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May 14, 2008


CR Backlash: Readers’ Thoughts On Comics Maybe Being Too Darn Expensive

Here's a sampling of the e-mail and links I received on this essay, about the expense of comic books given the presumed primary consumer experience in buying them.

*****

image"My wife and I live on the combined salaries of a teacher and a writer. We own two cats. We pretty much never buy anything more expensive than clothes at Target, CDs and DVDs from Amazon, or meals at Grand Luxe Cafe, but we do enjoy doing those things. We're buying a house. We'd probably like to have a kid. With all that in mind, I stopped buying comic books regularly when I lost my job at the A&F Quarterly back in 2003 and stopped altogether once I started working at Wizard and was able to read them all for free, and great googly moogly, there is no way I'd ever start again. What a waste of money! Trades and GNs and manga volumes are cheaper for more, and more complete, entertainment. Multiple expenditures of $2.99-$3.99 for 20-something pages of story every week? You're off your chum." -- Sean T. Collins

Tom Spurgeon replies: This is exactly what I'm getting at. It isn't just about whether or not an individual comic is worth the money spent on it, it's about the purchase of comic books generally -- that's two different things. In theatre terms think of it as paying to go all the Tom Stoppards as opposed to developing a habit of seeing plays; in movie terms it's the difference between targeting very specific films you like and being in the habit of hitting the movie theater or joining Netflix. Here we have someone who likes comics, who likes reading comics, but still opts out of the system as currently constituted. It's too easy for too many people that might otherwise spend money on comic books to spend that money elsewhere, and feel better about doing so. There's no reason why any effective comics market should be allowed to go obsolete, let alone be forced into that direction because of price and value issues.

*****

image"The price of comic books does seem disproportionately high (I'm 47 years old and paid 12 cents for my first comics) compared to the inflation rate for other commodities. However, I think you were right too when you once wrote that the only comic too expensive is a bad comic book. Three dollars feels equitable for an issue of Speak Of The Devil with Gilbert Hernandez's always wonderful storytelling and pretty characters. Criminal includes Ed Brubaker's text pieces and extras (kind of like Neil Young putting the bonus cuts on the vinyl release). Omega The Unknown is a visually interesting looking comic book that makes you glad you own the single issues. In the mid-'80s I remember two dollars seeming expensive for some comics. William Messner-Loeb's Journey always seemed worth the cover price for the great story and how beautiful the art looked on the baxter paper.

"Three dollars does seem too expensive for an average comic book. Ed Brubaker's Daredevil is a good comic but not a stellar one. It reads as well or better in a trade paperback. What I miss these days (with the higher cover price and other changes) is the casual nature of the comic book and comic buying experience." -- John Vest

Tom Spurgeon replies: Yeah, I miss that casual nature, too. I do think there are plenty of titles that reward singles purchase -- in fact, for a lot of comics, it's my preferred way to buy them. I can't imagine wanting to buy an Omega trade, for instance. I really do think there's something to be said for a market the drives people to buy single-issue comic books that are priced the way they're currently priced. The problem as I see it is that there's a disconnect in this market between the way things are priced and the presumed consumer experience.

*****

"I've been thinking about this issue a lot lately. I think an interesting parallel is the crisis the music industry has been in for the past five or ten years. That industry has almost completely imploded for a variety of reasons. The chief one seems to be that their delivery methods were unable to meet consumer demand -- a potential customer in Georgia with an internet connection had a much better chance of illegally downloading the music he wanted than finding it in a store. The Internet allowed listeners to search out and find so much more music that it became impossible for stores to stock everything their customers found out about. Being able to research new artists and bands on the internet allowed the customer to become just as knowledgeable about music as the retailer, and in many cases more so. It became easier to obtain (illegally, still) music online and at first the fact that it was free became a kind of side bonus.

"But the very fact that it was free allowed a music listener to try out more and more music, to the point where most every music fan I knew was downloading far more music than they could ever pay for under the old model of $15 per CD. By the time the music industry caught up to the delivery method fans had created on their own, the listening habits of music fans had changed to the point where paying 99 cents for every song they downloaded would be impossible. For instance, it would cost about $33,000 to fill up a 160GB iPod with legally purchased mp3s from the iTunes online store. It's gotten to the point in the music world where it seems the only system that will be viable for companies and customers alike is a sort of subscription service that allows the customer to continue to sample the amount of music he or she wants and still be able to afford. Whatever your thoughts on the ethics and morality of legally buying music online versus illegally downloading it, the very fact that the illegal/free option has changed consumer habits and expectations is unavoidable. "Customers" expect vast amounts of material available, whatever the price structure is. I think this is something we've come to expect because of the internet/information era, 400 channel cable tv, etc, as well as the online music industry.

