Having established my internet self as someone who (at least to Google’s algorithms) appears to buy comics and comics-related stuff on a fairly regular basis, each and every day I find my inbox filled with offers to purchase the latest digital comics from various sources. And being the good consumer that I am, I very often click on through to my favorite sites and have a look at the digital comic goodness they’re hoping to get me to buy. Sometimes I even buy something. But more often than not, I browse a bit, choose not to buy, and get on with my life. I certainly see a lot I want to buy, but something stops me. I hesitate, I crunch some numbers in my head and inevitably I walk away (virtually, of course!). There’s a glitch in the system somewhere because I’m the dude who companies want walking those virtual aisles. I love comics with a passion. I want both digital and hard copies of books. I have at least some disposable income. And I spend an unhealthy amount of time staring at my IPad. Simply put, I’m the guy who should be emptying his wallet and buying those comics. But my wallet stays closed. Why is that?
These ads certainly get me into the virtual store to peruse the virtual shelves, but there’s something that stops me from pressing that tempting “buy” button more often than not. That “something” is basically price. Nothing more complicated than that. Simply put, I almost never purchase digital comics at full price. And I’m beginning to think I’m not alone in my reluctance to buy digital books for two, three and four bucks a pop. In fact, I have a theory that, if the digital comics market is going to truly flourish in the long run, then the comics companies are going to have to embrace the same business model employed by the likes of iTunes when it comes to pricing books. That’s right, I’m saying that ninety-nine cents is that magic number that will get me (and others like me) to buy digital comics regularly, often and without hesitation. It worked with music and I think it will work with comics.
I’m not saying that $1.99 or $2.99 isn’t a fair price for what you’re getting. It probably is fair considering there’s no advertising in most digital comics. I’d accept a few ads for a cheaper base price actually. Nevertheless, (and I can only speak for myself) I think buyer psychology is such that prices above a certain level, fair or unfair, give the buyer pause. We have to remember that comics are a luxury, a non-necessity, so people have that choice to NOT buy them. As much as we hate to admit, life will go on if you don’t read Age of Ultron. It will. That said, it’s up to the comic companies to create a scenario in which the buyer is willing to act on their impulses and buy comics without hesitation, even if they don’t need them; especially if they don’t need them. Walk through any 99-Cent Store and tell me if there’s anything anyone “needs” in that place. That store exists solely because people like to get crap for under a dollar. It’s how we’re wired.
I don’t claim to know all the business behind it and I can only speak from my own limited experiences, but when Marvel puts books on sale each week for that magical price point, that’s when it becomes a lot more appealing to me as a consumer. The hesitation stops and I’m spending. Simply put, I’m much more inclined to buy a lengthy run of a book if the digital issues are offered up at that oh-so-appealing one-cent-less-than-a-buck price point. Rocket science it is not, I know, but sometimes I wonder if the companies realize they could grow the readership of certain books and expand brand awareness with a cheaper base price. Maybe the idea of growing the fan base and bringing in new readers is a fantasy, but even so, I’d buy a lot more books, a lot more often if they were cheaper. There’s something about that under-a-buck psychological threshold that works the cerebral cortex in just the right way and causes me (and I think consumers in general) to say “I can afford that!” or “It’s just a buck. I’ll take it.” Again, it’s all wiring.
I don’t want to get into a lengthy discussion of digital comics piracy here, but I would also argue that making digital comics cheaper would divert at least some of those pesky pirates to the legitimate digital vendors. Sure, there will always be people who don’t want to pay for comics, but if you give them a good experience at a price that makes the whole illegal downloading thing feel like a waste of time, then you’ve at least done something to stem the tide. In the end, this is all just a self-serving, less than modest proposal in which I’m really just imploring the big two comics publishers to basically offer their comics at half-price because I want more comics for less money. Is that so wrong? I don’t have the numbers to back it up, but I do have the repeated experience of opting to not pull the trigger because I can’t justify a purchase at a certain price. So Marvel and DC, take this plan for what it’s worth and give it some serious thought. Maybe it’s crazy. Or maybe it’s so crazy that it just might work.
Gabe Roth is a TV writer and reluctant suburbanite who has on occasion been accused of being “careful” with his money. He’s @gaberoth on Twitter.