Tilting at Windmills

Fri, December 19th, 2008 at 11:28am PST | Updated: December 19th, 2008 at 11:28am

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

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THE PRICE IS RIGHT?

My contemporaries here on CBR usually put their plugs at the end of the column. Well, not I – I’m going to put it right here up front!

In February, IDW is going to publish the second volume of my collected “Tilting at Windmills.” This covers my last two years at “Comics & Games Retailer” magazine, as well as the entirety of TaW 2.0 from Newsarama.

This is a packed volume, full of wisdom and blather (in near equal parts!), and goes really well with the first volume of “Tilting at Windmills.” Help a brother out and preorder a copy from your retailer right this moment – you can use DEC084122 to order volume two, and, if you haven’t already got volume one, you can order that by using STAR18289.

So, yeah DEC084122. Order early and often!

This economy is driving me nuts. As I discussed last month, we have been doing pretty well up into now: our third quarter was up 15%, while October was up 8.5%, and November was up 4%. I was feeling (reasonably) fat and happy, and I even gave all of my staff raises for doing such a great job.

Not so much in December so far. Obviously, we’ve got two weeks still left, including what is, typically, our best week of the year, but so far we’re down about 30% for the comparable time from last year. Now, even if I were to close for the rest of the year, we’d still end the entire year up from 2007, but I was really shooting for a end-of-year double digit increase, and it doesn’t look like that’s possible any longer.

What’s curious to me is that business shut off like a light pretty much the minute the media announced that were “officially” in a recession. I mean, just snap, people stopped shopping. It isn’t that the people coming in aren’t still spending as they usually do – because they are – it’s that the casual walk-by traffic went entirely poof. I can stand out in front of the store for minutes at a time right now and not see any people walking down the street at all. Even taking the bus home from work, typically I’m used to having to stand on my way home because the bus is so crowded. Not for the last two weeks. Plenty of seats.

As I said, because this change in traffic concurred with the “officially in a Recession” news, I’m of the mind that this is more a psychological thing than anything else – “Oh, the news says things are bad, we better cut back, just in case.” – that’s not to say that there isn’t real pain and economic problems out there (there is), but that I think that operating out of fear is more likely to make the problem worse than better.

It also doesn’t help that the publishers haven’t released a ton of “big holiday” books this season, nor do they seem to be able to keep schedules on the books they are publishing, but the real problem is that the walk-by traffic is hiding away right now.

So, do your part, order a copy of DEC084122. America will thank you, and so will I!

So let’s talk about price increases.

Marvel is, as many of you are aware, about to raise prices on “New Avengers,” “Hulk,” “Punisher Max,” and the new “Dark Avengers” book to $3.99 for the standard 32 page package. Presumably, if this doesn’t entirely tank the sales on those titles, this is the first step towards their entire line going to $3.99. And, if it works, it is probably safe to assume that DC will follow some time shortly thereafter.

A lot of people are asking “What the heck is Marvel thinking?!?!”

Well, I don’t know for certain, but I assume that their reasoning is going something like this: “Secret Invasion” was $3.99 an issue, for a standard 32 page package, and you bought it. You didn’t just buy it, you snarfed it right up, where it was the #1 book for every issue of release.

You’re also buying the Stephen King comics like “Dark Tower” and “The Stand” at the $3.99 price point.

I think they’re also looking at publishers like IDW, where $3.99 is the standard price point, and sales appear to be pretty much in line where any outside observer would expect them to be relative to the strength of the properties they publish. “Angel: After the Fall” is selling, for $3.99, at about 60% of Dark Horse’s Buffy comic (which is $2.99) – and 60% is pretty much just where that circulation would be expected to be, even without a price discrepancy.

In fact, there’s really no direct evidence that price has a whole lot of bearing on what you’re willing to purchase.

As I’ve noted before, that matches what I’ve observed in twenty years of selling comics – if you want to buy a title, you’re going to buy, pretty regardless of the price. My single largest number of copies of anything sold in 2007 was the $30 “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier” HC. Even though everyone knew there would be a cheaper SC coming before too long (Eleven months, and $10 cheaper, as it turned out). You had the choice to wait and pay a third less, and you didn’t. That’s just an observable, repeatable fact.

