Saturday, June 02, 2007

Marvel gouging

The Canadian dollar crept steadily upwards with news stories coming out every day this week saying it hit a new 30 year high. One bank is expecting it to reach 96 cents to the U.S. dollar by the end of the year. Another is expecting parity with the U.S. dollar by the end of the year, something that hasn’t happened since 1975.

I like the Canadian and U.S. dollar roughly equal. I know that many manufacturers and businesses might not, but I do. It just makes things easier.

However, what I’m not liking is the gouging that’s going on in some areas over the surging Canadian dollar. I’ve lamented this before, but I’m going to do it again. Because the discrepancy in U.S. price and Canadian price in publishing is a touch ridiculous.

But instead of books, this time I’m going to focus on graphic novels. The example I’m going to cite is the one I got this week from Chapters. It’s the Frank Miller Daredevil Omnibus. Obviously, this is a book with a limited appeal to most of the people who read this blog. However, it’s a classic run done by a writer and artist I normally like. Plus, the original 30 or so issues are expensive and a nuisance to track down. The book came out a couple of months ago.

I thought about buying it when I was in Ottawa in mid-April, however I balked at the price. It retails for $99 U.S., but that isn’t what freaked me out. The Canadian price tag was $160.

It was enough that I took a look at some other recent purchases. Two other Marvel hardcovers I bought had the same exchange rate. Runaways Vol. 3 and Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane Vol. 1 retail for $24.99 US, $40 Can. Soft covers are just as bad. Daredevil: The Devil, Inside and Out Vol. 2 retails $14.99 US, $24 Can.

And it appears to be just Marvel. A recent DC purchase, DMZ: Body of a Journalist, goes for $12.99 US, $15.99 Can. Other recent DC trade paperbacks have a similar difference in exchange rate.

So let’s hit on a few points here. First, the dollar has surged a bit in the past six weeks, so it wasn’t at 94 cents back in mid-April. But it was around 90 cents and has been hovering, give or take a few cents, in that area for about a year. That means an accurate exchange rate would have been around $110-115. And yet Marvel Comics stuck a $160 price tag on the book. In fact, all of the Omnibus line has this ridiculous pricing. The Canadian dollar would need to be trading at around 65 cents to the U.S. dollar for this pricing to be even close to reasonable. It hasn’t been at that level since 2002. So the change isn’t exactly a shocking turn of events that Marvel was unprepared for.

Secondly, I visited three comic book stores in Ottawa that were all selling this book. None of them were adjusting the price of currency exchange. They wanted $160 for the book. I probably would have bought it in Ottawa if the exchange rate was more reasonable. But even with the extra money I have in my pocket these days, I really can’t justify spending $160 on a book, no matter how pretty, big or cool.

And yet, you may say, you still bought the book. Yes I did. That also speaks to the problems of some comic book dealers. You see, I got the book through Chapters. Their online service works for me very well up north because they continue to offer free shipping and have a delightfully devil-may-care attitude towards shipping. I recently placed an order for six graphic novels. They arrived in three boxes in less than a week. That’s good service, if perhaps poor business sense.

But when I cracked open the box and began to unwrap my Omnibus, something finally made sense to me. You see, I paid about $73 for the book. Still very expensive, but that works out to about a 55 per cent discount of the regular cover. Chapters gives deep discounts off their books, to be sure, but that’s still pretty steep. But on the back of the book there was a sticker for $110.

So Chapters did the sensible thing and adjusted the price of the book to what the exchange rate should be. The evil, big box, independent bookstore killing behemoth was the only one that gave me a break on this book. By the way, they did the same thing on the other Marvel books I bought. Both hard covers were bought for around $19. The soft cover was a little more than $13.

So to recap:
Marvel Comics – grotesquely gouged the price of the book by easily adding another $40 to $50 for Canadian buyers by ignoring years old currency changes.
Comic book stories – followed Marvel’s lead by not adjusting the price of the book when I’m sure many of them had to have spotted the difference. (Note, this was just the handful I saw in Ottawa. Perhaps others adjust for currency fluctuations, but I haven’t heard of any, indicating to me that they are a rare beast.)
Chapters – properly adjusted the price of the book to account for currency exchange, gave 35 per cent discount on top of that and free shipping to a remote area. The free shipping is also as good as giving me another $25 off, as I’ve seen Omnibus volumes on eBay that have $25 or more shipping on top of the final price to get it here.

I’ve always known that owning a comic book store is a rough business, which explains why so many owners eventually become either evil or insane. You’re operating at thin margins, at the whims of distributors, market fluctuations and now, big box stores like Chapters and Amazon, which are increasingly moving into the comic book business.

Oh, and the customers are demanding pains in the ass who want discounts and other kinds of preferential treatment. I know how hard it is to offer breaks. I know how thin the margins are and how cut throat the business can be. I’ve spent enough time in stores and read enough comic book blogs and sites to understand all of this. And I really do try to support local comic book stores when I can. I still like them. It’s one thing to spend an hour browsing Chapters website. There is a real joy for me in spending an hour in a good comic book store, looking at the books, checking out the art, reading some of the story and chatting with the staff about what’s good and what isn’t.

