Pay Attention, Comics

“But with individual titles costing between $1 and $3 for about five to 10 minutes of enjoyment, it quickly became a habit too costly to keep up.”

This article at GigaOm by Darrell Etherington points to what I’ve long thought of as the elephant in the room in all discussions of the comics industry: comics’ crappy cost-to-minute ratio.

While subscriptions might be an important part of the solution as Etherington suggests, I personally think that a 99 cents price point could be attractive for a one-off comics story. IF that comic was 50 pages long AND formatted to the screen.

Kurt Busiek has long made the argument that comic books took a wrong turn decades ago when they started cutting pages to keep the price the same. That less satisfying read plus a product not earning its shelf space for retailers, led to fewer copies sold, the loss of the economies of scale, and even higher prices in the long run; while in Japan, Manga’s cheap phone book sized anthologies were selling in the millions.

Now we actually have the opportunity, through a potentially more efficient distribution channel, to get prices down AND bulk up the page count (no printing cost for pixels!). Let’s not make the same mistake twice.

Rule #1: Is your comic a satisfying read?

Rule #2: Is the price low enough that your readers won’t mind paying it again and again?

Rule #3: See Rule #1. Repeat.

Discussion (35)¬

  1. SpaceDinosaurBlue says:

    The cost to content ratio is why I stopped reading comics over a decade ago, sorry to say. I buy trade paperbacks once in a while, and I buy a few manga and jump volumes. I think there’s truth to this.

  2. darrylayo says:

    Thank you thank you thank you. I dug into DC and Marvel on the ComixCube blog (click my name) on the 99 cent point for their digital comics. And as mean as I am, I think you go the extra step and indicate the additional problem of how slim their product line is, with regards to pages per product unit.

    Yes a hundred times!

  3. Beto says:

    Spot on points Scott. Considering there are no printing, logistics nor inventory costs when dealing with digital, pricing these goods equal to (or even higher) than their physical versions is not only pointless, but also ludicrous. We’re no longer living in the times of our grandparents when comics were the supreme king of entertainment and they had virtually no competition. Now we have TV movies, video games and the Internet competing for people’s scarcer free time and attention. Lowering the price of digital comics to ease purchasing decisions won’t solve all these issues by itself, but is an important step forward.

  4. Eric Honaker says:

    I definitely agree with you to a certain extent.

    I think that $1 for 10 minutes of enjoyment is okay, if it is truly 10 minutes of enjoyment. Too many comics are 10 minutes of reading and 30 seconds or real enjoyment. Or 10 minutes/month of reading, and a good ten minutes of enjoyment once or twice a year.

    I’d happily pay $1/month for titles that were consistently good and not just rehashing the same material over and over again. So, Marvel and DC are out for me at practically any price point above free. I’ve read those stories before.

    Paid $5 and $10 each, respectively, for copies of “The War at Ellsmere” and “Penance” on Comixology. It read nicely on my computer, and even my phone. “Penance” came in at more that $1/22 pages, but it was a smart story with good art and I definitely enjoyed myself.

    • Scott says:

      Maybe I’m in a wicked mood this morning, but I LOVE the idea of applying quality-of-enjoyment to the equation.

      Would some comics drop all the way down to a dollar a minute? Why, yes they would.

  5. Rob Berry says:

    Without question this is the REALLY FREAKIN’ BIG elephant in the room. But jumping the price line still is problematic for big titles that might be seen as competing with the print product. It seems ideal for comics that are unique to the delivery system however, and probably better than the subscription model proposed by some people.

  6. “Kurt Busiek has long made the argument that comic books took a wrong turn decades ago when they started cutting pages to keep the price the same.”

    Do you know when he started discussing this? I’ve been saying this since at least the late 1990s, and I’m wondering whether I got the idea from him. But it’s true–in the 1930s, comics and prose magazines had similar trim sizes, similar page counts, and similar prices, and were seen as comparable values. By the 1950s, that was no longer true. There are many reasons for the decline of comics sales, but that’s definitely one of them.

