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“Amazon Is the Global Warming of the American Economy”: A Conversation with Eric Reynolds on the ComiXology Originals Announcement

This June, the digital comics distributor comiXology announced a new initiative, comiXology Originals, which would launch a new slate of original comics series available both digitally and via print-on-demand. On the same day, Fantagraphics associate publisher Eric Reynolds wrote a series of tweets expressing the disquiet he felt on seeing the announcement. It seemed as if there was more to the story than Eric was able to convey via social media, so I asked him if he would be willing to discuss the issues, and he agreed. The following interview was conducted via telephone last month.

TIMOTHY HODLER: Let’s talk about comiXology Originals.

ERIC REYNOLDS: [Laughs] I sort of feel like it’s really more about Amazon, but fair enough.

Well, let’s start with the basics and then get into specifics, because you obviously know a lot more about this than I do.

Well, I don’t know! I mean, I’m kind of just putting some pieces together myself, you know? Connecting a lot of dots and a lot of random, unformed opinions that are bouncing around in my head as I navigate the city of Seattle and publishing via Fantagraphics.

Right. So, I’ve read the Forbes article about it, which seems fairly thorough, but maybe early. In your understanding, what is this deal about? And what does it mean?

There are a few different facets to it. What it means is just a further consolidation of Amazon’s grasp over our entire culture and economy. The comiXology Originals business is really nothing terribly nefarious in of itself. I don’t think comiXology as a company or the people at comiXology are trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes with what they’re doing.

That’s really not the issue. But I do think that that initiative is part of a broader plan on Amazon’s part to consolidate their, whether you want to call it their market share or their stranglehold, over not only publishing but the entire retail environment.

Right! [Laughter.]

So I saw the comiXology announcement in a very specific way that underscored the way things are going. There are a lot of facets. I saw a lot of talk about the comiXology announcement positioning it as a positive thing because the lineup of creators and the content has some diversity to it. And that’s awesome! That’s totally awesome in and of itself, and exactly the kind of thing that comics needs more of. But, you know, we’re talking about employing a few people, and at the same time Amazon’s entire business strategy, as I see it in Seattle, is to basically displace populations of artists, populations of people of color. And in a way that’s kind of alarming and very much at odds with whatever cool stuff comiXology is doing.

I think, especially in the book business over the last fifteen years, we all are aware of this elephant in the room that is Amazon. We’ve all sort of been forced to do business with them in one way or another, and in doing so we have to rationalize some of what we’re doing. I’m certainly someone who’s done that.

But I feel like things are more acutely coming to the fore. The end result is coming into full relief more clearly in a way that’s kind of terrifying. I say that as I moved to Seattle 25 years ago this month; in about a week or so it will have been 25 years since I moved here. This city is in the midst of a truly catastrophic housing crisis. And a homeless crisis. And a good part of it has been driven by the disparity of wealth that Amazon has in part been responsible for. And this city is actively dealing with what that means and what to do about it. I read somewhere that Jeff Bezos makes something like 275 million dollars a day [Business Insider estimated it at $107 million a day], and yet these companies are resisting any effort to tax them, to help address the situation even though so many neighborhoods have gentrified because of the growth.

In what way is Amazon responsible for homelessness in Seattle?

I’m no expert on the subject, but I’ll say the city of Seattle was founded on Native American land, and the city grew into a pretty decent-sized middle class city of neighborhoods. And there were white neighborhoods and there were brown neighborhoods, but most of the white people were middle class and owned homes and as the people owning those homes have done well, a lot of big companies have entrenched themselves in the city and brought a lot of high-paying jobs with them and brought a lot of employees from outside the city’s existing job pool.

And so those people who came in from outside began renting, began buying homes, began driving up prices. There’s this invariable trickle-down effect that happens, where neighborhoods have gentrified. I live in an old Scandinavian neighborhood, and it’s gotten to the point where a lot of people who have owned their homes for ten, twenty years are literally moving because there’s money being thrown at them for their property.

They’re buying up the lots next door to them and putting in million dollar townhouses. And so those people are moving to cheaper neighborhoods, which is driving out people who live in those neighborhoods, and it’s a really—again, I’m not a public servant or anything, so I don’t have a really firm grasp on this, but I live in this city and I’ve seen it happen.

