In Response To Spurgeon

By | Tuesday, May 13, 2008 4 comments
Tom Spurgeon posted this piece up on the cost of comic books today. He concludes...
They're too expensive to facilitate a multi-level, satisfying buying experience -- the experience that structurally they cultivate -- for all but a declining few. The squeezing of profits through elements like pricing that outpaces inflation leads to an ossified marketplace that has come dangerously close to fully abandoning its role as the fertile, chaotic creative ground that feeds the medium entire.
Alan David Doane responds by pointing out that a lot of pirated free comics are still too expensive.

I'd like to add my two cents to the debate here by saying that both Tom and Alan have valid points, but they're also both hindered by thinking in terms of an increasingly outdated business model. (To be fair, just about all publishers, writers, artists, etc. are working under the same misconceptions.) The idea that we, as consumers, are paying whatever the cover price of a comic is for the content within it. The latest episodic adventure of Batman, the small slice-of-life reflections of Paul, the slapstick comedy of Groo... whatever type of story you want to read. However, that is NOT what you're paying for. The content you're looking for is, for all intents and purposes, free. What you're paying for is your preferred delivery method -- in the case of comics, frequently, a 32 page pamphlet.

The internet has opened up the ability for just about anyone in the world, regardless of skill or creativity, to publish whatever they like with effectively no start-up costs. That might be a blog, a podcast, a comic, a book, a movie... just about any type of content one might want to put out for the world to see/hear.* They can put their ideas, their creations, out for public consumption. There's no charge to publish, so there's no charge to consume. However if you, as a consumer, want to experience something more than just the ideas being presented -- if you want some tangible aspect of those ideas -- that is going to cost you.

Take a look at the Foglio's Girl Genius. (Yes, I know they get trotted out every time the discussion goes to successful web comics. I'll have more examples if you just bear with me.) You can go to their web site and read the entire series from page 1. You can read ancillary stories that have never been published in paper form. You can download audio plays. All by the creative minds who came up with the idea. All for free. All legally available for free.

And yet, the Foglios are making a living drawing comics. How? By selling the tangible goods related to their story. You can buy the original pages of art. You can buy collected graphic novel versions of the story. You can buy t-shirts and mouse pads and coffee mugs. All of that costs you, the consumer, money. But what are you paying for? You're not paying for the image of Agatha Heterodyne, you're paying for the raw materials that image is on. Whether it's bound sheets of paper or molded plastic, you're paying for stuff. Actual, tangible stuff.

George Carlin used to have a routine about all the stuff people have. But he was, in effect, making fun of consumerism. The act of amassing larger and larger piles of stuff which is only representative of our thoughts, ideas, and experiences. Or, more accurately, representative of other people's thoughts, ideas and experiences which we would like to share.

Because what is reading a comic book, but an experience? There are any number of ways we can participate in that experience and share it with others. But we frequently choose to have that experience represented as a series of 32 page pamphlets, shoved in a ever-growing number of long boxes. We're paying money NOT for the experience itself, but for a tangible representation of that experience.

Here's another example: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. You can download a copy of the original text of the book here. You can download a copy of someone reading the text here. You can download a relatively recent comic book adaptation of the original story here:

All of these are completely free and completely legal, and will sit unobtrusively on your hard drive.

Alternatively, you can head over to Amazon to buy a copy of the book here. Or the same story with annotations. Or the Cliff's Notes version. Or a pop-up version. Or a DVD of Disney's version. Any of which will cost somewhere between $5 and $25, but you'll have a tangible version to place on your bookshelf.

Alternatively, you could shell out substantially more money to obtain a rare 1899 copy of the book. Or a 1918 copy. Or an original animation cel from one of the various movies. You still get a tangible version, plus you get the ability to place it under glass and have your friends "Oooo" and "Aaaah" over it.

In any of those scenarios, you get essentially the same story. The same thoughts and ideas Lewis Carroll put down almost 150 years ago. But some will cost you a good deal more than others, and for what? For a different delivery method. For a different object. For a different piece of stuff.

I could go to the Folgio's web site every other day and read their latest story developments one page at a time. Or I download an audio version of Alice and listen to it while I walk the dog. But I actively choose to buy Girl Genius as it gets published in a trade paperback format. I actively choose to buy a new/different edition of Carroll's masterpiece. I am willing to pay for a specific delivery method for content which is freely available.

And that's the point that Tom misses. Sure, three bucks is too much for a 32-page gamble on what may or may not be a decent story. But that's NOT how people sample comics. They read Rainbow Orchid or Tozo or Hereville or Templar, AZ or whatever online and, then, if they like it, they drop a few bucks for a printed copy of it. Sure, some people will always have an impulse purchase in their LCS from time to time when they see something that strikes their fancy. But that's not the primary business model going deeper into the 21st century. It can't be because, as Tom points out, it's too cost-prohibitive from a consumer standpoint.

The corollary to this, of course, is that the current system at Diamond doesn't work. It's built and structured around an untenable model in which not only are samples unavailable, but the purchases must be made months in advance, often before the product is even itself complete. That it's sustained itself this long honestly surprises me to no end. Many people have complained about issues with Diamond over the years, but as creators and publishers recognize better ways to generate income (i.e. the "Airship Entertainment Publishing Model") Diamond will become less and less relevant to publishers' revenue streams.

