Pipeline

Tue, March 9th, 2010 at 1:58pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist
5

AMAZON, THE GLITCH, AND DIGITAL PRICING

In case you missed it this past weekend, a glitch in Amazon's system led to all sorts of expensive Marvel hardcovers (and Image and Avatar, too) being available for $8 to $15 for a limited time. Those who caught it earliest appear to have had their orders shipped already and accepted. The rest of us are getting emails explaining that there was a glitch and that the orders have been canceled.

When the sale first popped up, I assumed Amazon was dumping excess inventory. That theory only held up until I saw that books they were currently out of stock on and books that were not published yet, were also on the list. (I ordered them anyway, Just In Case.) Then stories started to surface of retailers ordering thousands of dollars in product. And you know what? I knew the gig was up, as if there ever was one to be had.

As of this writing, it looks like that Ultimate Spider-Man hardcover book I ordered might be honored at the $15, but the rest will be wiped out. Hey, so long as I get my money back on those, I have no problem on that. In face, since my credit card was never charged for any of those other orders, Amazon and I are square. Accidents happen. I'm a programmer. I know how it works. I'm not mad.

But what lessons can we learn from this? Is there one to be learned?

Yeah, people like cheap hardcover books, but it's unrealistic to expect them to ever be available regularly at these prices, even at scale. If they had a print run of a million copies, perhaps they might get near that price, but I still doubt it. Shipping costs, alone, on those heavy hardcover books mean that sub-$10 prices for 500 page hardcover books will never happen. You might see such prices if a store is closing and needs to clear out inventory in a hurry, but nothing on this scale.

Is the lesson that people will buy cheaper comics, if presented to them? Perhaps. It leads us back to the arguments about what price digital comics should be. Should they be 99 cents? $2? $3.99? People will feel ripped off at $4 for a standard 32 page comic book presented digitally. But is 99 cents enough to cover the costs of production, plus a little profit margin for all involved?

It's Business 101, isn't it? What's the inflection point? Where does the chart maximize profit potential? How low does the price have to go to sell enough copies to make up for that low price? It's why you have $3.99 comics now. Even if you lost 10% of your orders by increasing the price of your comic by 25%, you're still making a bigger profit. Long term damages can be assessed, true, but the higher-ups rarely think that far ahead of their golden parachute.

So, will a digital comic sell at least twice as many copies at 99 cents as they would at $1.99? Would a cheaper price point bring more people in to buy more comics to expand comics readership and cover those lesser costs?

There's no data for that yet. We just can't know. Anyone on the internet who claims that they know the truth is just making it up as they go along.

I can tell you that this general economic principle has a recent precedent. The music companies forced Apple to raise the prices of many MP3s in the iTunes Store from 99 cents to $1.29 and guess what happened? Sales dropped.

Even better, one business school report suggested a price per song of 60 cents as being optimal. People would buy in such bulk at that low cost that the record companies would not feel a loss. Imagine paying 60 cents for a song you just heard on the radio and liked. Would you think twice about it? Probably not. What about at a buck twenty nine? Suddenly, you have to think about it. That friction stops the sale more often than not.

What's the magic bullet for comics? Many argue for a dollar, which seems to be based on the old iTunes model. Some suggest $1.99, figuring that the lack of physical production costs (printing, shipping, etc.) means that you can roll back the price of a comic book by a generation or two. I think the only price point that everyone would agree would be the death knell of digital comics -- and possibly comics, as a whole -- is one as much as or more than a traditional print comic.

Everything else is up in the air, and no armchair analysis is going to give us a solution. We need to have comics out there in that format at those price points to determine just how car we can go. That'll be the fun of it all, won't it?

But hardcover print pricing? I don't think there's much wiggle room there. High end print jobs aren't getting any cheaper. Those are objects people want to own, but not enough can afford the price tag. Those books only sold in the thousands because they were such an insane bargain. And there are likely all sorts of other factors contributing to those high prices that we'll never know about -- reconstruction issues, recoloring costs, creator contracts, etc. It's not just the dead wood. Economies of scale will only go so far.

Still, it's fun to reminisce about the morning when I woke up to buy the "Howard the Duck Omnibus" for $15, isn't it? Honestly, I didn't need the "Ultimates Omnibus." I already have the first hardcover. I just needed the second volume hardcover...

Let's hope Amazon and Diamond figured this all out and put in safeguards to ensure it never happens again. This had to be an expensive weekend for one company or the other. Let's just assume those three layoffs the day after were completely coincidental, too.

MORE JASON

I wasn't sure if I'd like Jason's work. I'm always a bit leery of any work that has so much critical acclaim, to be honest. Previous examples of such work have left me cold. I think Chris Ware's work is the single biggest example of this. But Jason's stuff isn't poorly-drawn navel-gazing special interest group autobiographical fodder. It's fun comics. Those, I like. "I Killed Adolf Hitler" (reviewed here two weeks ago) wasn't the first book by Jason that I read, though.

First, I tried "Low Moon." It's another full-color book, this time compiling five short stories Jason did, including one that originally appeared on "The New York Times" website. If anything would give me a flavor for the creator's work, it would have to be a book with multiple stories, right?

It worked for me.

