Running Away Your Customers Is No Way To Build A Business

One of the passions of my life is comic book reading and collecting.  It started when I was only five years old, and my parents would bring me home books they’d bought off the spinner racks at the grocery or drug store.  I grew up reading them, my favorite quickly becoming Spider-Man.  While I stopped getting the books as I grew older, I never actually “outgrew” them;  as a young adult, I learned about the existence of a secondary market for the comic book, and stores and mail-order businesses where I could piece together the missing holes in the stories I’d read as a kid.  I started reading and collecting again, eventually even owning my own comic book shop before I turned thirty.

Now, though, my days of buying comic books — at least the new ones — may be coming to an end.  And the reason is a pretty simple one.  It’s not that I don’t still enjoy it;  rather, it’s getting to the point where I might not be able to afford it.  And I’m not the only one that’s facing the same tough decision — a fact that should be of great concern to the twin comic giants of Marvel Comics and DC Comics, yet isn’t.

For those of you who haven’t picked up a comic book since you were a kid, the price tag on a new book at present might shock you.  When I was first getting books — on my parents’ dime — the price per issue was actually pretty close to that.  While the Golden and Silver Age’s 10 and 12 cent tags had vanished, comic books were, for the most part, still a pretty reasonable 25 cents (except for the occasional Giant-Size issue or Annual).  The first two books I actually remember owning from then were Action #452 and Amazing Spider-Man #151 — both from 1975.

Now, I certainly don’t expect to be paying just a quarter for my comic book entertainment these days — inflation is something I would well expect to have taken its toll on the price tag of today’s new publications.  But now, new books that come out are priced at an already budget-busting $2.99 each at minimum (specials can run as much as $4.99 a piece or higher) — and worse yet, Marvel Comics has slowly been making the shift towards a downright ridiculous $3.99 each for a basic, 24-32 page issue.  In fact, in the month of June, Marvel has solicited 103 titles — and 61% of those (63 in all) are priced at the $3.99 point or higher.  While 30 of those 63 books are issues with larger page counts, it’s probable that this won’t be any great bonus for the buyer, as more than likely the extra pages are going to be filled with reprints of older material or “sneak previews” of new titles that probably will be priced at $3.99 as well (and won’t be worth buying anyway).

DC Comics hasn’t followed suit — yet — but their solicitations for June show the company of Batman and Superman following Marvel’s lead.  However, they are keeping the $3.99 books to a minimum, with only 13 of their 79 offerings (16%) at that price or higher.  In a move that’s better for the buyer, DC is adding 8-page backup features to 4 of those titles (bringing the page count on those issues to 40);  in a move reminiscent of what I grew up with in the late 70’s (when Action Comics and Detective Comics featured back-ups featuring Green Arrow or the Atom, characters who weren’t able to sustain their own books at the time), these back-up features will star characters whose own titles haven’t be able to garner the sales necessary to survive (as an example, the new Blue Beetle, whose title was recently cancelled, will be one of the backups in question).

DC’s approach makes more sense — and if anything, this may give greater exposure to some of their second-tier characters that wasn’t going to happen if readers had to shell out $2.99 to jump on board a title they weren’t already getting, no matter how good it might have been.  Now, it’s easier to justify the extra dollar, and the existing title should be stronger in the process by adding on the old readers of the cancelled title (if those readers are willing to ante up the full $3.99 for essentially half of what they would have read about their character if they had been in a solo book — something that is the big question mark with this idea).  The aforementioned Blue Beetle title was pulling in slightly over 10,000 readers before its cancellation, while Booster Gold — the title it joins as backup feature — pulls in around 25,000 a month. Hypothetically, if DC ends up with one title selling 30,000-35,000, then everyone presumably wins.

Marvel, on the other hand, seems content to simply raise the price without adding much of anything to the finished product.  And since that product — with a few notable exceptions — has frankly been somewhat unspectacular to begin with, they’re banking on either A) the comic book readers’ notorious loyalty to their product, no matter what happens or B) the movie-making machine they’re trying to build to continue filling up their coffers and bringing a profit to the company’s shareholders.

From my perspective, however, it’s simply poor business sense — and I wonder if, after numerous peaks and valleys over time for the industry, we’ve begun to see the final moves being made that will eventually lead to the collapse of it all.  It’s no big secret that the comic book reading audience has shrunk dramatically over time;  comic books in the 1960’s were seeing circulation numbers far greater than what is the case today, with many titles cracking half a million copies sold or more.  A big selling title now is any book that breaks the 100,000 mark — and those are few and far between, with many titles hovering in the 25,000-45,000 range instead.

A large amount of that decrease can be traced to the shift of the target audience of comic books from children to adults.  Gone are the days of kids buying comic books and baseball cards (another industry that’s been put onto its deathbed by the shift to an adult demographic and price tags and stupid gimmicks that have driven many out of the hobby, never to return).  Youngsters today have video games, television, and the Internet to take up their time — the comic book isn’t part of their landscape anymore.

However, as the target audience has evolved into the adult reader (witnessed by the explosion of adult themes and complex story lines now found in today’s fare), even people like myself are being driven away by the price tag of staying in the hobby.  And it’s not all inflation either — as Rich Johnston of Comic Book Resources wrote about last October, the price of a book today, if inflation were applied, should be only slightly over a dollar ($1.09 to be exact).

So where’s the extra money going?  Supposedly, it’s into better paper quality (though I’ve bought new books myself over the last year that had loose pages or misplaced staples — so much for “quality”) and into the cost of drawing top-flight “talent” to the industry.  But some of that talent (like Joss Whedon, of Firefly and Buffy fame, for one) have been responsible for another disturbing trend in the industry — that of the book that can’t even be published on time (in some cases, some books not seeing print until they’re months late).  This is yet another factor that is crippling the industry rather then helping it.

The end result is, if die-hard comic book geeks like myself are being pushed out of the hobby — and why would I spend $4.00 for a crappy new issue when I can buy a more valuable, more enjoyable back issue for maybe half of that — then who’s going to replace us when we’re gone?  The readers and the collectors in the hobby are getting older, and there won’t be any kids like I was, reading books my parents bought me and buying my own when I was able, on the horizon.  Marvel (and to a lesser extent, DC) might justify their higher prices now by claiming that, while their readership continues to shrink, their profit is increased enough to make up the difference.

But there’s a tipping point for that marketing strategy — and I think they’re about to reach it.  In their quest for short-term financial gain, they’re driving away their loyal customer base one by one — and at some point, if they’re not careful, they’ll be left with an industry in such dire straights that not even a Superman will be able to save it.

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