Right.

And I’ve seen it happen both because of Amazon, and I’ve seen the way Amazon relates itself to the city, which is really kind of not at all. It kind of exists on its own.

All of that directly does relate to comiXology Originals, believe it or not.

Let’s get back to that.

Let’s take print-on-demand as an example. I think that’s what I’m seeing when I read about this announcement. Traditionally, the conventional wisdom about where print-on-demand had the most potential for publishers was in the backlist, with titles that were out of print and weren’t really hot enough to justify a proper reprint edition. But because it’s print-on-demand, there’s really not much money up front. You could just keep these books in print, and it may not be big money, but maybe you could sell, you know, single digits, double digits, below triple digits, something like that. It’s just kind of gravy for a publisher! That kind of backlisted income—the more you can generate, the more it really helps your bottom line.

Does Fantagraphics use it at all?

No, we never really have. That gets into another aspect of this, which is just the quality of the technology.

I don’t want to skip ahead, but I just wanted to put that in there.

Yeah, right. And no, that’s never really traditionally been good enough for us to want to dive in too far. Like I said, it’s not a huge cash cow or anything, so it’s kind of like a little bit of a dance. It’s easy money potentially, but someone still has to get the files together and deal with the metadata, so in the absence of not selling many copies and it looking pretty shitty, it’s never been anything that we’ve been too enthusiastic about.

My point, though, was that it’s always been perceived as potentially beneficial, if not this huge profit center, as it pertains to your backlist. What I see Amazon doing with their print-on-demand is a little bit different. And comiXology Originals play into it. They’re trying to—well, they’re not trying to, they’re doing it—they have a program and I forget the exact name of it off the top of my head, I think it’s called "fast track" or something like that?

Basically, when you order a book from Amazon as a consumer, you see that a book will either be in stock and ships immediately, within 24 hours, or if it’s not in stock, it’ll tell you, right?

Mm-hmm.

It’ll say ‘ships in 1-2 weeks’ or ‘1-2 months.’ It can vary quite a bit. It could be ‘ships a year from now.’

Right.

But as you might imagine, the further out that that information tells you that you’re going to get your product, the less confidence you’re going to have as a consumer in buying it at that moment.

Right.

If it says it’s not in stock, and they don’t know when they’re going to get more, maybe 3 to 4 months, it’s probably a good chance you’re not going to order it. And that happens to every publisher, you know? You may not even be out of stock as a publisher, but if Amazon’s out of stock and it hasn’t been restocked yet, they may pull ‘ships within 24 hours’ and change it to something further out than you would like, because of whatever information they have at hand. If you have a hot title that’s selling really well, that can really mess up your momentum.

A good example of that is when The End of the F***ing World debuted on Netflix. We had printed a bunch in advance, anticipating that the show would help sell some books. But literally up until the week before it debuted nobody had any idea just how big of a hit it might be. I think it wasn’t until when Netflix put up the official final trailer on YouTube like a week before and that thing just went totally viral that it became clear that, oh wow, we might have something really big on our hands!

Right.

So that show debuted on a Friday, and by the time we got back into work on Monday we were completely sold out on every level. We knew that might happen but whatever, it happened. And we knew we had to get more copies in print ASAP, so we immediately scheduled a reprint in North America so we could get copies that much faster. One of the primary reasons for expediting things, other than the obvious reasons of just wanting to get copies out there, was the fact that we didn’t want to lose that momentum on the Amazon buy-button information because most of the lookey-loos, or the non-hardcore comics fan who were engaging this book through the Netflix show — let’s face it, they’re going to Amazon.

So I think that initially when Amazon ran out of stock, they had something either extremely vague or it said ‘ships in one to two months’ or something like that. And we knew that they were going to have copies in three weeks. We had confirmation from the printer. So we spent a good week or more with Norton, our distributor, just trying to get Amazon to adjust that information so that it accurately reflected the fact that they would have copies on this date.

They didn’t believe you?