The first story, "Emily Says Hello," had me scratching my head a bit. Was this to be another artiste who strings together non-sensical things in an attempt to look deep and understanding? Is he an "anything goes" humorist whose adult jokes fall flat for me? While it was impossible to judge all of that in only one story, "Emily" is a pretty good model for what to expect, though with perhaps a bit more of an open ending.

Our nameless hit-man is providing services for a woman in exchange for an accelerating series of personal favors. Of the adult variety. He kills a man for her, she performs for him, and the cycle repeats. Eventually, it ends horribly. It's not exactly uplifting. It doesn't teach a lesson or comment on the human condition. Its lack of answers don't make it any easier to understand. But it has many of the hallmark characteristics of Jason's work. It's well-paced and well-told, blending silent actions with dialogue well. The characters are bland and emotionless, working all the time with a straight face that must belie a more anxious interior.

It all works as a standalone short story, though. It's complete from open to close, it sticks in your mind because of the open ending, and you can argue at least three different interpretations of it until the end of time. Because of all that, not having everything spelled out for me isn't a sore spot. It's rather liberating.

And even though it wasn't my favorite story in the book, I looked forward to rereading it. Most books I review I only get read once before I write about them. I leave the book open and furiously paw through pages as need be for character names or specific references, but there's rarely time (or desire) to reread a 144 page trade paperback or a 200 page hardcover. I first realized how much I enjoyed this book when I finished it and wanted to go back and give it a second reading. Now that I was comfortable with the style, what did I miss the first time? Plus, it's a fairly breezy read. A real page turner. It only took a half hour to read the entire book the first time through.

"Low Moon" is where the craziness begins. It's a chess western. That is not a typo. Men don't draw guns at high noon; they play serious chess. Imagine the Grand Master blowing into town to challenge the best player they have to a match. (He'd be the sheriff, obviously.) Add in a deep back story, some heavy drinking, and a good looking dame or two. Then play until checkmate.

"&" might be my favorite of the stories in the book, for its parallel storytelling, silent pages, and sense of humor amidst a bizarrely violent world. On the left side pages, a man robs a house to pay for his dying mother's operation. On the right pages is a love story, of a spurned lover who keeps killing would-be suitors of his one true love. They're both stories of escalating tensions, bad timing, and hidden shames. But they don't crossover until the very last page in an almost whimsical way. I love it.

"Proto Film Noir" is the story of a caveman who moves to the suburbs, has an affair with the woman he meets there, and then kills her husband. Repeatedly. It's sadistic and humorous in that "Itchy and Scratchy Show" way. It feels like a film noir type of story while being completely different from anything you've ever seen in that vein. Jason takes the tropes and transplants them neatly into this morbid and bizarre tale.

Finally, "You Are Here" is a story of love lost -- on a space ship to another planet. I don't think I can do this one justice, though it is sentimentally sweet in some ways.

"Low Moon" is a nice package for $25, measuring roughly 8.5 x 6.5 inches, full color, 215 pages or so. There's a lot for aspiring artists and storytellers to learn from this book, and a lot of unusual fun for plain old readers. I'm very happy that I'm a relative late-comer to Jason fandom, because it means I have a lot of great reading ahead of me. I don't have to wait for the next thing to be published; it's already out there on shelves!

PRIEST PODCAST RECOMMENDATION

Christopher Priest's two part appearance on The Dollar Bin Show is must-listening, particularly for fans of "Quantum & Woody" or "Black Panther." (Here's a link to part one, and part two.) It goes beyond that, too, as Priest opens up about his early days at Marvel, Jim Shooter, the shenanigans behind the scenes of Milestone Media, the problem with comic company politics, and a whole lot more. You'll likely want to have ComicBookDB.com open as you listen along to suss out some of the people he's talking about, since he's gracious enough not to throw some people under the bus by name...

Priest is the perfect interview subject to talk about comics. He's just far enough outside of it to gain some perspective. He's not actively working in the industry, so he doesn't have to worry about stepping on too many toes. He was around behind the scenes for a long time, during some particularly colorful eras. In other words, he has enough latitude to be open and honest, and isn't just there to hawk a book and throw out some prepared one-liners and elevator pitches. I loved it.

eBAY LESSONS LEARNED, PART 2

Last week, I talked about my adventures in eBay comic selling. Here are some more things I learned after the auctions ended:

Never promise First Class shipping on penny ante comics. Offer media mail. This goes double when you offer low cost or free shipping as an incentive to get more bidders. My mistake last week is that I offered $5.00 first class shipping. Guess how much those three packages wound up costing me to mail out? About $27. So I lost $12 immediately there. (It's actually $15, since I spent $2 and change on an envelope.)

Second, use bubble wrap envelopes. They seem to be lighter and cheaper than boxes.

Third, just bag the comics. Don't board them, also. That adds weight.

The final auctions brought in $50. I pocketed less than $20 after expenses and eBay fees. Whoops!

If you're a JMS or "Babylon 5" fan, I just put up a bunch of those script books on my Amazon store for sale. Check them out if you're looking for 'em.

Next week: I have a theme idea I hope I can pull off. It might be fun. Come back to find out!

And in my spare time: I'm podcasting, Twittering, photoblogging, and text blogging..

E-mail me!

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