And four bedroom houses only used to cost twenty bucks.

§ February 8th, 2016 § Filed under pal plugging, publishing, retailing § 17 Comments

So the other day a lad and his grandmother came to the shop to look around, and everything was going well until the grandmother took a close look at the new comics rack and exclaimed “comics cost $3.99!?” It was a bit of sticker shock for her, as that was quite a bit higher than the new comic prices she remembered from her youth.

I mentioned this on the Twitters, and as the discussion continued from my initial post there, I realized there were two different issues that were perhaps being conflated. The first issue, and the one of greatest interest to those of us who regularly consume this particular artform, is that of perceived value. “Did I get my $3.99’s worth out of this comic?” “Did I just blow through this $3.99 comic filled with splash pages and no dialogue in two minutes?” “Did I just spend 20 minutes slowly absorbing the intricacies of dialogue and appreciating the beautifully-rendered art?” All questions we’re familiar with, I’m sure. And it is an important concern, that everyone from the reader to the publisher to the retailer needs to worry about: is the product worth it?

There’s no simple answer, of course. Maybe you don’t like the all-splash page comic with no dialogue, but maybe someone else loves the art in that comic and is thrilled to have huge images and no text to get in the way. Maybe I like dialogue-heavy comics that take me a while to read, and maybe someone else thinks if they wanted to read a prose novel, they’d have bought one. Everyone decides for him-or-herself if the price they’re paying for a comic is worth the value they get from it.

Anyway, we’re all comics people, we know all that. But the other issue I was thinking about, based on that grandmother’s response to seeing the price, was the very fact that the price itself is a barrier to new readers, independent of whether or not the contents could deliver on the cost of admission.

This isn’t a very deep topic, admittedly. “High price drives away customers” – no dur-hay, right? But it reminded me of when I wrote about DC’s “The New 52!” slug that they had on their covers for the last few years. For those “in the know,” it told us “hey, this is part of DC’s newly-rebooted continuity!” For anyone else who hasn’t read comics, it told them “you have no idea what this means, so clearly this isn’t for you.” Even though the New 52 initiative is no longer marketed as such (ending when it did just as reader Ray predicted), the phrase still exists on back issues and on the trade paperbacks and I still hear “hey, what does this mean” from folks new to the industry all the time.

Basically, it’s something on the cover that warns people not already reading comics “this is not for you.” And maybe the higher price points on the regular monthly series (currently averaging $3.99, with Marvel slowly getting us used to $4.99) are yet another warning. Okay, maybe it’s mostly a warning to people who remember when comics were ten or fifteen or thirty-five cents and have somehow wandered back into a comic shop only to discover 1) wait, they’re still making Howard the Duck? and 2) it’s $4.99 a throw? And I don’t think four bucks is too bad a price point for what you’re getting…that’s like a pack of Magic: The Gathering cards (I think…it’s been a while since I’ve had to sell any), or…fancy coffee, I guess? But it’s not “toss the guy a coin and not think about it” pricing…it’s not a significant amount of money, but it’s not nothing, either. And that’s just one more barrier to someone new to comics trying to decide if he or she really wants to take the plunge.

Again, this is hardly a new observation, but it brought me to think once again about what the breaking point is going to be. I’m sure those of us who were around a couple of decades back buying comics for, what, $1.25 or $1.50 each, would have laughed in your face if told we’d be buying essentially the same comics for $3.99. But here we are. And so far any comics that have been $4.99 or higher have had higher page counts or nicer production or some other aspect that improved the perceived value of the item. But then, so did $3.99 comics at one point. And so did $1.99 comics.

My thought was that eventually periodical comics would have to evolve into thick anthology magazines, front-loaded with ads to keep costs down, but attracting advertisers is a problem now for comics, too. So who knows where it goes from here…moving to a trade paperback-only model? Everyone moves to digital comics? Your pal Mike shutters his store and has to find a real job? I don’t know…it’s a thing I have to worry about, and it’s a situation that’s coming whether anyone likes it or not.

Boy, that’s cheery stuff, right? Anyway, this isn’t a “comics industry is doomed” thing, since people have been saying for decades that the business’s death is “five years away.” I’m just curious about what’s coming next, and hopefully whatever’s coming will appeal to new customers rather than try to block them out.

