The Difficulties of Superhero Comic Economics
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.
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.