DC Comics announced this week that its monthly "Rebirth" titles currently priced at $2.99 would see an increase to $3.99, though they would also gain a code for a digital copy of the issue; "All-Star Batman," Scott Snyder's showcase title with rotating artists, will also receive a digital code, and will continue to sport a $4.99 price tag. Twice-monthly titles, however, will remain $2.99 per issue.
Price increases always raise hackles amongst readers, but what's remarkable about the current situation is that it could have been avoided -- that is, it could have been avoided if DC had not fought so long and so hard to keep the lower price. Also interesting is that DC is adopting a free digital code scheme which appears to be identical to the one Marvel abandoned only two weeks ago. So why take these steps now, and what does it really mean for readers?
"Drawing the Line at $2.99"
Just before the New 52 relaunch, DC rolled out its "Drawing the Line at $2.99" marketing campaign, highlighting that many of its popular titles would sport a lower price point, thereby sticking a finger in Marvel's eye, where sub-$3 comics had by this point all but disappeared. The extraordinarily insider-baseball focus of the campaign -- it assumed that readers, including the new and casual fans the publisher hoped to sway with the New 52, would be aware of industry trends and, further, think this was a damn good price for a comic book -- was only the first and most obvious problem. But the campaign was rather doomed from the start, as prices continued to creep upward, or $2.99 titles were scrapped in favor of books that could be priced at $3.99. And as this happened, "Drawing the Line" became a punchline.
With "Rebirth," DC again committed to selling many of its titles at $2.99, although this time without overly drawing attention to itself. It may have been just as easy to price everything (except, perhaps, the twice-monthlies) at $3.99 from the start to avoid the backlash against the inevitable price increase. Would this have kneecapped less established titles? It's hard to say; Marvel, as previously mentioned, holds the line at $3.99 or above, regardless of a character's popularity. They've done all right for themselves, and titles seem to rise and fall at the House of Ideas without regard to price.
Not A Great Money Grab
The most immediate explanation is that DC expects the price hike to bring in additional revenue, and there's no doubt that it will -- but it won't score the publisher an extra $1 per issue sold. Diamond and the retailer take a significant cut of a comic's cover price, and there will also be a cost associated with the free digital code -- first, from comiXology for supplying the code, and second, for the higher printing costs associated with printing an individual code for each comic and stickering over it (assuming DC will be replicating Marvel's mechanism). There may, however, be other ways the increases will make them more money.
With or without a price hike, some titles are bound to be cancelled sooner or later. The increase may accelerate this for some, but not all, titles. And even as sales trickle downward, a low-selling title may remain sustainable for longer under the higher price point -- if DC can make the same amount selling 16,000 copies that it now makes with 18,000, that could buy the creative team an extra couple months to wrap up their story. But it's still going to wrap up.
Let's say that DC knows raising the price will sink "Blue Beetle," but believes "Teen Titans" can survive. "Blue Beetle" is currently selling around 25,000 copies every month, while "Teen Titans" sells twice that. After several months, "TT" in our hypothetical example is down to 45,000 copies and "BB" is cancelled. In this scenario, DC's sacrificed a lower-selling series, but made up a lot of that in the price increase to the higher-selling one -- plus they save on the printing and creative costs of the additional title.
Yes, this seemsto point toward a consolidated line, but that doesn't necessarily have to be the case. Titles are relaunched all the time nowadays, and a "Blue Beetle" series that starts at $3.99 may fare better than one fans had budgeted only $2.99 to read. Starting from the higher baseline may also enable them to take more risks on new series moving forward.
Gaming the System
The addition of the codes is another wrinkle, though. Marvel codes are frequently traded, sold and given away, a practice that, while officially forbidden, many at Marvel have actively encouraged. There is no question that free codes present an opportunity for readers to try something new, while trading codes effectively doubles the number of comics a fan can afford each month. Those readers especially wedded to print, of course, can simply sell their codes on ebay or online forums; the going rate tends to be about $1-2, depending on the title. These folks could theoretically see their monthly comics spending
— Jeff Rothman (@amazingjr87) January 18, 2017
That said, the question remains of what DC's official stance on code exchange will be, and will the publisher's creators and editors hold to it? What are they hoping to gain by including the code? It can't be as simple as justifying the price hike, or it wouldn't be worth doing; most "Batgirl" readers are going to buy the monthly issues whether there's a free digital copy or not, though, of course, they may appreciate the gesture. In the press release announcing the change, DC's SVP, Sales & Trade Marketing John Cunningham said, "We’ve heard from many fans that they like to read and collect our books in both digital and print formats so this new offering gives DC readers the convenience and value pricing they asked for.” That's certainly spin, but Cunningham alludes to market research that has definitely taken place -- "heard from many fans" isn't just folks piping up at comic cons, DC has actually done a number of surveys about reader behavior. Adding the codes could be a competitive move -- Marvel was doing it, DC had to in order to keep up. DC almost certainly didn't know Marvel would be canceling its digital code program when they set the wheels in motion for its own; business decisions simply aren't made that quickly. From that perspective, the good will and increased usability created by the codes may be justification enough.
But if the idea is to increase readership through official or unofficial giveaways and code swapping, the equation changes. This can, on the one hand, be viewed as a lost sale -- if I get a free copy of "Cyborg," I'm not going to buy that issue -- but chalked up as a marketing expense, this isn't a terrible spend. I'm not going to buy that issue, but I might buy the next, I might seek out back issues, or I might buy the trade once it's out. Or, I may continue to seek out somebody giving away the next issue, perhaps a DC social media person, and this would build enthusiasm and engagement, as well as potential sales down the line. Again, Marvel's sales haven't exactly suffered under the digital code program, although its cancellation suggests that the publisher either feels its advantage has run its course, or believes it could do even better without it -- time will tell!
Improving (?) on the Marvel Model
Shortly after announcing the price increase, DC clarified that digital editions will remain $2.99. This has some intriguing implications. It's more than Marvel did -- $3.99 would get you a print copy plus a code, or just the digital comic -- and represents something fans have been asking for since the introduction of digital comics, a lower price for the non-physical edition. The move, though, is likely to anger bricks-and-mortar retailers, as it makes digital comics more attractive.
Even accounting for shop subscriber discounts, often in the range of 10-20%, the digital comics will now be cheaper than print. Will this sway print readers to switch? After the early Wild West days of ebooks and digital comics, reader behaviors have largely stabilized in the last few years, which should give comic shops some comfort. And, of course, comics are a unique medium, in that a physical comic can be both read and collected. On the other hand, this will mark the first time one of the major comics publishers has offered the digital edition of its serialized titles for less than the print version on an ongoing basis. It's a new frontier -- again.
All of the Above
It all comes back to this: DC Entertainment believes that this price increase, coupled with the digital code program, is the right move for its business. They believe it will increase the amount of money brought in. But the calculus of how they think this will work is more complex than simply putting another dollar in their pocket for every issue sold. They will lose some readers with the price hike -- how many? -- and gain others through the digital codes -- how many? -- with implications felt throughout the line. The thing to watch moving forward, however, is whether the biweekly titles follow suit. There is increased risk in asking for more money from readers twice each month; Marvel has managed $3.99 for "more than monthly" titles, meaning comics releasing about 13-16 issues per year, but except for miniseries has rarely tried it for a series releasing two issues every month. Can DC make it work? Or in this, finally, will they draw the line?