In the midst of the last comics recession in 2010, DC embarked upon a plan to cut page counts by two pages (from 22 to 20) in order to allow a price cut from $3.99 to $2.99. Much remarked upon at the time, it was not the only time price cuts had been employed as a strategy — and it was partially in response to the fact that comics prices had increased quickly despite the weakness in the general economy.
It was also, as I heard it later put by a DC executive, “the most popular, least financially successful thing we’ve ever done.” The price drop took a slow patch editorially and compounded it. By February 2011, several months into the switch, DC led the rankings — but its unit sales in the Top 300 had dropped 12%, while its dollar sales for those comics were off by a lot more: 17%. By May, DC had announced plans for its relaunch, leaving most of the $2.99 pricing in place but pairing it up with its largest event in years.
The $2.99 price point stayed around, disappearing from the highest profile titles gradually but remaining all the way up to “Rebirth” on some middle- and lower-tier titles. And one of the features of 2016’s “Rebirth” was a rollback on the marquee titles, as well.
That launch was generally regarded as successful, resulting in what we saw in August: the largest number of comics shipped to Direct Market shops in a single month since the Diamond Exclusive Era began nearly 20 years ago. Since then, however, as the “Rebirth” titles have matured and left their returnability windows, general market sales in the fall have softened, leading to discussions as to why. One analysis by Todd Allen today cites retailer concerns that DC’s pricing is too low — and while the author of the piece discourages that interpretation, lower pricing does impact the calculus retailers face for a variety of reasons. You also have to go back almost 15 years to the last time the average price for the Top 300 comics was $2.99 — and 10 years to the last time the weighted price average was that low. It’s doubtful any of retailers’ other expenses have stayed at 2001 and 2006 levels.
Tricky questions of elasticity of price and demand aside, there is one thing we can answer. Through November, 2016 is still doing better than 2015, but just barely: comic books, graphic novels, and magazines in the North American market are up by 1.82%, or $9.6 million. What if DC had moved all its titles from $2.99 to $3.99 with Rebirth #1? What is the maximum effect that single dollar per transaction could have had?
This, we know: Since and including Rebirth #1, DC has had 314 entries into the Top 300s through November. Some of those are the same titles recurring because of reorders; a few are books like Scooby Doo that sneak onto the bottom of the charts and wouldn’t have been part of that event. But let’s go ahead and look at their total sales, just based on what Diamond said it shipped: a minimum of 18.4 million copies, worth almost exactly $55 million at cover price.
Let’s pretend for a moment all those books were priced at $3.99 — and, just to get an upper limit for discussion, that the exact same number of copies sold. That would result in $73.4 million, an increase of at least $18.4 million; it’s probably closer to $20 million, given the number of DC reordered titles that fall outside the Top 300. If there was that additional sum in the market in 2016, Diamond would be reporting its overall sales up around 5% this year rather than 2%. And in this imaginary case, DC would have seen even more impact on its market share: through November, DC is looking at about a 30% dollar market share for the year; adding a dollar to those books would take it to 32%.
Now, of course, we would likely expect the higher price to result in lower unit sales — but they probably wouldn’t drop by 33% due to a $2.99 to $3.99 move, because demand has tended to be relatively inelastic in the past when that happens. My guess is that the Direct Market’s overall sales would be up a point or two over its current situation; the equivalent of adding, say, another publisher the size of Boom Studios. The Rebirth-at-$3.99 world would be one where the year-over-year increase would be about double what we have now — and a rate of Direct Market growth that, while slower than 2015 when Marvel got Star Wars, would be about what we saw in 2014, when it was up 4%. (Edit: Any comparison with 2015 must begin with Star Wars, which alone accounted for more than $34 million that year; it would have had a market share of 6%, making it alone the fourth largest publisher. Given that superheated pace was unlikely to continue, it’s remarkable that 2016 has managed to stay ahead.)
There’s no attempt here to engage issues of whether additional sampling prompted by lower prices may help sales on graphic novels or the rest of the line; that’s a reasonable proposition, but difficult to test. I also am not exploring the added marginal costs to retailers of handling the additional cheaper books. But as we get further into the “what if?” game of 2016, it’s worth knowing how much of a difference a dollar in the right place might have made. In this case, the answer is likely not to be decisive for the industry at large; individual stores on the edge may be another story.
Comichron founder John Jackson Miller has tracked the comics industry for more than 25 years, including a decade editing the industry’s retail trade magazine; he is the author of several guides to comics, as well as more than a hundred comic books for various franchises.
He is the author of novels including Star Wars: Kenobi, Star Wars: A New Dawn, Star Trek: Discovery – The Enterprise War, and his latest release, Star Trek: Discovery – Die Standing. Read more about them at his fiction site.
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