In February of this year, Amazon finally completed use of its once-independent comic download app, Comixology. Amazon had bought the app way back in 2013, and aside from removing the ability to buy comics directly from the app, it remained untouched for nearly a decade. But this year, Amazon has changed things: bringing Comixology’s digital marketplace directly into the Kindle ecosystem and completely redesigning the Comixology app. It has taken two different mediums – digital comics and digital books – and forged them together into an unholy blob of content that is worse in every way. Apparently, if you let one company acquire a near monopoly in the digital book and comic book world, it will do terrible things that make the experience worse.
For those of you who aren’t big comic book nerds, Comixology is the largest marketplace for digital comics. If you don’t want to pay for individual monthly publisher subscriptions, it’s the single issue-by-issue provider of digital comics from a number of major publishers, including DC Comics and Image. If you read comics and want to avoid the hassle of saving your physical collection, Comixology has always offered a pretty solid collection alternative until recently.
Kindle, meanwhile, has maintained a de facto monopoly of digital books in the United States. Amazon’s e-readers are the most purchased in the US, trailing Rakuten’s Kobo line of e-readers (Rakuten is the largest bookseller in Japan) and Barnes & Noble’s line of Nook e-readers.
If you think the sheer size of these markets meant that Kindle or Comixology were the best, you’d be wrong. They succeeded entirely for their size – not their quality. Amazon is so big that it can regularly use its size to pressure or ignore publishers. Amazon shipped countless copies of the sequel to Margaret Atwood’s in 2019 The Handmaid’s Tale a week in advance, and despite an uproar from independent booksellers, it had no trouble with its publisher, Penguin Random House. Penguin Random House didn’t even mention Amazon when he apologized to readers and booksellers for the broken embargo.
Amazon’s increasing role in digital publishing had led me to try and reduce the use of its services. So when Amazon completed the integration of Comixology in February, it took me a while to notice. But oh boy, I’ve been noticing it lately.
The new Comixology app is mostly just… annoying† That’s the best word for it. Everything you need is still there, but the design isn’t exactly intuitive and it can make a large collection of comics (I’ve been using Comixology since 2011) difficult to navigate. It kind of feels like when you go to the grocery store after they move the aisles. Everything is still there, but the change feels so dramatic after years of the known.
But where my local Food Bazaar will helpfully label the aisles, Comixology doesn’t. There are no clear labels for handy built-in tools like the “Guided View,” which is designed to move you smoothly from panel to panel with a swipe, rather than having each page take up the entire screen. The Guided View is still there, but the clear explanation of what it is or how to use it is gone. You open it by double tapping – which I only know because I tried to open the menu to exit the book.
But the real pain of the new Comixology experience is the store’s integration with the larger Amazon store. Amazon has always been a struggle to navigate. There are fake products, sponsored ads and sometimes even fake products in sponsored ads. When I went to pre-order the new one poison ivy series, about the DC villainess, earlier this month, I was instead given ointments used to treat poison ivy rash†
wanted to pre-order the new Poison Ivy comic and was instead violently reminded of comixology being ruined by Amazon (the comic I wanted is the third actual book) pic.twitter.com/4tFemED9YP— (@alexhcranz) May 11, 2022
In the three weeks since, they restored that search result. The new book is now the top result. The ointments come after. The rest of the Poison Ivy-focused books DC has put out over the years are now “under the fold,” hidden until you scroll past the sponsored junk you probably weren’t looking for.
Other popular heroes, such as Spider-Man, Captain America, and Batman, return toy achievements in addition to the comics.
Comixology searches only returned comedic results.
And look, those search results weren’t exactly great before the merge. There must be a million variations of the Spider-Man title. If you’re looking for number 10 of a very specific Spider-Man run, you’ll probably be sifting through a lot of results unless you add more to your search. But before the Amazon merger, you also didn’t evade results for Amazon Prime TV shows, toys, ointments, and anything else Amazon thinks a Spider-Man comics seeker would want to buy.
Using the service now, you will be painfully reminded at every turn that you are in Amazon’s home and will consider more than just that one thing you wanted to buy. It’s intrusive and unpleasant. And for months I complained about it with friends and read about it, nodding in agreement and generally accepting the unpleasantness.
But last week I wanted to read a book in the Kindle app. I hadn’t used it in a while, preferring Libby if I could, but I knew I had this book in my possession, and I knew I wanted to read it. Only instead of seeing the countless books I’ve bought through the Amazon Kindle store over a decade, I was shown the countless comics I’ve bought through the Comixology store over a decade.
There is no way to filter the comics from my Kindle app. They are always right there. The first thing I see when I haven’t bought a book that week. It’s annoying on my iPad Mini. It’s downright offensive on my Android E-Ink tablet and Kindle Oasis.
Nor does it have to be. Amazon is one of the largest and richest companies in the world. It saves money for front-end user interface designers. It could solve this quickly. But I don’t think Amazon has any inclination for that. For the most part, Amazon is content with maintaining its ebook business, not being true leaders or good stewards. And it’s not just the blunt design choices that came after the merging of the digital comics and ebook stores that make me feel this way.
The Kindle line of e-readers now feels painfully outdated alongside something like the Kobo Elipsa and Sage or rather the entire Onyx Boox range. They use the latest E-Ink displays and include great features such as faster refresh rates for web browsing and stylus input. Most importantly for the Kindle range, the e-readers are relatively inexpensive and work with Amazon’s retail store.
Amazon has also abandoned its main book-recommending app, Goodreads, to wallow. The app doesn’t seem to have had a UI refresh since Amazon bought it in 2013. In fact, it looks a lot like when it launched in 2007. Other apps, such as Netflix, Facebook, and Google, have become more powerful using their massive amount of data to develop algorithms that try to anticipate what you want to read or watch before you do. Goodreads simply recommends what’s popular and in a genre that’s vaguely contiguous.
From the retail store to the recommendation service to the Kindle hardware, Amazon could do a lot better. Still, it’s like Amazon likes how little effort it has to put in to rake in its massive dollar monopoly. Earlier this year, David Steinberger, CEO of Comixology, left to “lead a new Amazon-wide initiative that is too great an opportunity not to seize.” In a Twitter thread, he assured that he would have an advisory role at Comixology. From the outside, it looks like Amazon rewarded the ineptitude with a promotion. I would be more annoyed, but I’m still looking for that book I wanted to read on my Kindle.