“The Time was Right to Challenge the Throne”: The Omnibus Team on Building a New Digital Comic Solution
I think we can all agree: the digital download comics space is ripe for new options. With Comixology’s rapid, self-created decline as an appealing, functional choice thanks to its much-maligned update last year and the significant layoffs its mothership Amazon recently delivered to its halls, comic fans are waiting for an alternative that combines a quality user experience with a robust library of comics from top publishers. To date, no non-Comixology option has provided that mix in one place, 1 so, again, everyone is eager for something new.
Could it be the upcoming digital comic book store and reader Omnibus?
This platform from tech industry veterans and comic fans Kenny Meyers and Travis Schmeisser is born from a desire to offer readers what they used to get from Comixology, but, hopefully, better. Now, the jury is still out as to whether they can deliver on that promise. I haven’t used the platform, nor do I know the inner workings of how it will operate once it arrives. I also cannot say how robust its lineup of comics, creators, and publishers might prove to be. But it is an interesting and promising effort, so when the pair reached out to me to discuss what they’re up to, I enthusiastically agreed. Today, you can read that interview in full, as we discuss Omnibus’ origins as a response to the downturn of Comixology, what’s missing from current players, how they’re trying to differentiate themselves, the importance of user experience, and more.
It’s an interesting conversation about a new player — one set to launch in “early 2023,” per its website — in a segment of comics that’s thirsting for one, and the whole interview is open to non-subscribers. If you enjoy the chat, consider subscribing to SKTCHD today, and make sure to sign up for notifications about the future of Omnibus on its website.
Let’s start with the basics. What is Omnibus, and why is it something you two set out to create?
Kenny Meyers: Simply, Omnibus is a digital comic book store and reader. Travis and I have been friends for about 10 years, and always talked about doing our own thing. I was bored as all hell with a bunch of unfulfilling tech jobs and got in touch with Travis to see if he wanted to try and do something. We initially were trying to create software for small businesses, but we kept talking about how bad Comixology had gotten. We decided the time was right to challenge the throne.
Travis Schmeisser: By late summer, every time we’d jump on a call or text each other about our previous project, we couldn’t stop talking about what a missed opportunity was happening for digital comics instead. We’d end up spending our time talking about ideas for a comic app and that’s when we knew we needed to switch directions. We started officially at the end of August because we couldn’t stop thinking about it and wanted a new option as readers ourselves.
To clarify on the “digital comic book store and reader” aspect, from a user mechanics standpoint, how will Omnibus work? Is this a digital download based app, like Comixology, or a subscription, all-you-can-eat one like Comixology Unlimited? If the former, are you able to share anything about your approach from a digital rights management perspective, or is that still a TBD?
Travis: We are exactly like a comic store, but digital. Pay per book. We are trying to get approval for DRM-free backups everywhere possible.
How much of the desire to switch in this direction stemmed from Comixology’s much maligned update and the opportunity that presented?
Travis: We’ve *always* discussed doing something in comics together. That said, 100% of “why now?” is because of the update. We saw it as the final straw that the community wasn’t going to get vast improvements from them. Up until that, we kept thinking “maybe it will happen…”.
Kenny: I’d been complaining to Travis about the app all year. I stopped reading comics because of the update. There was a panel-shaped hole in my heart.
Others have tried to break into this space, one that has largely been dominated by Comixology and a few key subscription services. What differentiates Omnibus? Why is this something that you feel as if comic fans should pay attention to?
Travis: Our goal is to stand out and win fans over through an obsessively designed app, paying attention to details and bringing more fun into using our app than what people have gotten used to. The bar that customers expect has been raised and right now it’s not being met. Digital comics have gotten so boring and it’s the most rad subject matter and artwork possible! We just want to make somewhere that you love spending time and reading in.
We also want to create new ways for fans to find new comics and creators that they’ll love. There hasn’t been much added to the conversation in that regard as far as features, new experiences and clever interfaces for many years and we intend to change that.
We’re new to the comics business, but we aren’t new to creating apps – we’ve both been building things for 20 years each. Whether it’s our experiences from Reddit, Square and other places we’ve worked, we have a lot of related experience in creating apps that customers love.
Kenny: Speaking personally, I’m tired of getting shit on as a digital comic reader. Why was every app better in 2012? There are so many great things we can do with technology now!
