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Why ComiXology ditched Apple's in-app purchase system

Moises Chiullan | April 30, 2014
ComiXology made some big changes over the weekend, removing in-app purchase from its iOS app. In the same breath, the digital comics reader added in-app purchase capabilities to its Android app, using its own payment processor rather than Google's. These moves come less than a month after Amazon bought ComiXology, adding fuel to the speculative fire about why ComiXology is overhauling its mobile offerings.

After ComiXology took in $19 million, Apple and others began raising their game as competitors in digital comics; even then, they were slow to move. Take comics giant Marvel: The Marvel app from ComiXology launched in 2010, but it took another two years before Apple finally added Marvel comics to iBooks. From ComiXology's standpoint, it needed to find a suitable partner or face mega-companies with large-scale publisher leverage squeezing them out of the very market they had ignited.

ComiXology also found its content running afoul of Apple's rigid guidelines about what could be sold through the App Store. Take the case of the series Sex Criminals, banned from being sold through the in-app purchase feature on ComiXology, and yet, still available for sale within Apple's own iBookstore. That wasn't the only incident where ComiXology might have felt it was being held to a different standard than other parts of Apple's digital content stores, and it's hard not to see that as an equally strong factor in the company's decision to break out from Apple's controlled ecosystem.

Did all those content restriction issues with in-app purchases motivate ComiXology's latest moves? "As we move to complete the acquisition with Amazon, we are shifting to the web-based purchasing model they've successfully used with Kindle, which we expect will allow us to strike the best balance between prices, selection and customer experience," says ComiXology vice president of communications and marketing Chip Mosher. That may read like a boilerplate response, but I'd wager it has more contextual meaning than it's been given credit for thus far.

Better for creators

It's safe to say that dropping in-app purchases in the iOS version of ComiXology hasn't garnered rave reviews. Comics legend Gerry Conway summarily denounced the changes on Sunday. Getting rid of in-app purchases "is a very big deal," Conway wrote, "because it strikes to the heart of what made Comixology's app a near-perfect venue for discovering and falling in love with new comics, a venue creators and publishers have been searching for since the collapse of mainstream newsstand distribution in the late 1970s-early '80s: it destroys the casual reader's easy access to an impulse purchase. And that's a terrible development for the future of comics."

On social media, people hailed Conway's take as what a real creator in the know thinks. As much as I deeply respect Conway, though, he hasn't produced "first-run" comics work since well before the digital comic sales explosion began. I find more relevance in a pair of tweets by Chris Roberson, who is not only actively doing new comics work, but he's also an indie publisher.

There are three very important points to keep in mind about the changes to the money involved in ComiXology's new approach to selling comics to its users:

 

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