"Buy something you’d like to read, that way it’ll always be worth something to you."

§ July 19th, 2007 § Filed under investing, market crash, question time Comments Off on "Buy something you’d like to read, that way it’ll always be worth something to you."

So some of you folks had some good questions in response to this post of mine from yesterday…I’m mostly just answering direct questions today, but I’ll probably get around to speaking about some of your more general observations soon.

If you have more questions or comments, feel free to lay them on me.

Commenter Allan asks

“I would be curious if you could think of any possible bright sides of the bust. Did anything good come out of it (besides the death of a ton of lousy titles) or was it just a great big pile of suck without any glimmering glints of gold peeking out from underneath the rubble?”

Well, there were a few good things, I think:

1. A refocusing by certain publishers on comics that were worth reading, rather than just being foil-covered, die-cut objects for magpies to gather. (Though this is slowly coming undone.)

2. Shaking out some of the retailers who jumped into the market just to exploit their customer base with “investments” and “collectibles.”

3. And most importantly, teaching the surviving retailers a very important lesson about over-ordering, buying fads, and the transience of “investing” customers. You’ll find a lot more retailers nowadays swearing by their cycle sheets and ordering a lot more conservatively, particularly if they weathered the ’90s.

Commenter Larry E asks

“As a retailer, did you ever try to talk any customers out of buying multiple issues or otherwise contributing to the speculation bug? If you did, was it regular customers or just guys thinking they would cash in on the Death Of Superman or X-Men 1, etc?”

If someone came up to the register with multiple copies of a book, I wouldn’t necessarily try to dissuade them, but I would at least ask them something along the lines of “Are you sure you want this many?” Even if they had just two copies of a book, I’d say “Hey, you had two copies of this comic in your pile…did you mean to do that?” But, if they were adults, and they wanted to have multiple copies…hey, it’s their money.

Also, keep in mind we had ginormous distributor bills…we were raking in a ton of cash, but we were also doling out a lot of coin of the realm at the same time. If someone wanted to buy thirty copies of a book that otherwise was kind of sitting there, we weren’t in a position to say “no,” really. Multiple copy sales of that magnitude (or more, like full cases of books) rarely happened anyway, and it was usually as special-ordered wholesale items to people selling at swap meets, or via mail order, or what have you.

On the other hand, when customers asked me which comics would be a good investment, that’s where I drew the line. Depending on my mood (and how well I knew the customer) I’d say “If I could tell the future, I’d be at the racetrack,” or I’d just respond with a “Who can tell?” Or, more likely, I’d say “Buy something you’d like to read, that way it’ll always be worth something to you.” That particular mantra was repeated many a time.

At no time did I ever, ever, recommend a comic book as an investment. Aside from the fact that I’d prefer people read the books, the danger of that was, of course, recommending a book that turned out to be a turkey, and having the customer chase after me with a rusty clawhammer because I sold him four hundred copies of Team Youngblood #1.

Another thing that, hopefully, makes me look a little less bad was, at the time, I had set up a “RECOMMENDED READING” rack of good comics that I wanted to encourage people to actually read, as opposed to just dropping into a Mylar and waiting for the price to skyrocket. (That’s how we ended up regularly selling about 5% of the print run of a Pirate Corp$ issue, to bring up one fond memory.)

Commenter Scratchie asks

“I’ve often wondered if Overstreet and the other pricing guides acknowledged the crash, or whether their ‘market prices’ for various issues just kept going up, and up…”

You know, that’s a good question, and I think I probably have the magazines and guides at the shop to research it. But just as a hunch, I imagine it’s like this:

Overstreet, on the whole, is pretty conservative with pricing, so aside from some fluctuation on, say, Valiant titles, it probably didn’t alter its pricing too much, since they probably never acknowledged too much of the “hot title” pricing to begin with.

Wizard probably just dropped “hot” comics out of their price guide entirely as prices dropped, with “not enough interest in the title to justify using the space” as a reason.

