Emanata: The High Cost of Comics

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“It’s these four-dollar comics,” my dealer sighed as he flipped through my stack at the register. “The more there are of them, the worse we do.” I don’t understand, I said: if the price of a standard comic book climbed from $3 to $4 over the past year or so, that means you’re making a third more on each sale, right? “On each comic, yes–but our customers are still each spending about the same total, or even less. Three dollars for a comic might be worth it, four dollars might not, and it’s not like there’s a boom that means they’ve got more money to spend.”

The standard rule of periodical comics sales, as I understand–and this is entirely anecdotal, and corrections to it are very welcome–is that the typical fan who visits a comics store once a week likes to spend roughly twenty dollars a week on comic books. There’s something that’s psychologically “safe” about that figure: it’s not too much money, and for a long time it’s been enough to guarantee a pleasant evening of reading. Twenty years ago, the price of a new mainstream comic book was 75 cents, about to make the leap to a dollar, the same percentage they’re currently increasing. For a $20 bill, you could get a stack of a couple dozen titles, with some interesting indie experiments thrown in.

(More on Techland: Emanata: Jesse Reklaw’s Cartoon Diaries)

Since then, the price of comics has zoomed far ahead of the cost of living: $20 in 1990 is the equivalent of a bit over $33 now, while new mainstream comic books have more than quadrupled in price. And what happens when comics abruptly increase their cover prices by a third while adding little or no extra content–and the $20 standard gets you all of five 22-page comic books that take a few minutes apiece to read–is that that value proposition gets a lot less enticing.

Do sales immediately plummet when prices go up? No; serial comics sales never collapse abruptly unless the product itself drastically changes. They dribble away. In practice, readers quit following particular titles in disgust much less often than they gradually find it not worthwhile to pick them up any more. $4 cover prices don’t seem to have tanked any formerly-$3 titles yet, and maybe they’re making a little more money in the short term. But look at the monthly sales charts: the slow dribble of sales away from midline titles keeps dribbling, the top-of-the-line sales are nowhere near what they were a few years ago, and the customer base for mainstream comic books is not exactly increasing.

So maybe it’s time for the big publishers to think more seriously about value propositions–ways of publishing new material that are irresistibly inexpensive. To some extent, they already are. Both Marvel and DC have subscription plans that keep costs relatively low; fifty bucks will get you 36 issues of Amazing Spider-Man or a dozen issues apiece of three of the Avengers titles. (DC’s subscription page includes the heartbreaking phrase “Yes! I want to subscribe to the Comics so I am guaranteed a copy of each valuable, collectible issue.”) I mentioned the success of 52 a few weeks ago; at least some of that had to be due to the fact that it was $2.50 an issue at a time when most periodical comics were $3. And, a few years back, Image published a couple of tightly concentrated monthly comics–Casanova and Fell–as “slimline” titles, with a reduced page count for a $2 cover price; they found their audience much more easily than I suspect they would have for $3 or $4.

(More on Techland: Emanata: More Weekly Comics, Please!)

It’s possible that paperback collections of already-published mainstream comics are generally at a higher price point than they really need to be to maximize their profits, too. Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series is selling more than decently right now–200-page, full-color graphic novels for eleven bucks. (Yes, Amulet is aimed at younger readers. But it’s got an attractive price for their parents, too.)

On the other hand, maybe keeping the twenty-dollar-a-week crowd buying printed comic books isn’t the long-term plan. It makes a certain kind of sense–and I emphasize that I have absolutely no idea if this is true–that the big publishers would like to wean their readers off “valuable, collectible” periodical comics, and move them toward online single issues (whose reproduction and distribution cost is basically zero) and printed collections. In some ways, that’s a smarter business model, although I imagine the transition to it would be traumatic. The trick, in any case, is not squeezing mainstream comics readers to the point where they don’t feel like it’s worth it any more–and 110 pages of comics for a Jackson is a pretty painful squeeze.