
I’d assumed that within a few days of making this transition, Amazon would start fixing the huge price discrepancies between the two platforms, or maybe even close off the prices to Comixology customers who merged their accounts. But as of now, this has not happened. To the extent you’re comfortable with it, you can freely mill about the bazaar of Amazon’s newly founded Interzone and do what you will: after all, you can’t be an outlaw if there is no law. Want to own a digital copy of the Power Man & Iron Fist Epic Collection, which collects twenty-two comics not on Marvel Unlimited, but you don’t want to pay $29.99 for it? Buy it for $16.19 on Amazon, and read it on Comixology! Vol. 1 of the complete Christopher Priest Black Panther? Same! The first volume of the Complete Howard the Duck? Same!
Want Jonah Hex Vol. 1: Face Full of Violence but you’d rather pay, oh, $3.38 for it rather than $10.99? You’re in luck! Clamp’s Legal Drug Omnibus for $4.42 instead of $9.99? Volume 19 of Savage Sword of Conan? Same! Batman R.I.P. for $3.90 instead of $11.99? Go ahead! Do you see anybody complaining? I don’t!
I’m sure some of these are loss-leaders, some of these are old sale items that never got bumped back to regular prices, some of them just stuff that got input wrong (after it’s not every volume of Lone Wolf and Cub that’s priced at $2.34, only Vol. 3). But…ya know, are the writers and artists seeing royalties from this stuff? Do they see as much royalties on the $3.38 volume as they would on the $10.99 version?
Honestly, how could they? Unless Amazon was taking the loss on their end and the company and creators were seeing the full wholesale amount? (If there’s one company that taught me to be suspicious of the largesse of companies, it’s Amazon.) As you can tell, I can’t always help indulging my worst instincts but I don’t feel great about it: I mean, once the market trains you not to care about paying a fair price, why don’t you just cut out the middle man altogether and start torrenting?
All of these questions come, of course, far too late for me, twenty-six hundred words into this post, one week into this conversion. Maybe like Comixology co-founder John D. Roberts, I’m being arrogant, naive, short-sighted (or all three at once) to think what I do matters or will make a difference. In the future, all second-run entertainment will be free…as long as we agree to stay in our apartments twenty hours a day and not act up when the food rationing hits. Or who knows? Maybe the opposite (we have to stay out on the street for twenty hours a day and have to pay a premium for any entertaiment at all?) Either way, I’m probably too old, got flimflammed too much to hold out that much hope. I made the transition. I cannot go back.
“Evolution would seem to be a one-way street.
Considering evolutionary steps, one has the feeling that the creature is tricked into making them. Here is a fish that survives drought because it has developed feet and rudimentary lungs. So far as the fish is concerned, these are simply a means of getting from one water source to another. But once he leaves his gills behind, he is stuck with lungs from there on out. So the fish has made an evolutionary step forward. Looking for water, he has found air.”
― William S. Burroughs,