I wasn’t the one personally dealing with them, it was Norton dealing with them. It’s not a matter of anyone believing or not believing, it’s more a matter of the fact they have their own algorithm or whatever you want to call it, their own methodology for determining that, and they just won’t— It’s all mostly automated, so getting anyone to override that or overrule that and plead your human case, like, “Look, we’ve got a hit on our hands, you guys wanna sell copies, we wanna sell copies, I know that normally you need to get this info before you change it, but look we’re telling you the printer is shipping it this day, you’re going to have it this day—[Laughs.]—we’ve been dealing with you for fifteen years.” But, you know, you can’t talk like that.

Right.

All of that is to say that that bit of information can really affect momentum on a truly hot title. I used The End of the F***ing World as an example, but there are many examples of books on a bigger scale. Say The Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter, or somewhere in between. You know, James Patterson or… what was the big Trump…?

Fire and Fury?

Yeah, Fire and Fury. Books like that, where there’s a real incentive to keep momentum going, including Amazon being able to ship the book within 24 hours. So. What I know of the history of print-on-demand I’ve learned from reading things like The Beat and the usual suspects of the comics world. Because even the Journal hasn’t really covered that too much.

No.

And so it’s my understanding that over the years Amazon does have some actual print-on-demand technology that they use, but they’ve also done some farming out to some proprietary technology, I think, that Ingram Publishing Services uses. So what I understand they’re trying to do now is to get publishers to sign on to use Amazon’s print-on-demand service and agree to basically be one of these fast track publishers where, say in the case of The End of the F***ing World, for that time that we’re out of stock and before we finish another printing, they will fulfill demand on their end, via their own POD system. And in doing so they can, quote unquote, guarantee your book will always be in stock and shipping within 24 hours.

I find that slightly, ever so slightly, nefarious, because at that point then they really have become not just the distributor or the retailer but also the manufacturer and publisher.

More to the point, and this is the part that I think is the most important, they’re further conditioning consumers to not only buy from Amazon, but to buy from Amazon because they know that Amazon is more likely to have it than anybody else, in this case because they’re literally manufacturing it themselves.

Right.

While on the one hand, I don’t necessarily harbor any abiding loyalties to the comic book direct market, because it really is an imperfect beast, and there’s a lot about it that could stand to be improved, what comiXology is doing and what Amazon could be doing with any comics publishers that sign up for this POD priority system... it’s just handing them that further grasp on not just the comic book market and not just the book publishing market but really the entire retail fabric of America.

At this point they’re not going anywhere, and if we don’t stem this rising tide somehow, it’s not going to get any better. It’s like global warming. It’s like Amazon is the global warming of the American economy. We’re reaching the point where we might be able to minimize some of the damage one way or the other, but this is happening.

So it seems to me like there’s a bunch of different levels to this issue. And the main one that it seems like you’re trying to push is a moral argument, which is not necessarily — like an Amazon fan would say this is an opportunity to keep books in print, and you don’t have to wait to get your book, and a comic book fan would say this is great, because it’s sort of trying to level the playing field for people in rural America or wherever where there may not be a good comic book shop or whatever. You know, that that’s a positive thing, right? But what that’s hiding in your view is an attempt to take over the market and become a monopoly. Am I right about that’s what you’re saying basically?

I guess so, basically! For the last twenty years people have been complaining about Diamond having a monopoly on the direct market, and what we’re looking at here is Amazon having a monopoly on the entire retail economy of our country [laughter], if not globally. So it’s like, you know, let’s have some perspective about that, right?

At least know what you’re doing.

Yeah, at least just know what you’re dealing with. I think I am approaching it from a moral point of view, but I’m not even necessarily advocating smash the state or whatever, I’m just saying let’s just be up front about this and acknowledge that I can’t just compliment comiXology for publishing a couple of comic books when I know that there are these broader ramifications. And I feel like I have a semi-unique vantage point on it, by being a publisher that has worked with Amazon literally from day one, in the city of Seattle.

Right. Now, setting aside this particular issue, have you had negative experiences working with Amazon?

