Comixology, Monopoly, and Technology:

Comixology’s Acquisition by Amazon as a Short-Term Gain for a Long-Term Risk

I’ll come right out and say it: Amazon is amazing.

Think about the lower prices, the short wait times and the amount of products that they have on their website. Think about the sheer volume of useful (and not so useful) stuff that they have and often for prices that could be comparable to anything nearby.

It’s simply incredible that we have such a resource easily available to us. Sure, most people (at least most people I know) use Amazon for books or specialty items that Amazon might have a good deal on. But Amazon is still a Fortune 500 company for a reason, and books alone aren’t it.

So when Comixology, the iTunes of comic books, got “acquired” (read: bought out) the large response from comic book fans seems to be a tenuous (but enthusiastic) “Yay!” And why shouldn’t it be? The iTunes of comic books just merged with the…well, it merged with Amazon! Is there anything you more you need to say? What else could really encapsulate all of the exciting business opportunities that await Comixology? Especially after Bleeding Cool reported that it wasn’t doing so well before the acquisition. Maybe this is exactly what Comixology needed, and maybe, more importantly, this is what we as comic book fans needed. But I’m not holding my breath.

While this isn’t a response piece to Ian Dawe’s recent article on the subject, his piece certainly inspired this one, and I will try to keep some of his points in mind while I make my own. For instance, my problems don’t come from resisting technological change or from being too much in a general tizzy (people still say that, right?) about digital comics. Part of that may be that perhaps, like Ian, I am behind the times. With the exception of a few times, I’ve never really read a digital comic and have only browsed Comixology once or twice. But for whatever reason, it doesn’t grab me the way that the physical copies and stores do. There’s just something about that that feels more human and more interesting to me. Maybe I’m 22 going on 30.

Whether I am behind the times or not and whether I personally use digital comics, I certainly support them becoming bigger and more important. To extend Ian’s drug war metaphor but in a different direction: even though I don’t do drugs personally I will certainly defend anyone’s right to do them and consider it an important right to have, even if I don’t really personally gain from it. And especially because comics to us are like drugs, this metaphor is even more apt.

My problem with this is situation is twofold: Comixology and Amazon themselves. Comixology is a great idea, but the actual practice of it leaves something to be desired. For those who don’t know, when you download your favorite comic book off of Comixology you don’t actually own it. It’s the same deal with the video game distributor from Valve, Steam. You are renting these digital files from the given distributor, and if at any time the distributor decides they are not happy with your use of it they can take it away.

Renting is fine as an option among many, but this isn’t what is going on. Instead, Comixology always has its hands on your pull list, even after you are done with it.

The other part of this equation is Amazon. I am sure everyone is familiar with the usual critiques: Bad working environments, monopolsitic attitudes towards competitors and their internal corporate culture is nothing short of gladiatorial, which results in some pretty high turnover rates.

And some might say, “But how will any of this affect my pull list?” The people who have these base interests (which is not to say that they are not important) are probably not going to be disappointed. At least in the short run. In the short run things will probably be fine. And Comixology will continue to be a big player with a cool idea that has a somewhat flawed execution, just with a bigger reach thanks to Amazon. And if that’s all that matters to you then rest easy.

But knowing history a bit better might make us take a more critical and skeptical eye to these things. Amazon has acquired companies as subsidiaries before, and instead of letting them grow it has engulfed them within their own corporate machinations. Zappos – a once-independent shoe store that Amazon thought had the gall to compete with it – is a good example of this. They were at first acquired by Amazon, but eventually they became unrecognizable.

What are the chances of Amazon doing something like this to Comixology though? Well Amazon tried to do the whole publishing company thing ten years after they horribly failed in 1998, so they can be a bit headstrong sometimes. So it seems to be an unfortunate possibility.

None of this, however, even gets down to the root of the problem. Even putting aside the problems Comixology has on its own and the problems that Amazon has had over the years, there’s still the huge problem of what both of these things fundamentally are: monopolies.

Both of these companies (and especially Amazon) are economic monopolies in their own right. Granted, Comixology doesn’t have Amazon’s track record of knocking down potential competitors (at least not that I am aware), but it still held and continues to maintain a grip on the distribution of digital comics online. That’s a dangerous position to hold because it means if you mess up, the effects are centralized instead of dispersed. The costs of failure are raised significantly higher and spread out way farther than they would be if we had free online competition within digital distribution.

I’m more concerned about Amazon, though. Slashing prices on books or raising them with little regard to the publishers’ needs and basically toying economically with other companies have all been in Amazon’s toolkit, historically speaking. In terms of its past business practices, this is not a company to look favorably upon.

But let’s be clear, this isn’t a “hate on Amazon party”, this is a “hate on monopolies party”. I hate on monopolies themselves because to be a monopoly or to even aspire towards monopoly status means to have to cut down the competition. That’s why monopolies are per se problematic in both practical and moral ways. So it isn’t like this is a problem that only Amazon has. And even if this process wasn’t the way monopolies actually happened, the status of being a monopoly is overrated.

Again, though, it’s worth pointing out that these critiques do not apply as much to Comixology. Besides the banning of certain books from their store and being vague or non-committal about answers to their numbers, I haven’t seen many discomforting things. Then again, it isn’t as if either of these things are good signs either. This is especially true if Comixology keeps heading down the dark path of monopoly aspiration, as Amazon has done.

But much like Ian, I am not concerned about the fundamental technological changes in question from physical to digital – I welcome them. And I think, in the long run, they’ll be a boon to the comic book market just like Ian says. Perhaps specialty stores, as a result of this technological process, will be fossilized in twenty years, maybe not. That isn’t what really matters to me though.

It’s who controls these changes that concern me. Is it the creators or is it the corporations?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go marvel at my Amazon wish list that I made a week ago.

Man, Amazon is amazing, isn’t it?

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Nick Ford is a writer, bassist and anarchist living in Massachusetts. He is a self-professed slacker but still manages to have a bunch of projects on his hands. His main site is, while his comics are written at the Human Interest Comics Cooperative.

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