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How much for just the longbox?

October 2, 2012

Last year, I had occasion to buy an Overstreet price guide for the first time in about 15 years. Overstreet publishes a price guide for comics annually, and has been doing so since 1970, the year I was born. I guess comics, as collectibles, are as old as I am. I bought my first Overstreet when I was 16 (1986). I bought again in 1990 and 1997. I currently own the 2010 Overstreet, bought just weeks before the 2011 guide came out. That’s how far out of touch I am with prices…I don’t even know when the current Overstreet comes out.

One of the reasons to buy an Overstreet after so many years is that I finally have money to start plugging holes in my collection. I may be able to finally afford a Daredevil #168…if it’s on sale.

You would think that after 1997 (the year Al Gore invented the Interweb) there would be no need for a printed copy of the guide, and that almost all pricing information would be available from an online vendor. And there has been overtures towards this, most famously from Wizard, but also from at least half a dozen others. Almost all have failed.

There really isn’t any deep technical reason for this. While modelling comics in SQL is fairly challenging, it isn’t impossible. Challenging because of all the crazy tricks publishers use either for marketing or to avoid the taxman…a common trick is to rename the series while leaving the numbering intact, which can re-classify the series for tax purposes while leaving collectors tearing their hair out (that’s why many classic series like Thor don’t start at issue #1). But it can be achieved.

If you don’t think it could be that tough, take a look at documentation at The Grand Comic Database. Each one of those fields has an entire miniature metadata universe associated with it.

Part of the reason there’s been no online success is because of custom software that provides subscription access to price updates. You buy the base program, then pay a monthly or annual fee to update prices. I started this way, buying my first software around 1995, and using it till around 1999. The problem with these programs is that they only track popular series. If you add a series yourself, you won’t receive price updates on it, even if the software adds the series later. The database won’t merge your custom series with what gets added by the update. While I imagine some software actually allows you to manually merge, this is a hassle that can quickly lead to a corrupt database.

This is the type of thing you’d love to crowd source, and of course, that’s actually how collectibles work…the price rises only while people are still willing to pay it, and most shops compare their prices locally and nationally. But, if you want to charge money for your guide, you must maintain neutrality and be seen as trustworthy. You can’t let your customers make up prices on the spot. Or we’ll all end up paying $100 each for all the old New Universe books. Ok…just kidding, folks.

The other reason is that, generally, subscription fees are too high. Even at $7/month, comic book prices don’t fluctuate often enough to justify an $84 a year overhead. That’s just over 20 $4 comics you couldn’t buy, just to find out that the bulk of your collection had earned probably less than 1% ‘interest’. Even at $5, you’re still charging almost double a printed copy of Overstreet.

But the bandwidth for that type of service, while nowhere near the level of bandwidth that a service like Twitter or Youtube have to pay every day, still comes up to a pretty penny. When you throw in user registration, allowing users to track their collections, and providing for privacy, it just gets worse. That doesn’t even begin to cover the very real cost of paying employees to reach out to collectors, stores, and auction houses to gather real-world price data. I can understand why ComicBase, the current king of comic collecting software, charges $50 USD for even the most absurdly basic version of their software.

For the last 10 years, I’ve bucked tradition (and some would argue common-sense), and used XML to track my collection. I’ve recently come to the point where almost every comic is tracked. Almost. I still have one last longbox of bits and pieces to add. I’ll probably be able to take a complete inventory by next summer. Using a custom solution has a few advantages:

  • I can track whatever the hell I like. This includes things like ashcans (photocopied comics that are literally run off at Kinko’s and hand-stapled), promotional items (like the Yar’s Revenge comic that came bundled with the Atari 2600 game), and even weird knickknacks like pop-up books.
  • I can track who’s signed copies of my comics. A lot of software programs have facilities for custom fields, but these are ugly hacks that don’t work very well on searches.
  • I can choose my own metadata models. I don’t have to migrate to the new comics grading system if I don’t want to. I can also track things like advisory labels (G, PG-13, R, X) using film ratings, video game ratings, or my own custom system.
  • At the end of the day, XML is just plain text with angle brackets. I can process it with a text editor if I need to. I also have no problems with data migrations. Most custom database software will not dump SQL as an export option, so you couldn’t drop ComicBase into MySQL if you so chose.

There are also cons:

  • Commercial software is written by a lot of people, and comes with a lot of polish. I’m neither a designer nor an IA (though I’ve done both types of work in the past). I’m also only one guy.
  • No artwork. This is the big draw of ComicBase, which offers tens of thousands of scanned covers in it’s pricier premium versions (one of the most expensive has so much stuff it’s shipped on Blu-Ray).
  • No army of dedicated nerds entering thousands of titles and creators into a database. You type it all in yourself. That’s why it’s taken so long to get caught up.
  • Probably not useful for insurance purposes. Of course, the computer would go up in the same blaze that consumes the comics, anyway.

How much are price guides actually worth?