Only in a more broad, general publishing sense. You know, there’s been so much conventional wisdom over the last fifteen years about Amazon being this great evil empire. The irony is is that I feel like in some ways that conversation has gone by the wayside these past few years, even as I’m starting to see it a bit more acutely. Partly because I think the retail book business has leveled out and rebounded a little bit apart from Amazon and that’s awesome. But again, there’s still just more to it than having a healthy independent bookstore market, or direct comic book market, direct sales market. I mean, I want both of those things to thrive but I also want the fabric of America not to be torn apart!

[Laughs].

I feel like this is potentially as big of a threat as Donald Trump is right now. And unlike Trump, Amazon is still going to be here in four or eight years.

Fingers crossed.

Amazon, you know, Jeff Bezos isn’t a doddering old fool. So I don’t know, but one of the reasons I wanted to talk about it to you rather than doing it via email is that it's hard to talk about this kind of stuff without come off as some kind of shrill conspiracy theorist or something.

I don’t really feel like… let me put it a different way: I not only feel like I’m not saying anything terribly controversial, but virtually everyone I know in this city would agree with me, you know? It’s just not as out there in the public conversation outside of this city.

You made some other arguments on Twitter which were more about the technology of print-on-demand. I don’t know if you’ve learned more about it since then or not, but you were saying before that you didn’t believe that the books would actually be quality books?

No, no, I’ve seen them. I mean, I know what they are. They use one weight of paper, which is like 60lb paper, I think, which is pretty thin, and they have, I think, two finishes for color printing, which is either a matte or a gloss on that 60lb paper, and on black and white they just offer one matte finish. They can’t do hard cover, they can’t do any sewn binding. They can’t do any production effects, or whatever you’d want to call them, beyond just binding very basic paperback books at a fixed maximum and minimum trim width and height.

Now is that something that’s impossible for print-on-demand to do in principle? Or just impossible for them to do in a cost-effective way?

I’m not entirely sure, I don’t know how many print-on-demand machines there are. I know a guy, Vlad, here in Seattle who ran the Espresso book machine for a local independent chain of bookstores called Third Place Books, and very loosely, I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but in my limited conversation with him, they always had a hard time finding that sweet spot of being able to scale up a little bit in terms of how many they could print or types of things they could print and do so in a cost-effective way. I think that the answer to your question is that as far as I understand it, there are inherent limitations to all types of print-on-demand options in America, relative to the kinds of offset printing you get elsewhere.

And Amazon specifically has their own specific limitations. I don’t think Amazon’s technology is any better or worse than anything else I’ve seen. Actually, if I had to say I think it’s quite probably better. The quality of the color printing to the naked eye is going to look pretty darn good. I’ve seen the first comiXology Originals book and those people who really know books and know printing at all are going to look at it and there’s this kind of reflective shimmy shininess to print-on-demand that I can’t stand. A lot of people like myself would notice it immediately, but your average consumer is not going to care whatsoever.

Are there any comics publishers that you know of already using print-on-demand?

No, I can’t say that there are. I’m sure there are some, but I can’t speak to any.

Has Amazon ever come to Fantagraphics offering that service?

Yes.

Oh, okay. Before this comiXology deal? Or as part of it?

Yes. Yes. That’s, I mean, honestly, I could get in trouble for this… I don't know, I didn’t sign any confidentiality agreement, but yes, I met with them and they spelled it out for me from their point of view as to why it would make sense for me as a publisher to do it. It was only specifically because of that meeting that when I read about the comiXology news I realized that in some ways we were talking about two prongs of a bigger picture, which is about using print-on-demand to strengthen their hold on the book business in general.

I think what they’re trying to do with publishers on the print-on-demand side just dovetailed neatly. I don’t know if it’s because they just recently invested in this print-on-demand technology. From my understanding, I think they have three hubs in the country that are spread out geographically so that they can fulfill demand regionally.

But I don’t know for sure what’s driving this, if it’s a desire to build their own proprietary technology or if print-on-demand is just a means to strengthen their market share in the book business overall.

Do you know of them approaching other publishers? I mean it sounds like they probably would have...

I don’t. I’m sure they have, I’m sure they’re actively approaching many and I’m sure they just approached us ‘cause they thought, ‘Oh, you know, the local Seattle guys.’

