eBay has Become
Over the past few months, I have been attending comics conventions non-stop all around America. These shows have ranged from very small one-day affairs in tiny hotels with under a dozen dealers exhibiting, to the giant New York Comicon, which took up a goodly part of the massive Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. One constant that I have experienced at every show that I have attended, however, is a very much-renewed interest in all manner of back issue comics. While the word "renewed" may seem an odd choice (haven't people always collected back issue comics?), the reality for the past two decades has been one of either declining interest in back issues (1985-1993), or minimal interest (1994-2000). It has only been during the past half dozen years that back issue comics have once again come to the forefront in comics collector's minds. The dynamics of why this has occurred, and where this trend may lead us, is the topic I've chosen for today's column.
I'll start by stating that eBay has been the number one driving force behind the massive increase in back issue sales over the past few years. Beginning in 1998, eBay began providing a peer-to-peer mechanism by which collectors could liquidate their comics directly to other fans. The emergence of this process was absolutely critical to the survival of the comics world, as the entire reallocation of comics collections had hit a wall during the late-1990's. Simply put, the vast majority of comics dealers all around the country were broke. The ones that were surviving typically had barely the cash flow coming in to cover their weekly new comics bills from Diamond. That being the case, they had no working capital left with which to purchase collections, even at the most minimal of percentages of "retail" value. Most dealers still sold back issue comics based on the values listed in the national price guides, but with the exception of highly popular comics that they thought that they could "flip" in short order, most dealers were simply not buying collections of old comics.
While dealers were not actively buying old comics, many thousands of collections were still coming up for sale. Oftentimes very big collections, containing more than 10,000 comics each. When the owners of these collections were either forced, or chose, to sell their collections during the late-1990's, they discovered that the vast majority of their comics "investment" was actually illusory, and highly illiquid. At least on the retailer front, there were oftentimes no buyers for their books, at any price. So much for putting their kids through college on the proceeds from the sale of their comics collection...
What happened then, however, was the evolution of an entirely new mechanism for selling entire comics collections. Early-adopter fans who tried eBay, discovered that all sorts of collectibles could be bought and sold directly from other fans. Comics were in the forefront of that early eBay growth, and quickly became one of the most active categories for listings on eBay. eBay could not have come along at a better time, as millions of unsold back issue comics were already being stored in basements, closets, garages, and the back rooms of almost every retail comics shop in the country. Ironically, there actually were buyers out there for a significant number of these older comics that were in dead storage, but the pre-eBay world had no efficient mechanisms to offer the right comics, at the right time, to the right fans. Mail order companies like mine (Mile High Comics) had worked diligently for decades to offer back issue comics to fans via mail order catalogs, but the ever-increasing number of different titles that needed to be offered, as hundreds of additional new comics were being published each month, gradually made our catalogs so expensive to produce and mail that they became functionally obsolete. It was only when we made the transition to creating our own website, and offering our comics exclusively through a master database, that we began to rebuild our business from near-bankruptcy. The same is true for almost all back issue comics retailers in the country, except that most of them chose to use a single public website (eBay) as their sales mechanism, rather than going through the expense of building their own comics website.
Fast-forward ten years, and eBay has become the 800-lb. gorilla of the comics world. I was approached during the New York Comicon by two gentlemen who are building a website that will act as a price guide for comics, based on verifiable online sales. They told me that that they have licensed eBay's sales data, and that eBay is now facilitating in the neighborhood of $400,000,000.00 per year in comics sales. What was not clear from that conversation was whether this huge figure was strictly a comics number, or also included statues, action figures, cards, original art, etc. But in some regards, that specific breakdown is immaterial. eBay has clearly become the number one means for fans and dealers, alike, to sell back issue comics. More importantly, that growth in eBay back issue sales does not seem to be abating in the slightest, with an ever-increasing number of listings drawing in even more buyers. In part this growth is fueled by the sometimes abnormally low prices listed on eBay, but we have also seen eBay develop for us into being quite a profitable part of our business, even though we make no great effort to compete on price.
Where I am taking you with all of this talk of eBay is into a world where access to almost every comic book ever printed now is available for sale 24/7. That having been said, everyone living today has heard at least one horror story of how someone (or themselves...) was burned by an unscrupulous or inept eBay seller. That being the case, there is this weird dichotomy existing where comics fans can get all excited about seeing rare issues being offered for sale on eBay, yet feel a distinct reluctance to order that book from a stranger. What I am seeing as a direct result is that many of these fans are satisfying their desires by attending comics shows, where they can actually touch and feel the comics that they are buying. Once they come to realize that the prices at these comics shows (especially the little ones held on Sundays in hotels and community centers) are frequently as good, or better, than what they would be paying on eBay, they are hooked. That's precisely why I see the attendance at these smaller shows that are being held weekly, all up and down the East Coast and throughout the Midwest, skyrocketing. Not only are avid comics fans turning out in droves for these little shows, but a great many eBay sellers are now also using these shows as places to restock their online store inventories. Seemingly from out of nowhere, the entire back issue comics market has been revitalized to the point where it is now arguably quite a bit larger in total gross sales than the entire new comics market. Even better, we are seeing a surprising growth in new buyers entering the back issue comics market, at least in part as a direct result of the fact that so many back issues are now available at far less than the $2.99 cover price of today's new comics. That having been said, we're finding that many back issue comics prices have actually stabilized, and oftentimes risen dramatically, especially on those scarce back issue comics where there is high demand. To our utter amazement, it is not at all unusual these days for us to see selected back issues selling very briskly at 5X guide! Clearly, the back issue comics market today is as strong, or stronger than it has ever been in the entire history of comics publishing.
In closing today's column, I would state for the record that I perceive of eBay (and other online sites) as being the newsstands of this new millennium. Where the newsstands and drugstores of the 1930's, 1940's, and 1950's, and 1960's acted as the entry point for millions of new comics buyers during those less efficient decades, large public databases are now proving that same mechanism. Pretty much out of the blue, we are suddenly seeing a level of interest in old comics that is nearly unprecedented. Put most succinctly, we've seen our online sales rise by 60% over just the past six months, with a great many of our sales being to comics buyers who have never shopped with us during the past 20 years. Clearly, there are a lot of new comics buyers entering the back issue market, and it is growing very, very vigorously. That newfound vigor in back issue sales certainly bodes well for the future of all aspects of the comics world. To borrow an old phrase, "A rising tide lifts all ships..."
Before I go, I did want to send my condolences out to everyone who was friends with Rory Root, the legendary owner of the fantastic Comic Relief store in Berkeley, CA. Rory and I were friends for many years, and spent endless hours in friendly debates about the future of the world of comics. With the auspices turning so strongly positive for the comics world at the moment, I dearly wish that he could be with us to enjoy the fruits of his hard work and vision. Sadly, however, his body gave out on him long before his passion for comics ever diminished. I met with him just three weeks ago, and while he was not feeling well, he still took the time to share one last afternoon debating with me. I will miss our times together very much...
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