Saturday, July 3, 2010

500 Pennies for Your Thoughts

Since it’s a long holiday weekend (for most people, at least), and folks are generally in a good, celebratory mood this time of year, I’d like to play my part and ruin everyone’s day. By talking about the price of comic books.

See? Told ya I was going to ruin everyone’s day.

(Well, maybe not everyone's day. I don't think anyone, anywhere, could ruin what Nathaniel's got in store for today.)

Now, before we get started, let’s get a few things clear straight away. First, I understand that books will never be $1.00 again, no matter what. I’m not na├»ve, and I don’t expect the price of comics to drop back to pre-1990 prices. It’ll just never happen, mostly because it can’t.

Additionally, I get that mainstream books today utilize top-of-the-line printing, and the quality of the paper is fantastic.

And that stuff ain’t cheap.

I also get that the smaller press publishers often have to price their books high, mostly because everything is typically done by one person, or maybe by a small group of people. Either way, the time that goes into creating an independent comic is amazing, and there needs to be some way to (at least try to) offset printing and labor costs.

Second, I am in the publishing industry. As in, I work for a publisher. And not some little operation, either. I work for a major publishing house, and I understand the way things work. (Meaning, I know exactly how much paper costs, and I know exactly how much time goes into the production of consumable product.)

I know costs, I know about advertising, and I also know enough to understand that the situation is different for and specific to every individual publisher. Which makes speaking in generalities unfair.

Luckily, the big comics publishers have all decided to adopt each other’s price points, and new product by everyone from Marvel to DC to Dark Horse to Image is similarly priced.

And it seems that $4.99 is the new “ceiling,” one that we’ll break through in, I’d guess, two years or so. A couple of years back, we all saw the online reaction to publishers raising their prices to $3.99.

“Four bucks for 22 pages?!” We all screamed. “Never! I’ll never pay that!”

And then, of course, we all did. Maybe not in the same way people bought comics in the nineties, but still, we bought enough of the funnybooks to keep Marvel and DC very happy.

As all protestations tend to do, ours died down and fizzled, and we all just accepted the fact that comics are--and always will be--expensive. More expensive, at least, than they once were.

And I’ve heard the argument that, comparatively, comics are an inexpensive form of entertainment. Movie tickets cost $12 bucks, books are in the $25-to-$30 range, and DVDs/Blu Rays sell for around $20.

And one comics is “only” five dollars.

But a comic only has 22 pages, and novels have hundreds. The math doesn’t work, there.

I’ve also heard that production values are better than ever, and that we’re getting more than we’ve ever gotten for our money.


Production values are that much better than they were in 2008? Go find a comic from 2008, then come on back and tell me what you think. I know where I stand on the issue. And are our 22-page, ad-riddled pages really more bang for the buck?

In production quality--sure. In story? No.

Of course, I will agree with the publishers that--content-wise--books are better today on the whole than ever before. The publishers all have super-talented people working for them.

And, clearly, I enjoy the heck out of reading comic books. I just get frustrated when my wallet gets empty before I've bought all the books I want to buy.

So, what happens next? How high will comics go, and how will we consume them?

Digital distribution is a beacon in the night, and lower prices combined with incredibly clear and crisp images certainly seem attractive.

But with more digital books being "published," will that mean the price of the printed page continues to rise? Pretty soon, printing comics will cost too much, as weighed against printing digital books.

Then what?

-- -- -- --

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this issue, everyone. In the meantime, Happy Saturday!


Michael Gray said...

My question would be "Is the paper quality used today really that high?" As someone who deals with antique books, I can tell you that my books from the 1910's are in much better shape than the books from, say, the 1950's. Paper quality took a dive in the middle of the century, I fear. Glad to hear that things are getting better again.

I know it's probably only the antique dealers who care about paper quality in terms of "will it still be in near-prime condition 100 years from now?", though.

Scott said...

I've always wondered about the production values. How much "value" does glossy paper have, really? Marvel did an experiment for a while in lowering prices by going back to regular paper and I thought it worked just fine. Sure, it literally didn't have the flash that glossy paper had, but it was cheaper and I was getting the same art and the same story.

There are archival issues, but honestly -- who's going to be around 60, 80 years and still be in a shape to care about their comics? I'm not one to judge, but most people who buy comics aren't in that kind of situation.

Of course, I'm biased here -- Japanese manga is what I read more of now and it's both faster AND cheaper. For less than the price of a single American comic with 22 pages, you can get a giant weekly volume the size of a phone book with black-and-white art containing 10-20 pages of multiple series published by a single company. Every week, one new story in the series.

It's a cheap digest format for people who want to follow; the books are collected for recycling, too. If you want "archival" copies, they collect stories every few chapters and bind them up in a nice book format for 7 bucks or so.

Honestly, I think that's why manga is so much bigger in Japan than comics are in America -- it's cheaper and easier to buy.

AJG said...

Michael: Great point about paper quality. I collect old Harper's Weeklys, and the condition of the paper always astounds me.

They were made to be read, over and over again, and to last.

Today, in comics especially, the quality of the paper has gone through the roof. Even as recently as the late 80s, very thin newsprint was used in the books, and those pages just don't hold up today.

The color fades, they become very brittle, and, frankly, they smell.

Today's comics have incredibly high quality glossy paper, but as Scott points we really care? Especially since single issues are collected in trades so soon after they're released month-to-month.

Lower quality monthlies, with lower prices, and then high quality trades?

Doesn't sound like such a bad idea to me.