The merging of Comixology and Kindle has created a hell I’d like to escape from

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The merging of Comixology and Kindle has created a hell I'd like to escape from

In February of this year, Amazon finally ended consumption of the once-independent comic book downloading app, Comixology. Amazon had acquired the app back in 2013, and aside from removing the ability to buy comics directly from the app, it left it untouched for nearly a decade. But this year, Amazon has changed things – integrating the Comixology digital marketplace directly into the Kindle ecosystem and completely redesigning the Comixology app. It’s taken two disparate mediums – digital comics and digital books – and smashed them together into an unholy lump of content that’s worse in every way. Apparently, if you allow a company to achieve a near-monopoly in digital books and comics, it will do terrible things that make the experience worse.

For those of you who aren’t huge comic nerds, Comixology is the largest marketplace for digital comics. If you don’t want to pay publishers for individual monthly subscriptions, this is the only provider of per-issue digital comics from a number of major publishers, including DC Comics and Image. If you read comics and want to avoid the hassles of storing your physical collection, Comixology has always offered a pretty solid catchall alternative until recently.

Kindle, on the other hand, has a de facto monopoly on digital books in the United States. Amazon’s e-readers are the most purchased in the US, followed by Rakuten’s Kobo e-reader line (Rakuten is the largest bookseller in Japan) and Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader line.

If you thought that the sheer size of these marketplaces meant that Kindle or Comixology were the best, you’d be dead wrong. They are entirely successful because of their size – not their quality. Amazon is so big that it can regularly use its size to pressure or ignore publishers. In 2019, Amazon shipped numerous copies of the sequel to Margaret Atwood The story of the maid a week in advance, and despite an uproar from independent booksellers, there were no problems with publisher Penguin Random House. Penguin Random House didn’t even mention Amazon when it apologized to readers and booksellers for the broken embargo.

Amazon’s increasingly outside role in digital publishing had prompted me to try to limit the use of its services. When Amazon finished integrating Comixology in February, it took me a while to notice. But oh boy I’ve been starting to notice it lately.

The new Comixology app is mostly just… aggravating. That’s the best word for it. Everything you need is still there, but the design isn’t really intuitive and can make navigating a large collection of comics (I’ve been using Comixology since 2011) difficult. It feels like you’re going to the grocery store after they change gears. Everything is still there, but the change feels so dramatic after years of being familiar.

But where my local Food Bazaar helpfully labels the aisles, Comixology doesn’t have it. There are no clear labels for useful built-in tools like “Guided View,” which is designed to move you smoothly from panel to panel with a swipe, rather than each page taking up the entire display. The guided view is still there, but the clear explanation of what it is or how to use it is gone. You access it by double-tapping – which I only know because I tried to access the menu to exit the book.

However, 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 find your way around. There are fake products, sponsored ads, and sometimes even fake products in sponsored ads. When I wanted to pre-order the new one Poisonous Ivy DC Villains series, earlier this month, Instead, I encountered ointments used to treat poison ivy rashes.

In the three weeks since, they’ve corrected that search result. The new book is now the top result. The ointments come after that. The rest of the Poison Ivy-focused books DC has put out over the years are now hidden “under the fold” until you scroll past the sponsored junk you probably weren’t looking for.

I’m looking for comics.

Other popular heroes, like Spider-Man, Captain America, and Batman, are bringing back toy scores right alongside the comics.

Comixology searches used to only return comic book results.

And look, those search results weren’t great before the merge. There must be a million variations on the Spider-Man title. If you’re looking for issue 10 of a very specific Spider-Man run, you’re likely going to be sorting through a bunch of results unless you add more to your query. But prior to the Amazon merger, they weren’t also dodging results for Amazon Prime TV shows, toys, ointments, and anything else Amazon thinks a Spider-Man comics searcher might want to buy.

Now, when you use the service, you’ll be painfully reminded at every turn that you’re in the home of Amazon, and you’ll be considering more than just the one thing you wanted to buy. It’s intrusive and uncomfortable. And I’ve been complaining about it with friends for months and reading about it with nods of approval and generally putting up with the inconvenience.

But last week I wanted to read a book on the Kindle app. I hadn’t used it in a while and prefer Libby when I can, but I knew I owned this book and I knew I wanted to read it. Only instead of encountering the countless books I’ve acquired over the course of a decade of using the Amazon Kindle store, I encountered the countless comics I’ve acquired over the course of a decade of using the Comixology store.

I swear I read sophisticated comics sometimes.

There is no way to filter out the comics from my Kindle app. They are always there. First thing I see if I haven’t bought a book this week. It’s annoying on my iPad Mini. It’s downright offensive on my Android E Ink tablet and Kindle Oasis.

It doesn’t have to be like that either. Amazon is one of the largest and richest companies in the world. It has money left over for front-end UI designers. That could be clarified quickly. But I don’t think Amazon is inclined to do that. For the most part, Amazon is content to maintain its e-book business and not really be leaders or good stewards. And it’s not just the design decisions made after merging the digital comics and e-book stores that make me feel this way.

The Kindle line of e-readers now feels painfully dated next to the likes of the Kobo Elipsa and Sage, or basically the entire Onyx Boox line. These use the latest E Ink displays and have fancy abilities like faster refresh rates for web browsing and pen input. The best thing about the Kindle line is that the e-readers are relatively cheap and work with the Amazon store.

Amazon has also abandoned its flagship book recommendation app, Goodreads, to wallow. The app doesn’t seem to have received a UI update since it was acquired by Amazon in 2013. In fact, it looks very similar to when it was first launched in 2007. Other apps like Netflix, Facebook, and Google have become powerful with their use of their immense amount of data to develop algorithms that try to predict what you want to read or watch before you do do it. Goodreads recommends just about anything that’s widely popular and in a vaguely related genre.

From the shop to the recommendation service to the Kindle hardware, Amazon could do a lot better. But it seems like Amazon actually likes how little effort it has to put through its massive monopoly to keep raking in dollars. Earlier this year, Comixology CEO David Steinberger left the company to lead “a new Amazon-wide initiative that is too good an opportunity to pass up.” in one Twitter thread, he assured that he would be at Comixology in an advisory role. From the outside, it sure looks like Amazon rewarded incompetence with a promotion. I’d be more upset, but I’m still trying to find the book I wanted to read on my Kindle.

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