"The music industry, at least the old model "record label", is dying because it saw the fact that people wanted to listen to as much of their product as possible but was unable to pay for it as a threat to the distribution network they had created 40 years previous. Had they seen this as a tremendous opportunity could things have played out differently?

"I think comics stands on a similarly dangerous precipice. How many comics fans would read everything Marvel or DC or Fantagraphics published if they could afford to? I know quite a few and I bet it would be possible to find a lot more new readers if they could read anything and everything they wanted in the same way a music listener can listen to anything s/he wants (still illegally because the music industry has failed thus far) or a sports fan can watch anything s/he wants or the same way a movie/television fan can watch pretty much anything with a Netflix subscription.

"I'm not sure how I feel about online delivery of comics. I like the feel of a page, I like the weight, I love smart book design, I like the rhythm of reading a book, I like subconsciously knowing I'm getting close to the end of a story by how many pages remain in my right hand as I read. Hell, I love all these things. But the ability to afford the amount of comics I want to read (or have to read to be considered a well-read comics fan) is prohibitively expensive. I simply cannot afford to spend the $400 in a comic store that I would like to spend on a monthly basis.

image"The most distressing part of this equation is something you mentioned -- the prohibitive cost of the books I want to read means I rarely have any money left over for the potentially exciting new work by creators that I would love to know about -- and frankly it also means that most stores can't afford to stock this stuff anyway. Comics is going through one of it's most fertile, creative moments ever right now and it seems dangerously close to being a lost moment because too many people don't have access to great new books like Dash Shaw's Bottomless Belly Button or Jillian Tamaki's Skim or Ken Dahl's Welcome to the Dahl House or Lynda Barry's What It Is (and who knows what else I've missed). One problem is that people will not see all of these books in their local store, the other problem is that those books retail for a combined cost of about $80. What's more valuable -- to have 1000 people buy $80 worth of books or to have 400,000 people read them online somehow?

"Comics publishers are reluctant to let go of their semi-effective model because it still allows them to make a profit. But it seems like the opportunity is there to increase readership in a lot of cases, if only there were a dream online store somewhere. If I could have an online subscription service to read everything Jim Hanley's orders on a monthly basis for instance, how much would that be worth? $40 a month? How many people would sign up for that? Would it work if I could go to the Fantagraphics website and read everything they've ever published for $20 a month online? There must be a way to create an online reader that avoids piracy issues and works for both parties. People subscribe to Netflix and still go out and purchase the DVDs they love -- why can't a similar system work for comics?

"In some ways I'm playing devil's advocate here, because as I've said, I love books and I'm not even sure how much I could stand to read online. But it seems dangerously close to the point the record industry was teetering on a few years ago - people want to listen/read more than they can afford to buy. I think we're at the point where we can either investigate alternative distribution methods that allow a reader to read more content for less that could potentially explode comics to vast new audiences, or we can play in the same comfortable market structure that attracts a certain amount of new readers (usually when a movie comes out) and prices out others as they can't afford to keep up. I think the latter model will continue to function well enough for a while so that people will think this isn't that big a deal. And most people's proposed solution now is getting into bookstores and fighting over the two bookcases for comics in most Borders and Barnes & Noble stores -- but to me, as great as it is to open up comics to new audiences via the bookstore, you still run into the same price structure problems in a bookstore. And of course, the limited shelf space creates an even more watered-down selection of books.

"I think people want to read more comics than they are buying right now. I think this basic supply problem could be served on the internet with some sort of comic superstore that allowed me to read anything I wanted to read for a monthly subscription fee -- but it would have to have everything: Fanta, Marvel, DC, Darkhorse, D&Q, Top Shelf, AdHouse, Tokyo Pop, newspaper strips from King Features etc. It would require supreme vision and cooperation from the various publishers, but I think it could be done. If Netflix can work out a system where they allow people to rent a movie from Sony, Universal or Disney from their site, surely there can be a similar way to work out something where comics companies could do the same. It could even allow for more interesting stuff to be published and put on the same platform. Could Fantagraphics "distribute" via the website an up and coming mini they might not otherwise publish? Yes. There'd be almost no overhead. And, if the mini got a lot of views on the site, maybe it could be published in a traditional form. The online store would not preclude regular publication - more people than ever would probably buy comics collections of their favorite monthly titles from the internet, the way people used to buy Garfield or Peanuts or Calvin & Hobbes collections even though they got them for free in the paper every day.