And the other fly-by-night price guides all dried up before they could start running post-crash pricing.

I need to dig out some of the guides and take a look to see what they actually did. Watch this space!

Commenter Thelonious_Nick asks

“…Do you think there will ever be another time when comics are a mass medium, as they were from the 1940s-1990s? And if so, what changes in the comics industry and/or society will be necessary for that to happen?”

I think it was Dave Sim, of all people, who said that television is the only real mass medium, and everything else is a distant second. But, for a while there, comics were enormously popular, but I think the ’90s may have been the last hurrah of that particular market situation (no matter how hard the publishers are trying to revive it with all their variant covers).

1. We had an enormously popular Batman movie that created a faddish interest in comics.

2. The sports card market collapsed, driving investor types into the comic market looking for more collectibles (a drive pushed by the Batman-created fad, most likely).

3. This may just be crazy talk, but I’ve had a half-baked opinion that comic sales seem to bump upward during times of economic depression, and maybe someday I’ll get around to researching that a little more fully.

And I’m sure there are other reasons, but I think the main reason for the ’90s market being the way it was could be attributed to the faddish nature of comics’ popularity. There’s no real telling what will create a fad like this, how big it’ll get, or how long it’ll last…and now that comics have had their big fad moment, it’s unlikely it’ll happen again in the near future. (How many big “pet rock” revivals have there been since the ’70s, for example?*)

As it is, the comics market is improving slightly, as the focus moves ever so surely towards a trade paperback-based system. As awareness of comics increases, more people find things they like, and readership increases…and so long as the market grows naturally, and healthily, I don’t care if it does reach the heights of the ’90s. And frankly, the only way that would happen at this point is for another comics fad to hit, which I don’t know any of us really want to see.

By the way, in some instances, comics are doing enormously well. How many best seller lists is the Naruto manga on, for example?

Commenter Matt asks

“…Was there one “eureka” moment for you when you knew the crash was coming? When you knew things were falling apart, or about to fall apart?

“For that matter, did you smell the crash at all?”

I think I’ve noted before that the crash was pretty sudden. We had a few weeks when sales dipped a bit, and we thought it was just one of those periodic sales adjustments, and things would be back up to normal shortly.

And then things just kept dipping, and we thought “Well, this is going on a little longer than normal, surely those customers will be back. We’d better keep ordering our regular numbers so that we’ll have the back issues for them when they return.”

And then the sales continued dipping, and then we, along with every retailer in America and abroad, went “Oh, shit.”

The one thing that really made me think “Oh, this can’t be good” was a certain issue of the Diamond Previews catalog. For one, it was much thicker than previous issues. I think it was even thicker than the current Previews. And two, it contained the debut of (or at least special-featured solicitations for) at least three different superhero shared universes from three different publishers (one may have been Dark Horse’s Comics’ Greatest World). I remember looking at that and thinking “We don’t have the rack space to support this” and “How do they expect customers to afford to follow all these books?” I can still recall my very strong feeling of dread.

Commenter jimbo asks:

“I guess like Larry E, I’m interested in, for lack of a better word, the ‘ethics’ of the 90’s speculator boom. Did you feel a certain responsibility to dissuade folks from being a bit too silly with their money (multiple issues, ‘investing,’ etc.), or is this sort of like asking a liquor store owner if he feels bad about taking money off a guy who buys a 30 pack?

“I know you to be a generally swell and ethical guy, but were there ever any moments in the 90’s where you felt tested, or even points where you were like ‘No, this is not why I got into this business at. all.’?”

I addressed this at least partially with my response to Larry E…I think my responsibility was in telling people who asked about comic book investing was that it wasn’t a good idea. But, if people wanted to spend money on multiple issues, even after I asked them if they were sure…well, I’m not their mom, I’m not going to tell them what they can or can’t spend their money on. And like I’d said…most of the time, it was just people buying doubles, which was no big deal.

