Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Question - At what price is a comic too expensive?

Jeff - a friend and frequent commentator on this blog ask that question to me and I think it is a good question.

Comics are essentially $3 for the majors and $4 for the independents. Due to my financial circumstances, a discount from my store and my deep and abiding love for this medium I buy a lot of comics. My price point is probably $100 for an Absolute or oversized hardcover, $25-35 for a trade, $8 for a deluxe format (48 pages or more) and $4 for a regular comic. Having said that I think we are at the price point of no return for comics soon (or already there).

The average price of a comic has risen dramatically versus the overall inflation rate. The justifications are many, but the true bottom line is that with sales decreasing (in a long sense) that you need to generate more money on a single issue. Also the pay scale has risen dramatically I'm sure to attract certain talent to the industry. Still almost everyone does comic for the love of the art form over "this is the way to unlimited riches".

Still at a $3 price point picking up 10 comics a week becomes a $1,560 a year habit or about $2,300 on a gross pay basis. At a pay rate of $60,000 a year that would be only one bi-weekly gross pay and depending on everything else, maybe that is doable.

At $4 a book that gross price tag goes to about $3,000 a year. Also I believe that the financial pressures of many issues are going to take our economy into a recession soon (I hope it is just a recession) and with many books hovering at the 25,000 copies a month level, a drop off in customers buying could kill a lot of books.

I'm not trying to doom and gloom it, I just wondering out loud can comics survive all they have to face in the next five years.

Some of the problems:

1) An older (20 something) fan base that will have other priorities in tight times (family being the number one thing I can think of). An aside if comics are marketed for 20 somethings, why all the "got milk" ads?
2) A direct market formula that allows books to be ordered so tightly that casual customers may never see anything but the "big" event on the shelves.
3) A stagnation in creativity and willingness to change. The unwillingness to change for fear of losing some of their fanbase or stagnant thought that only Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker can be the hero. Creativity has been stilted as creators hold onto their best ideas to try and cash them in on their own.
4) Fewer retail outlets.
5) Digital comics.
6) Trades versus monthlies.
7) Magna replacing comics.
8) Economic slowdown

Sales are going down in the long view and we are becoming too inbred at times. Daredevil is a great book if you know all the history, but I challenge anyone to tell me of a "new" reader who has gotten into Daredevil.

Personally I hope that sales do go down a little more to force the publishers to take real chances with these characters. I still point to the "Death of Superman" as an event that brought more people into a comic book store then anything else. If these type of radical and exciting changes started to occur in most titles I believe the regular public would start to come back to comics.

Look at the death of creative entertainment in TV, movies and other mediums. Successes are cloned so fast that by the time you finish enjoying a reality show 14 more are in production. Liked "Lost" well great because we now have 15 "mystery" continuing story series on the air. Like Pirates of the Caribbean, well don't worry they will make enough sequels until you are sick of it.

Comics can be that place of real entertainment value. You have an unlimited budget with drawing and a more singular vision in comics then in almost any other medium.


  1. Very nice and well thought out entry. Have to agree with almost 100% of what you said. Personally, I have not seen such a sorry state of superhero comics in over 20 years. No imagination, no new ideas, no pressing of boundries. How many comics make you rush to the shop each wednesday? From 1991-2006 I have only ever missed maybe one wednesday at the shop. The past 2 months I have missed 3 wednesdays. This is due to the lackluster output from Marvel and DC. There's just nothing that grabs you by the throat and yells, "READ ME NOW!!!!" Even the weeks that my current favs come out, Fell, Invincible, All Star Superman and Loveless, I'm not moved to go to the shop. I know that there will be months to wait for the next issue. No real rush to read.
    As for price point, I'm there now at $2.99. I'm not going over that. And I know dozens of people who would be willing to buy comics if not for the high price of entry. And you have inexplicable jumps in price too. Wagner's Batman miniseries for example. The first came out for $2.99. There was a 2 month break and then his next mini came out, same page count and paper quality, but now priced at $3.50. Well count me out. I'll wait for the trade and then take the Amazon discount.
    If comics want to survive the next 5 years, they better drop the price or figure some way to give you more bang for the buck. One part of a 6 part story is not enough to justify a $3 cover price. Warren Ellis really gives us a treat with Fell at $1.99 and a page layout that gives you way more panels than the typical $2.99 book. Come on DC and Marvel!! Wake up and change things so comics live on for our grandchildren to enjoy!

