In my last installment of this column, when discussing a serious drawback of the new Official
Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, I made mention of the fact that I believe that today's market
for recent back issue comics is completely chaotic. I believe this has resulted from the evolution
of a back issue comics retailing system which no longer can economically handle the consequences of
declining individual title demand function. This becomes an even greater problem when combined with
rapidly increasing overall demand for back issues. If what that concept seems somewhat confusing to
you (as well it should...), let me explain what my concept means by telling you all about how I came
within a tiny margin of going bankrupt in 1996.
Simply put, I almost went broke because too many comics had been published. My primary occupation is
selling inexpensive back issues through the mail. I built this business over twenty years from a tiny
operation which Richard Alf was running out of two rooms in an old house, into a fully-integrated
company with over 5 million back issues, stored in a 22,000 square foot warehouse. While this sounds
like a success story, the problem I ran into during the mid-1990's was that each month more books were
being published. It doesn't take a huge amount of reasoning to recognize that the number of items I
was required to keep in stock was expanding very rapidly. In fact, during certain months during the
early 1990's, over 500 new comics were being published each month. Trying to keep at least a couple
of copies of each of these new back issues in stock turned into a total logistics nightmare.
Especially considering the extreme volatility of the back issue market during that period of time.
The situation I was facing in 1996 was that the printed quarterly catalog of back issues that was
the backbone of my entire mail order business became an exercise in futility. While we did a pretty
good job of adding the new titles being published each month into the catalog, the number of actual
copies we had in stock to back up these new listings were very low. As a result, we found our
out-of-stock ratio climbing from approximately 20% in 1990, to over 50% by mid-1996. When you're
forced to return over half of the gross revenue that your catalog is generating because you simply
can't fill the orders, you're in big trouble. In the end, it was only the creation of the Internet
which saved us. By compiling a massive online database which contained all possible titles, but then
only accepting orders for those issues for which we actually had copies in stock, were we finally
able to reduce our operating costs enough to focus our energy on increasing our available inventory.
Increasing our inventory gradually increased our orders, which in the end, allowed us to slowly go
from the edge of financial death, to today's robust vitality.
In many regards, most comics retailers have gone through the same trials as ours during the past 15
years. Selling back issues has become a real nightmare, as no matter how many issues you keep in
stock, consumers almost always seem to want the issues you're missing. Retailer frustration with
this inability to meet consumer demand had led a great many of them to stop carrying back issue
comics entirely, choosing instead to dump their overstock at very low prices. This has led to an
incredible price dichotomy in the back issue comics marketplace. While consumers can find huge
numbers of random selections of back issues for $1 or less at many comics conventions, the steep
operating costs of the database-driven back issue providers require them to often charge a premium
over original cover prices.
It was this very factor that led me to first enter into a dialog with John Jackson Miller about
writing this column. About two years ago I had just seen the latest prices published in the CBG
comics price guide, compiled by Pete Bickford. While I respect Pete a great deal, he and I have a
very differing views of the state of the back issue comics market. Specifically, Pete sees most
recent comics selling for $1.00, or less, at comics conventions, and judges that to be the current
national "value" of those issues. I, on the other hand, assume that dealers selling at conventions
usually only know about pricing "hot" books, and are simply dumping everything else to recover
working capital. As a result, I frequently find books I can sell for $20+ online mixed in with the
drek. Just because I find a $20+ book in the bargain bins at a convention does not change my opinion
of that book's potential for sale on our website. To me that is just another example of the current
gap in functionality, and access to consumers, between those who have online database systems, and
those who do not.
The reality right now is that all comics being published are "limited editions," based on any
reasonable definition of that marketing term. With almost all of today's comics print runs under
100,000 copies, and many seemingly "popular" titles selling less than 30,000 copies, finding any
given back issue from several months back can be a real bear. The math is compelling. If 40,000
copies of a book are printed (that's a whopping 800 copies per state...), I think it is reasonable
to assume that at least 30,000 copies immediately end up in someone's collection. That leaves, at
most, only 10,000 copies of that book in what I call "float." Books in "float" are uncommitted
issues available to service demand in the secondary market. Due to the inherent inefficiencies of
comics retailing, at least half of those floating 10,000 copies will end up in some retailer's back
room, lost in the huge stacks of other unsold issues. That leaves only about 100 copies per state
(assuming no offshore sales...) of that issue to service back issue demand. Is it any wonder that
finding a specific back issue right now can be a real problem for most consumers? For us, however,
that lack of readily available supply is the key to our survival. If we had to sell all recent back
issues at cover price or less (which is the pricing most frequently attributed by CBG, Wizard, and
Overstreet), we'd be right back in financial trouble. It is only by earning a premium over cover
price that we can offset the operating costs of maintaining both our database, and our huge in-stock
The irony of this situation is that most comics dealers are dumping their back issues at bargain
prices during a period that is seeing the highest back issue demand in over 20 years. Because print
runs are so low, and local comics shop owners are cutting their orders so tight, demand for recent
back issues is exploding. For most comics dealers, however, this explosion is but a distant echo.
They have no way to effectively reach the consumers seeking the books they own, so they have no
choice but to dump them for pennies. This brings me right back to the concept I mentioned earlier,
of the difficulty of servicing rapidly increasing back issue comics demand, which is now spread
over a huge number of potential variables. It is exactly this difficulty which has made pricing
recent back issues so difficult for the experts at Wizard, CBG, and Overstreet. Do you use the
dump price, or the premium-priced online valuation when publishing your price guide? Which is the
"real" marketplace for back issue comics? When both of those diametrically opposed answers can be
argued to be correct with very reasonable validity, it can only reflect a back issue comics
marketplace that is in complete chaos. We live in very interesting times....
Next week: A listing of some of the recent titles that we price far above the price guides.
Mile High Comics, Inc.
Attn: Chuck Rozanski
2151 W. 56th Ave.
Denver, CO 80221