By Benjamin Nobel, August 31, 2016
One of the most intriguing questions about modern comics for collectors to ponder is newsstand versus direct edition rarity. Beginning in 1979 (or 1977 if you count Whitman/Western non-returnable comics), Marvel sold two distinguishable versions of their comics across two distinct distribution channels, one where comics were direct-sold to specialty comic shops on a discounted but non-returnable basis, and another where comics were distributed to newsstands and unsold copies could be returned for a refund. Collectors can distinguish returnable copies from non-returnable ones in the same way the publisher did: by looking at what is in the UPC code box area (if this is something you were unaware of, you may want to read Comic Book Newsstand Editions: Understanding The Difference).
In any discussion of the question of relative rarity between these two types of modern comic books, one is bound to have the thought: “If only CGC had decided to break out newsstand and direct edition comics separately on census, that would have given us some great data to study!”
Had they done this, we could then look up any given issue we’re curious about and actually see the count of how many CGC has graded of each type, understanding of course that the CGC census data for any given issue is a small sampling of the total outstanding copies that were sold — it is only going to reflect the subset of total copies out there that collectors have turned in for grading… but that still would have provided an extremely useful input and it is a shame that the data is forever lost and lumped together. Because much like TV ratings and election polling is done with a small sampling of the total audience/voters, CGC census data can be very revealing, especially for those issues where collectors have turned in a thousand+ copies giving us a fairly large sample size. But alas, CGC’s policy has been to lump together newsstand and direct edition comics by issue number… except in certain special situations. In this post I will talk about these special situations, including two new special situations I only became aware of this year on account of The Doc Collection (if you’re wondering “what is The Doc Collection” — I will discuss that as well, including a very interesting Q&A with its seller).
Special Situation #1: Canadian Newsstand Comics of the 1980’s
One such special situation that I’d been aware of for a long time (and have written a lot about) has been the window of time in the 1980’s that newsstand copies of comic books that were produced for Canada — but importantly: printed simultaneously with the other copies by the same publisher and on the same equipment here in the USA — were printed with a higher cover price (for more information see 75 Cent Variants: Canadian Newsstand Editions and read the comment section as well where a reader revealed that the distribution was imperfect and some of the variants were in fact sold right here in the USA in border states — if collector peers right here in the USA bought them in their own home towns, that is arguably all the more reason that these variants are “fair game” for the rest of us too!).
Before the variant cover price window, the prices were the same across all of North America (typically 60 cents per issue) and therefore all of the North American market got the same exact newsstand copies; and after the window, we find that the newsstand batches were “merged” and both the US and Canadian prices were shown on all newsstand copies (and so all of North America once again got the same identical newsstand copies). But during the window two distinct batches of newsstand copies were produced, one for each price. Canada was a small 9.8% fraction of the North American market for comic books by population size during that time (most people don’t think about how despite Canada’s giant geographic footprint it actually has a tiny population relative to the USA, similar in size to that of California alone, for example). And the higher cover price variants were a newsstand-only phenomenon (because all of the direct edition copies during that window were the same and had both prices on them). So these particular CGC-recognized newsstand variants were only sold to a portion of that already-tiny Canadian market.
Special Situation #2: Manufacturing Differences
For U.S. newsstand comics, one of the special situations where CGC will “break out” newsstand comics as variants is in the case of manufacturing differences (such as different paper quality), which was a common phenomenon among newsstand comics produced by Image Comics. Not all Image newsstand comics had this phenomenon (for example Spawn newsstand comics only began to be printed with newsprint pages instead of glossy around issue #8 — I say “around” because there are no “Newsstand Edition” variants of issue #7 or earlier showing up on census at the time of this writing and I haven’t personally verified the paper used for issues after #3 myself, so it could be the case that newsprint was indeed used before #8 but that nobody has sent one in yet).
But although this means some of the Image mega-keys like Spawn #1 are unfortunately not broken out between direct edition and newsstand, many of Image’s newsstand comics — including some other pretty important ones — do have the kinds of manufacturing differences that cause CGC to “break out” newsstand copies as distinct variants on census with their own distinct count of graded copies… Below is a table of the census count as of this writing, of some of the ones I’m aware of where CGC breaks out newsstand copies as “Newsstand Edition” on census. Included in here is Spawn #9 which is another huge “key” featuring the first appearance of Angela (now part of the Marvel universe) and has a copy count reflecting well over a thousand submissions (over 1,500 in fact, as of this writing, a really nice sample size):
|Issue||Census Count: Direct Edition||Census Count: Newsstand||Grand Total CGC Has Graded|
|Darker Image #1||43||3||46|
|Savage Dragon Limited Series #1||179||6||185|
Image’s tiny sliver of total sales on newsstands was so small as to be “nearly invisible” [with some even concluding Image was exclusively direct edition — a completely forgivable mistake considering that if you actually go looking for Image newsstand comics in the marketplace they are buried under a mountain of direct editions]. There are probably many other Image titles and issues beyond those 10 examples listed above that have similar newsstand edition manufacturing differences, but that collectors have yet to send in to CGC for grading. I’m not currently aware of any Marvel or D.C. comics with such differences in paper quality between newsstand and direct edition; it is possible this could be an Image-specific phenomenon (if you know otherwise please comment at the bottom of this post with that information). Image as a new entrant in 1992 faced a major challenge with newsstand sales — think of the competition they faced as a new start-up with new/unknown characters going head-to-head against the well-known characters published by industry heavyweights…
And so while they did succeed in attaining some newsstand distribution, they sold the vast majority of their comics as direct editions, to comic shops — and some of the manufacturing choices they elected for the newsstand copies may have been done in order to save money to help them compete (using cheap newsprint instead of expensive glossy paper for example; as another example for Spawn Batman the direct edition cover was thick card stock while the newsstand edition cover was regular paper). Some of Image’s titles did better than others on the newsstand, for example sales of the more popular Spawn title fared better than Savage Dragon — Erik Larsen has posted about that title’s struggles on the newsstand, saying that he completely pulled Savage Dragon off of the newsstands by 1996 because it was losing money. Because of this special situation as a new entrant, Image’s experience as a publisher on the newsstands in the 90’s would certainly be a much different one as compared to Marvel or D.C. — but it is widely discussed out there that newsstand sales even for those heavyweights were in major decline and I’ll go into that more, later in this post.