Right. And you’re one of the bigger publishers, besides Marvel and DC. Like, you’re on the shortlist.

Yeah! Yeah, sure, right. I think that’s true.

Someone I discussed this with earlier this week brought up the idea that letting publishers go into debt for expenses on POD might be a good way for Amazon to take over publishers. What do you think of that idea?

Well, I think that’s kind of true, yeah. In a way, I think that’s part of it. I mean, you’re giving Amazon that much more leverage over your own manufacturing. That’s what you are as a publisher, you’re a manufacturer, right? And so I think that’s definitely true. I don’t know if that’s the single endgame, but it sure isn’t a bad byproduct.

So you’re not against print-on-demand in theory, assuming—

No, if you want to print on demand there’s a lot of stuff that, you know, I mean it’s not like mainstream American comic book printing the monthly Marvel or DC are these gem-like art objects. Some stuff it’s totally fine for!

One thing that they’re trying to do which I think from their point of view is really smart, is you know how when you go to the grocery store and they’ll have the Beatles' 50th anniversary Time-Life special retrospective or the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition or whatever, those will be on the racks for a month or whatever, and then traditionally, they would get strip returned at the newsstand and be pulped and never seen or heard from again. Other than secondhand market or whatever. And so what they’re doing, they’ve partnered up already I believe with a few major publishers like Sports Illustrated where even after those initial magazines are off the stands they just make it available as eternal print-on-demand titles so you can browse all these Sports Illustrated archives and order an issue, just like that. And sure, I could see why from their point of view, the publisher's and Amazon’s, that’s a great idea. Because it’s not like the quality of their other editions were that much better.

I don’t have anything inherently against print-on-demand as a business model. It just either works for you or it doesn’t, and even though it may not and has not traditionally worked for us, that doesn’t mean it can’t be great for somebody else. It’s more about Amazon and it’s about our culture and economy being slowly eroded.

I mean, here’s the other thing: a negative aspect to the comiXology Originals is that if you go to comiXology, whether you go to their website or via the Kindle graphic novel page on Amazon or whatever, what’s the first thing you see? It’s the comiXology Originals. So that’s real estate that’s coming at the expense of somebody else. That has its own ethical issues. I mean, trust me, we publish The Comics Journal, right? [Laughs] I understand conflicts of interest.

What?

And there are certain things you just have to accept and deal with and roll with.

I’m scrubbing this part of the interview. It’s not going to be published.

But yeah! So that’s one aspect of comiXology Originals specifically. As a comic book publisher I think you have a right to say, ‘Hey, wait a second, how much of your marketing team are you devoting to pushing this? What’s coming at its expense?"

You probably saw this, because you said you were reading The Beat’s coverage of this, but Todd Allen wrote about the deal, and he said the book that they were using had different dimensions.

Yeah, I did read that. I actually had an email exchange with him about it and I think he was misunderstanding something. I don’t think he realized—and I could be wrong about this—but I am only assuming that part of the Amazon pitch to publishers in having Amazon do your printing and fulfillment on frontlist rather than backlist —like The End of the F***ing World example—is the fact that they can guarantee the book never going out of stock specifically because they’re using their own POD equipment and technology in their three centralized Amazon shipping hubs.

I don’t think Todd knew about any of that part of Amazon’s current pitch to publishers and I think he was still operating under the Boulder model where Amazon was actually subcontracting a lot of their POD to Ingram, which has their own POD system which was a little bit... The way I understand the Amazon system is they have a machine that uses the same size sheets of paper for every single book and they just plug in the dimensions and it just trims it on all four sides. And so they have a maximum and a minimum based on those sheets of paper. From what I understand, the Ingram technology was a little bit different, and they have preset sizes of books that they offer.

One thing that differentiates them for example is, as you might intuit, a larger book, say, like an 8x10 book, is gonna cost more than a 4x6 book, because it uses more paper. Whereas the one interesting thing about the Amazon technology as Amazon explained it to me was that the price was the same for any size book, because they were just using the same paper either way. They were just throwing away more of it basically. Which is kind of funny, a funny little side note in and of itself.