"We're at an exciting point for comics, but also a potentially dangerous one. The product as its distributed now is too expensive to expand the audience. People fall in love with the content when they're exposed to it, as they once were on a daily basis to Calvin & Hobbes and the Peanuts, but the old delivery systems have failed. It's not as if there isn't a massive worldwide delivery method staring everyone in the face everyday though. Why can't there be a subscription based online comic superstore? Is it really too hard to work out the legal issues for the potential gains and continued sustainability of the art form? People will say, "yeah, but the web comix revolution, man!" or name some other online comic reader that's already out there. No. This is about getting the best content in the most peoples hands. I want everything published to be available in one massive online library that works as the amazon.com or Netflix or cable television package for comics. The fans are already here, frustrated, wanting more than they can afford. The potential for new fans at a cheaper entry point is massive. It would be insanely complicated to make this thing, but it's certainly not impossible by any stretch.

Dream on, right? -- Sean Ford

Tom Spurgeon replies: I don't have anything to say in response to this, although I'm sympathetic to publishers wanting to avoid a wholesale endorsement of free content plans based on the past success of related free content plans. There are too many specific contextual issues and too much that's too new in terms of how people relate to such plans for sweeping statements to be asserted about long-term success. Comics is in many ways a niche art form more than it is a popular art form, and has different rules and different risks when it comes to certain transitions.

*****

"1) I can't believe a dude who spends his life/livelihood covering the comic book industry 'doesn't buy many comic books.' Let me rephrase that: I believe you, it just raised my eyebrow. Do you get a lot of freebies or do you just ignore most of the stuff?

image"2) I think a huge reason comics are losing their currency (in both senses of the term) is that they are too expensive. They are not worth the price of admission. I remember being completely seduced by comics when I bought DC's Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 (Alan Moore's "The Anatomy Lesson") for 75 cents. I could not believe then (I can scarcely believe it now) that you could buy an incredible, engrossing, thought-provoking, lyrical, original Moore script, brought to life by kick-ass (and unique to my 14-year-old experience) Bissette/Totleben art for a mere three quarters. What a bargain! Of course, buying a mediocre comic written by a journeyman Marvel hack and drawn by someone like John Buscema was, I thought, well worth three thin quarters. Today, most mainstream comics are serviceable bites of entertainment that go down like a dollar's worth at best, you know?

"3) Reading the 50-cent DC Universe 0 that just came out, I was thinking: "This feels like a pamphlet/advertisement for a real comic book to come later. It's entertaining enough. It was worth my 50 cents. But only just." Then I compared this issue with other DC fare I had bought in recent weeks for $3 a pop. Universe wasn't any worse, didn't feel any thinner. If all Marvels and DCs were a buck, would they sell a million copies a month? If only …

"4) I guess mainstream books either have to get a hell of a lot better, or a hell of a lot cheaper, to catch on with non-fans.

"5) All this being said, if Alan Moore teamed with Bill Sienkiewicz and put out a 20-page floppy today, I'd shell out $25 for it, sight unseen." -- Mark Sharar

Tom Spurgeon replies: I get a lot of freebies, Mark. I really doubt that cheap pricing would have a great and immediate effect on new sales. I think reducing some of the pressure could bolster sales overall, over time, up to a factor of two or even three times what they are now. It's not only that comics cost a lot right now but that they're being sold with the expectation of a lot of fans following a lot of them at once, which to my mind just doesn't match up.

*****

image"One problem I have with your well-written piece about the high price of comics driving away the market is that you focus on independent comics... and (within some reasonable working definition of 'independent', which I've always considered a problematically fuzzy term), the prices really haven't gone up much at all. Recently, I've been digging through some black-and-white creator-owned comics from about 15-20 years ago, and the prices have been $2-2.95. As an example, the first issue of Bone came out in 1991 with a cover price of $2.95. Similar format books these days seem to run $2.99-$3.99. That's not even keeping up with inflation.

"What is hitting the comics pocketbook hard? The prices of dependent (?) comics have risen much more quickly, really catching up with the independent ones. But the prices also seem extra high because there are more collections available, generally cheaper per page. The comic feels like less of a deal.

"(My more curmudgeonly side feels that the sense of value has also decreased because an issue is less likely to feel like a complete story or even a full installment, and more like a signature for the trade paperback.)" -- Nat Gertler

Tom Spurgeon replies: This is an extremely difficult issue, Nat, because it's hard to find books with continuity that can be compared then to now and the format changes so frequently and in ways that affect the bottom line that it's hard to track exactly where the price increase comes from. Jeff was forward in his 1991 price -- most indy and alt-books were $2.25 or $2.50 at that time. My feeling is that alt- and indy-comics were ahead of the curve when it came to maximizing prices in the early to mid-1990s because they suffered the negative effects of the marketplace far ahead of mainstream comics. Since then, there's been something like an opposite effect keeping prices from going up further in a lot of cases: comic books from those companies are less of a profit center when compared to trades, partly because of an ossified market, so there isn't as much pressure to continue maximum their pricing. And of course, some books did go up. Love and Rockets, for instance, went from $2.50 to $4.50 between 1991 and 2007.

