The Rising Cost of Comics Amidst Market Decline: Are The Big Two's Current Strategies Effective?

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It's still a little too early to tell, but December 2010 looks like it may prove a third consecutive month wherein no single comic book title exceeded 100,000 units sold. Despite commercial success from various ongoing series such as Marvel's Siege,Avengers and X-Men, as well as DC's Blackest Night, Green Lantern and Brightest Day, Diamond recently announced that overall direct market sales figures were down 3.5% last year in comparison to those of 2009.

Reading comics is an expensive hobby, something few fans would deny even in casual conversation--much less when pressed by their spouse or significant other! In fact, about one year ago Walletpop.com's Tom Barlow produced an article demonstrating that comic books ranked fifth on a list of products whose cost have ballooned the most over the past decade, marked by an increase of 100.5%! What's kept readers in shops, however, is a loyalty to their favorite properties that has been matched, for the most part, by the respect afforded to them by comic book publishers.

But is this respect still evidenced in 2011?

By the latter part of 2010, Marvel Comics had more-or-less established $3.99 as its go-to price for standard-length comic books; this included all event titles, most one-shots/miniseries, nearly or all licensed properties and the majority of its flagship properties (Invincible Iron Man being a curious, though welcome, exception). DC had introduced this price point for a comparatively small handful of standard-length books as well, though on a seemingly experimental basis that included only a half-dozen or so of its "main universe" titles, a single Vertigo book and most or all of its licensed properties published through the now-heartbreakingly-defunct Wildstorm imprint. Both publishers also reformatted a number of their regular monthly titles for inclusion of an 8-page backup feature (that stood in addition to a given book's 22-page lead story), and such titles generally sold for $3.99 throughout 2010.

It's now January 2011, and the "Big Two" (DC and Marvel) are beginning to take steps that will reintegrate the $2.99 price point as a major fixture of their respective catalogs. Announcements were made last October by both companies which heralded this change, though there is significant variance in the two publishers' strategies:

  • Marvel's announcement came at the New York Comic Con, ultimately leading to some confusion that was later clarified by then- Vice President/Executive Editor Tom Brevoort, detailed fairly nebulous plans to price select new titles at $2.99 from January forward. The company also offered assurance to retailers that they will reduce the overall number of monthly titles as the year progresses.
  • DC supported its announcement with a press release, contrastingly reducing the price of all ongoing titles to $2.99; this movement was later branded the "Holding the Line at $2.99" initiative. This comes at a cost, however, in the form of a simultaneous reduction of 2 pages from all standard-length titles as well as the cancellation of all of the company's backup features.
The differences are easy to see. DC has officially established a new standard length of 20 pages while indiscriminately cutting the cover price of all non-oversized/anniversary books to a uniform $2.99; Marvel, meanwhile, has avoided a press release and allowed itself plenty of "wiggle room" to justify pricing decisions in any way that the company pleases. Does Marvel have the right to exercise such freedoms? Of course! The real questions revolve around whether or not the Big Two's respective strategies offer: a) respect to the company's fan base; and b) potential for long-term industry benefit.

It seems fairly clear that DC is attempting to revitalize sales in the direct market by increasing the affordability of its products. Further, recent announcements have clarified that the "lost" two pages of story content will not be converted to ad space, as many projected, but rather be used as a platform for the rebirth of the monthly letters column in all major publications--essentially throwing readers a bone to offset any sense of diminished content. In short, it's hard to argue against either DC's transparency or their obvious efforts to act upon customer feedback concerning prices.

Sales estimates are still unavailable for December 2010, but in a recent post to his website The Comics Chronicles author John Jackson Miller predicts that the month's leading title (Batman: The Dark Knight #1 from DC) will be "another top seller with unit sales in the high five-figures, rather than low six-figures." Would Batman: The Dark Knight's unit sales have reached six figures were the price point set at $2.99 rather than $3.99? It's extremely likely--and, perhaps more importantly, it's worth noting that there might have been a number of books with sales numbers approaching or exceeding the six-figure mark had DC's new pricing structure already been implemented.

