Had an interesting exchange with comics writer Ed Brubaker (@brubaker) on Twitter last night, in which he claimed that if digital comics were priced at a dollar, companies would need to sell 50,000 copies just to pay the creative team, to say nothing of editorial, promotion, and other production costs. That struck me as a very high number based on my research, but I have no doubt that he’s right; it just means that my previous numbers were way off.
My friend Michael also chimed in to claim that the cost of running the server farm for digital comics would be comparable to the cost of printing and shipping paper ones, and while I don’t doubt that there are substantial costs, I do know the printing business a little; I suspect that the true per unit cost of serving a digital comic is a matter of pennies as opposed to dimes for printing and shipping hard copies.
So anyway, the point is I was full of shit on my numbers the other day. I apologize. It’s frustrating that real word figures are so hard to get ahold of. For what it’s worth I did obtain numbers from the latest edition of the Handbook for Pricing and Ethical Guidelines for the Graphic Artists Guild. They expect writers to get paid $75-120 per page, pencillers $100-250, inkers $75-200, letterers $40-50, and colourists $100-150. These numbers align with a similar document from Australia. Which means the cost of talent on a typical comic with 22 pages of story is about $9000 to $18,000 US for people getting paid “scale”. Depending on the cut a company gets per comic sold, that certainly aligns wih Brubaker’s claim.
Does that change my conclusion from the other day? Yes and no. I still believe that a low price point, like a dollar, will encourage strong sales growth and defuse a certain amount of piracy, just as it has with music. The adjusted numbers just means that the time to profit for a publisher could be much longer than I thought. Of course, with digital they have more time.
Brubaker went on to say that he wants to make sure artists get paid fairly as this shift continues, and I quite agree. Comics are a business with a history of ripping off the talent and sometimes the readers too. So while I do sympathize with Brubaker’s sentiments, I think he and the mainstream comics industry should also take careful note of what consumers appear to be saying: that the price of comics is too high, be they print or digital. The perceived value of a $4 digital file is far lower than that of one on paper. Digital is an opportunity to give the readers more without the added expense of printing and distributing more paper. It may also be the first time that a one-person operation, thanks to the lower overhead, can compete in the same solar system with a major publisher if the product and user experience is good enough.
Anyway, I will leave that stuff to the pros for now and obviously I will be watching with interest. I still plan to write about the experience of reading digital comics, and based on some tinkering last night I have more thoughts on iBooks Author, so watch for that stuff in the next few days.