Multiversity 101: $3.99 is the New $2.99

By | April 25th, 2010
Posted in Longform | % Comments

When I first started Multiversity 101, one of my initial goals was to try and find a reason why the average age of comic fans continues to grow and why readers that are children are disappearing. When I was a kid, I’d go to the comic shop and flip through issues of X-Men or Wolverine with a smile going from ear to ear (unless Wolvie’s adamantium skeleton was being pulled out, in which case my response would be sheer horror) along with numerous other similar aged individuals.

Now, when you go to a comic shop it’s the men’s club, as there are almost no female readers nor are there kids (at least in Anchorage, Alaska).

What happened to the youthful audience comics once commanded, and will it come back? With the current trends in pricing Comic Book Resources and John Jackson Miller’s Comichron are reporting, I’d be willing to say a fairly adamant “not likely”, and they’ll probably be hurting from the losses in regular readers as well.

Find out why after the jump.

$3.99 is the New $2.99

If you don’t read John Jackson Miller’s Comichron, it’s basically the bible of industry analysis statistics. The work he puts in there is absolutely incredible, and it even outdistances his work as a writer in my book (and I am the proud owner of the whole run of Dark Horse’s Knights of the Old Republic series he did). On the 13th of this month, he released a study of March’s sales number from Diamond, and it revealed a somewhat surprising statistic: $3.99 is now the most prevalent price point in Diamond’s Top 300.

As he said:

It’s still close: 130 comic books were priced at $3.99, with 124 priced at $2.99. The intermediary step, $3.50, continues to be bypassed with only 16 comics at that level.

While this trend has been steadily increasing over the past couple years, it is still a shock to see this momentous change take place. The employee I always deal with at my local comic shop always insisted that $3.99 would soon be the norm ever since the very first one appeared, and sure enough, we’re there already. I never even really thought about it until I read Miller’s article, but I guess that was the industry’s plan. If you want your customers to not notice a price change, do it gradually instead of all at once, so sayeth economic theory. It worked like a charm in this case.

On top of that, Bill Reed recently provided analysis at CBR of July 2010’s solicits and showed that for the first time ever Marvel Comics will be predominantly sold at the $3.99 rate, as a staggering 68% of their titles in that month will be $3.99. While that is nothing in comparison to IDW’s 91.4% of total releases at that price point, IDW at least deals with a more niche-y audience and are newer to the scene than the giant that is the House of Ideas, and they’ve been fairly consistent about their pricing from the beginning.

On top of that, Reed points out another fun fact:

Funnily enough, the majority of DC’s $3.99 singles are at least 40 pages. Marvel includes 40-48pp singles in the mix, but many $3.99 titles are merely 32pp.

The good thing about other publishers and their increased rates is that they at least balance them out by giving us more material. DC, for example, gives readers co-features of some of their lower tier characters to read along with the main story. Marvel on the other hand is charging $3.99 for standard reads, as this price point becomes the norm for titles like New Avengers or Thor.
The point is, when you look down the sales lists and solicits and realize that $3.99 is taking over, you know it’s now the truth and not just some conspiracy theory spun by an Alaskan comic book retailer.
Where Did The Readers Go?
When I was a kid, I had an allowance of $10. In the early 90’s, this made me a sultan of my people, as I had fine young lasses fanning me with the latest issue of X-Force or X-Factor while I drank an ice cold pepsi. Even then, that amount of money could only get me 6 comics a week, and with many other interests (candy, sports cards, video games) it was hard to justify in my youthful brain that spending it all on comics was a good idea.
Fast forward to now, and we’re in a period of time with an economy is down and child hunger is up in America. Comics that are $3.99 wouldn’t even buy you 3 comics these days with a $10 allowance, and with the infinity billion new things that could possibly interest kids these days why would you want to use your money like that? There are iPad’s, iPhone’s, and iPod’s to be purchased, and that money can be way better spent on things that give you more bang for your buck. It’s hard to reason to yourself that $4 should be spent on something with 15 minutes of entertainment value when you could spend $7 on 2 hours of pure glory at How to Train Your Dragon or on some massively entertaining app for your phone for way less.
Let’s face it…kids are the most price sensitive market in the world. No demographic can be priced out by a dollar increase to the cost of comics faster than children, and $3.99 comics just aren’t viable for the market of kids even if they are interested in reading and collecting them.
Comics can succeed with children. Look at the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series if you want proof of that, as it has been dominating Amazon’s sales charts for months at $7 for 200+ pages. Kids love comics, they just need to have it be worth their while. They are consumers after all, and consumers need to have the value of what they are purchasing be higher than the cost.
It’s not just kids either – writers at this site are regularly getting priced out of comics when they do not want to be. We’ve all had to cut back our pull lists and had to grow less adventurous in terms of titles that we purchase and pre-order, which has not helped new, high quality titles succeed in this marketplace.
I know that we’ve talked about this book a lot here, but when you look at Kieron Gillen and Steven Sanders’ S.W.O.R.D., a big part of the reason as to why it was cancelled was because of the pricing structure. Let’s take a look at it from a retailers standpoint, leading with the solicit:

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S.W.O.R.D. #1 (SEP090475)

Rated A …$3.99
FOC–10/22/09, On-Sale–11/18/09

Blasting out of Astonishing X-Men and Secret Invasion, the intergalactic S.W.O.R.D. organization now boldy takes you where no series has gone before–with the X-Men’s Beast & Lockheed along for the ride! Enter the extra-sized S.W.O.R.D. #1, from rising stars Kieron Gillen (Thor) and Steven Sanders (Five Fists of Science), as former Avengers-liason Henry Gyrich joins the enigmatic Agent Brand as top dog in space–but why does he think that ridding Earth of all aliens will save it? What will his plan do to the very fabric of the Marvel Universe? And just what does the arrival of Beast mean for S.W.O.R.D.? The answers arrive in the extra-sized S.W.O.R.D. #1, featuring a cover from superstar artist John Cassaday (Astonishing X-Men). Plus, don’t miss a bonus story by the acclaimed creative team of Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie featuring the incomparable Lockheed!

