by Alexander Añé

One of the hot topics in the comics industry is the movement into the digital medium, and of course the biggest question in that migration is, “what’s it going to cost?” Sunday afternoon at San Diego Comic-Con, the leading voices in this debate came together to discuss this topic: Mark Waid representing Thrillbent, Scott Kurtz the creator of PvP, IDW Publishing’s ePublishing director Jeff Webber, Chris Ross attending as Top Shelf’s director of digital publications, and moderating the panel is comiXology’s Chip Mosher.Mark Waid was a little late showing up, having just won three Eisner Awards the evening before, and after introducing the panel Chip asked the panelists, “what is the ideal price for digital comics and why?”

The line of responses started with Mark Waid, and he suggested, “99 cents… because 99 cents is the point at which even the most casual readers will drop 99 cents will try something they have not tried before. 99 cents is the price you’d pay on an app from the app store… We’re not competing with other comics and we’re not competing with print comics, we’re competing with other things that cost 99 cents.”

Jeff Webber suggested that, “there’s not one price,” following up by suggesting a staggered price system based on date of release, starting from full cover price and lowering after periods of time with the inclusion of discounts; citing that IDW’s best selling digital items at the, “highest price up… except when we do a 99 cent sale.”

Scott Kurtz focused on the question, “Is this digital market the first or secondary market for this content?” His belief is that depending on the use of the digital market, should influence the price, whereas first market should be 99 cents and secondary should be free; especially in regard to marketing, “it should be zero or very little.”

Chris Ross narrowed the question to specifically what sort of comics should be priced and in which way, “Top Shelf publishes big, huge books, it doesn’t make sense to price those 99 cents.” He explained that Top Shelf’s strategy is to price their digital books to help supplement physical books and in a way that encourages readers to invest in physical copies. Mark Waid followed up with the price point concept by suggesting the question, “My motto at Thrillbent is more, ‘I want to charge 99 cents for this, then how much can I give you?'”

Chip Mosher then posed the question, “Don’t you think the 99 price point discussion is really about having people discover more comics, making them accessible, cheaper?” Chris Ross replied “I think the one thing we keep coming to as far as the 99 cents, is Angry Birds. That’s the thing that said you can get hours and hours of entertainment for only a dollar. So when you purchase a comic or you purchase a graphic novel, if it’s anything that takes you an hour or two, you feel that if you pay $4 for it you just got screwed.”

Scott Kurtz replied by saying, “It’s scary to spend 5 bucks to ‘rent’ a comic,” and continued on how paying a full price becomes an obstacle to draw in new readers and how portals or apps of choice discourage accessibility. Mark Waid’s audience is to bring people who aren’t reading comics.

Mark Waid and Scott Kurtz believe in lower prices or free pricing to entice new readers and make books more accessible as opposed to Jeff Webber and Chriss Ross believe in full cover or suplemental pricing models to bolster and protect physical books. It was interesting to see the polarization between the panelists, publishers taking on conventional pricing models relative to print comics and independent creators favoring more experimental models and ideas to pricing.


  1. There is not one price for all print comics, it’s silly to think there is one best price for digital. Both Waid and Ross have strategies that work for them. Waid is making his content fit the price he wants to charge. Ross has a set amount of content and has to price accordingly. Neither is wrong, they are just different.

    The streaming vs downloading issue is probably keeping more people away that the price. Even 99 cents is too much if you don’t trust the content to stick around.

  2. We used to have the price raised on comics and the high cost of paper was blamed. Then then the high cost of gas to transport them was blamed. Digital readers shouldn’t be paying paper and gas rates when neither exist.

  3. Waid is right…the print market is doomed long term…there is no “if”…it is doomed…and people need to accept that in thirty years we aren’t going to be cutting down trees for 99% of books…so let’s be honest here and realize that the future is not the comic book store…the future is either DC > consumer or artist > consumer with maybe an Apple or Amazon as the distributor…so the idea of digital propping up paper is silly…and people simply aren’t going to pay $3.99 for a two minute read…it’s that simple…so either charge a fair price ($0.99) or drive people to piracy.

    I’d have paid $70 to read DMZ…$210? or $280? Forget it.

  4. Print media isn’t dying, just bad print media. My ma apparently subscribes to Guideposts magazine, cheesy christian stuff. They sell more copies in a quarter than every issue of every Marvel and DC and Image and IDW and Boom and Dark Horse title combined. COMBINED.
    Comic books and newspapers are suffering because they are run by cheapskates and mobsters. Real print media is doing fine, if not increasingly better.

