On The Topic of Comic Prices…

11Jun10

Lately word has leaked out that DC Comics is moving some of their books up to $3.99 cover price without extra content.  Marvel has been pretty aggressively pushing its books to the $3.99 price point for a while now.  I wanted to take some time and address this topic.

There is no easy way to discuss this topic, because it is very easy to blow oneself up by moving from a legitimate point about the pricing situation to a nearby, but almost entirely unrelated, point.  In one breath you can discuss how kids can no longer afford comics and then be extrapolating that point to how the sales on books are down in April from year to year, but the reality is that the two points are actually not as related as one might think.  My approach will be simply to present several data points and thoughts.  Take from it all what you will, I’m personally not entirely sure of what it means at this time.

The biggest problem with having this discussion is that we’re dealing in an area of incomplete information that can simply not be known.  People are trying to point to various trends in marketplace “charts” to prove or disprove any given point, but those numbers are guesses that only focus on a portion of the overall comic market.  DC and Marvel have no inclination to actually release the concrete numbers of what they actually publish on a monthly basis.  As a result, we have only guesswork to draw conclusions from.  We really do not know what the circulation numbers are, and there is no way for us to know.  Drawing conclusions about the effect of a $3.99 price point on sales is a haphazard game.

Some people are advocating the point that lowering prices would increase the circulation of comics.  I have yet to see anyone provide proof that simply dropping all prices back to $2.99 or $2.50 would suddenly increase circulation accordingly.  Let’s not make any mistake about it, this is a subject of money and profitability.  If you’re going to argue that cutting the price of a comic from $3.99 to $2.99 would increase the circulation accordingly, you had best be able to prove without a doubt that a price cut of approximately 33% will lead to a subsequent increase of circulation of at least 40%.  I say 40%, because from a bean counter’s point of view, cutting price by a third to increase circulation by a third is a wash, you need to show a real profit motive to make the price cutting maneuver.

If simply being the cheapest book on the stands is all that matters as some would have you believe, then why isn’t Sonic the Hedgehog or any of the DC Kids line, which all clock in at $2.25 or $2.50, the best selling books in the direct market?

Some people would argue that comics are becoming too expensive for kids.  I would argue that those people  aren’t actually paying attention to the stuff that kids are willing to spend $3-$4 or more on.  $3 for a pack of rubber bands people.  RUBBER BANDS.  And you want to tell me that Billy Batson and The Magic of Shazam is overpriced?  Really?!  The real problem with kids and comics is getting the kids to realize that comics exist in the first place!  Which leads to part of the next point…

One element that people simply do not seem to appreciate is creative and marketing costs.  In a discussion I was recently involved in, one person proposed printing comics on newsprint-style paper again, instead of the current higher-quality paper.  A person with knowledge of the situation chimed in and pointed out that printing comics on the cheapest possible paper would save….wait for it….one cent per book.  One cent.  This works out to a three to five cent change in cover price, at best.  So, dropping Avengers #1 from $3.99 to $3.95, that probably isn’t going to change much.  The reality is that marketing so that people are aware of the books is expensive, and there’s a lot of creators involved in every issue who need to be paid for their work.  If you want to say that $3.99 is simply beyond your price range, I can’t fault you for that.  What I won’t accept is people just arbitrarily declaring comics are too expensive and dismissing them as a result.

It is important to realize that, on the creative side, comic books are not paying according to comic book scales.  DC does not have to worry about paying rates that are better than or equal to what Marvel pays their creators.  DC and Marvel have to worry about competing with Hollywood movie studios and video game companies.  There’s been a significant talent drain from comics to those industries on many fronts.  Many of the creators choose to come back to comics once in a while out of love for the medium, but the reality is that most of them are going to get paid far better for less demanding work by doing concept art work for the next video game release.

To me, the key to all of this is one basic concept.  Comics are not overpriced.  Mediocre comics are overpriced. Every issue of Blackest Night was $3.99, and I heard absolutely no one complaining about the price, because the content was that compelling.  There were a ton of non-comic fans who came rushing through the doors back when the issue of Amazing Spider-Man guest-starring Barack Obama came out, and none of them were complaining about the $3.99 price, either.  Just this week Batman #700 shipped for $4.99.  No one is complaining about that price, as the book has some excellent work contained within it.   At the end of the day, content is king, pure and simple.

The companies need to focus on producing quality content that people are willing to purchase.  As prices continue the climb, the quality of the content will continue to be critically important.  The question becomes, then, can the industry as a whole produce enough quality content to keep people coming in?  Personally, I think the answer is absolutely yes.  There’s lots of great comics out there that have very small audiences.  Some work on expanding the exposure of those books will go a long way.

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2 Responses to “On The Topic of Comic Prices…”

  1. 1 Doc T

    A provocative op-ed, Tim, and I’m *blown away* that the “back to pulps” idea would save so darn little but you make excellent points about talent and advertising. To me its also a matter of access, since I recall nagging my mom to buy me those pulps as a kid wandering through grocery stores and pharmacies. Where do kids encounter comics anymore?

    I suspect the traffic issue helps ginormous book stores as well these days, but its always been a matter of attracting new readers while retaining older ones IMHO.

    • Access is an issue, but as you well know, the absence of comics from the grocery stores is because they were pushed out, not because the comics willingly left. This makes the marketing even more vital.


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