Have cover prices ever gone down?

With publishers announcing some fine-tuning to the pricing structure for new comics — DC, in particular, plans to move some titles from $3.99 with 22 story pages to $2.99 with 20 story pages, among other changes — I’ve been asked whether publishers have ever done line-wide price decreases before.

In a word, yes. Several times, in fact. Dell tried to leap from 10¢ to 15¢ in 1961, only to have most of the other publishers to 12¢ and stick. Defeated, it went back to 10¢ in mid-1962, just before the Dell/Gold Key split.

In 1971, DC went from 15¢ to 25¢ with 16 extra pages; Marvel followed it from 15¢ to 25¢ without the page count change, only to pull quickly back to 20¢. (Correction: As noted in the comments, Marvel did add pages in its one-month experiment.) DC dropped to 20¢ in 1972, dropping the extra 16 pages.

As to cutting story pages as a pricing strategy, it was obviously done throughout the 1950s to hold the price line, with total page counts (minus covers) going from 64 to 48 to 32 pages. Removing story pages was also done in the 1970s, with Marvel going from 22 to 20 and finally 17 story pages; the page count drop came in a decade of frequent price increases, and was not associated with any decrease like the ones recently announced.

I have written before that the combination of rising prices and dropping story page counts was nearly deadly for the industry. Late 1970s Marvels literally had an ad on every other page (15 interior ad pages plus 3 cover ads = 50% of 32 interior pages plus four cover pages), making issues difficult for consumers to read, hard for writers to write, and harder still for artists to draw. Panel counts climbed in that era, as writers tried to jam in more story into fewer pages. Comics more than tripled in price in the 1970s, going from 15¢ to 50¢; it was the worst of both worlds for readers at the time. (Marvel went back to 22 story pages in late 1980, without a price increase.)

The current announcements, thus, don’t have an exact comparison in comics history. The DC plan of reducing story page count and price simultaneously isn’t really on the scale of the 25¢ to 20¢ change, where many more pages were dropped. The announced DC strategy — which also involves adding story pages to comics at higher pricing tiers — will be interesting to watch in action.

Publishers have done a number of other things over the years using page count changes to address pricing. Dark Horse did something subtle for a while by producing entire books of the same cover-quality paper stock, meaning you had 32 pages including cover (instead of 32 plus four) — but that only removed ad pages, and not editorial pages. And trim sizes (the physical dimensions of the printed page) have been reduced many times in the history of comics, requiring different-sized comic bags for the various “ages.”

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