A quick perusal of the "Monthly Sales" portion of The Comics Chronicles' website will show that May 2010 was the only month last year wherein more than two titles emerged from five-figure sales levels, and in most cases the two leading books for a given month were priced at $3.99 or higher. In 2011, the average reader will now be faced with the option to pay virtually the same amount of money to purchase, for example, either their four favorite Batman titles (from DC, many of which have decreased in cover price by one dollar beginning this month) or the three primary Avengers titles (from Marvel). The consumer's ability to bring home a higher quantity of titles for the same cost should theoretically lead to a uniform sales increase for both "top ten" titles as well as second-tier books--or so DC hopes.

Marvel, meanwhile, has indisputably crafted a very different strategy concerning the $2.99 price point. In fact, what is arguably their leading vehicle for this shift, the "Point One" initiative, seems to thrust a higher cost burden upon readers rather than (even temporarily) relieving their wallets. It would not have been unreasonable to expect, upon the announcement of Point One, that participating titles would be replaced by their respective ".1" issues during their assigned month; instead, Marvel chose to release these books in a supplementary fashion that will add to the total cost of following one's favorite character(s)! While these Point One issues may well succeed in adding new readers to a handful of Marvel series, it is unfortunate that these "entry points" may serve to increase the comics fan's financial distress rather than alleviating them, as Marvel had hoped to do. Most fans are already committed to reading many of the company's titles, which makes the Point One program seem like a sadly-wasted opportunity.

Of course, there are other forthcoming Marvel products priced at $2.99 which deserve positive mention. Among these are ongoing series Daken: Dark Wolverine, X-23 and Spider-Girl as well as Marvel's "CrossGen Rebirth" titles Ruse and Sigil. And though there is a deluge of Captain America and Thor miniseries releasing over the next few months in anticipation of those characters' upcoming film adaptations, there are also a handful of non-derivative miniseries such as February's Silver Surfer and Hawkeye: Blind Spot that will debut at the lower price point.

However, the pricing of these books becomes harder to appreciate when one realizes that several titles--such as Wolverine, Uncanny X-Men and Captain America—are simultaneously losing their backup features but retaining their $3.99 cover price while others--such as Astonishing X-Men (ongoing series) or the aforementioned Invincible Iron Man--are simply increasing in price over the next few months. While a recent Bleeding Cool article authored by Rich Johnston may confirm Marvel's lower price-per-page as compared to DC in March 2011 (14.5 cents per page versus a figure of 14.65 for the latter), it's unlikely that many readers will find this to be the case on an individual level unless they either buy all of Marvel's releases that month or prioritize the lower-priced books to the exclusion of the company's flagship properties (neither of which should readers be forced to do in order to maximize the average value of their purchases).

Returning to the idea of greater across-the-board sales, why wouldn't Marvel want to investigate the potential benefits of a line-wide price reduction to $2.99? Take, for example, the fact that regular readers of Avengers, New Avengers and/or Secret Avengers-- of which there are indisputably more than those buying Avengers Academy--would, in the event of a restructuring, have the ability to read all four titles for the same cost they might pay now for only the former three. Wouldn't this move eventually lead to monthly sales reports where more than just two of the "top ten" titles sold in excess of 100,000 copies? And isn't it reasonable to think that the good will fostered by such a shift might eventually lead to a higher dollar share figures as well, once the economy begins to stabilize and the average consumer's opportunity for recreational spending increases?

Overall it is becoming increasingly difficult, especially now that Diamond's product solicitations are available for the first quarter of 2011 in its entirety, to avoid recognition of the disparity that exists between DC and Marvel's revised pricing strategies. And while some may disagree, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to project some correlation between either company's pricing strategy and its general respect for the fan base. DC is lowering the cost for all of its titles, flagship and secondary, while Marvel seems content to charge a premium for its higher-profile offerings while touting lower prices on miniseries and spinoffs--for which few of its readers may have asked had they been queried. DC may have a similar number of these "unnecessary" miniseries and spinoffs, but they seem more forgivable, if not more enticing, when a reader's budget hasn't already been exhausted by trying to collect the top-tier books.

2011 will certainly prove an interesting year for comic book collectors, and should offer plenty of ammunition for those who love to argue the merits of their preferred publisher. With any luck the Big Two will come to agree upon a strategy that both stimulates the direct market and rewards their faithful readership; in the meantime, now is at the very least an interesting--if not altogether entertaining--time to be a comics fan.

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