  7. Toonicorn says:

    I stopped buying manga for cost reasons, although I have to say that for that genre, the value-for-dollar ratio is a bit more generous, depending on the manga (big Full Metal Alchemist fan here). For me, manga offers more variety and often more compelling stories. The only American comic books I’ve bought recently were the Scott Pilgrim trades. I think they were worth the money, but I haven’t seen anything else in a while that prompted me to lay down my cash. I’m all for comics being disseminated via iPads and other digital media; it’d mean less clutter in my bookshelf, to begin with, and if I could obtain good comics via subscription, I’d DEFINITELY be interested. Hope it comes to pass. And if you ever revive ZOT!, I’d certainly subscribe to it!

  8. John says:

    I just wait and go down the library and get the trade paperback. It’s free (except for my taxes) and I can do 8-10-12 books at a time. That way, when the comic arc is awful, I don’t feel I’ve wasted anything. And if it’s good, i can read it all in one setting.

    I do realize that this is not sustainable. if the only sales came from compilations sold to libraries, they would rapidly go broke.

    I find there are few books that I would buy to own, once I’ve read them. Invincible, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Legion of Super heroes(out of nostalia, more than anything), Bone, Ghostopolis, I have bought after reading them in the library. But nothing else. That’s about a 20 to 1 ratio.

    For example, I’m reading the complicated Green Lantern arcs that establish the color spectrum corps and darkest night and all that. Fun to read once, with nice art but hardly to the level of a keepable story.

    For me, there are just so few titles with a story and art that are worth buying. It has to have both.

  9. ComicFan says:

    It is NOT the cost of digital comics that is the true issue. Okay, in a round about way it is.

    It’s paying 2.99-4.99 for something you DON’T own and DON’T have a permanent digital copy of as the copy sits on some cloud somewhere. Who in there right mind would ever pay for something they don’t have control over. The music industry learnt that years ago, why must comics try to reinvent a failed wheel.
    It’s actually quite disgusting in many ways.

  10. Lisa Hertel says:

    My husband long ago gave up his $100/month comics buying habit in favor of trade paper compilations from Amazon. No more specialty boxes, it’s cheaper, and easier to reread. Of course, this also means he no longer frequents his indie comics dealer, and no longer browses the shelf. Then again, it was that indie shop’s attitude that helped drive him away.

    There are so many good, free strips online that I can see where people would balk at spending a lot of money for an e-issue (and more for the paper version). And let’s face it, how many times has Aunt May been near death? It’s well-known the major players retread the same stories over and over, figuring on a 5-year (or less) reader turnover. When are they going to learn that their audience isn’t a bunch of 12- to 15-year-old boys?

    On the other hand, I find the price for most manga pretty high, too. They cost almost as much as a cheap paperback, and take a quarter of the time to read. I usually compare it to a movie, which is about $10/2 hours; manga is slightly higher at $6/30 minutes, but an average paperback book (say, 400 pages, & I read about a page a minute) is $10 (or less) for almost 7 hours of entertainment.

  11. Theo Macdonald says:

    I think the real problem is that I don’t buy comics unless I know they’re going to be good from popular opinion (sandman, powers) and if I’ve read one volume already and enjoyed it. Therefore new, original idea, comics don’t really get a chance to be brought. Anyway, you Americans should stop moaning. Once shipping is added comics in new Zealand are 1 1/2 to 2 times as expensive as buying in the US.

  12. Charles H. Bryan says:

    Comics used to also have more panels per page and each panel typically had more dialogue.

  13. Victor R. says:

    Yup. This is exactly what made me wary of getting into comics for years (so much time wasted!) and why I stuck to satisfyingly thick manga volumes for years after that (so much time well spent!).

    Regarding trade paperbacks, another reason I wait is because of the ads. It’s terrible to be sucked into a good story, flip the page in anticipation, and then land on an ad for Nike sneakers. Throws me right out.