But anyway, Todd was referring specifically to these fixed proportions that Ingram’s POD services offered, and I don’t think that that applied to comiXology originals. I can only assume that given the timing of my introduction to POD and the comiXology announcement that they are part of the same desire to integrate Amazon’s POD technology a little bit more strongly into their graphic novel business. And I think if you ask Todd, I don’t want to put words in his mouth, I think he would agree with me on that.

So when Amazon talked to you, were they telling you there are certain restrictions on what you could publish in terms of format or color or paper?

Yeah, sure. They have very specific parameters about that.

And it would have affected what you could do, and it would have precluded some of the books you already publish?

Yeah, most of them. I just wouldn’t do it. You know it’s like, oh, what’s a good recent book? That Franquin Die Laughing book that we just did. You know, if we sold out of that really quickly and we wanted to utilize Amazon to do fulfillment while we waited five months for a new printing to be printed and shipped from Asia, it would have to be reduced in trim size, it would have to be paperback, it would have to be on a completely different, a cheaper weight of paper. All of those really fine Franquin lines would not reproduce as well. Their black and white technology is actually pretty good, but you would still notice a little bit of a difference. At that point it’s just a different book. It’s a different thing when you’ve got a mass market paperback, where they’re sort of the same edition using Amazon’s technology that’s gonna more or less from five feet away look the same, right?

Yeah.

Because it conforms to their specifications. I mean, you know, let’s face it, I have no idea, but I bet that maybe 90% of every book published in this country conforms to those specs. So we just happen to be kind of an outlier on that front.

Yeah. Well, it’s still interesting. It’s probably why it took so long to get to comics.

Oh, print-on-demand and comics has been something that has been sold to us, I would say, for at least ten years, if not fifteen years. There have been companies that have been trying to make it work for really as long as Amazon has been around, for at least as long as we’ve been dealing with Norton, which is like seventeen years now. But it’s just never quite made sense for us.

One thing I should stress is I didn’t go into this Amazon meeting as a subversive, trying to upend the system by gathering this dirt…

[Laughs]

I took the meeting in good faith and said, ‘Sure I’ll listen to you.’ I mean, we’ve been dealing with Amazon from day one, and like I said early on, to a certain extent there’s nothing I can do about it if we want to remain viable. So you have to kind of just [laughs] turn a blind eye or turn the other cheek or whatever, and I’m always gonna entertain any ideas that could potentially help Fantagraphics remain viable as a publishing company. You never want to leave any stone unturned on that front.

So I went into the meeting and I took it in good faith. They’re nice people, I was happy to talk to them and ask questions, and it was only really afterwards and after I heard the comiXology announcement a couple of weeks later, that I started thinking about how those two things related to each other and how they related to this truly omnipresent crisis in this city that is this disparity of wealth. I could talk about this all day long, but we can’t afford to pay people a living wage in this town anymore. Young people who are getting married and starting a family can’t afford to live here, they can’t afford to rent or buy anything. Like I said, I live in this old Scandinavian neighborhood where we were very lucky to buy a house fifteen years ago. And now, everybody on my street that’s buying a house works at either Amazon or Google and they’re paying a million dollars a house. And people like myself, [my wife] Rhea and I, would never be able to live in this neighborhood now.

Yeah.

Or anywhere else in the city! And it makes me sad to see this city lose some of its vibrancy. Virtually all of my artist friends have been forced to move. You’ve seen entire neighborhoods taken over by the employees of these companies, almost all of whom move here out of college after they get their degrees in whatever it is they’re being hired to do. And just displacing a lot of longterm residents. And this was always a funky artist’s town, this was a blue collar artist’s city.

The other sad part about it is that I’ve felt like, you know, there’ve been weird peaks and valleys in the economy and there was the big dotcom boom in 2007-2008, but they always kind of ebb and flow. This just feels like the new normal. It’s just permanent.

Did you see that story earlier this week? There’s apparently no city in America where a minimum-wage job can pay for a two-bedroom apartment.

Getting back to the main topic, were you surprised by the negative responses your argument got on Twitter?