  2. I'm going to resurrect Warren Ellis' idea of the Graphic Novel to replace the monthly.

    That and the Graphic Novelette. (48-page Prestige Format, ala THE KILLING JOKE.)

    It should be the way of things.


  3. Speaking of comics dying out... I was just thinking today how much I miss CrossGen. They had those manga sized graphic novels for their books at such cheap prices that you could pick on up easily on a whim. I miss that - now I look at the $25 Phoenix Saga and realize it wasn't so long ago that the SAME GN sold for $10. Thank goodness I have a fantastically wonder father who sends me my books ;)

  4. Shawn - I think that we should get to a comic being released as a trade someday. But still that changes the dynamic 100% as then comics are released the same way novels are and I have to wait a year between novels from an author Greg Iles who i like. Can a comic store survive that change? Plus once I stop going every week my buy list starts to really shrink.

    Chsiana - Your father sounds like a god like figure. I think Crossgen was a good idea, but they got overly ambitious and should have stuck closer to the free lancer model (or done exclusives).

    Jeff - I think they can't drop the price, so I think the format for story telling needs to go to the old silver age Marvel format. For those who don't remember Marvel (Stan Lee) was the master of telling single to three part stories, but having sub plots that would run various lengths that advanced the characters. But six issue arcs costing $18 when the trade is sold for $15 and can be had on the internet at 30% off is not a receipe for success.

  5. Jim--you are wrong about them not being able to drop the price. Look at other similar media. They say that the cost has gone up primarily due to increasing paper costs. Okay, so why haven't newspaper prices or magazine prices gone up as speedily or in step with comics? Magazine prices have gone up, but nowhere near as fast or with as big a percentage jump as comics. And look at all the extra ads there are in comics now. They took other cost cutting measures like doing away with the letters page and in many cases using computers to color and ink instead of paying a human. Yet the cover prices kept going up.
    If you look at the comic book busines model it has always been that the lower a comics' sales numbers the higher the cover price. Vertigo was historically higher priced than mainstream superhero and indies were higher than Marvel or DC. When a book would dip in sales, the price would go up. Never made much sense to me. A book isn't seeling well, so we increase the cost of picking it up. Wah?!?! I know the business reasoning behind such a move, but it still seems silly.
    In the last couple of years comic prices have soared. Indies are now on the same level as DC and Marvel and Vertigo costs the same as a much better selling title like Ult Spider-man. Is this because so few comics are selling well these days? Books in the top 50 according to Diamond have monthly sales of only around 50,000 copies. That's pathetic.
    As for Shawn's idea of releasing comics as graphic novels or novelettes first, I spoke with some comic book insiders who tell me that Marvel and DC are convinced that this just will not work. They look to things like the sales on Ty Templeton's OGN release and others like I Can't Get No that did not perform well. Then they draw the conclusion that the public simply doesn't want this type of release. Besides, when you can sell a monthly, then turn it into a hardcover and sell the heck out of the same material again, then turn it into an Oversized Edition and make more money on the same material, why would you kill that cash cow? I can't believe it, but the Marvel Zombies hardcover sold out. Talk about pure gravy for Marvel.

  6. Jeff - When I said they can't drop the price - it is because of the low sales numbers. I think to make money or even break even on the sales of a book in the 50,000 bracket it needs to be $3. But you are right it seems like an oxy-moronic thing to raise prices to cover low sales. That's one reason why I wonder if the direct market model makes sense any more for the health of the industry.

  7. It's actually a much smaller number.

    I believe its somewhere between 10,000-15,000 copies to break even on a big two book. (Writer/ artists fees and such.) Which is why they cancel the books when they slip down to this amount.

    Indies can go lower because they're not paying the talent as much and less overhead. Also, sometimes the creators forego getting paid. Rick Remender gets NOTHING up front at all for FEAR AGENT.

    You see, if the GN's were complete stories they could have a permenant shelf life, like books, on the comic racks.

    48-page novelettes are no more than two complete comics. Think of NEXTWAVE as six single issues, all 48-pages a piece, for 6 bucks.

    DC did away with the Prestige Format because they said it didn't make sense. How many printings of THE KILLING JOKE did they run through? Doesn't make sense indeed!

    Maybe everything other than DC and MARVEl should go the GN route.

    I must think on this some more..