Why comic books cost $3.99

The biggest complaint I hear as the co-owner of a comic book store, is about the rising cost of comic books. Why can’t comics cost $1.25, like they did 17-20 years ago? Well, I’m going to break the fourth wall, as it were, and explain several of the key factors as to why comics cost $3.99.
First of all, when you buy a comic, you’re paying at least four businesses: The comic store, Diamond comic distributors, the print shop, and the publisher.
The publisher wants to keep costs down as much as possible while maximizing profits. Each comic has a minimum of four people working on it: The writer, penciller, inker, and colorist. Sometimes these duties are doubled up by one person, but not often. Plus, sometimes inkers and colorists will have people do some of the more tedious tasks for them; For example, inkers will often have somebody do “blacks” for them, where they just fill in all of the large black areas. Colorists, similarly, will have someone do “flats,” where they fill in large areas with a base color, over which the credited colorist will work their magic. And then there’s the editor, who needs to oversee an entire line of books and make sure there aren’t glaring inconsistencies amongst them (for example, if a character gets their left arm chopped off in one comic, it had better not be the right arm in another comic!), plus the Editor-in-Chief, who oversees the entire company’s books to make sure that the editors didn’t miss anything.
Already, we’re at 8 people, amongst whom $3.99 has to be divided. If it were divided evenly, they’re each getting just under 50¢ apiece, per copy. But that’s not how it works. More on that later.
So, presuming everything goes smoothly, a single comic book issue is created. But it needs to be printed, so that everybody who wants one can buy a copy! This means the comic needs to be run through a printer. As a professional graphic designer, I’ve spent my fair share of time in print shops. The presses used to print big jobs like comics take at least two people to run them properly. This does not account for the people in shipping and receiving, to make sure the comics go out on time, or the people who keep the presses and building operating quickly.
Suddenly, our 8 people went up to over 20 people responsible for your comic, and, even though this isn’t really the way it works out, let’s continue to presume everybody’s getting an equal share of the issue at hand. Now everybody’s getting about 20¢ per copy of a $3.99 comic.
And then there’s whatever shipping service gets used to transport the printed books back to the publisher, who need to make sure they got printed correctly. Those comics then need to be shipped to Diamond Comics Distributors, who will distribute the comics to the comics retailers. Diamond employs hundreds of people, but let’s look at the bare minimum of who has to be involved in your $3.99 issue: There’s the Diamond Representative who helps the stores decide what to buy (my Diamond Rep has always been absolutely fantastic with me, incidentally, and without giving out names, I appreciate everything she’s done for me and my store).
And then there’s the local rep, who swings by every few weeks to make sure everything is going okay, and inform the store of any new stuff coming out that we may have missed in the Previews catalog, or to let us know about any upcoming deals each retailer may have coming up, if they have any.
 And then there’s the people in their main warehouse, which, I believe, is now in Kentucky. When a store orders X number of comics, someone in that warehouse has to grab that many copies of a comic, put them in a box, and ship that to Diamond’s local distribution center. Our is in Los Angeles.
So then the guys in the Los Angeles Diamond hub have to find out exactly how many copies of a comic we’ve ordered, put those in a box, and ship them to our local post office. And then, depending on the deal each store has with the post office, either they send someone to deliver the comics, or the store sends somebody to pick them up.
I’ve lost count of how many people have been involved in getting your monthly comic in your hands, but we’re not done, yet.
Now that the store has the comics on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, the store employees have to open the boxes, check the orders to make sure it’s the proper quantity, check for anything that got damaged in shipping, and put them on the shelves.
Okay, so that’s a VERY QUICK view of what each comic takes to get to you. By my quick math, we’re down to less than 5¢ per copy per person involved, assuming there’s only one person working at a comic store, and they don’t pay for electricity, air conditioning, heating, insurance, telephone, internet, or rent.
But the money you pay for each issue isn’t distributed evenly. Here’s how that breaks down:
Diamond Comic Distributors takes all the orders for everything from every direct market comics retailer, and, based on a formula that has never been explained to me (I’m sure it’s out there, somewhere; I’ve just never bothered to look for it), they determine a level of “discount off cover price” that each retailer gets. As far as I can tell, the discount is based on some combination of longevity and quantity ordered; the longer you’ve been a customer, and the more you order per month, the higher your discount.
If I remember my numbers correctly, the minimum discount Diamond offers is 35% off cover price. So for each copy of a $3.99 comic, a retailer with a 35% discount pays about $2.59. The maximum discount Diamond offers is 53%, meaning those retailers pay about $1.88. But MOST stores get a discount of about 50%. So, for the sake of easy math, let’s call each $3.99 comic $4.00, and assume a store has a 50% discount.
When my store wants to buy a copy of NEW AVENGERS, we need to pay Diamond 2 bucks per copy. Which means that the store only makes two dollars for every copy sold. I don’t know how the other two dollars gets distributed, but IF it gets distributed evenly (which I doubt), that’s 1 dollar for Diamond, and 1 dollar for Marvel.
Which means, when you buy five comics (and let’s say you’re in New Hampshire or Oregon, so there’s a 0% sales tax), you’re giving $20 to the retailer. $10 goes to the retailer, $5 goes to Diamond, and $5 gets divided up amongst whatever publishers you just supported.
And when you buy five $2.99 comics, cut all of those values by 25%: $7.50 goes to the store, $3.75 goes to Diamond, and $3.75 goes to the publishers.

And this doesn’t take into account licensing (IDW has to pay Hasbro in order to keep using the TRANSFORMERS brand name, for example).

And as a retailer, I’m far more inclined to suggest a $3.99 comic to a customer than a $2.99 comic. That’s an extra 50¢ per issue that I’m getting.
Hey, I love getting as much bang for my buck as the next guy, but I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how comic stores stayed in business in the 80s and 90s with comics that cost under 2 bucks, using this model.
So, to everybody who wants to go back to the $1.25 price tag of 1993, thank you for wanting to bankrupt the entire comics industry. You’re doing us all a huge favor with that one.