Friday, July 31, 2009

Back-up features in comics

The recent jump to the $3.99 price point for some titles has been implemented in different ways. Marvel Comics bumped up the price on their top level monthly titles and mini-series and left their mid-level and lower selling titles at the $2.99 price. DC initially bumped up seven monthly titles and select mini-series (plus two more recently premiering titles) and left the rest of their line at the $2.99 price. However, whereas Marvel Comics made no changes to the content of the more expensive monthly titles (same page counts), DC has added 8 page back-up features to the higher priced monthly books. This begs the question – do the back-up features actually accomplish anything?

A normal comic is 22 pages. Coming in at $2.99, that boils down to somewhere close to $1 per 8 pages ($1.09 if you want to get technical). So by raising the price of select titles by $1 to $3.99 and adding 8 extra pages of material, effectively the cost per page hasn’t really changed. And I would assume the cost to produce the additional material remains the same (on a per page basis), so the end result is that one wouldn’t expect DC to be seeing any additional profits on their $3.99 comics (certainly not compared to Marvel Comics who is getting $1 more per book without additional costs).

Here is the list of DC’s (monthly) $3.99 titles: 
Detective Comics – Batwoman / The Question 
Batman: Streets of Gotham – Batman / Manhunter 
Action Comics – Flamebird & Nightwing (Kryptonian versions) / Captain Atom 
Adventure Comics – Superboy / Legion of Superheroes 
Booster Gold – Booster Gold / Blue Beetle 
Doom Patrol – Doom Patrol / Metal Men 
Green Arrow & Black Canary – Green Arrow & Black Canary (back-up alternates between them) 
The Shield – The Shield / Inferno (premieres in Sept) 
The Web – The Web / Hangman (premieres in Sept)

So what is the benefit to DC? First, adding the backup feature enables them to raise prices without making their readers feel like they are being completely taken advantage of. Second, it allows them to test the waters of a price increase without alienating those same fans. We all know eventually the back-up features are going to disappear and the $3.99 price will remain. By that point they have already gotten their readers used to paying that price each month for the titles in question so it won’t be a sudden shock to the wallet. A third benefit is that it allows them to put into print stories about characters who otherwise wouldn’t have a title and enables them to build interest in said characters and perhaps generate enough of a fan base to merit giving those characters their own title.
But does it really work that way?

The way I see it, there are three principle audiences for these DC titles. The first is fans of the main feature character(s). They were buying the title before the back-up feature was added. They likely don’t appreciate having to pay an extra $1 for back-up material they care little for. The second is fans of the main feature character(s) and the back-up feature character(s). These fans are the ones who would have the least number of complaints about paying an extra $1 for the title because they are happy to be getting stories with the back-up feature character(s). The third is fans of the back-up feature character(s). These fans are the most unappreciative of the new price point because they care little about the main feature and are paying a premium for the back-up stories (I expect these fans are few and far between). There is a fourth category, but those are comic fans who don’t like the main feature character(s) and back-up feature character(s), and as they were not buying the book to begin with, we don’t really care about them.

Of the three (principle) audiences, two of them are less welcoming of the higher price point because they are paying ‘extra’ for characters/material they have little interest in. While they may have added a few new readers to the title through the addition of the back-up features (those being fans who care little for the main feature characters but are buying for the back-up feature), they’ve likely lost more readers who were chased away by the higher price. And the new readers are temporary at best because once the back-up feature is dropped, those readers will leave the title as well.

Those who are fans of the back-up feature (whether they were original readers of the title who also happen to like the addition of the back-up feature or if they started reading strictly because of the back-up feature) still can’t be overly happy about the progression of the stories. With 8 pages per issue, it takes 3 months before it matches the equivalent of a regular comic issue. With that in mind, while the main feature sees 12 full issues per year, the back-up feature only manages about 4 full issues worth per year.
Here is a likely 3 month scenario: 
22 page main feature + 8 page back-up feature 
22 page main feature + 8 page back-up feature (perhaps 1 recap page and 7 pages of story) 
22 page main feature + 8 page back-up feature (perhaps 1 recap page and 7 pages of story) 
Supposing a story-arc runs 4 issues, the main feature has 3 story arcs per year and the back-up feature takes a year to complete a single story-arc*. A year is a long time to ‘wait’ for a full (88 page) story arc (unless you are an Ultimate Wolverine vs. Ultimate Hulk reader, in which case a year seems like a quick turnaround). 

Given all of these factors, the likely outcome is that sales on the title take a significant drop and are replaced by sales of the trade. Fans of both features continue to buy the monthly issues. A number of fans of just the main feature decide to wait for the trade so they don’t have to pay for a back-up feature they have little interest in. And fans of the back-up feature wait for the trade collection of the back-up feature so they don’t have to pay a premium price to read those stories. In the end, does anybody really win? Does DC end up making more money? Do fans end up with the material they want? The only real winners might be fans of the back-up features. Assuming they are actually collected and printed in trade format, those fans will be able to buy stories featuring some of their favorite characters that otherwise wouldn’t be available. And perhaps that translates into sales for DC that not only offset the loss of sales caused by the price increase of the monthly title, but also allows them to bring new monthly titles to the market if those back-up features generate enough fan interest. 

* I’m personally intrigued by the idea of rotating the main and back-up features to increase the number of story arcs (Green Arrow & Black Canary already do something similar – the back-up feature rotates between the two stars of the series while the main feature may focus on one or both of the characters in any given issue). 
Again, supposing a 4 issue story-arc, here is how the two plans would compare: 
Current plan 
Main feature – [12 + 12 + 12 + 12] + [12 + 12 + 12 + 12] + [12 + 12 + 12 + 12] = 3 story arcs per year 
Back-up feature – [ (8 + 8 + 8 ) + (8 + 8 + 8 ) +(8 + 8 + 8 ) +(8 + 8 + 8 ) ] = 1 story arc per year 
Rotation plan 
Main feature – [12 + 8 + 12 + 8 + 12 + 8] + [12 + 8 + 12 + 8 + 12 + 8] = 2 story arcs per year 
Back-up feature – [8 + 12 + 8 + 12 + 8 + 12] + [8 + 12 + 8 + 12 + 8 + 12] = 2 story arcs per year 
The rotation plan would better satisfy fans of the back-up feature but would also take away a full story arc each year from fans of the main feature and likely decrease their satisfaction in the title (perhaps even leading to their dropping it -- not to mention the creative team on the main feature also wouldn’t be happy about having their output cut).