  14. Devin Parker says:

    As a consumer, I completely agree. As a professional (or some aspiring version of one), I get nervous about compensation for the artist/creator/team. If they sell in the numbers of manga in Japan, excellent – but would they sell that way in the U.S.?

  15. George Keagle says:

    I’ve got to agree here, and it applies to more than just comics. In this digital age when piracy is so easy anybody with intellectual rights is tightening their grip on their product. I have to string a cord across the apartment to play a 5 minute game on xbox live that I’ve paid for, and can’t even send my music from one program or device to another even though I pay for that as well.
    I’ve never done the digital comic subscription because I don’t want to pay for a comic when really I am paying to log on to a site and read it remotely. At least with ebooks you can get the file depending on who it’s from, but quite often those are encrypted as well. I think that format is flying because of the dollar-time enjoyment ratio that comes with way cheaper books and portability. I got out of comics after the Civil War / Brand New Day story lines because I had to pay rent instead of buying comics.

  16. Max West says:

    I stopped reading superhero comics because they were getting more expensive…and I’m more hardened towards them with the whole thing of reboots too.

    The cost of pamphlets has been a big problem with comics IMHO. I see the digital frontier as being a partial remedy to that problem.

  17. Velda says:

    What’s even worse… I’ve sold some of my old trade paperbacks/manga recently to Half Price Books. It was a mix of “Oh, I’m not going to read these again”, and “Oh, these are taking up way too much space and I don’t want to have to pack these when I move”. It was kind of chilling. I spend so much money on those books and I managed to get some money back (27 dollars for a shelf of these), but the weird thing is I almost, almost, don’t want to buy any more books. It’s kind of sad. I had many conversations with my friend on how we could easily read manga in a few hours, maybe less if we were really awake or something. We also complained about the price. It’s something I’ve thought about for years on and off.

  18. Kelly says:

    I am just thankful to be in such a time of great flux. Embrace the fact that the very nature of this problem is proof of an open frontier in an expanding genre we all adore. This is what keeps me up at night!

  19. Justin M says:

    Scott and everyone,
    I have been paying attention (great subtle play on words in the title, by the way) in multiple ways to these issues and have decided to base what I do for a living on these ideas.
    Around a half of a year ago, I started a digital comics publishing business with the goal of being the best method for independent artists to digitally distribute their comics.

    My thinking was that since distribution costs are very close to zero, I can make it so that artists can publish themselves for free. They can name their price, keep their rights, and are paid a relatively high percentage of what is made from sales.

    Really what has been going on is that there has been an explosion of self-publishing tools for music, video, and more recently, for books. However, sequential art/comics/graphic novels (whatever term that works for you) has been somewhat ignored or left behind in favor of the traditional publishing models. Perhaps that is a little bit because of the technical hurdles (it’s easier to put flowable text on a kindle than it is a comic), and also perhaps because of the prejudism that comics have historically faced as a medium.

    Either way, all that appears to be changing, and I’m excited for the prospects also. My intentions were definitely not to advertise myself, but this article so closely matches my ideals I had to chime in (click on my name if you’re interested).


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  21. […] Like I was saying yesterday, digital comics should be cheaper. […]

  22. Mike Marinos says:

    And yet some people will pay more per unit if they feel involved.

    Is Kickstarter the #3 U.S. Indie Graphic Novel Publisher? http://bit.ly/lLGNTP

  23. I remember reading about Alex Toth’s reaction to a lot of the new comics that were being published towards the end of his life. He thought they were spending way too much time creating eye candy and not enough on story telling through sequential art. I’m wondering if this is part of the problem with the perceived value on the part of the artists, versus the perceived value on the part of the reader? I can see production costs dropping if creators used a something like a ligne claire style instead of painting every panel as an example. Digital gives them a chance to get a lot of stories out with extremely low distribution costs, if they can focus on what visual storytelling is going to look like to keep their own production costs down, we might see the start of price points that match consumer expectations on digital comics.