When I was complaining on Twitter about the comiXology announcement, I think there were a lot of people who were kinda like, ‘Oooh! Oooh! Bad mouthing comiXology!’ But I didn’t see it that way, at least not any more than we would criticize Diamond over the years in The Comics Journal. I read several things that were like, ‘Oh well, we’ll keep monitoring and see whether Fantagraphics will continue to deal with comiXology,’ like we’re going to just cut them off.

Do you have any criticisms of or complaints about comiXology’s business practices?

No! No, I really don’t. I think they’re good people, and I genuinely enjoy working with them. I don’t know how long it’s been, three or four years. When I go to New York on business, I’ll generally go by their offices and have meetings with them, and see them in San Diego. We were definitely late adopters to digital sales, but since we did dip our feet in, we’ve pretty much gone all in and it sort of is what it is. I personally have my own opinions about what it’s like to engage comics digitally and to engage things in that guided view format--

You’re mostly a digital guy, right? That’s your main way of reading?

[Laughs] Yeah, right, exactly.

Have digital sales affected Fantagraphics in a negative way or a positive way or has it been kind of a wash?

Oh, I think it’s only been positive. I’ll try to give you the real short version, but for so long everybody thought digital was going to ruin print, and then it became clear that no, actually it’s not. More to the point, I think digital comics has kind of flattened enough that it can’t even really compete. But it is another revenue stream. And additional revenue streams in this day and age are welcome in any way you can get them. So it’s only been a good thing. And that’s true not just of comiXology but of other platforms we’ve utilized as well. Again, I have my own personal interests or lack thereof in reading a lot of comics digitally. I’m totally a print person. On the other hand, I think I embrace technology pretty well. I use a tablet to read files and to read books and it just depends on what it is, right? I read The New Yorker on my tablet all the time.

There's one other thing I wanted to ask you about regarding the comiXology Originals announcement. Even granting that everything you’re saying is true, these specific comics don’t actually seem that interesting, so is this plan really going to work?

Well, okay, so, yes. [laughs.] I think that’s exactly right. I mean, in a way I’m sort of using them as a little bit of a straw man to make my broader point. Because I don’t think they’re going to take off in any meaningful way. But even if they don’t, I think it’s still worth appreciating the fact that they do have Amazon’s full muscle behind them, and people should know about that. So here’s a real funny story. A couple of days after I did that first little series of tweets, I got a package in the mail from Amazon. And I was like huh, I didn’t order anything. And I open it up and it’s the first issue of the one they’ve actually released so far.

Wow.

And it was actually an order copy from Amazon, and it had, you know, the Amazon gift receipt note in it, and it said, ‘Hey, just wanted you to have this. Look forward to talking to you next time I see you. Chip Mosher, comiXology.’ I have to admit, that was a pretty classy move on his part.

Sure.

So I have a copy, I’ve held it, and I will tell you I think Chip is a really nice guy. I think comiXology is actually pretty well-intentioned, regardless of how Machiavellian I may think their parent company is. But yeah, I think the comics are not that interesting. The comic that he sent me it was the one conceived by some NFL player who didn’t actually even write it, he just conceived it—

[Laughs]

—and it’s just like this contemporary take on The Island of Doctor Moreau. Like they’re on some sci-fi island where they’re cross-breeding animals that fight each other, you know? The same old bullshit.

So I think it's true that in some ways I’m sort of overstating things, because I don’t really see these things setting the world on fire in any way. But I think that’s kind of beside the point.

It’s kind of a test project too. The early Kindle books that they did from self-published authors weren’t good but—

There you go, exactly! But it’s all part of this broader strategy. And this particular initiative may crash and burn, but they’re still going to keep trying to make it work one way or another.

Transcript by Emily Sawan and Sara Podwall

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7 Responses to “Amazon Is the Global Warming of the American Economy”: A Conversation with Eric Reynolds on the ComiXology Originals Announcement

  1. Mike says:

    I appreciate Eric going out on a limb about Amazon/Comixology, but I do think indie comics is going to have to take a more strident stance against these kinds of actors if it wants to survive.

