23 Jan 2009

Thought Balloon: Time For $3.99?

By Matt C

You don’t need to have any insider knowledge to predict that 2009 is going to be a difficult year for the comics industry. The most blatantly obvious reason is the global recession, or credit crunch, or downturn, or whatever else is the buzzword of the day. Folks are tightening their belts and aren’t splashing the cash like they used to. People are loosing their jobs. It’s not a happy time all told, and in this kind of situation, when you’ve got less money to throw around, you’re really going to be thinking harder about what you’re spending your spare change on. Comics geeks know they’re always going to allocate some funds for their addiction, but the habit is probably not addictive enough that they won’t cut back if necessary. I know I’ve been more careful which titles I’m picking up on a regular basis. No more “well, hopefully it’ll get better” for me. (At least that’s what I tell myself!)

So, we’ve got the credit crunch to contend with…….. and then there’s the whole $3.99 price-point business.

You’d have to have had your head under a rock not to notice the hoopla surrounding Marvel’s decision to jack up the price of several of the high profile books from $2.99 to $3.99 (a whopping 33%). Ones I know for sure that are set for the new prices are Dark Avengers, New Avengers, Punisher: Frank Castle and Hulk. On top of that, something that doesn’t seem to have been as highly publicised, is that all their miniseries (as far as I’m aware) now have ‘$3.99’ plastered on their cover. Middle of last year it was just the minis with the fancy cardstock covers; now they all seem to have hit that new price. It’s not hard to come to the conclusion that slowly, but surely, Marvel are positioning $3.99 as the price for all their regular books.

Did I mention something about a recession?

Yeah, so apparently in previous recessions comics were considered to be “recession-proof”. Fair enough, but back then comics were a damn sight cheaper, even taking into account inflation; they were printed on low quality paper and sold in the hundreds of thousands. These days the paper’s glossy but the print runs have dropped, with barely a handful of books managing to creep over the hundred thousand mark. And they sure ain’t cheap any more!

I didn’t used to pay too much attention to the prices of individual books. I went down to Paradox for my weekly stack and had a rough idea what the total cost would be. Following the birth of my son I knew it was time to cut back on titles that weren’t really setting my world on fire, but even then I based it on the titles themselves rather than how much each single issue cost. With prices shooting up I now find myself paying a heck of lot more attention to the cost of each book. If a comic is now $3.99 I find myself asking, “Is it really worth $3.99?”. And in some cases it clearly isn’t. Over the last year or so I’ve dropped New Avengers several times (!) due to continuing frustration with its direction, only to pick it up again when word filters out that it’s improved. I knocked it on the head again a couple of months back, and although I’d semi-decided that was it for me and the title, there was always the chance I’d relent and come back to it again. But that was when it was at $2.99. At $3.99? Not a chance. There are some books I’m always umming and ahhhing about, always this close to dropping, but somehow they’ve always remained on my pull-list. A 33% price increase kind of makes jettisoning them an easier decision for me.

Of course, I’m talking in dollars here as all these books are produced over in the States and shipped to the UK by Diamond, who then charge the retailer in pounds and pence based on the exchange rate. My fellow Brits will have probably have noticed the following recently: the pound is in pretty bad shape compared to the dollar, which has led to an inevitable increase in the amount Diamond charges the retailers, which in turn has lead to an increase in the price we’re paying for our books. Which is perfectly understandable, it’s simple economics, so it shouldn’t have come as any great shock that this happened, but add it onto the price increases Marvel are aiming for and it’s an even more expensive proposition for the UK comic geek.

Sure, they’ll be books that I’ll gladly shell out $3.99 for and to be fair I’m already paying that kind of price for a lot of the indie books I pick up. But indie publishers don’t have the capability of keeping costs down for a variety of obvious reasons (which I don’t need to explain here), so you accept that fact if you’re looking for a non-mainstream fix.

The bottom line, though, is that Marvel have decided that while we’re in the middle of an economic “downturn”, now’s the time to bump up the prices of some of their most popular titles. And once that select few begins to grow in number, you know what’ll happen next, right?

Yep, DC will follow suit.

Oh, I know what Marvel’s justification is: the likes of Secret Invasion and Final Crisis retail at $3.99 and they’ve proven to be the biggest sellers, so obviously if a punter is prepared to pay that kind of price for a miniseries, why not for a title he picks up on regular basis? Yeah, well you can justify a higher price for a “special event” but when you start charging the same for your monthly books something’s going to give eventually. In a $3.99 world you’re getting three books for the same price you once paid for four. And if you were only able – for example – to afford four books a month previously, when the cost goes up and you’re forced to drop one of those titles, which do you drop? Or do you drop more than one – do they suddenly cease to become value for money? Do you morph into a wait-for-the-trade kind of guy since that’s often a more cost effective way of reading a story?

What bothers me the most is that as it’s the guaranteed sellers that are first in the price raising, people won’t have as much cash to spread to picking up the lower selling titles, the titles that are very often way more entertaining and creative than the big hitters. So when those low-selling titles begin to sell even less, what’s the betting we start seeing a rash of cancellations as publishers begin to cut back on anything not reaching it’s targets (and, yeah, I anticipate if this situation comes to pass several of my fave books will be definite contenders for the chopping block).