• • •

I wanted to post a brief note regarding pal Dave’s decision to end his blog, at least for the time being. He’s one of my favorite writers…smart, funny, and very insightful, with plenty of interesting things to say on a wide variety of topics which as I type it sounds like a remarkably generic thing to say about someone, but it’s really true in his case. I’ve never been much of a gamer, but his posts on the various games he’s played were just as fun to read as his occasional comics or movie post, which fell more within my specific wheelhouse.

I’m sorry he’s taking down his virtual shingle, but I’m glad he shared as much with us as he did. Plus, I still get to bother him on Twitter, at least until he blocks or mutes me. Thanks for all the good work, Dave, and hopefully we’ll see more from you in the future.

17 Responses to “And four bedroom houses only used to cost twenty bucks.”

  • philfromgermany says:

    Magic boosters cost 4.99$?!?!
    I have to say atm Marvels 3.99$ per book is too steep for me to check out a new series. I am also miffed if I bought 4 or 6 issues of an Image ongoing and see the first trade for 9.99$. What a thank you to the fans…

  • Touch-and-go Bullethead says:

    Has anyone yet tried the argument that comic book prices increasing from $3.99 to $4.99 is exactly the same, in terms of percentages, as when they increased from 12 cents to 15?

    …I was merely tossing that out as a sort of joke, but now it has me feeling odd. “Wait a minute. Five dollars now is the same as fifteen cents in my childhood? That can’t be right.”

  • Touch-and-go Bullethead says:

    Okay, more thought on this. When I went to a convenience store in 1970, I would buy a comic for fifteen cents, and a candy bar for ten cents. Now, that candy bar costs eighty cents to a dollar. So, the comic should be $1.20 to $1.50.

    Yes, yes, I know: now the comics have better printing, higher grade paper (sometimes), and fewer ads (sometimes). Also, of course, the publishers are selling MUCH fewer copies now than they did then, which basically requires them to make more per sale.

    Still, this goes far to explain what you call sticker shock–not merely that comics cost more than they once did, but that the price has risen far above ordinary levels of inflation.

    To sum up: Anyone who says “Everything cost more these days, gramps. Get used to it.” is a young punk, and should get off my lawn.

  • Michael Grabowski says:

    Are the writers and artists getting paid more for the $4.99 books?

    $3.99 for a new comic doesn’t bug me too much… until I’ve got 4 or 5 in my hand and I realize what the total is going to be. Then I reevaluate. Do I really want to invest in this new one? How about if I just get two comics for my daughters to read on the road trip and make sure they trade? It’s not just a barrier to new comics customers, it’s a barrier to current customers who look at every price rise as a time to reconsider spending and reading habits.

    “Less than a pack of cigarrettes,” is what you should have told that grandma. “Which habit would you rather he have?”

  • Thom H. says:

    I’m convinced that the answer to this question is for big comic companies to actively start producing original content again. Recycling the same characters/stories over and over again is not a long-term sales strategy.

    I certainly have nothing against superheroes, but a) comics can do so much more, b) the movies can’t subsidize the comics forever. Even if it’s a long way off, the superhero movie craze is eventually going to die down.

    So Marvel and DC should start creating books that appeal to a wide range of audiences and that don’t necessarily involve superheroes. That way they can increase their readership and not rely solely on superhero-related income.

    The more books they sell, the more stable their price per issue would become. It would also mean that when the bottom falls out of this current round of interest in superheroes (and it always does), they have something to fall back on until people get interested in them again.

    I’m sort of baffled that the Big Two aren’t taking more of a lesson from Image’s successes. That’s where the real growth in comics seems to be happening. And when a book like Saga sells like it does and the creators are happy to sell it for $2.99 an issue (which includes a lengthy letter column, by the way), Marvel and DC should be trying to emulate that model.

  • Touch-and-go Bullethead says:

    Thom H., what you are ignoring is the probability that Marvel and DC are making more from the t-shirts, toys, video games, movies, and TV shows based on their comics than from the comics themselves. They are also probably making more from those licensing fees than Image is making from its comics. So, “be more like Image” or “create more new characters” or “rely less on super-heroes” are approaches that might be more artistically satisfying, or might eventually prove successful, but in the short term they would mean sacrificing a lot of cash. Which, I am guessing, is not something Warner or Disney is encouraging.