I’m in Nunavut. I rarely get to do that anymore and I miss it. The couple of hours I got to spend doing that in Ottawa were some of the best moments of the trip for me. But folks, I’m only got to spend so much extra on tactile pleasures. Not every book I order from Chapters is going to have this extreme a price difference. But Marvel needs to stop this horrific price gouging on Canadian consumers. Very, very soon there is going to be a legitimate argument that there should only be one price on North American comics (and all books and magazines, for that matter). And comic book stores are going to have to start stepping up on the discounts and perks.

Because when/if we move back down south, I’m trying to find a good reason to give up Chapters and switch back to comic book stores. I think tactile pleasures aren’t going to cut it.


colette said...

I would say that the small comic book store owners didn't (can't) give you (or anyone else) a break because the publisher didn't give them a break and charged the same differential, TB. And, with respect, I know you've personally known a few owners over the years and have likely discussed it with them but that's not the same thing at all as trying to actually run the business and pay your bills at the end of the month, not to mention making enough out of the business to pay your personal bills as well. The thirty bucks you may want them to discount the book is money they no doubt have already paid the publisher and, multiplied by other examples and other customers, may represent the cost of the light bill. Or the rent.

So yes, the problem lies with the publisher but the small guys are caught up in it too, just as you are. Chapters has the advantage of volume--they can take a bath on stuff and likely can demand better treatment from the publishers because of it. And if I'm recalling correctly, Chapters' business model means they take books "on consignment" (so to speak--it's a bit more sophisticated than that). What they don't sell, they return to the publisher and don't pay for, which cuts the risks tremendously. That's a break you local guy isn't going to get.

BTW, you know I have a fair number of Frank Miller Daredevils in my collection...(because I keep telling you!)

Sheena said...

I mostly download CBRs, which makes me feel rather guilty, but most comics are out of my price range lately.

towniebastard said...

Colette, I am curious about the cost on the books. If, to use the Daredevil one, they are paying $120 Canadian because that's what Marvel is charging them, then that's fine. I understand that.

But I have the sneaking suspicion they are paying a lot less than that. And if they're paying $75 cost on those book, then they're gouging.

But I still do put 90% of the blame on Marvel. I think we can all agree that's a brutal exchange rate.

And Sheena, I've never downloaded, for several reasons, none of which has to do with the ethics. It has more to do with enjoying holding a book in my hands, a small monitor and a cap limit on downloads in Nunavut (10 gigs per month).

But I do understand downloading books first to see if they're worth buying, especially if you're a poor student. And especially given how much some publishers are over charging.

Bob said...

The stores are definitely paying a lot less. I worked part time for a comic store a while back, and I can tell you that they pay Diamond based on the US price. Most comic stores in Toronto just ignore such out-dated pricing, just as most on-line vendors do. I wish DC and Marvel would just follow the lead of most other comic publishers and just have one price, and let the Canadian retailer decide what to do.

Chad Nevett said...

I've had the same problem with Marvel for a while. A few weeks ago I was at my shop, looking at the Civil War trade and then noticed that it was $24.99 US, but $40 Canadian (meaning, around a 60-cent exchange rate). I didn't buy it for other reasons (namely already spending too much on other stuff) since I'm lucky enough to shop at a store where the owner adjusts the prices of trades to match the current exchange rate. However, the next day, I was in Chapters and saw the hardcover for Infinite Crisis, which also carried a $24.99 US price tag--but was only around $33 Canadian (still a bit off the mark, but much closer). Rather annoying.

I usually end up buying Marvel trades online at Chapters or as a result since they'll often discount them to a decent price.

Chris said...

I can't speak for Ottawa - which tends to be a city where price gouging happens all the time - but here in Toronto, comic stores routinely discount both trades and individual issues, usually to at least US cover price.

towniebastard said...

I tend to blame Marvel for this a lot more than the stores. I've met, and been friends with, some pretty good folks who have run comic book stores. They would give you a break from time to time if you were a good customer. Then again, I've met some real scumbags.

But 90% of this is Marvel's fault. This is no justification for having that kind of exchange rate. It is gouging, plain and simple.

Kimota94 aka Matt said...

Nice blog, and congrats for living in Nunavit (I don't actually know anyone who lives there... or didn't, at least!)

Here in Southern Ontario, the comic store I frequent definitely pays for the books in US dollars, or at least at the current exchange rate, not the Canadian price printed. Wherever there's a big discrepancy (between what the current exchange rate says the Canadian price should be and what it's printed as), the store always uses something close to the current exchange rate.

I'm old enough to remember when they introduced the split price, and like so many others, still wish they'd get rid of it. It's almost never right, and it takes up more space on the cover! :-)

towniebastard said...

Yeah, I can remember the "Still only 35 cents" covers. And the different prices on the covers was my first introduction to currency exchange rates.

And if comic book stores are just charging the US rates and ignoring the Canadian price, good on them. That's not what I experienced in Ottawa. And obviously living where I do, I don't have a lot of regular experience these days with comic book stores.

On a lark, I threw out a question to Joe Quesada for his Friday talk with Newsarama about the problem with Canadian pricing. I'm curious to see if he replies.

And thanks for the kind words about the blog. The comics are what keeps me sane in February when it's -50 outside....