Retailers Speak on Falling Sales and the Impact of $3.99 Comics
After ICV2 recently released figures that showed a significant drop in comics sales for August 2010, when no single comic broke the 100,000 mark, they also pointed a finger at a possible culprit that has been controversial in comics circles among fans and retailers alike: the price increase of many comics from $2.99 to $3.99, particularly at Marvel and DC.
We decided to check in with retailers across the country -- the men and women who have the most direct view of how a price increase affects sales -- about the falling numbers, and what kind of impact the $3.99 price point has had both on their customers and their businesses. See what they had to say, and weigh in with your thoughts on $3.99 comics in our reader poll at the end of the article.
Chris Rosa, Meltdown Comics, Los Angeles: "We're seeing an impact especially with the secondary titles. Even our more deep-pocketed customers are putting things back, and cutting down to the essentials... This summer has underperformed, and I think [the $3.99 price point] is a big part of it, but also I think the lack of an event and the fact that the big books at both [companies] are extended denouements to events. There's nothing really inspiring people to run out to the stores. People are tired of buying four Avengers titles at $3.99 a pop. If I had a dollar for every time someone said, "Why am I reading this?" I'd be Scrooge McDuck right now. At DC, their showcase books like Green Lantern and Batman are $2.99, and I'm not seeing the backlash as much.
Also, you know [digital] piracy is out there, but it never really confronted me until I had semi-regulars come by, and they seemed conversant in every book even though I hadn't seen them in a while. I asked when or where they were buying, and they just said, 'I'm downloading.' Just totally matter of fact."
Gerry Gladston, Midtown Comics, New York City: "The $3.99 price point has not affected our sales, but we see any increase as unwelcome, especially in this economy. Although it hasn't hurt us yet, we do hear occasional rumblings from customers, and we hope it won't cause them to reduce the number of titles they purchase. For now, we're keeping our fingers crossed!"
Adam Healy, Cosmic Monkey Comics, Portland: "We've seen price increases before during certain crises, but never a full third, and with no justification. It's phenomenal, and it's indefensible. When they raise the prices, that directly impacts our ability to stock the shelves and showcase what's out there, because we're only working with so much money... Whatever money we've made from the price increase, we've lost from the extra books we've had to pick up that we didn't sell.
Marvel is currently publishing what everyone else puts out as a $2.99 comic for $3.99, but with no added value. The first monthly book [at $3.99] with no added value was "Dark Avengers," and that's when we started to get nervous about because we realized all our unsold copies were going to cost us more money. At first it didn't seem to hurt sales because people were really excited about it, but now across the board, we've seen the sales for every $3.99 book go down, except for "Hulk" and "Thor." A lot of companies are only printing to order too, so if we sell out we can't reorder the last month's issue, which means we can't grow a lot of things.
Overall, people are tired and the fun has gone out of it, because the price has gone up and there's an overabundance of comics these days. We made a big cutback in what we ordered for the shelf, and it was very visible – people could see that we had less, and we sold out more, which I think hurt us a little bit. They're overproducing everything at the same time as they're raising prices, so it can be hard to differentiate between those two in terms of what is hurting sales more. What publishers need to remember is that comics market is all about fun and satisfaction, and when publishers take all the fun out of it and make everyone work so much harder for it – the reader and the retailer -- everybody loses... I have no concerns about digital piracy, though. Whatever they do digitally is only going to help us in the long term, because comics is such a tiny market."
Jeff Ayers, Forbidden Planet, New York City: "I can say that the 3.99 price point affects [readers] in that people are being more selective about what they're spending their money on... I've been working at comics stores since they were 15 cents. Percentage-wise, this is one of the biggest increases I've ever seen. If you were getting a 20 comics a week and tacking on a dollar, that really adds up. Of course, the last month [August] wasn't incredibly strong in terms of content, either, especially at that price point. Generally we don't hear people complain about it in terms of the price, but the storyline. It's "oh, that really sucks for 4 bucks." You're getting, what, a 28 page comic? And a lot of that is splash pages, not story."
Carr D'Angelo, Earth-2, Los Angeles: My reaction to the current sales figures is that this is a market correction, a normalization, not unlike the stock market. I think these top sellers represent comics that are actually selling through to readers, as opposed to extra copies ordered to meet publisher incentives.
Looking at the last few months before August 2010, and even looking back to August 2009, many of the comics that sold more than 100k were not selling through but have inflated retailer orders because of deep discount incentive offers and high-ratio variants. Except for last August's Blackest Night 2, it doesn't seem that a lot of the titles that were breaking 100k actually had that many readers. The titles at the top of the August 2010 list, like Brightest Day and the Avengers titles, are actually titles we have high sell through on and in some cases are even re-ordering.
One reason August may have been off compared to last year is that there was no big summer event from DC or Marvel launched, the way we had Blackest Night and Captain America Reborn last year. In relation to July and June, August also suffered from a lack of certain major releases such as Batman and Robin, Return of Bruce Wayne and Nemesis. Amazing Spider-Man had only two issues instead of three. Even when there are not major crossovers, publishers need to deliver their most popular series on a regular basis and give readers a reason to show up every week.