The Way of the Word

25. February 2010

Price, Value and Comics Piracy

Filed under: comics,Commentary,general,Uncategorized — jensaltmann @ 09:48
Tags: , , , ,

Over on Twitter, a comics creator frequently rants on about how media pirating is illegal and how they steal from him. I’m not disputing that. Pirating media through P2P sites is illegal, and technially theft, and the people who actually produce the comics lose out when pirates up- and download comics instead of buying them.

Yesterday, he said something with which I disagreed: he said that the publisher determines the value of the comic, not the customer.

I suppose it depends on your definition of value. From where I sit, the publisher determines the price. That can be done objectively: you know how much it costs to produce the comic, you know how much it will cost you to distribute it, you factor in a bit of a profit for yourself, and you have the price.

Value, however, is a very subjective thing. It’s not defined by a price tag. You can say that the comic on the table is worth $3.99. All that means is that it’s worth that much to you. For me, it might be a priceless gem, or something that I wouldn’t even use as toilet paper.

Since this is my blog, we use my definition of the terms: price is a more or less objective worth assigned to a product, while value is a very subjective worth assigned to an item.

So what does that have to do with online comics piracy?

I don’t have any empirical evidence. Obviously, nobody has done a proper survey yet (to my knowledge).  So take this with the proverbial grain of salt.

Based on my gut feeling, there are several types of comics pirates:

– There are those who feel entitled to get their comics as cheaply as possible, preferably for free. So they download them. The question is, is that really a lost sale? I wouldn’t be surprised if these people didn’t buy comics anyway but instead read them in the store and put them back on the shelf after reading.

– Then there are the addicts. Those who just have to keep up with their favorite fictitious universe. Only they can’t afford to buy all the titles that come out. So they buy those to which they assign the greatest subjective value, and pirate the rest. These are lost sales, because these readers would probably have spent a lot of money on more comics.

– Then there are those who follow the buzz. They hear about a big comic book event and want to check it out. I don’t think these are lost sales, because if they weren’t downloading the comics, they would either check them out in the store, or not bother at all. However, these might be added sales. If they follow the buzz and check it out, they might end up buying a comic (as a single or later TPB) they otherwise wouldn’t have.

– You shouldn’t ignore the protesters. These are readers who download comics because they want to protest… well, something. Maybe the cover price, maybe don’t like the creative team, or the print format. These fall into the lost sales group. Because for all the bluster with which they pretent to be voting with their wallets — they can’t bear to stay away. Without the option of downloading, these readers would still buy the comics, but with the mindset that they are actually buying the right to complain about them.

– It’s similar with the computer geeks. Those who download comics because they want to read them on the computer. Because, you know, actual physical comics are either icky or so 20th century. They want their comics digital, or else. I think that these too are lost sales.

If you wonder about yours truly: I stopped reading monthly comics some time ago. It wasn’t just that they were getting too expensive, I also didn’t get the bang for my buck that I wanted. When I spend $3.00, I want to get more than just 2 minutes of entertainment out of something. It didn’t help matters that the comics creators told stories that I wasn’t interested in reading. I still keep up with two regular comic book series, and I still buy the occasional TPB, but other than that I’m done with comics. I’m not interested in downloading comics, because reading things on my computer doesn’t match my comic book reading habits.

Random aside: these days, I’m more incined towards Francobelgian comics. Which are also way too expensive. So I either buy them from resellers (a lost sale to the publisher, but I refuse to pay €12.00 or more for what is, essentially, a 48 page comic) or I read them without buying them — at the library.

So, what can be done about comics piracy? One thing is clear: you can’t just keep shouting at everyone that it is theft and illegal. Everyone already knows that. All you accomplish with this is that you make yourself look stupid and out of touch with the modern world.

My suggestions would the this:

  • Do not insist that you, as the publisher, decide the value of your product. All you decide is the price. Acknowledge that it is the customer who decides if your product is worth the price you charge. Respect your customer that much.
  • Gather round all the little downloaders. The Minutemen and the DCP pirates. Talk with them about why they do this, and find out just why people download comics. You need to understand the mentality if you want to do something about it. Sure, you can shut them down with the force of law, but is that really a long-term solution?
  • Offer good quality, preferably DRM-free downloads of your comics at a fair price. If you want an example for how to do it right, check out Alex Decampi’s and Christine Larson’s Valentine.
  • Wait, you cry, if I remove the DRM, then anyone can make illegal copies of my comics! I need to prevent that. Heh. Yeah. As if you’re doing such a great job right now, right? Don’t consider DRM-free an invitation to pirate. Anyone who will want to do that will hack your DRM and put it online, or perhaps even just scan a physical copy. If you can advertise your digital comics as DRM-free, however, you can use that to convince your customers that they actually own the digital product they buy from you.
  • Make sure that your comic is actually worth what you want for it. Remember, as the publisher, you do not decide what the value is. That’s up to the customer. All you can determine is the price.

In any case, one thing is important: don’t criminalize and alienate your readers. You want their money. You want their business. To get both, you need to find out who these people are, why they do it, and what you can do to make them stop wanting to do it.

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