  • Thom H. says:

    Good points, Touch-and-go — I guess I don’t see what’s keeping Warner and Disney from doing both at the same time, though. I’m not suggesting they stop publishing superheroes or stop licensing merchandise, but maybe they could also be attracting top level comic talent with Image-like deals for new content. Marvel, at least, actually seems interested in doing that (or something similar) with its Icon imprint but isn’t following through for some reason.

    I don’t know all of the ins and outs of the business model, obviously, but it seems to me that companies should have both short- and long-term sales strategies. Glutting all their markets (comics, movies, toys, clothing, etc.) with superheroes and not keeping an eye on the long-term health of their periodical business seems like a mistake to me. It’s the periodical business that cheaply generates the ideas for the rest of their merchandise, after all.

  • Chris Wuchte says:

    The inflation thing is an interesting point. Before both went out of business, I used to buy my comics at a shop located next to a music store. I’d usually treat myself to a CD since I was in the area, and I’d often think to myself “This CD costs about what I was paying back in the ’90s, so why are my comics so much higher?” Actually, CD prices had even gone back down some from the highs of the early 200s, when their was an attempt to make $20 the norm.

    People often wonder why the films don’t lead to higher comic book sales, and I think it’s obvious – price and availability. How many people are going to drive themselves or their kids to a specific shop, to pay what they perceive as exorbitant prices for something they’re only thinking about getting into?

    And then if they do dive in, they’re often faced with stories that are completely unwelcoming. I’m still trying to catch up and get through Convergence and Secret Wars. I’ve read comics since the early ’80s, and even I feel lost. Who are they writing these stories for?

  • philip says:

    The “perceived value” thing is what finally sank my weekly buying habit. Out of necessity I was buying fewer and fewer books every week because I was trying to stick to a weekly budget for my funny books. As my stack got smaller and the content started seeming lighter, I finally became one of those dreaded “wait for the trade” guys. I still buy them from a local shop because I love the idea of local independent shops and want to give them my custom, but I cannot justify the weekly grab bag anymore. I probably miss out on a lot of stuff this way, though, unfortunately.

  • Signal Watch says:

    The biggest impact for me as a longtime reader when it comes to a $4 comic is that it’s so expensive, I don’t try new things like I used to. Just on principle I used to pick up one or two things I’d never read before, but now I have a hard time making the financial commitment. 1 issue, sure. But cumulatively, it got a little pricey. Especially if you checked out more than one issue before committing via trade or monthlies.

  • Brad says:

    I go with Chris — comics are harder to find these days, for the casual reader. 7-Eleven doesn’t carry them any more. Barnes & Noble (at least in my area) is cutting back. As high as we might find the price (I really thought twice about getting the Kyle Baker Plastic Man) comics are still a low-margin item.

    A friend suggested that a comic aimed at older readers, running original stories in the Dilbert vein, might sell. But they tried that — anyone remember Funny Stuff? — and nothing.

  • Touch-and-go Bullethead says:

    The reference to comics as a low-margin item reminds me of an argument I once read (by Don Markstein, I think–I mention that because, at least during the period when we were both commenting at Scott Shaw!’s now defunct Oddball Comics site, he always became angry whenever anyone repeated something he had written without citing him) that was contrary to our current discussion–that comics were actually too cheap.

    I hasten to add that he was referring not to the present day, but to that period in the 1940s when selling a 64-page comic for ten cents ceased to be profitable, and the publishers opted to keep the price and lower the page count to 48 (though war-time paper rationing may have been a factor there)–and then again in the late ’40s/early 50s, when the page count was lowered again (to the now standard 32) while the price remained ten cents. His argument was that, by keeping comics cheap, the publishers reinforced their image as something inconsequential and disposable. Also, cheap comics made for small profits, and so they became the first thing to go when space was at a premium in a store.

    That, I suppose, ties this argument in to what we have been discussing. The deeply ingrained assumption that comics are supposed to be cheap leaves many people unable to accept their current prices, and the assumption by most retailers that there is little money to got from the medium (at least, in what we now call the pamphlet form) makes it hard for comics to escape the ghetto of the specialty shop.

    So, what can we conclude from this? The medium is doomed, I guess. Fortunately, I am old enough that I can presume it will last the rest of my life. For the youngsters among you, you have my condolences.

