What the Amazon Screw-Up Tells Us About $3.99 Comics and the Direct Market
For people not in the know, there's been a bit of an online gold rush the past few days as, likely due to a major data mix-up, tons (literally, most likely!) of incredibly expensive trades and hardcovers distributed by Diamond Comics Distributors were accidentally repriced in Amazon's system (at list price, as opposed to discount price) at the paltry sum of $14.99. Some of them even got repriced down to about eight bucks later as a result of the surge in demand that shot the books to the top of the bestseller list and triggered Amazon's automatic-discount-for-bestsellers code.
Now, Rich Johnston would tell you this:
"But if there is a lesson here, it's this. Comics are too expensive, You make them cheaper, much cheaper, and people will buy them. Buy lots of them. Buy them more than anything on Amazon."
Now, I don't get his logic here at all. If you make comics cheaper, people will buy them: Well, yes, that's obvious. More people will buy anything if it's cheaper, for the most part. Comics are an entertainment medium; they're an elastic good, and like most luxury items people will buy more if they are cheaper. This is basic high school economics.
Extrapolating from this that "comics are too expensive", though? That is, as Chris Butcher said, "utterly stupid."The items we're talking about here that everyone jumped on -- the big, 400+-page omnibus editions that sometimes sell for above a solid hundo -- are expensive. Of COURSE they're expensive, they're oversized luxury items. Nobody's going to read "Madman Gargantua" on a train, or to experience it for the first time; these are largely items for people who are already fans of these stories, with the exceptions of things like the Brubaker "Captain America" omnibus, which was already a pretty affordable way to grab the first two and a half years or so of that run. So, no, these omnibuses aren't too expensive. The fact that they're expensive is the point.
Rich then defends himself with a point about the $3.99 Marvel price point in the Direct Market and -- what does that have to do with a rush on Amazon for expensive luxury editions? I'm willing to bet that a ton of the people who jumped on this deal didn't get these omnibuses because they were already planning to get them or wanted to read the stories, a lot of them maybe already had them in single issues or trades and wouldn't normally consider upgrading but why not get the big, awesome luxury edition for fifteen bucks?
And what about the scores of people buying 60-70 copies to flip on eBay? If even just these omnibuses were set at $15 regularly, we wouldn't see those sales occur because immediately flipping them would be pointless. For a LOT of buyers, even, I imagine the need for immediacy in purchasing was the fear of the hammer coming down and the prices going back to normal. If omnibuses were just $15 all the time, I doubt we'd see the ticket-onsale purchasing mentality that was on display here that rocketed these books to the top of the Amazon bestsellers list.
And none of these points are even remotely applicable to the DM, where the fact that the $1 first issue of Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy's spectacular "Joe the Barbarian" only sold 25,000 copies -- and only lost about 4,000 (rough estimate) of them with the $2.99 second issue, judging by the change in index in February's charts -- points to a market where new characters and concepts have a hard time breaking in no matter what the price. Marvel's $3.99 comics (almost all of which are either AA-list titles or niche miniseries, not new characters/concepts they're trying to push) are doing just fine as well in the marketplace.
As Butcher said, there's still a discussion to be had over the price of comics. One article Johnston links to in the comments to Butcher's post compares the price increase in comics to the price increase in other entertainment media, and that's interesting information -- but even that's a flawed comparison since many $3.99 titles make up for the extra price with extra content, especially all of DC's and quite a few of Marvel's ("Incredible Hulk", "Captain America").
The problems with the Direct Market are incredibly complex and not easily reduced to "shit is too expensive," no matter how hard you try. With the recent increases in Diamond's minimum order amount -- which now requires that orders of new products reach $2,500 -- the DM is no longer the egalitarian utopia that allowed for the independent comics boom. It largely exists to proliferate weekly comics to a worldwide group of specialty shops. And if there's anything this debacle HAS shown us, it's that they certainly aren't ready for prime time when it comes to anything beyond that, since they evidently can't construct a data file properly without losing tons of parties likely hundreds of thousands of dollars -- but that's it.
Edit: Since I wrote this post, Johnston posted with details and instructions on how to harass and harangue Amazon representatives about not getting your obviously hideously underpriced comics for free, because some people are getting $30 consolation gift certificates. Here's all I have to say on this matter: if your time is worth enough that the ten minutes you spent ordering comics cost you $30, then you probably aren't that concerned about losing some expensive comics you can already afford. If it isn't worth that much, then you're just an opportunistic leech.