You talk about how the bar was raised and how it wasn’t being met by current services. When you switched gears in this direction, what did you do to analyze the current situation to determine the essential characteristics that weren’t there that needed to be? When you were doing that, were you thinking from the point of view of your backgrounds in the tech space, or was it mostly as comic fans who wanted a better solution?
Kenny: Our first approach is always going to be as fans that want to read great comics. Our tech backgrounds help us answer the question of “how” and to not be totally frightened by the prospects of how much work it will take to build everything. The last decade of my career was working at places that were massive JPG delivery services. Reddit is maybe the exception, but those are product features we haven’t announced yet.
Our entire feature list is driven by the joy of being a part of the community.
Travis: This was definitely approached from a fan standpoint. One absolute parallel between previous work we’ve done and this is that you have to be in your target audience’s shoes when designing or building for them – no matter what type of app or service. That’s obviously a lot easier for us with this company given that we are the customers too.
Having designed things for 20-something years I sort of can’t help notice snags in an experience, weird dead-ends, confusing flows, etc. It’s just something constantly in front of you when you use apps. Honestly, it drives me insane some days. I don’t envy chefs who probably have a difficult time enjoying some of the food they eat by over analyzing it.
As far as the actual process – first I did some diligence, basically, a deeper dive for what other people were saying and experiencing with the update as well as learning aspects of the business side. Everything I found reinforced what we were feeling as well. We’re new to the comic publishing world, but had a lot of help getting up to speed from friendly partners.
When it came to what Omnibus would actually do, we already had a long list of ideas from our discussions. Then, I did a lot of research on existing services, both in the comic world and not. There are a lot of different reading experiences out there, so I tried to learn what I could and see what was interesting. Great artists steal.
Kenny: Travis approaches things more holistically than I do. I didn’t do any research, I just knew what I did and didn’t want.
Building off that, what’s missing from the current platforms that isn’t there? I certainly have my ideas as a consumer, but I’m curious what you view as the biggest weaknesses from a user experience standpoint, and how you can build on that to separate Omnibus from the pack.
Kenny: 1. From a broad view, I think a lot of these apps are missing the joy of comics. There’s a reason that literary culture and comic culture have remained separate entities.
2. At a surface, and honestly hubristic, level, I think Travis’s design work will be a big step up for a lot of comic readers. He really spends a lot of time thinking about how to make things better or easier to use.
3. At a micro level, it’s a lot of little things. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t miss in-app purchases. We’re bringing them back. Want to get a notification or email when your favorite artist releases a new book? On our list! Want to know the best reading order for Hellboy, we’re thinking about how to make that much easier. Or maybe you’re just a colorist who has worked their ass off to make your work shine and don’t want it on a black and white screen.
Travis: From a user experience standpoint, besides specific features, I think there’s a lack of special details, polish and craft in the current ecosystem in both design and implementation. My career doing work for small design-focused startups, large companies like Google, and being an early Design Director at Square has made me super focused on making things feel special and seamless, sweating every pixel. I think attention to detail is something you can feel when you use it.
Besides that, I’m excited to get past basic features and start experimenting. We have some pretty strange stuff planned. Also, it’s not really a product feature, but we take customer support very seriously. We can’t keep our doors open without happy customers and we will treat people how we’d like to be treated.
I just want to say as a comic fan, you say “in-app purchases” and my ears perk up. While the true patient zero of Comixology’s downturn was Amazon purchasing it, the first move that really indicated its eventual path was removing in-app purchases from the iOS version of the app just a couple weeks after acquisition. Not to kick an app while it’s down, but it’s interesting how your playbook for development could easily be as simple as looking at what features Comixology removed and just…including them from the start.
Kenny: That’s our first play, bring back what we loved, but better. We have more than that planned, though.
I mentioned user experience. If there’s one fatal flaw in the current leader, it’s that basically everything is difficult in a way it wasn’t before. How much of your focus is on delivering an experience for users that reduces friction and enhances discoverability and reading?
Travis: Delivering something that reduces friction is one of the chief goals of making apps. Every time someone stops to think “where am I?” or “how do I do that again?” you’ve created a bump in the road. After a while, all of those little things take a toll on how you feel about something and your excitement behind it. It can be a pretty subconscious thing that people feel, but I think these things matter. We revisit decisions and things we’ve completed fairly often if one of us feels something could be a little smarter. We also just want somewhere great to read and find comics ourselves!