Was that healthy for the comics industry in the long run? Probably not. But not even a Mikester in his early 20s’ fightin’ prime could save the industry by himself, refusing to sell multiple copies and extolling his customers to turn away, turn away I say, from those five different X-Men #1s, stop rubbing the blood on Bloodstrike #1, and buy only comics you’ll enjoy reading! I did what I could to encourage reading and discourage investing, but the economic reality of it was that I had to accept the investors are part of the deal. Besides, if they didn’t buy ’em here, they’d go to one of the other half-dozen stores that popped up in our immediate area and buy ’em there. (‘Course, most of those stores dried up years ago.)

On the other hand, the kind of person who’d buy a case of any given issue at a time wasn’t someone who was going to stick around as a reader anyway. He was in it for short term profit, not long term entertainment.

As far as the “not why I got into this business” part…it wasn’t comics, but POGs what did the deed. I’ve written about this before, but POGs and their ilk are really the only thing I hated, hated selling. It honestly made me feel like a crook taking money from kids for POGs and POG supplies and POG sheets and slammers and what have you. I would have probably felt better about selling cigarettes to them, because then at least the kids would get cool menthol flavor, which is far more than they’d be getting from these stupid milkcaps. This was pretty much post-crash, however, and we were doing everything we could to get cash in the door and keeping the doors open. And, kids wanted POGs, we had no shortage of people wanting to wholesale POGs to us, and our will was weak.

When my time comes, I’ll have a lot of explaining to do to God.

Commenter David C asks

“Were you around for the ’80s ‘Black and White’ boom? If so, how was it similar and different?”

I was around as a reader and a fan for the black and white boom, but I wasn’t on the retail end of things until shortly afterward. Our shop didn’t fall for the b&w boom like some folks did…we may have carried Solson titles and assorted other small press titles cranked out to take advantage of the investors market created by the popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but never more copies than we thought we could sell. There was no investing in these b&w #1s in quantity, in the hopes a financial killing could be made (like the poor bastard I saw at a convention circa ’91, with a whole long box of the notoriously terrible Shadow of the Groundhog).

I would say, in general terms, that the primary difference between the black and white boom and the late ’80s/early ’90s boom was that the former was more publisher driven, while the latter was consumer driven. When TMNT came out, it was a huge hit, with early issues commanding enormous prices. Suddenly everyone was a comic book publisher, cranking out their own black and white titles hoping for that same success. Not saying there weren’t any good publishers that came out of that (like Slave Labor and Dark Horse), and that some titles didn’t sell well, but there was a metric assload of terrible, terrible comics, number ones pumped out one after another, in the hopes that if you threw enough crap at a wall, some of it would stick…and very, very little of it did. (And then there are the tales of some publishers holding back cases of their own titles, attempting to manipulate the market and create their own “hot” books….)

And Comic Bob wants a more detailed timeline of the ’90s, in regards to the rise and fall of the industry. I’ve sort of noted some of the things he mentions in past posts linked in yesterday’s post, but perhaps a more thorough timeline would be in order. I’ll see what I can cook up.

Related: Dick has been relating his history as a kid reading comics in the ’90s beginning with this post, which may be of interest to people curious about what the market was like from a reader’s point of view.

* A TRUE MIKESTER STORY: In grade school, we were given a project to create some kind of marketable product, along with its packaging, for…well, for some reason, I’m sure. Hey, it’s been 30 years, give me a break. Anyway, the product I created was a Pet Rock knockoff called the “Pet Stick,” a wooden stick packaged in a triangular tube I constructed (kind of like the priority mail tubes you get from the USPS). It came with a set of instructions that included games you could play with your Pet Stick, including “Fetch the Dog” — you throw the stick, it’ll attract a nearby dog, which will pick the stick up and bring it back to you. I’ll still defend that as being a pretty good joke.

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