  • Green says:

    Marvel books are expensive 3,99, but I see many people tradig the digitl codes or even selling them for 0,99 cents.

  • Snark Shark says:

    3.99 is a LOT for something you can read in 15 minutes or less! Now, if it were to go to a 5-8 dollar price, but with MORE reading, like the Image anthology ISLAND, it might be another story!

    “that’s like a pack of Magic: The Gathering cards”

    Well, THOSE are just plain overpriced!

    Thom H: “I’m sort of baffled that the Big Two aren’t taking more of a lesson from Image’s successes.”

    good point!

  • Scott Church says:

    Here’s the deal. When I was 15 in 1996 I got 4.45 an hour minimum wage bagging groceries sometimes getting a small tip here or there. Comics cost 1.95 at the time, meaning I could buy two full comics for an hours worth of work. I had a 25% discount, meaning I could almost get three full books for an hour if I got a .50 tip.

    Minimum wage currently is 7.25 where I live, comics cost 3.99 or 4.99. I can buy 3 comics in two hours worth of work. The problem is that comics have inflated more than minimum wage has. With that same 25% discount, I can barely get two books with an hours worth of work.

    In a broader sense, I could spend around $20-30 to get all the books I wanted to as a teen. Now $20 is usually just one weeks worth. While I make more money now as an adult, I have less time to read, enjoy, sort, organize, bag/board and less expendable income, that money could be going to one of my kids college funds or to help finish my basement, not to something that immediately decreases in value to 1.00 or less.

    Magic at least gives you something to play with that you can go back to over and over and compete with just like a sport. Magic also has a much higher resale value than current comic books do. Spending $100 on a Magic box will yield a much greater return than spending $100 on comic books.

    Magic isn’t overpriced, it’s actually underpriced. WOTC the parent company just increased the cost to retailers by 2% but did not increase the cost to the consumer. They did this to hurt the Magic stores that are heavy discounters but it also hurts the stores profit margin that are playing correctly.

    Magic Boosters retail for $3.99 – ex – – Walmart lists them at 4.99 with a discount of 1.00 to 3.99 but they are the only ones charging 4.99 for whatever reason. Most stores will do a 3 for $10 model on packs or 6 for $20 to move more volume. Others don’t discount at all and charge the full 3.99. If you go the online route, Cool Stuff is known as one of the biggest discounters, most retail stores hate them for this, it’s cheaper to order online for a box than it is to buy in the store that you actually take up table space in. So do people actually support the place they play or support their wallet?

  • James says:

    Sorry, I’m late to the party, and this discussion has probably moved on, but I just got here.

    It’s a little apples to grapes of a comparison, but Warren Ellis’ / Ben Templesmith’s FELL was an interesting case, as it was less pages for $1.99, with several pages of back matter rounding things out. Since they used a 9 pic grid system (even though they knocked together panels a bunch), there was a lot of story for 16 pages of comics. Arguably, a lot more compared to a 20 page Moon Knight.

    The reason I say apples to grapes is that this was injected into the direct market rather than the (what do they call the newsstand market (which there really isn’t one and does anyone look at the magazines in the grocery stores that aren’t at the front?)), so the comparison is still putting it in front of an existing market rather than a broad market that new customers may see. So yes, it’s price comparison, but I’m sure the match up runs pretty thin after that.

    The only current added value of buying single issues in the Image line is the extra back matter that is often included. Bitch Planet and Lazurus come to mind. For me, a trade lasts longer and I feel I get more value out of it, especially when there are sometimes delays in the regular issues being shipped. Even if there is faulty reasoning in how I perceive value, it’s an individual thing. I just get longer satisfaction from trades than from single issues.

    philfromgermany mentioned the 9.99 trade. Yep, it sucks if you bought in early, which is the best way to support new work and show that it’s sustainable. It’s a smart way for Image to get people on board. The only way I can see to make it right is to put more into the issues that aren’t available in the trades. I don’t pretend to know the balancing act there, but it’s certainly worth looking into.

    In short, bring back FELL. :) Or how about put a few more FELLs into the market and see what happens. Would a 16 page, $1.99 Batman kill the bottom line of DC? No, they could absorb it and see what the impact was. That’s just an example, but one worth looking at, IMO.

  • Snark Shark says:

    “does anyone look at the magazines in the grocery stores that aren’t at the front?”

    On occasion!