The Price is right (ish) - but don't put it on the cover!A column article, Fool Britannia by: Regie Rigby
It was a chance conversation in a comic shop that started this particular train of thought. “can you believe”, said the guy behind the counter, “that DC wanted to print a UK price of £1.99 on all their $2.99 comics*…” he paused for effect, “…and they thought we’d be happy about it!”
Price is, of course, a sensitive issue. Customers don’t like it when a price gets too high – and there is no question that comics are pretty expensive at the moment when compared to pretty much everything else - producers don’t like it when they get a significantly lower price for their wares than the retailer eventually sells them for, and retailers don’t like it when producers don’t give them the leeway to charge a mark-up that will enable them to cover their overheads and make a decent living. This is true pretty much whatever business you’re in, but in comics it can be even more complicated than that.
You see, however much globalisation has opened trade up around the world, the so-called “global village” doesn’t really exist. We like to think that the UK equivalent if a US Dollar is a British Pound, and that the relationship between the two is in some way constant. We even, if we’re not thinking hard at the time, could bring ourselves to believe that the two currencies are in some way equivalent, that one dollar and one pound are worth the same. Actually nothing could be further from the truth. For a start, there’s the exchange rate to consider.
The British Pound is worth more than the American Dollar. This truth has remained constant for most of my life, although there was a moment in the early nineties when the two currencies almost achieved parity. As I type this an item with a value of $2.99 is worth £1.83 because a US Dollar is worth a little over sixty one of my Great British Pennies. On that scale, £1.99 is actually a little steep, and if anything printing that price on a cover would be being a little too generous to the dealers. Are we being ripped off here? At the moment, I’m paying £2.25 for a $2.99 comic, which on this maths seems to be more than a little expensive.
The trouble is, the exchange rate is not constant. I’m not sure how far in advance comics are printed, but even if it’s only a couple of days it is perfectly feasible that while a $2.99 comic printed today might be worth £1.83, by the time it hits the UK shelves that same $2.99 might be worth £1.95 or £2.10, or, frankly, the way the markets are at the moment, any figure you care to name. Besides, even taking this into account, it’s still not that simple!
I’m assuming that $2.99 is a price that US retailers can make a living on. I don’t know this for sure, but it seems likely that whatever they pay wholesale for their comics, the difference between that and the $2.99 they charge the punters is enough that they can make the rent on their stores, heat and light them, pay their staff and have enough left over to actually live on. It would follow, therefore, that in a world where things were organised in a sensible way, a $2.99 value translated into stirling should also be enough keep the wolf from the door of UK based retailers.
Needless to say, we don’t live in a world where things are organised in a sensible way.
For a start, if, as a UK based comics reader, you’re going to get your comics at roughly the same time as your Stateside counterparts, you’re going to need them to be flown from the US to the UK. This is not an inexpensive process. It wasn’t always thus of course. There was a time when American comics were shipped to the UK effectively for free as ballast in cargo ships. While the thriftier British comics shopper might well hanker after these good old days, when you could pick up issues of Spider-Man or Batman for what amounted to small change.
The thing is, as is usually the case with “good old days”, there was almost nothing good about them. Comics from the US might have been cheap in the UK, but they were utterly random. There was no way to be sure of following a story from one issue to the next, and of course, since the comics had been transported as ballast in the bowels of a cargo ship condition was often non too good either. These are, I suspect, not things that the modern UK comics reader would be prepared to tolerate, not matter how cheap the comics were.
In any case, there’s another reason why a return to the alleged good old days isn’t really on the cards. It is the case that if somebody wanted to get organised and do it, there isn’t really any reason why American comics couldn’t be transported to the UK by sea. Proper sea freight obviously wouldn’t be as cheap as shipping comics as ballast, but it’s significantly cheaper than loading several tonnes of paper into a ‘plane and flying it across the Atlantic. These saving would, I suspect , be considerable, and could be passed on to UK consumers without driving retailers into penury, bringing the $2.99 comic down to £1.99 with no loss to anyone. Indeed, whilst shipping cargo by sea is by no means free of environmental consequence, I’d be prepared to bet there’d be a pretty substantial reduction in environmental damage by such a move.
It won’t happen though. And it won’t happen because of the thing you’re looking at now. Twenty years ago, when I was first reading American comics, it didn’t matter how long they took to cross the big pond, so long as they arrived regularly, and in the right order – both criteria that sea freight would be more than capable of meeting. The trouble is, while a plane can get across the ocean in a matter of a few hours, with a ship you’re looking at a few days. Realistically, if we sea freighted our comics over from the US we’d be about a week behind. As I said, twenty years ago this didn’t really matter. There was no World Wide Web, and intercontinental communication was almost prohibitively expensive unless you sent letters via surface mail.
These days comments and opinion about what’s going on in the latest edition of your favourite comic can be around the world in mere seconds. It’s bad enough that our comics hit the shelves in the UK a day later than they do in the US. If we had to wait a week those of us who can’t abide spoilers would have to choose between not logging on or giving up comics! Which geek is going to be able to make that decision?!
Basically this means that the status quo is the only current option, and the price is not therefore likely to go down. While the mathematics at the top of this column suggests that £1.99 for a $2.99 comic is about right, I don’t think I want a price level printing on the cover to limit retailers to charging that amount. The thing is, while there might well be some comic shop owners who are happy to fleece their customers, I suspect that they are few and far between. Most of the retailers I’ve had dealings with (and there have been a fair few over the years) have essentially been fans themselves and have no intention of ripping off the fanboys. If there ever was an issue with a retailer over charging, I suspect fair competition would sort it out without the need for a printed cover price – especially in these days of internet sales.
There is of course, another reason why I’m not all that keen to have a Stirling price on the cover of my American books. It just looks wrong. It smacks of all the dodgy, poor quality reprints that have polluted the UK news stand over the years. Ultimately, my objection isn’t retailer freedom. It’s the fact that I’m a little bit obsessive about these things.
*Which of course is all of them, because they’re drawing the line at $2.99…