  5. For older material, even twenty five cents is too much.

    One thing to consider here is the Pokemon effect. I’m sure there is a price point most readers will convince themselves that have to have them all.

  6. We’ll see how Waid does when he actually tries to start charging. The chapters of the free comic he’s putting up seem to be the story equivalent of 5-7 pages of a print comic, so if that’s what he think he can charge 99 cents for than his prices are pretty much the same as the $3/$4 that most print publishers charge for same day releases (and they mostly drop those prices after a month). I wouldn’t pay that much for that little.

    I think Top Shelf has a better idea, publish real substantial books and charge a fair price for them, far below the print price but more than 99 cents in most cases. Not that I’m a huge market, but about half of the $50 I’ve spent on digital comics since I got an ipad 3 months ago has been on Top Shelf books.

    And free sounds about right for Scott Kurtz comics. Maybe a bit high.

  7. Dark Horse has a great price structure with their “bundles”. Most are a little more than $1 an issue when you buy a 5 issue arc. On Comixology I ONLY buy sale items at $.99. I suppose I would spend more for a few titles or writers but it makes NO sense to spend print prices or even half. I use to support my local shop but they just closed. I’m going strictly digital now and $.99 is plenty.

  8. Digital Comics are not using their greatest advantage in that they can give comics NOW as soon as it’s done. No waiting for the printer. NO waiting for Wednesday. We want our books NOW.

    As for pricing, they should pass the savings of not using paper to the buyer. My shop gives me a 15% discount and digital should also match that.

  9. I can only speak for my own experience, but:

    I simply will not pay print prices for digital books.

    $1.99 seems to be my upper limit for regular issues. Don’t like to wait a month for a price drop, but I’ll do it. (I ended up skipping the Valiant reboot because their dropped prices are still $2.99, and I don’t buy any Marvel books digitally because though their prices will drop to $1.99, there is no schedule to this that will allow my to regularly follow a series.)

    For $0.99, though, I’ll pretty much buy as much as I can read. Often more.

  10. Especially where services such as Comixology are concerned, I would never pay squat for a digital comic.* You are not buying a copy of the comic, you are paying for a license to view a copy of the comic, a license which can be revoked at any time at Comixology’s discretion, and which disappears in to thin air as soon as Comixology goes out of business. Print will never die because people like me want to OWN what they are paying for, not just pretend they do.

    * The only digital comics I’ve bought were from Kickstarter projects, where the bidding level included a DRM-free PDF file at a very reasonable price compared to the expensive print format.

  11. It is interesting to see what wasn’t brought up by the panel (or wasn’t reported) and what isn’t being brought up in the comments. Namely, how much of the price point is shaped by the costs of producing the comics. You know, paying the writer. artists, writer/artists, whatever.

    One could guess that from Waid’s perspective, a mix of ad revenue and volume will be how creators are paid. For Kurtz, as a single creator, the cost of those man-hours is reduced down to paying one person. For the publishers, though, they are thinking of their own revenue as well as what they have to pay the creators. For all the talk of not wanting to pay a print price point for digital, no one in the comments is thinking of the creator. The only thought is eliminating print and its costs somehow makes the comics free or nearly so.

    As someone who has and hopes to continue earning money from my creative efforts, I find that attitude worrying.

  12. In the case of single issues, one of the big obstacles is Apple. Demanding that all in app purchases have a price ending in .99 prevents the pubs from doing as much experimentation as they might want to find a sweet spot (not a big deal with Top Shelf, but problematic when .99 is too low for the pub and 1.99 is too high.). Everyone’s reliance on Comixology is an issue too…I don’t know what their cut is, but if it’s over ten percent it may make .99 comics a difficult proposition for a $3 cover price item. I wish more pubs would break out of the Comixology ecosystem…but then IDW tried going solo and ended up with CX anyway, and I have actually seen people say they won’t do DH or Viz because they’re unwilling to work with multiple libraries in different apps.

  13. Chris Ross replied “I think the one thing we keep coming to as far as the 99 cents, is Angry Birds. That’s the thing that said you can get hours and hours of entertainment for only a dollar. So when you purchase a comic or you purchase a graphic novel, if it’s anything that takes you an hour or two, you feel that if you pay $4 for it you just got screwed.”

    Sums up my feelings exactly regardless if it’s print or digital. The serial format of most stories don’t provide enough bang for my buck when compared to other forms of entertainment like games, novels, or even overpriced feature films. Take TDKR. I’ll likely pay 7 bucks for over 2 hours of entertainment whereas $7 won’t even by me two issues of a top-tier comic. Sure, I can reread my comic but why would I if the content is so brief that the experience is negligible.