Ultimately, price guides really have only ancillary value to documenting a collection. Comics are now a mature medium in regards to collectibility. People are aware of future value, and enough people keep enough comics in decent shape that there’s enough for all. All the ‘low-hanging fruit’ (comics so rare that their prices will rise astronomically no matter what) is gone. Here’s why.

Around the time that Overstreet first came out, 1970, there was already a collector’s market, but it was only being served by auction houses, word-of-mouth, and conventions. There were probably specialty stores before 1970, but they were rare. Around the mid-1970’s until roughly the mid-80’s was the first really large specialty store boom. Lots of comic shops opened and thrived. It was in the mid-80’s that the direct market came into being to serve these stores.

The direct market is basically an industry term that means ‘any comic sold directly to comic shops and not to newsstands’. At the start of the 1980’s, newsstands sold maybe 90% of the comics, and the direct market only the remaining 10%…by the end of the 80’s, these numbers were almost reversed.

You can begin to see the trend…more and more, comics were being sold directly to collectors, and collectors only. Even though printing runs declined (in the newsstand market, 100,000 copies of a single issue was an abysmal number…in the direct market, that’s a bestseller), the number of issues that were preserved in good condition increased. That’s a recipe for disaster, if the only reason you’re collecting is monetary value.

The reality is that, aside from a few key books, most comics released past 1980 just aren’t that valuable. In general, if you had to unload your entire collection quickly, most of the books would be worth less than 50 cents a piece.

Hey, man…what about Walking Dead #1?

Yeah, ok. It only came out in 2003 and is already clocking in over $200. And Bone #1, released in 1991 is still worth over 300 clams. You’re talking about exceptions, rather than the rule.

Let’s take a look at NYX #3, the first appearance of X-23. (Side note: for those who don’t collect comics, NYX was a series by Marvel that’s part of their series of X-Men titles. X-23 is a teenaged, female clone of Wolverine.) Marvel, during the 2000’s, has had a strict no-reprint policy. This means that they won’t print more copies of any single issue of a series that does well. In any other industry other than a collectible industry, this would make absolutely no sense. But in a market that only sells to collectors, it drives up orders for subsequent issues.

In this type of system, you’re never really going to find a lot of valuable books. Everyone who wants them, already picked them up on their Wednesday run. Those who didn’t, are only really SOL on the exceptions, like Bone or Walking Dead #1.

You sound really bitter because you didn’t pick up Bone #1 or Walking Dead #1 when they came out.

You damn right I’m bitter. Yeah.

But, really, in the end, it doesn’t matter because I’m also bitter I don’t have a decent copy of Giant-Size X-Men #1, either.

Ok, just kidding. The prices on some books go beyond the pale. And, as a collector, you have to accept that certain books are beyond your reach. Though most of us will earn anywhere between 1-2 million gross in our lifetimes ($35,000 average annual salary multiplied by 45 years is $1,575,000), that still won’t net you an Action Comics #1 (one recently sold for 2.3 million…no lie).

At the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of guys in neon pantyhose beating the crap out of each other

Yeah…I don’t think that came out right. But, whatever…

What’s really amazed me about reading my (now 2 years old) copy of Overstreet is how much the market has changed. And how much prices have changed. I can remember digging through bins sitting on the floor to find a copy of Miracleman #15. I paid $10…it’s now worth over $100.

One. Hundred. Dollars.

That is insane. All because it’s the first comic released in North America to feature that much graphic violence. Miracleman #8 is only worth $8, and that’s the childbirth issue, drawn to reveal everything.

I almost choked on my convention food when I started looking at prices for things I paid 75 cents for when I was 15.

Where’s the real value?

I’ve generally tracked the monetary value of my collection by simply totalling the cover price of all my issues. My theory is that the price of the very few high-ticket items will be reflected in the aggregate, because 90% of the rest of the collection will be well below cover price in terms of ‘flip’ value…the money I’d be able to make if I had to unload the entire collection quickly. If that theory has any truth, then the total value of my collection (as it stands) is around $18,379.01. Hey, in this economy, every penny counts.

There are quite a few books over the last 40 years that are worth hundreds, even thousands of dollars. In many cases, they will probably be the worst books you’ve ever read. Don’t believe me? Here’s the first words Wolverine ever said, in his first appearance:

If you really want to tangle with someone — why not try your luck against…the WOLVERINE!!

Yeah. Shakespeare.

I intentionally listed Bone and Walking Dead #1 above, because they’re the rare example of books that have risen in value because they’re good stories. Not because the price was printed upside-down, or they’re a dealer incentive cover, or some popular hero/villain debuted, or some other marketing trick or gimmick. They’re worth money…because they’re good stories.

That means more to me than the actual value listed in Overstreet. One of the benefits of the modern ‘after-market’ of trade paperbacks and digest reprints is that you can read these stories without investing or even caring about the main collector’s market.

But sometimes, it’s awesome to just look at a price guide. And dream of that perfect score in a back-issue bin.

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