Corruption & Manipulation Creep
Last week, I left off with the teaser line for this week's column: "Bob Overstreet as the Benevolent Despot of Comics..." I'm sure that left more than a few of you thinking that I would attack Bob's judgments in this week's column. I'm sorry, but if that was what you were anticipating, it just isn't going to happen. I've known Bob Overstreet personally for over 25 years, and have been utilizing his price guide for 33 years. During that time I have never seen any evidence that Bob Overstreet has done anything but try to find a reasonable consensus for pricing in a comics marketplace that (on its best days...) consists of warring clans of dealers and collectors bent on proselytizing perspectives that are completely self-serving. The fact that Bob has managed to stay above the internecine warfare of the back issue comics market is an incredible record of managing to walk the high wire, for over three decades.
Before you start to think that the back issue comics market is unique in its conflicts, please understand that I have seen exactly the same kind of behavior manifested by dealers and collectors in other art fields. It is important to understand that comics dealers earn their profits in two ways. The first is by the differential between what they pay for a book, and what they eventually are able to realize when they sell it. Within this context, buying low, and selling high is the name of the game. If you generate enough in earnings from your pricing differentials to cover your operating costs, then (if you're lucky) you might have some profit left over for yourself.
The second way that comics dealers generate earnings is through the capital appreciation of their inventories. Specifically, if you have (as an example) $100,000.00 in comics in your inventory at Overstreet prices, and Bob increases prices in his new price guide by 8%, then you have a paper appreciation of $8,000.00 in the value of your inventory. While that sounds simple, the trick to this game is that Bob increases some prices not at all in any given edition of his pricing guide, while other prices may increase by as much as 30%-40%. The goal of every dealer (and speculative collectors...) is to maximize the number of books they're holding in inventory which have the greatest possibility of rising dramatically in value in the next year's guide.
It is at this point where attempts at corruption and manipulation creep into the back issue comics market. With huge potential gains in capital appreciation at stake, some dealers go to great lengths to make a case that their particular genre of comics should go up more rapidly in price in Bob's next guide. In fact, certain genres of comics (such as the "Esoteric Comics" genre of the mid-1970's) were entirely created by clever dealers who staked out huge positions in books that everyone else considered worthless at the time, and then reaped staggering rewards when the genre they hyped multiplied in value. Does anyone really give a damn that certain comics show atomic blasts, apes, or appeared in Seduction of the Innocent? To my way of thinking, those were all simply contrivances designed by stakeholders long ago to gain capital appreciation. They remain within the pricing structure today because once enough people have invested in a given representation of "value," it becomes almost impossible to reverse the process without endangering the credibility of the entire pricing structure.
That having been said, Bob Overstreet needs to be given credit for a job done incredibly well. For the past 33 years he has been the force of stability within the comics world. No matter how raucous certain comics dealers have become in promoting their own cause, Bob has done his best to focus only on specific sales results when setting new prices. He has also tried to keep overall comics values rising steadily each year, so that all collectors and dealers throughout fandom would benefit in some measure from capital appreciation. Even during the dreadful years of 1993-1996, when the new comics market fell by over 70%, Bob managed to keep most prices modestly rising on back issues. Thanks to his slow and steady guidance, we now have a back issue comics market that is the strongest in history, with overall annual revenues on back issue comics sales estimated be greater than the total sales for all new comics published this year!
To return to my original characterization, because of his extraordinary unchecked individual power to set back issue comics prices, I think it is completely correct to characterize Bob Overstreet as a "Despot." But that having been said, while he does indeed have that great power, I don't think that any collectibles field has ever had a more benevolent leader. Bob has now spent over three decades helping grow the hobby we all love. We all owe a great deal of thanks to Bob Overstreet for helping keep the back issue comics industry alive and exciting, even through our darkest days. Without power of his individual credibility, I doubt very much we would be where we are today.
Next week: Fooling Bob Overstreet, and other fun games...
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