  14. “For all the talk of not wanting to pay a print price point for digital, no one in the comments is thinking of the creator. The only thought is eliminating print and its costs somehow makes the comics free or nearly so.”

    Not that frankly ridiculous argument again. Nobody says digital comics don’t have costs–the fact is that print comics have costs for creative, printing/shipping and distribution. Digital comics have creative and distribution. That’s less.

    Add to that that you get less for it as well–access rather than ownership, no option to re-sell–and the purchase of a digital comic is fundamentally different from that of a print object.

  15. While 99 cents is the most I’ve paid for a digital comic, I can see instances where the pricing will be different. Take Dark Horses’ bundles for example. A Hellboy mini digitally will cost the same as a printed Annual. That’s about $1.50 an issue for 3 issue mini. DC drops the price of their titles by a dollar a month after they’ve been on sale. Most of the books are 20 page $2.99 products. That’s 10 pages for a dollar. It seems nice but overall is slight. Another major factor is that most books are written for the trade. Decompressed storytelling in comics doesn’t lend itself well to impulse buys or random try outs. I think digital comics will have to look at comics past to advance in it’s future. Following the basic rules of newspaper strips – limited number of panels/ space to tell a compressed, full bodied story will be the way to go. By following in the footsteps of newspaper comic strips, creators could develop a working schedule that changes their “shipping” schedule from monthly to bi-weekly or even weekly. Publishers have to view most casual/ new readers as people looking for an “one night stand”. They aren’t looking for a commitment. Trying to hook them with ongoings makes things harder. Instead of trying to push out a ridiculous number of ongoings only for them to cancelled because they couldn’t “find an audience”, try the Hellboy/ B.P.R.D. Mini series model. Do more one shots digitally. Then for digital bundles/ paperback/ hardcover collections, you can group the minis and one shots more neatly, making it easier for new and current readers to find and buy in any format they may choose.

  16. Since we are just renting comics anyway… what are the chances of an RDIO/Netflix style comic service happening?

  17. I think the distribution costs for digital are being discounted here. Web servers, which have to be up 24/7, and store every comic, and keep track of everyone’s purchases – forever. That’s not cheap.
    There are also costs to convert the original art to the panel-view or similar format.
    There’s also distribution and maintenance costs for the apps that provide the interface for the comics.
    Finally, there’s a value to being able to buy any comic at any time with no shipping delays from virtually anywhere you are in the world. And then carry that entire collection around with you at all times.
    Whether all of that completely offsets the printing costs of the paper, I dunno, but they shouldn’t just be ignored.

  18. @Brian L – for what it’s worth, I did suggest to Comixology that they set up a pricing point with their publishers so that people can actually just “rent” the book for a limited time. Pay less than cover but you lose the book after, say, a month. That would be a big deal for people who want to read but don’t care about re-reading, and for people who want to read before they buy the hard copy. They said such a thing would be up to the publishers.

  19. I guess Comixology pretty much has a stranglehold on the market… too bad, I feel that the unlimited subscription model could be what could convert lots of readers.

    But that’s just me ;)

  20. The concept of artists being paid for their work actually WAS brought up at the panel. That’s one of the reasons I introduced the idea of digital being a secondary market.

    Most comics sold on ComiXology were first print editions and had budgets to pay creative teams as a part of their profit/loss balance sheets. Assuming a title makes a profit, reselling them digital is all gravy for publishers.

    I also wish more people understood that my opinions on what publishers should charge for digital comics has nothing to do with how I particularly do business myself.

    I don’t think DRM is always bad or that “renting comics” from ComiXology is necessarily a bad thing. I just think it’s wrong for all parties involved to charge customers retail prices to access digital versions of individual comics that they can’t retain copies of locally.

    It’s like netflix charging you the full retail price of a DVD every time you watched something on their streaming service.

  21. Speaking of renting and streaming, I would be willing to spend a SMALL amount of money to rent/read a comic ONCE. Just pay my .25, go to the site, read the thing and then go away. In essence, I want access to your comic file for 15 minutes, once.

    Just like watching a streaming rented movie, or going to the theatre to see Spider-Man once. I don’t need an account, a vault, a library password. I just need a cheap reading copy, and I want it cheap. Please.

  22. The audience got a little ugly at one point during that panel I feel.

    Also there was a ton of corporate spin going on. Especially about pricing and DRM. Surprised that wasn’t reported.