Be perfectly honest. Let’s say you are the owner of a fine comic shop, and you’re looking through Previews deciding what to order and how much of it you’d like to order. When you get to S.W.O.R.D., you see the “from the pages of Astonishing X-Men and Secret Invasion” part and get a little excited, but then you realize it’s a $3.99 title created by a relatively unknown duo (Gillen’s Phonogram and Sanders’ Five Fists of Science didn’t exactly light the world of comics on fire with sales) and starring a trio of characters that most people do not really care about.

How can you justify to yourself from a potential sales standpoint that you should order that in good quantities? Maybe if it was $2.99 you could give it a shot because it’s potential losses are mitigated by the $1 difference in cost, but $3.99? No way.

Sure enough, retailer orders came in and sales were at 22k for the first issue, 15k for the second, and cancellation by the third. With industry success based off pre-orders for new titles, this title was dead on arrival. Even though this book was loved by those that read it, partially because the high risk, limited reward nature of the title up front, this book died.

When new, possibly exciting books like SHIELD #1 from Jonathan Hickman and Dustin Weaver come out, a reader has to weigh the merits of spending $3.99 on something that they do not know and something that likely will tie into very little else. This all dovetails together (the $3.99, the nature of the pre-order system, etc.) to show why new, more challenging titles fail, as the $3.99 price point is a major component of why current and potential readers don’t pick them up.

Granted, as Miller points out, sales were up this month and the quarter as a whole was one of economic upturn for the industry. It isn’t quite the comic apocalypse, but still, as regular readers continue to get priced out and the younger audience never arrives, the industry grows weaker for it both financially and creatively.

Go Digital or Go Home

Rich Johnston once theorized that Disney was going to facilitate a dip in Marvel’s prices from $2.99 to $1.99 in an attempt to increase readership and the potential audience of any film adaptations that may come down the path, and really, the idea was sound. Of course, that has not happened. Quite the opposite has happened in fact given industry trends in pricing.

Just because it hasn’t happened in print does not mean it isn’t happening elsewhere, as digital comics are rapidly becoming a safe haven for the cost conscious readers of today.

Take the just launched Marvel iPad app…it comes native on this hot new device and you can pick up comics for just $1.99. Sure, as Cory Doctorow pointed out, you don’t have the tangibility factor or the ability to swap comics with friends because of it, but to save $2 on any given comic? That’s extremely enticing, even if new comics are not yet part of the equation.

Throw in other apps like ComiXology where you can get vastly encheapened comics delivered digitally on various devices, and you have a very tasty alternative to print titles.

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These two are very good examples of potential alternatives to current and potential readers, and it’s something that is only going to become more and more prevalent as the years pass and technology allows the price to be decreased further and new devices become readied to act as readers.

Another really solid alternative for Marvel fans is Marvel’s Digital Comics section, which MC writer Brandon has recently been testing and raving about. For just $5 a month, you get access to a huge library of older comics for free, an all you can eat buffet of all of your favorite X-Men and Avengers and everyone in between. While this still does not provide access to new comics, it does give those who are trying to hook younger siblings or their children a potential cost-effective alternative to develop a new fan.

This is all without considering any of the absurdly good comics being created on the web (for free!) by creators like Karl Kerschl, Cameron Stewart, Jeremy Love, David Gallaher, Becky Cloonan, and many, many more. I’ve been very effusive in my praise for the digital comics production out there these days, and if you aren’t reading web comics you’re missing out on some of the best in the medium.

As I said though, there is no real alternative as of right now for new, mainstream comics. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Marvel move new comics to same day, digital launch sooner rather than later, but if you’re a DC fan you shouldn’t plan on packing up the long boxes any time soon. Their digital presence could be described with terms like “depressing” or “non-existent” if one felt like it.

Digital maintains itself as the best alternative for comic fans, but it still has a long way to go before it replaces print comics. Even though they can save you a lot of money on back issues, the lack of new titles will be pushing the general fan base towards $3.99 titles for the foreseeable future.

Now What?

Print comics in many ways are becoming less and less viable because of increasing prices, decreasing amounts of sales channels, and an aging readership.

Without viable alternatives though, sales will maintain mostly flat levels in terms of sales of new comics and will see an increase in the revenues due to the pricing increase. Most regular readers are fairly die hard and will complain incessantly of the pricing increase, but will likely continue to purchase them even though their buying power is the only real vote they have in this situation. This just gives the publishers power to continue the mobility upwards of prices…we’re allowing them to do it. There’s no turning back now, $3.99 is the new $2.99.

Still, younger readers continue to stay away, older readers pull lists dwindle in their numbers, and the industry stagnates further from a demographic standpoint. There are potential solutions, and while mainstream digital comics comes the potential of decreased prices and new readers, it also opens up the fearful situation of creators getting the shaft from a payment standpoint and decreased revenues in your local comic book store leading to possible closures.

Such is life in the topsy turvy comic world, and it is one whose place in the future is growing increasingly uncertain. The world is getting younger and the industry is aging, but it doesn’t seem that many publishers are too concerned about it given the rapidly increasing cover prices. They better start caring soon, or the future may be one where myself and many others will no longer read them. I’ve already culled my pull list to the bare bones, but at what point do I start thinking really hard about not picking up the 17 new Avengers titles that are coming out?

Pretty damn soon, I’d say.

What do you think? What should the comic publishers do? Where do we go from here? Share in the comments.

//TAGS | Multiversity 101

David Harper


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