Difficult times then, as some comics companies make questionable decisions that could harm the market further as the recession gets worse. I know Andy is ordering in less stuff at Paradox as people aren’t opening their wallets as wide as they used to, and with the recent news regarding Diamond raising it’s order minimum you get a sense that things are going to get worse before they get better.

I’ve got no crystal ball and I’m not going to make any firm predictions for the next 12 months or so, I’m just a concerned consumer worried about the future of his hobby – not in the sense that I fear it’ll disappear, just that it’s going to become a lot harder to look for something a little interesting, something a little different from the norm. There’s stuff I just won’t pay $3.99 for, and I just worry that in the long term it’ll have an adverse affect on the books I enjoy rather the ones I refuse to pay over the odds for. The last decade has been a seen something of a renaissance for the medium – there’s a strong possibility that’s coming to an end (if it hasn’t already) and I do wonder if it’ll ever reach those heights again.


Anonymous said...

Nice article, Matt.

My spending on comics, like my spending on many things, has an invisible glass ceiling limit which is more or less intuitive. I don't have a set figure beyond which I won't go, but when I reach that glass ceiling I instinctively reign back from adding more titles, or I cut back on existing ones. It's often difficult to set a limit based on number of titles, simply because frequencies of comic books are no longer reliably monthly. For example, my complete pull list probably adds up to about 40 titles, except that I don't end up buying 40 titles a month. Some of the comics on there struggle to put out 6 issues a year – some are short lived mini-series with only 3 issues to go (though when we'll see Gutsville again is anyone's guess...) and some are taking such a long break in publication (Queen & Country; Fell; Strangehaven; Desolation Jones) that they may just as well not be on my standing order list, because they're obviously not draining my wallet...

There have been two (lengthy) occasions in the past when I stopped buying comics altogether (consequently there are large 'drought years' in my collection) – partly because a local source of comics either disappeared (Athena) or became far too unreliable (Wonderworlds) but also mostly because at that point in time (a few months post Watchmen and during the early nineties) I was very short of cash.

These days I'm a little better off than I was back then, and to a certain extent I can weather price rises, in much the same way that I'll buy decent wine and malt whisky rather than the rubbish budget price alcohol I used to drink when I was younger. But obviously all it would take would be losing a job to make me reassess that situation.

The rise in prices by 33.33%, combined with a worsening exchange rate, is going to have a serious effect on volumes of comics purchased in the UK. That's just simple economics. For every one person like me who can weather it, there will be a lot of people who can't. The comics industry will survive, if only because there's a lot of money tied up in it, and the big names now see comics as a lead in to movies and merchandising, but the industry will no doubt change. I have zero interest in downloading comics, but I see increasing numbers of people posting on the Internet that they prefer it. In theory a workable download model could keep publishers in business, but there would be no role for our beloved comic shops in that kind of future. As you suggest, the biggest hit (from increased prices) will be on the smaller publishing companies and minority interest titles, as devoted fans struggle to maintain their collections of Spiderman and Wolverine comics at the expense of diversity.

Me, I love my monthly periodical comics. I'm not that keen on collected editions to be honest, let alone downloads, but then I'm also someone who buys and collects vinyl, so I understand my tastes don't necessarily reflect the majority. I'm not personally going to give up on them, price hike or no price hike, but that's because I have the luxury of having that option. Many other comic fans may no longer be so lucky.

Rob N

Tom P said...

Great points, Im lucky not to have to cut back on them at the moment. I noticed the price changes a few nights ago, was busy organising my collection and it's sure creeping up. Said to Andy about it when I picked up 2weeks of Comics yesterday and he said it was being talked about here. If they have to cull a few lines it will be a shame but hopefully we can get quality over quantity, there is a lot of crap out there.

Unknown said...

It's a bit of a double edged sword for me, as I'll often take a punt on something based on Previews and enjoy it more than a mainstream book, but then the likes of Marvel and DC are a safe bet. I'm thinking I'll just thin out the various Avengers books and listen to recommendations a bit more rather than playing fast and loose with my cash. I might be a bit late catching onto something, but at least my bank balance won't suffer as much.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone care to speculate on why they've jumped an entire dollar?

What happened to 3.25, or even 3.50?

I won't quit buying though, and downloading is not an option. As the other Anon stated, I love my periodicals.

Tom P said...

Yeah I love reading from a comic, never read one online it's just not the same. To tell the truth it's nice to get away from Tv/PC screens for a bit. Also comic book art should always be seen on a printed page, not a PDF file.

Matt Clark said...

My guess for why they've bumped the prices up an entire dollar?

They tested the market on various minis at that price, seen that they've sold well (particularly the likes of Secret Invasion) and figured why raise in increments when we can get away with pushing it up a dollar.

I do read the occasional thing on PDF, but it's not even close to the same experience as reading from the printed page, but I'm sure there are people out there who don't feel the same, along with those who can't afford to buy 'em - if you're made redundant (and you're probably personally aware of someone who has recently, at the very least) how high a priority will your comic collecting habit be?