You made “Secret Invasion” the #1 book for eight months in a row. If you didn’t, its sales would have dropped, and dramatically. And that didn’t happen.

But…

That is true for one shots. Or specials. Or Mini-series.

Is that actually true for a regular ongoing monthly? Is that true for a “generic” issue of a “generic” series? Are you willing to pay $4 a throw for something extremely midlist like “Ms. Marvel?” If it’s not something “essential” to the grander soap opera of the books you follow?

That’s the big question.

My guess is that the majority of people who are buying mainstream hero comics are going to continue to do so. However, their budget isn’t going to magically expand by 33%, like the cover prices will. I tend to suspect that when the entire line goes $3.99 (and, realistically, and looking at all recorded comics history, as well as Marvel’s actions in the modern era, that will almost certainly come in no more than twelve months), the majority of the readership will pare itself down only to what it deems “essential,” and either key to “continuity,” or featuring a character or creative team that they’re deeply in love with.

But I don’t think that “like” will cut it – I think it will have to be love.

I don’t think that very many of the current readership will abandon comics altogether. Some will, of course, but for most of us I think we love the form itself enough that we’ll pay whatever we have to for the specific kind of fix that comics give us. But I do very much think that skepticism will very much be on the rise. People will need to be convinced that what they’re reading matters. Which means some of the sloppy habits that mainstream-comics have developed will come under deep fire from the readership.

As an example, just this week I read an issue of “Mighty Avengers” that had, of its 22 story pages, five full page, completely silent pages that flashed back to the last several years of storylines (without adding a single new insight to those events). I don’t think the audience will bear that if they’re paying $4 a throw. Recompression and density of story is probably going to have to become a virtue, out of economic necessity.

I think that people are very likely to lose patience with the kind of “written for the trade,” low-density comics that have become the norm in the early 21st century.

Trades become another major issue at play. Typically, pricing of a trade is relatively in line with the cost of the comics it is reprinting. If trade prices go up in response to periodical pricing, that will really cut into the spontaneous nature of a lot of trade buying – going from $17.95 to $23.95 for a 6 issue reprint will pretty radically depress book sales, in my mind. Not good.

But if trade prices don’t go up, then that is nothing more than more incentive to just skip the periodical release altogether. This will accelerate the depression of periodical sales. Also not good.

The frustrating thing for me is that I have a hard time seeing why a price increase of this extent is really necessary in today’s fragile economic climate. $3.99 will make people balk in a way that, psychologically, $3.50 or even $3.25 wouldn’t have. A 33% price increase seems fairly extreme, and we haven’t seen it’s like since comics went from 75 cents to $1.

It may open up a small window of opportunity for other publishers (for example, Top Cow issued a statement guaranteeing that price would be kept at $2.99 over the next year), but I’m not entirely convinced that people are interested in changing consumption patterns (Top Cow has a very different “flavor” than most Marvel comics) to that extent.

I also worry about the motivation on this. This could be attributed to arrogance (“We’re Marvel Comics, and the readers will do just as we say”), which certainly has been the downfall of Marvel more than once (cf Heroes World, or for those of you with longer memories perhaps recall the Jim Shooter “Little Fucks” memo?) Marvel has many reasons to be arrogant – really, they have very little real competition in their primary category; they’re beating DC in marketshare by something close to 50% -- but it seldom actually works for them in the long-run.

It may also just be that they’re being foolish and short-sighted, possibly in a chase for short-term quarterly gains that are mandated by bean counters. If so, that’s generally a foolish thing to do as gains brought by raising prices are not infinitely repeatable, and it’s unclear exactly how well it would work.

There’s also a third possibility, which is that this is being done in an effort to make Marvel’s digital initiative that much more attractive. With the price of a single new periodical now getting closer to an entire month’s “subscription” to everything they have on line, it certainly makes the digital program look a whole lot better.

Either way, I’m glad we now have the ability to potentially lower our orders via Final Order Cutoff. Keeping inventory tight is going to be the key to surviving the first quarter of 2009.

Just don’t go too tight on DEC084122!

Here’s hoping everyone has a safe and happy Christmas!

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase a collection of the first one hundred Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) from IDW Publishing. An Index of v2 of Tilting at Windmills may be found here. (but you have to insert “classic.” before all of the resulting links) You may discuss this column here.

TAGS:  comics retailing, comic prices, economy

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