    • John says:

      That’s a fascinating concept that on some conceptual see saw, Sequential storytelling is being reduced so flashy art can be promoted. Form is more important than the Idea.

      Does Watchmen count a comic of dense storytelling being important than the art?

      While I agree that a ligne claire style might be faster, I don’t agree it’s the speed of the art, or the style of the art being created that’s causing this.

      I think we are in an era where we don’t want to risk new ideas. We don’t want to risk new story telling. Swamp thing and Sandman and Enigma and Watchmen and Astro City were great because they took the idea of superheros and went in a new direction. Yet the latest Marvel and DC reboots and variants seem to be the same thing but slight different with updated costumes.

      Maybe creators are afraid that if the comic is storytelling dense, then there is more for someone to object to, to disagree with. And for some reason, few want to risk that.

      • I think Watchmen is one of those examples of a dense story that also have fantastic art. There is a reason it topped the sales charts for years.
        In terms of risk, I think you’re right, I’m not sure if you’ve ever dealt with Hollywood types but when you make the point about the exact same big budget CG movie coming out every year they will quickly fire back that those movies are incredibly expensive and no one is going to take a risk on something new. The same thing is happening in video games, and it seems to be the same in comics. In all those genres the independents are the ones taking the risks, and most of the burden that comes with those risks.

  24. Something I feel compelled to point out: you don’t need to derive 100% of your enjoyment from the comic itself. Comic art is expensive to produce. But its enjoyment (and value) can be enhanced without adding more pages.

    In DoubleFeature, we embellish every page with writer and artist commentary and let you dynamically flip between penciled, inked, colored, and lettered versions of the page. This adds some fun re-read value without adding anything to the cost, thus improving cost/minute ratio.

    • John says:

      “writer and artist commentary…dynamically flip between…”
      It sounds like a great selling point but I checked out your site but I didn’t see any examples of it.

  25. Bruno Steppuhn says:

    @Joshua and publishers. At this point it’s not about adding more stuff to make the entertainment more valuable. Take a BluRay for instance. Do you remember when you poped in this new hidef movie into your player and the first thing that you saw was the gazillion features that you got with that with that dvd? Did you pay your $30 just so that you could have all those features? Or did you buy it to enjoy the movie?

    It’s also not a about a race to the bottom. As we’ve seen with even mobile apps, Prices get driven down by the big players because they can afford to take the loss when they test what they’ve learned from the little guys mistakes.

  26. John says:

    Brune, I agree. A billion extra features and behinds the scene commentary is not going to make a boring story worth purchasing. I was commenting earlier that I felt we are complaining about two trends. A trend where form is more important the the idea and a trend where few are willing to risk new ideas.

    We see the form ascendant trend in comics and movies where the visuals are beautiful and amazing but after that story is pretty lame. For example, the Green Lantern Spectrum Corp stories have great art, but kind of a ho hum stories. Nothing you would care to read twice. It’s like that example in Scott’s first book (sorry to name drop) with the hollow apple.

    The other trend is the timidity of the story telling. Instead of coming up with new characters and new story lines,the comic companies reboot them, changing the costume, tinkering around the edges but just setting it up to tell the same stories again and again and again. Movies are sequels. and threequals, but less new ideas.

    The only place I’m seeing riskier more interesting and denser story telling is the web comics by people who have not figured out a finance stream but just feel compelled to do art. Publishing costs almost nothing. All they need is time.

    Back to the topic. I don’t care if the delivery is paper or digital, if it’s boring and/or ugly I don’t want it, regardless of the price.
    But I see digital being a good delivery mechanism, so a satisfying read can be made by outsiders of the system.

    • Case in point, DC’s reboot. Why? I think that some of their properties are quite compelling. That being said, why are they not coming up with more cool ideas instead of recycling the old ones? The answer is, because they see that what they have sells. There’s no other explanation. If they keep rehashing the same stuff over and over people will buy it. Because that’s a pattern that they can rely on.

      On that note, based on their current infrastructure, they would be silly to bank on uncertainty.

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