    Comixology, for all intents and purposes, is a front organization. Its express purpose is to put just enough distance between itself and Amazon, put friendly, comics-loving faces between the two, so that people are confused about their monopolistic ambitions. By the time the contradictions are sufficiently clear, publishers will be in too weak of a position and implicated in their ecosystem to resist and extricate themselves. That’s why Comixology is Comixology and not “Amazon Comics.”

  2. Gerry M. Allen says:

    Total bollocks. This is a capitalist economy. Capitalist economies, left unchecked, eat their young. Checks deployed against capitalist economies include government regulations , economic sanctions and environmental policies. Blaming capitalistic corporations (redundant, perhaps?) for maximizing profits is wrong-headed; were they not to attempt to maximize profits, stockholder suits would ensue.
    Neighborhoods change, mutate, grow. This is the nature of real estate. Property left at below market value deteriorates. Only those who stand to lose want stasis. BTW, the uninvited throwing of money at property owners does not compel them to sell; they choose to sell to maximize their profits. How does this differ from Amazon?
    The other problems blamed upon Amazon are endemic to modern society in the USA. Income inequality is everywhere as is homelessness. Color/creed based discrimination has been woven into the fabric of our society since before the Civil War. Modern corporations are a minor ripple in this giant wave of social fact.
    In the end, the supposed Amazon-conspiracy seems little more than a screed, promulgated by someone whose ox is in line to be gored.

  3. Danny Ceballos says:

    ha.

    “Modern corporations are a minor ripple in this giant wave of social fact.”

    …isn’t that a Galactus quote?

  4. Cynthia Rose says:

    Thank you for publishing this and thank you, Eric, for what you’ve said. Keep on talking. Not only is it more than true – it’s the tip of enormous iceberg.

    I’m an EU resident and lifelong member of the National Union of Journalists and the Society of Authors. All are hyper-aware of the ideas Amazon espouses as well as the means they are using to ingratiate themselves not only with customers but also with authors and publishers. It differs a lot from country to country, but pretty much every body of professionals in literature is very actively engaged with these exact questions. Not to mentioned those concerned about jobs, basic values, workplace practices, corporate tax avoidance etc. No-one worries about being labelled “anti-progress” or “conspiracist”; it’s too self-evident what’s up with the “GAFA”: the “giants of the web” such as Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon.

    Back in the 1990s I flew to Silicon Valley to do a big article on POD and its future applications, proposed benefits, etc. It’s beyond ironic to note what has actually transpired… especially the shamelessly rescanned, dreadfully produced, often unreadable versions of every kind of book, including countless “classics”. Of course Eric’s global warming analogy applies much more than just Amazon…the implications of increasingly digital lives are everywhere, especially in the divisions they provoke. But not to think about this, as well as about the choices one makes with regard to it, has become irresponsible.

    So just…thanks again.

  5. First off, comiXology existed for awhile before becoming part of Amazon. So it was never set up to be some kind of front. How it’s being used now may be a different argument, of course.

    As an artist, POD sucks for comics. The quality just isn’t there yet. If Amazon is claiming they can get you the book you want and if they print it themselves using their POD technology, then it won’t be the same book. Eric points out the paper stock and size restrictions. But the quality of the ink also tends to be poor. Blacks are not deep and are often streaked in the printing process. POD is great for some things. College readers, for example. But it just is pitiful when it comes to comics.

  6. Trevor Ashfield says:

    This was very interesting. I wonder if you could do a follow up, and talk to some of the people who are already using Amazon’s POD system? A few weeks ago, I purchased Rick Veitch’s Rare Bit Fiends #23 (Sun Comics) through Amazon. It is a POD comic: the back page states that it was “Made in the U.S.A. , Lexington KY 18 July 2018”. It looks well produced, rather sharp; as a consumer, I have no complaints. I think Kyle Baker and others are also producing books through Amazon’s POD. What are their experiences? Do they think that this is a viable method to sell their work, or build a new industry system around? I’m very curious about this.

  7. Conrad Groth says:

    Amazon is a cancer on this city and the country. Every time I think about buying a graphic novel on Amazon at a steep discount I think about the poor wretches worked to death in their warehouses. Support your local bookstores, folks!

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