    Also…ALSO! Chris got cut off by Chip while he was trying to explain how the DOJ is investigating digital book price fixing. I found that very interesting.

  23. The reason why digital is not matching print price-wise is simple: if digital went consistently cheaper, the direct market suffers, and retailers go out of business.

    Don’t kid yourself for a second that if all the major publishers switched to 99 cent day-and-date digital releases that retailers wouldn’t feel that: people aren’t *that* obsessed with owning paper that they wouldn’t cut at least part of their pull lists to save a few bucks. At those prices, which would average 2/3rds off print, you could still do the occassional ‘double-dip’ and buy physical trades for something you’re really into and still come out ahead. Instead of spending, say $100 a month on paper singles, your bill would be in the $30 range, so there’s $60-$70 you’d free up to spend however you see fit. You’d still be reading all the comics you were before, with more money in your pocket, which you could concievably spend on more comics.

    There’s a lot of bonuses that would come with a digital-dominated market: complete freedom from needing to worry about comics selling out, the ability to flip through preview pages at your leisure at home instead of standing in the shop, if you missed out on something and you read a great review or are otherwise convinced to buy something you passed on the first time, it’s there, no waiting, no back issue premium, no waiting four or six months for the trade.

    Creators or publishers desperate to gain an audience on an ailing book can dip the price even further in a very quick manner just to get people to give it a try, rather than just cancel the book before giving it one last gasp effort to gain an audience. Books that fall into the bargain bin might find enough readers to crawl back out.

    99 cents isn’t a sustainable business model for large publishers, though. How many corporate salaries have to come out the average issue of Spider-Man or Wonder Woman, beyond the obvious immediate creative team? You could argue that merchandising and licensing could make that up, or that publishing executives could be paid by the parent media conglomerates who benefit from said merchandising and licensing, but that’s probably not going to happen. Disney and Time Warner have the best of both worlds — their comics divisions pay for their own operating costs and function as R & D labs where millions can be made in other media. These books are selling acceptably at their current levels and there’s nothing to say taking a loss will increase readership and make a bigger profit for the movies / video games / merchandising / etc. Probably not, due to the fact that the sales of the comics don’t greatly fluctuate when the same IP makes it big in other mediums. Some people like their Spider-Man on the Xbox or the movie screen and couldn’t give a damn about the comics, paper or digital. And they’ve got to keep paying all those publishing salaries out between films, which can take years between installments, so cheaper corporate comics are never going to be a reality.

    Independent comics, though, which have a lower overhead and no executive parasites sucking off the revenue the creators generate, or New York City real estate to maintain, that’s a different story. 99 cents could get a lot of up-and-comers and lesser known voices heard and seen. And not surprisingly these are the guys and gals who often don’t get a fair shake at retail, anyway — too much product for a retailer with only so much physical storefront to carry everything, too much risk involved in ordering a non-returnable product that might be the next hot thing or a complete dud, tough to judge from just a few text blurbs and maybe a handful of images. Let comiXology post the finished product and let the readers sort out what they want to buy, and in what quantities.

    Someone who was selling a thousand copies a month in print might not be able to justify the costs — digital, with no printing bills or shipping costs, that might be different. That too-insignificant-for-paper profit might be enough to keep them going, or they could experiment with going incrementally higher with admission — say, a buck and a half — or 99 cents for 15 pages of material instead of 22 to make it more profitable in the sense that production time would be lower — until they find the sweet spot that works for them. You can’t run out to hundreds of shops with a Sharpie and start mucking with the price printed on the cover.

    Let the big dogs have paper retail, the smaller fish can do well at digital. There’s never going to be a one-size-fits- all solution.

  24. Especially where services such as Comixology are concerned, I would never pay squat for a digital comic.* You are not buying a copy of the comic, you are paying for a license to view a copy of the comic, a license which can be revoked at any time at Comixology’s discretion, and which disappears in to thin air as soon as Comixology goes out of business.

    I see this point brought up every time there’s a story about Comixology, and it always has me wondering: Is this any different from the situation that exists when I buy an e-book from Amazon? I have no idea, but I’m curious.

    Print will never die because people like me want to OWN what they are paying for, not just pretend they do.

    I tend to agree with you. Even as a digital convert, there are some series I just have to have in physical form.

  25. With my company, you download the pdf and it is yours to keep. You can transfer it from machine to machine. It took me 7 years to put my graphic novel and company together. For the money I spent, I could have had my basement done and had money left over. The big companies have the luxury of volume.