The Price is Right


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With all the recent developments, I thought it was about time to discuss price points for digital comics, an important issue because we need to get over the notion that creators should be giving away their content because “it’s the internet”. But at the same time, we also need to take advantage of this opportunity to provide more affordable comics to help get more people reading comics, and those reading to try new ones.

So no matter what you think of the iPad announcement or how much of a technological leap you feel it is (some people think it’s just an iPhone that won’t fit in their pocket), we do have to acknowledge that it’s an important, necessary step towards legitimizing the sale of digital comics. We now have a way to deliver and read them on a very lightweight, portable device with a full-size screen. (Please don’t give me the argument that the screen isn’t full-size; it’s larger than many digest size tpbs that do quite well in print).

Furthermore, I had mentioned a couple of weeks ago in my column that the issue is more than just finding the right device, it’s about being able to use many devices. As I predicted, shortly after Apple’s announcement of the iPad, comiXology announced that they would have and app for it. But the most important thing about this is that it will be completely compatible with the iPhone app. A comic bought on one can be read on both devices. And the hope for the future is to have this compatibility extend to even more devices. The idea is that the comics should belong to the user, not the device.

These are the kinds of advancements that I think will soon lead to a fairly well- accepted increase in the price of digital comics. The norm right now is about 99 cents, with some already at $1.99. Sales on the comiXology app for just the iPhone show that these $1.99’s don’t have any problem selling as well as the 99 cent ones, so I don’t think that there’ll be much of an uprising if $1.99 becomes the norm, especially if it means that it can be read on a larger screen and on multiple platforms.

I would like to see us continue the tradition of free first issues. I think that’s a really wise use of digital delivery. It’s a great way to attract new readers, and if they discover they like the comic, they’ll be much more willing to pay for something they know they like.

The $1.99 price should help a lot of creators who’ve been struggling in the business, enabling them to create a better product in the long run.

What I don’t want to see happen is for comics to follow the book market where you have publishers really fighting to maintain high price standards. Recently, the publishing company Macmillan has been at war with Amazon about the price of their e-books for the Kindle. Macmillan wants them to be priced at $14.99 while Amazon preferred to stick to the standard price of $9.99.

Eventually, Amazon caved and will now put the Macmillian books on their Kindle store for $14.99, but I can’t see myself ever paying that much for a digital book. The publishers have to meet the readers halfway on this issue. Yes, I believe creative content should have value, but we’re the ones buying all these expensive new devices so that the publisher doesn’t have to pay to print, ship, store and display print copies.

I remember last year when I was considering buying either the iPod Touch or the Kindle. They would have been for different uses, the Touch for comics and the Kindle for books, and since I read a lot of both, I was interested in trying at least one of the new ways to read them.  While comparison shopping, I found a number of great comic apps like comiXology that offered many free comics and many more for just 99 cents. Then I took a look at the Kindle store and found that most books I would be interested in purchasing where still $9.99, even for digital. So I went with the iPod Touch.

The thing is, when you hear book publishers talk about why they need to keep the price of e-books high, they always compare it to the $25 price of a book. They keep throwing that number out there: “A book costs $25,” or “We shouldn’t have to drop the price so much from the normal $25.” Who typically pays $25 for a book? Maybe once in a while for a new book you really want in hardcover, but those often can be found at discount prices even when first released. Amazon itself offers up to 57% off cover price for new books.

The book publishers want you to accept the $25 price tag as the norm so that $9.99 or $14.99 doesn’t sound like that much. But the truth is, that price is really just for the luxury of having the book in a nice hardcover for your bookshelf, something that can’t be replicated digitally.

There was an interesting article in the New York Times the other week about how to get your book to be a number 1 seller on the Kindle. The answer was to give copies away for free. It seems that a growing number of authors are doing this to increase exposure to their work, something that’s nearly impossible to do with a typically priced book on the book market.

The justification, in a nutshell, is that the author will keep writing and be able to sell future works to their established following.

Many of the larger publishing houses have been against this practice saying that “free is not a business model.”

It’s these publishers who have the most to lose by not controlling the pricing for the book market. This is how they stay in control and make sure authors need them.

If creators realize that they can achieve the same amount of exposure by offering their work at more affordable prices, then they might also realize that they don’t actually need a publisher as much as the publisher needs them. And this might be what truly has them scared.

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  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs Feb 5, 2010 at 4:55am

    as always Tyler, good column. I'm not there yet with the whole digitalisation of comics, online reading etc. But I keep abreast and must admit that the 1.99 price tag seems a bit steep to me. 99 cents sounds perfect for the digital format. Isn't that more in line with the online / offline book pricings you mention?

  • CA3

    CA3 May 9, 2010 at 4:10pm

    This is definitely a solid column you keep delivering. It's a pity I didn't have the time to reply to it until now. I've been reading digital comics, and books for a good while now for free. If I was ever asked to part with money for them now I don't think I'd be particularly motivated to do more than ignore the request.

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