Kenny: So much. So many of our plans are about removing friction. Any of us old enough to know, know that it was much easier to purchase and read digital comics back in the day. Even two years ago it was easier to subscribe to your favorite series. The first half of our work is dedicated to removing friction, the second chunk of work in the future is all about discoverability.
This is all great. Happy to hear it. But if there’s one reason other platforms and apps and services have struggled to make a dent in the market, it’s reaching a critical mass in terms of desirable comics, creators, and publishers. Comixology has deals with everyone, so there’s a bit of a stranglehold there. Others have not been able to match that. So the name of the game is getting publishers onboard. What are you doing in regards to that? Is there anything you can say about buy in from that side, or any partners you might have already lined up?
Kenny: The name of our game is to match that. A lot of new comic platforms are focused on creators, which is fantastic. We love seeing new creators come up and we want to sell their comics, too.
Right now we are focused on publishers, making it easy for them to come onboard, providing whatever help our technical and design backgrounds can provide. Many of them view digital sales as a side business, which we think is fair given how stale the leading app’s development went.
Can you imagine having only one place to sell digital comics and that place is competing with you selling their own comics? Giving their own comics prime real estate? We think it’s a big missed opportunity, and that digital revenue can match print.
Travis: Only one publisher has been an impenetrable wall, but many are working with us to make this dream come true. As we get closer to launch, we’re waiting on permission to share the official news for each one (our contracts make us!). So far, it’s going very well and I think launching and being a “real” app will only help accelerate things for us. More on this very, very soon.
From a features standpoint, Omnibus seems appealing. From a “comic fans are desperate for an alternative solution” standpoint, Omnibus seems appealing. But from a consumer trust standpoint, feelings are likely at an all-time low. I know this is a dramatic way to put it, but it’s also important: Why should comic readers trust Omnibus and your plans with it? And more than that, do you have the resources behind you to handle problems if they do arise?
Kenny: As I mentioned earlier, we think digital comic readers have been treated terribly. So building trust is one of the significant challenges we face, no doubt. We kind of approach this two-fold.
First, just being responsive and active online to our readers. We’ve been working behind closed doors because we need to ship our first thing, but Travis and I are excited about participating in /r/comicbooks or engaging with press like yourself. We just want something in people’s hands first.
Second, we want to make sure they don’t feel trapped on our platform. We’d rather compete on user experience and features. Some of this is out of our control, but we do talk about how we can open up what we’re doing to the community.
Travis: I don’t think that’s overly dramatic in any way. We think it’s 100% true. We don’t believe in maximizing profit at the expense of the product experience or in forgetting who we’re ultimately serving here – fans like us. We know we won’t have that trust on day one and have to earn it over time. Believe me, Kenny and I want this to succeed so we can keep building it every day and not have to go back to a job that’s not in comics!
Kenny: We do have the resources to carry this forward for a long stretch. Step #1 is to get to profitability. Travis and I are very focused on making this be our thing forever, stretching every dollar. So we’re trying not to hire or grow quickly, something that has ruined so many companies.
We’re literally opening a comic book store. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.
Why Omnibus as the name? I imagine I know the answer, but as someone who once wrote an article about how the omnibus is the worst format to read comics in, I pretty much have to ask because it makes me laugh.
Travis: An omnibus is a collection of comics and we’re aiming to be the digital omnibus of all comics. Our logo is a never-ending stack of books representing the O.
Kenny: Plus, it doesn’t replace “cs” with “x” like we’re ’90s superheroes. The omnibus in print format is unwieldy, but the omnibus in digital format is wonderful. Very wieldy.
There’s the old adage of “strike while the iron is hot.” Well, the digital comics iron is molten lava currently. What’s your roadmap to launch? When will you be in the market to provide an alternative to desperate digital readers looking for a new solution?
Kenny: Our iPad app will be in your hands very soon. We don’t have a definitive launch date yet as we’re still ingesting (*cue Cookie Monster gif*) content and finishing a few features. Our roadmap for this year is ambitious and other platforms are on it.
Travis: Let’s say at this point, launch is measured in weeks, not months for us. Luckily, we’ve been at this for many months already. We will say that a web reader and iPhone are very high on our list.
Thanks for reading this conversation with the Omnibus team. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to SKTCHD for more.
Some might disagree. I would disagree with them.↩