(If you buy my logic that market forces have hit alt-comics first, it might be worth it to compare the negative reaction to Black Eye reducing its prices in the mid-1990s to the backlash you see against some of those cheaper Image books now.)

*****

"Before I even read your column today I was thinking about these same things and a question came to mind. I can't think of a nicer way to ask it than this;

"Why do the advertising sales people in comics suck so very badly?

"Shouldn't a periodical be making money or at least trying to make money of ad sales? I don't know how it works these days. I see the same ads in comics from different publishers so maybe it is up to the printer. I don't know who to point the finger of blame at but I do know they surely do suck.

"Looking at the FCBD offerings, you had ads aimed at kids in the grown up books, ads that would give kids nightmares in the kiddie books. Another thing I see all the time is ads for movies or video games long after they would have been relevant. One of the FCBD books aimed a little kids had an ad for a horror movie which is wrong by itself but if it was also a movie that had already been out for a while by FCBD. If I were the horror movie's studio and I paid for an ad to run weeks after the movie came out I would be freaking pissed and I probably would not buy ads with that company anymore. I remember this issue going back to when I was a kid buying off the spinner rack in the '80s. I would buy comics every week on the day they hit the rack and notice ads for movies, TV shows, games etc. that were already old news. Even in my 11- to 13-year-old brain I was thinking, this can't be worth the money to pay for that ad.

"Do the people that place ads in comics care so little that they don't keep track of when the ad would run or is comics so desperate for page filler that they are giving these ads away for next to nothing?

"Maybe I don't know enough about it but the ads in comics seem like a joke and have since the 80's. I feel like some kids fresh off selling ads for their college newspaper would have more hustle and generate more money than whoever it is that is selling ad space for Marvel, DC etc.

"I don't know how the whole thing works but I know it could be better. Well, I hope it could be better. I'm very interested to hear what you know (or could find out) on the subject." -- Shannon Smith

Tom Spurgeon replies: It does bear some looking into, although print ads aren't really where it's at right now and there are some structural problems that keeps some ads from being sold.

******

Among the more prominent replies on-line, Alan David Doane, Dirk Deppey and Sean Kleefeld talk about the piece in terms of it perhaps not dealing properly with the issue of on-line piracy.

Tom Spurgeon replies: I disagree that I didn't deal with on-line opportunities or piracy, or that it was somehow a missing element in the original essay; I just dealt with it in a summary fashion rather than in great detail. Basically, I’m not convinced that on-line media works as a direct replacement for comic books' traditional role as a sampler system, not should it. I don't think it works as a replacement, at least not as the industry approaches it right now, in part because the experience of reading some comics on-line is extremely different than the experience of reading them in print and in some cases it's so close to being the same thing. In the former case I think it creates a different experience. In the latter case, I think it creates a substitute experience that has the advantage to the consumer of being free. This sets up a system where the sampling must lead to a secondary purchase in order to benefit the creator and publisher, and although we have a few examples of this happening, I'm not convinced this will always happen.

imageIn general, I'm suspicious of comparisons to music because of differences in how music is experienced multiple times between how comics are experienced multiple times, I'm suspicious of extrapolating from film because of the relative size of that audience and what that makes possible in terms of a small sample pumping money into something, and I'm suspicious of extrapolating from current comics examples because I think there are issues of novelty, scale and the specific consumer culture involved. I also don't believe that one technology necessarily replaces another, or has to, even if it eventually has some of the same functions. In other words, it's complicated, and I think largely unsettled. I suspect there's a friction between old and new habits that operates here that might disappear in half a generation, particularly because the technology is still emerging. In the 1980s there were assumptions about the way people would use VCRs that looked smart in 1983 but by the early 1990s were no longer relevant.

The history of comics is as much about the unfortunate, early abandonment of profitable strategies more than it's about the hesitant adoption of new ones. Ideally, I'd like to see the pursuit of multiple avenues. In this case: 1) more affordable comic books that allow for wider print sampling along with all the other reasons why that format is awesome (and if not that, then an approach to comic books that is more in tune with the price being asked for them), and 2) something for which I've been advocating a couple of years now: every single company releasing downloadable versions of every single print product they release, at a price according to the dictates of that market. It'd be a start, and I think would better prepare the industry to make a move once habits are more ingrained and we're able to track them.
 
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