In these harsh economic times, the last thing anyone wants to do is pay more for their entertainment, because for many folks their entertainment outlets are the only thing keeping them sane as they read their 401k statements or watch the stock market drop another 400 points or have their entire town shut down when DHL goes out of business in the United States. Luckily for those of us who choose comic books as a form of entertainment, we are content in knowing… that…
What is that noise? Is that a dude on a galloping horse ringing a bell? What is he saying?
$3.99 is coming! $3.99 is coming!
A regular 32 page comic book from Marvel or DC Comics has been priced at $2.99 for many years now. With the way the economy is going and the rise of inflation and mostly because of the skyrocketing cost of paper, it was only a matter of time before the price jumped again. The on-line comics press has been speculating about it for a good portion of the year, especially at Comic Book Resources where most of their big hitters have been throwing their two cents in since the summer. Speculation is running rampant.
And yet nothing has been announced… yet. The official line is that regular 32 pages comic books are still priced at $2.99 from the big two. But are they? Are they really?
While we haven’t had an official jump in price yet, it is my contention that we are in the midst of a slow price increase roll out and it’s being spearheaded by Marvel Comics.
This week 9 of 19 single issue comics from Marvel are priced at $3.99. That’s about 47% of their standard page count new releases. Last week it was 13 of 24 comics (approximately 54%), and the week before that it was 8 of 22 comics (approximately 36%). And that’s not even counting a few $4.99 books thrown in for good measure. That’s a good chunk of the books that Marvel is putting out. What is being shipped at the higher price point? It’s mostly mini-series, specials, and first issues of new series. So far the higher price hasn’t infected the main Marvel books that most people buy, but it’s only a matter of time.
DC Comics seems to be waiting for Marvel to make the full jump to $3.99 before following suit because out of 64 releases in the last three weeks, only 6 were regular sized comics priced at $3.99. Three releases were priced at $3.99 but were at least 40 pages, and two were regular sized comic books priced at $3.50.
(Some people think that the next price jump will be to $3.50, but for the purposes of this examination I am going to go with $3.99 because so many of Marvel’s books are already priced that way)
Make no mistake, once one company makes the price jump, the other will follow. If not right away, then soon after. We’re not there yet, but with 46% of Marvel’s new releases in the last three weeks being priced at $3.99, we’re not far off either.
What does this all mean and how will it affect the consumer, and thus the industry?
The effect on the industry is, most likely going to be, an initial dip in sales. As Steven Grant pointed out in the piece he wrote, comic book history has shown that big sales increases – and this would be a big increase – have always lead to an immediate drop in units sold (which would presumably be made up for with the increased dollar amount per unit). We can see the evidence already on iFanboy.com where people have started cutting back their pull lists because of the economy, and have balked at buying the $3.99 books that are already being sold. I can imagine that once the increase becomes an across-the-board reality, a lot of people are going to look at their pull lists and reassess.
To my mind there is a bigger question, and that is how much is too much for a 32 page comic book (of which 22 pages are actual story content)? I think we’re getting really close to finding out that answer.
One of the great debates of modern comics is issues vs. trades. I am one of those people who think that the future of comic books lies in an all trade format (or perhaps a hybrid digital/trade format as Mike discussed yesterday). I happen to think that the trade allows for a more satisfying reading experience, but I don’t believe that that is what is finally going to shift that market from issues to trades. I think that the shift will eventually happen because of economics.
Right now the official price for a single of a comic book from Marvel and DC is $2.99 and for that you get 22 pages of story and 10 pages of ads. That comes out to 14 cents per page of story*. The suspected price jump to $3.99 for 22 pages of story would bring the price per story page to 18 cents. That’s a 29% per page price increase.
The last two trade paperbacks that I read were Northlanders Vol. 1 and Ex Machina Vol. 7. The Northlanders trade was 200 pages of story (no ads) and cost $9.99. That’s 5 cents per story page. From a cover price stand point, this trade contained Northlanders #1-7, which if I had purchased in issues (at $2.99 per issue) would have run me $20.93. Of course, this is a volume one trade and Vertigo (and Image Comics) is pricing their volume ones at $9.99 to get people to try new books. The next volume will most likely cost $14.99 ($10.19 from bulk retailers like Amazon). Ex Machina Vol. 7 is more like a typical trade paperback from the big two, 128 pages of story (no ads) for $12.99. That comes out to 10 cents per page. I purchased Ex Machina Vol. 7 trade from Amazon and paid $10.39 which brought the cost down to 8 cents per page. This trade collected Ex Machina #30-34, which if I had purchased in issues (at $2.99 per issue) would have cost $14.95. The savings were not as great with Ex Machina, but it also only contained five single issues whereas most trade paperbacks typically contain six.
I, of course, acknowledge that with an increase of price in single issues we will also see an increase in the cost of trade paperbacks. And I also acknowledge that the entire pricing scheme of trade paperbacks would have to be altered if there were no more single issues. But I don’t think that they will be altered that much, and I think that the psychological effect of having to pay four, five, or six dollars for 22 pages of story will be very powerful.
So how much is too much to pay for a single issue of a comic book? It’s hard for me to say because I’m in a unique position in that it’s my job to talk about the weekly releases so I can’t move to trades only, no matter how much I would want to or how much money it would save (also, the DC trade program sucks balls, especially the DCU titles). I’m okay with it, for now. $2.99 I can obviously handle, and $3.99 I would endure (although I can definitely see some cuts being made to my pull list, and I can see less experimentation with new books or recommended books), but I think that unless I find myself fabulously wealthy by the time single issues cost $4.99**, that five bucks for 22 pages of story would have to be my line in the sand.
In October of 2008 I averaged 15 single issues a week and at $2.99 that meant I was spending $44.85 a week, at $3.99 that would mean $59.85 a week, and at $4.99 that’s $74.85 a week.
How much is too much for comics? That’s too much.
* All price per page monetary figures were rounded off.
** In which case I will be reading my comics by the beach as girls in tiny bikinis turn the pages for me while other girls in tiny bikinis serve me rum-based drinks.