The Difficulties of Superhero Comic Economics

Batman #35

We all agree that the portrait of the comic customer is changing, right? Heck, next week they’re holding an entire conference about the topic. Some readers want to buy digitally, because they don’t have the space for lots of paper issues. Some want to buy only books, because they don’t care for the regularly weekly or monthly comic shop visit or they find the collected edition a more preferable product or, well, they shop on Amazon for better prices. Some are not the traditional aging white male who’s been a fan forever, and these women and people of color and younger readers want different kinds of stories.

One thing that many of these new groups have in common is a lack of buying by habit. Which means that the traditional economics of comics — paying $3.99 for 20 pages of story, as it has become — doesn’t make sense to them. Which is why I’m shocked to hear that DC Comics will soon be charging $4.99 for an issue of Batman. Superhero comics, as a 10-minute read, are already a poor value compared to games or movies or books, many of which can be obtained for similar prices but are enjoyed for a much longer time.

Batman #35

They will provide 30 pages of story for this price, which only leads me to more questions. The reduction to 20 pages came about with the New 52, when DC announced three years ago that they would be releasing all their issues digitally at the same time as print. Digital release means more lead time is needed, since coordination with their digital distributor (ComiXology) and the digital outlets (such as iTunes) was required. Books couldn’t be late and keep this plan running. So since most artists can draw at most a page a day, and since you’d like people to be able to have weekends (to go to conventions, perhaps), that brings us to about 20 pages a month.

If Batman will now have 30 pages a month, who’s putting in the extra? Will the book have more than one story? Or more than one artist?

As Anthony indicates in the piece I linked to, this likely is only the first comic to raise its price. That’s how we got to $3.99. First it was IDW, talking about increased production quality; then it was small indy publishers, who didn’t have huge sales and needed to charge more; and then it was the superhero companies, DC and Marvel. How many more titles will be about $5 in another year? And much further down the declining spiral will we go, as higher prices means dropping sales which means more price increases to make the money the companies (or their West Coast corporate masters) expect?

At the same time, I read that All-New X-Factor, a comic I quite like, will end with issue #20. That’s a shame. However, although I appreciate the book’s writer, Peter David, confirming the news, I was a bit concerned that he seemed to be blaming readers for not buying the comic the “right” way. Apparently, Marvel only cares about sales of single issues, ignoring sales of collections, to determine whether books are profitable enough to continue. (There appears to be some confusion about whether digital sales are included in this calculation or not.)

In today’s world, while I will miss this title, there are already too many comics I want to read for the time I have, so a cancellation may be a cloud with a silver lining. And blaming the customer does nothing to change the behavior that isn’t desired. I think the ship has sailed on trying to convert book or digital comic readers to single issues. There’s just no good reason to go back, and hectoring doesn’t help. I can appreciate how painful it must be to have something you enjoy making (or reading) end, and I hope that the corporate superhero publishers continue to revise their plans to move beyond the traditional issue format.



6 comments

  • Thad

    As recent as 4 years ago, DC was using 30 pages as justification for a $3.99 price point.

  • Ralf Haring

    Sell people things in the format they want and they’ll be more than happy to pay. Insist on the format you want and you’d better be delivering best-of-ever quality work.

  • coby

    Yeah I think Batman will likely have a backup story by a different artist.

    Seems like they could reach 3x or 4x as many people if they’d drop the price to a dollar or two a book and put them back on spinner racks at walmart and 711, but I guess Marvel/DC don’t care about reaching more people, only sucking as much as they can out of their existing dwindling consumers.

    Glad you called out David for blaming the fans. That was a really unprofessional thing for him to do. Marvel’s stupid for not including Digital/Trades in their analysis of which books to keep. Different books have different types of fans who get their comics differently. ANXF doesn’t have the traditional “Simpons Comic Book Guy” audience, so they don’t buy their books every Wed at the LCS…

  • The mainstream audience isn’t shopping at 711 but online, and the “digital first” books are for them, tying into TV shows. Those often are 99 cents.

    I’m not calling out Peter David – I can understand his frustration, and I appreciate him trying to tell fans how his publisher works, as he sees it. It’s the publisher who seems to be clinging to life as it used to be.

  • Suzene

    Brevoort’s been addressing questions about this, and the short of it seems to be that all revenue streams are taken into account when determining a book’s longevity:

    http://brevoortformspring.tumblr.com/post/99051927183/theres-a-bit-of-a-debate-going-on-online-about-whether

    http://brevoortformspring.tumblr.com/post/99052096118/yo-tom-im-another-who-is-shocked-at-the-news-that

    Even so, I can’t imagine in what universe it seems like a good idea to essentially tell your readers that their money only matters if they’re spending it on the least durable, most troublesome version of the product. I can just see a segment of the readership deciding that if their digital purchases don’t actually help support a book they’re enjoying, they might as well torrent.

  • James Schee

    Update according to Scott Snyder’s twitter, he has convinced them to reduce the price for the next two issues (but too late for this issue) down to $3.99.

    Plus there’s to be a combo issue of #37 & 38 for $4.99?

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