Since I began selling comic books in the early 1980s, this has been the question I’m most frequently asked. And although it’s a fair one in general, you can ask the same question about movies, insurance, cars and houses. Some who wouldn’t blink at buying sneakers that cost well over $100 ask a small business owner why his main product costs $3.99.
When the first modern comic books were published in the early 1930s, they cost 10 cents. Books and magazines cost around the same. A new car would cost you about $600. A nice new house, about $7,000. We love using inflation to explain rising prices. And while I admit it seems a bit absurd to make such comparisons, it’s often the easiest way for me to answer the question.
By the 1960s, comic books had “huge” price increases. First they jumped from 10 to 12 cents. Then to 15 cents. During that same period, magazines and books were as high as 50 to 75 cents. Why didn’t comic books increase at the same rate? One theory is that they were considered a children’s medium and would not bear the greater increase in cost. But over the ensuing years, comic books prices have steadily risen, sometimes on par with books and magazines—sometimes even higher.
Each of these mediums, however, has a different profit structure. Magazines generate the majority of their profit from advertising revenue. The dynamic structure of advertising prices is a formula that includes how many copies are printed, and thus how many readers will see the ads. To bump up those print numbers, publishers often keep subscription prices ridiculously low to attract more readers. Even today, I can get 12 issues of many magazines for as low as 50 cents to $1 each, yet the same magazines will run me $3.99 to $7.99 at the local store. That means if I want to sell an ad in my magazine, I can sell it to you for way more money if I have 200,000 copies printed as opposed to 100,000.
Comic books work in a similar way, but they do not generate the cache of advertising dollars, so publishers produce a substantially lower number of comics and are not able to subsidize production costs at the same level.
Books are a whole different paradigm. In years past, they were produced in volumes that allowed for excess copies at nearly every possible outlet to ensure maximum exposure, the goal being more sales. But because they accepted returns on unsold books, they had to build the cost of those returns into the consumer’s price.
The modern business model for books has replaced that by offering careful inventory monitoring and even on-demand printing. But, the cost of the books is still higher than both comics and magazines, with, I suspect, fewer creative mouths to feed.
Comic book creatives involve not only the author or authors, but sometimes as many as three artists. These include the ‘penciler,’ the inker and the colorist, although over the last several years, with the increase of affordable software, many artists are able to produce all phases of the art by themselves.
So, to make the answer short and sweet, when someone asks me why comics cost so much, I usually answer, “Um … inflation. Have you seen the price of a new book?”