Which actually presents something of an opportunity. Comic fans will want to be able to sample more and more comics, but they won't want to have to go to each publishers' web site to download samples. I think someone will be able to clean house in another decade or so if they were able to A) establish themselves as a one-stop repository for all publishers' sample/downloadable comics, and B) also set themselves up as a retailer so that you could not only sample, but order whatever comics/graphic novels you like. Sure, you'd get some folks who read the digital versions and never ordered anything, but it would go a long way to creative diversity in the field and helping to support the smaller, independent folks who otherwise wouldn't get the shelf space that's normally devoted to marvel and DC.

And that's where Tom's argument falls apart, I think. He recognizes the problem in the current, antiquated system, but doesn't bring in the new/current business models that are replacing the status quo to see that we're actually getting more creativity, more diversity, and at a lower sampling cost.

* Admittedly, the 'net is still lacking dimensions for taste, touch, and smell but I'm largely talking about comic books here. The content of comics only has the dimension of sight. The smell and touch of an old comic, while certainly notable to the experience, is generally not intended or designed by the creators. The only portion of the comic reading experience they even attempt to influence is sight -- which is wholly replicable online.
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Anonymous said...

In a sense, I suppose this issue depends on whether you're talking about comics, or comic books. Comic books are quite expensive, certainly; I can only assume this is due in part to the significant increase in the production quality (paper, color, better printing) and perhaps (less confident, here) creators being paid better.

Then again, "expensive" is an interesting notion. Is $8 for a 95 minute movie expensive? $25 for a DVD? I don't even know how much video games cost these days (darn kids) but presumably those things can't be cheap. People find the money for them, though.

Perhaps what's more significant than expense, here, is value. It occurs to me that movies, video games and CDs can all, far more readily than comics, be shared. Yeah, you can share a comic, but two or more people don't really experience it together in the same way as they might experience music or a game; even going to a movie is more of a social experience. Perhaps this provides additional value that helps justify, at least on some instinctive level, other "expensive" activities, while comics in any format lose out.

(This also applies to books, though of course books are both generally less expensive to produce, and also available in libraries... and even with all that, how many people in our society read for pleasure?)

There is arguably some degree of added "social" value to comics/comic books, for some people; I'm experiencing said value right now, one could say. Likewise for books, if you happen to belong to a book club.

But, this is still separated from the actual direct product experience, and considerably less likely to be relevant to any given buyer, let alone a newcomer.


Anonymous said...

Sean, I'm kind of confused. I wrote directly on the nature of on-line media as a replacement sampler delivery system; I just don't think it's a likely replacement system. We disagree on that, sure, but it's not like I ignored it.

Matt -- Yes, the notion of price vs. value is noteworthy. I think Tom and Alan both hit that sufficiently, so I didn't feel the need to elaborate. You do bring up an excellent point, though, that some of that value comes from the social interaction that occurs outside of the actual reading experience!

Tom -- What I was trying to get to was that A) you're right that the current model doesn't work and is pricey for sampling new material, B) the reason that it doesn't work is that the business model has changed/is changing, and I didn't really get a sense that you really acknowledged that. You did touch on digital sampling, but I think you glossed over it's significance as a delivery mechanism. (Which is natural, given that you don't think it's very viable.)

What I tried to expand on was WHY it is viable -- namely that content (generally speaking) is free already and people are paying for the delivery system. Movie theaters, for example, make almost all of their money from concession sales and could charge nothing for movie admission and still make a profit. In a market where few comics break 100,000 in sales, something needs to be done to get them out to more people and, since the content is free, publishers would do well, I think, to simply put ALL of their content online so people DO have the opportunity to sample whatever they like.

I know that I, for one, have sampled any number of comics online in some capacity before going out and purchasing a paper copy. I don't see any reason why that won't be happening more for more people. Phil Foglio is an easy example, but I'm sure we can both point to more and more people who follow a similar model. Scott Kurtz, Jennie Breeden... I'm betting Ellis' FreakAngels will get the TPB treatment. I think it's very indicative of something that's working, and I felt you dismissed it a little too casually.

Pj Perez said...

Sean, something else to consider though -- and when I first read Tom's blog earlier this morning I thought of this -- is that, yes, the business model paradigm has shifted, but a large part of the comic book price increase versus standard inflation rates may also be going into the pockets of creators. Years ago -- let's say, pre-1990 -- comic book writers and artists did not make a lot of money. They were overworked, many had no benefits, they rarely owned their own characters.

Since the late-1970s, that started to change, but it was really with the Image revolution in the early '90s that valuable creators became assets to comic companies and not just hands in the production line. I mean, think about it: Late books by top creators are a regular thing now. Back in the day, if a creator could not meet a deadline, a fill-in story ran because, hell, that book had to get out on time. And the writer/artist holding up the works would be accountable.

So what do we have going into the rising price of comic books that pushes them beyond what should be only about 83 cents compared to 12 cent, 1961 prices? Employee benefits. Pay scales that now have to compete not with other comic companies but also with the film and TV industries. All that fancy paper and digital printing. And who knows what digital lettering/coloring companies are charging comic publishers versus the pennies they paid folks such as Joe Rosen and Christie Scheele back in the day?

And, of course, it's like gasoline: Even though we're paying exorbitant prices, oil companies are recording RECORD PROFITS because we KEEP BUYING.

Just some thoughts to add, not disagreeing with you or Tom. :)