Aside from manufacturing differences like the Image examples above, in the last year I became aware of two other special situations where CGC has decided to “break out” U.S. newsstand comics. What caused me to become aware of these other special cases was The Doc Collection. Read on: I will next explain these other two “special situations” and also what The Doc Collection is, as well as present an interesting Q&A with the seller who has been liquidating that collection on behalf of its owner (which is posted with their permission).
The Doc Collection
“The newsstand cast a wide net. It funneled wannabe collectors into the comics shops. In a way, the spotty, unreliable, inconsistent nature of newsstand distribution was a good thing, because someone who just had to have every issue was more or less forced to seek out a comics shop.” – Jim Shooter
The “typical” comic book collector in the modern era purchased their collectibles from a specialty comics shop. To buy comics on newsstands was to buy comics that had been manhandled by the staff (who treated them just like the magazines beside them — publications meant to be read — with no reason to preserve condition). And that was assuming the comic sought was even there on the stands in the first place, given how unreliable newsstand distribution could be. By shopping for their collectibles in a comics shop, the typical collector was able to reliably take home a pristine-condition copy and do so without missing an issue. The comics shop I frequented in the 1990’s as a kid had a special program for regular customers like me, where a mint condition copy of the next issue for any title you wanted to collect was bagged, boarded, and set aside with your name on it, ensuring not a single collectible was missed.
But by focusing on condition and reliability, that typical collector (like me back then) may not have realized that they took home a “direct edition” copy… Even today, not all collectors realize that there was another version out there other than the one they themselves took home. The Overstreet price guide doesn’t distinguish the types, giving no “cue” in the guide to prompt anyone to think about the difference when looking up values… And the difference is practically invisible as we move to “late modern” comics where both newsstand and direct edition copies have UPC codes (albeit different ones), making them look identical to the untrained eye. But this UPC code difference, while it may look like trivia “at a glance” it is far from trivial — indeed, what’s in that code box can cause the newsstand version to be a CGC-recognized variant.
“The Doc” was not your typical collector.
Nicknamed “The Doc” by the friend (hirivercomics) who has been auctioning off his collection on eBay one comic at a time, this collector was a doctor, living in the mountains of North Georgia. And The Doc, being a Doc, had an interesting connection… he knew the owner of his local drugstore. And through that connection, had an advantage that the typical collector did not: The Doc could cherry pick newsstand comics before they were handled by the staff, before they ever touched the rack in the drugstore.
The Doc Collection is, simply put, the largest known late modern newsstand collection, and most certainly the largest pristine-condition late modern newsstand collection. And quite possibly a one-of-a-kind collection in that sense. And because the pristine condition is so abnormal among newsstand comics, submissions of comics from this collection are responsible for at least one, and possibly both, of the other two “special situations” where CGC has elected to “break out” US newsstand copies as distinct census variants. The typical newsstand comic book out there would just not be in “CGC-worthy” condition, compared to a typical direct edition copy… but the Doc’s comics are CGC-worthy. In this way, prompting submissions and causing CGC to consider new situations they hadn’t encountered before where breaking out newsstand comics as variants was warranted, the Doc Collection has already changed comic book history, by giving us a whole new “class” of CGC-recognized variants where CGC’s census data will separately track newsstand copies as distinct from their direct edition counterparts!
And here’s a close-up of the UPC code:
This is one of the other types of “special situations” that I noticed for the first time specifically because of the Doc Collection, that I hadn’t known about before. It turns out that Marvel did not always print a given newsstand comic with the “right” UPC code. In fact, they did not always create a distinct UPC code at all (especially for one-shots it seems).
In many cases, instead of creating a whole new code, newsstand copies of this era were instead given a “borrowed” UPC code, i.e., borrowed from another title. Whether we consider this an “error” (arguably it isn’t erroneous if the publisher did it on purpose as they appear to have done), or just an interesting phenomenon, the result is that CGC breaks these newsstand comics out as variants. So this is hardly just a bit of “trivia” because it is giving us a group of Marvel newsstand comics where we can actually see the copy count accumulate over time on census, allowing us to be able to compare the count of newsstand and direct edition copies of these issues.
The name applied to these types of newsstand comics on the census lookup and on the CGC labels is “Newsstand Variant.” I first noticed these on census when looking up Amazing Spider-Man #600, #606, and #607 — although the variant name for newsstand copies of these three was later changed (this year) which I’ll get to in a bit. For those three examples plus a lot of other copies of Amazing Spider-Man during this time-frame, it turns out Marvel used codes other than the Amazing Spider-Man UPC code. (See more about this interesting phenomenon about UPC code “cycling” in the ASM title in my separate post about Amazing Spider-Man / Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man / Sensational Spider-Man code cycling).
Outside of this ASM “cycling” phenomenon, other comics such as X-Men Origins: Deadpool #1 exhibit a similar phenomenon (pictured at right, where the Incredible Hulk UPC code was used). [Worth noting too is that this Deadpool example is also a cover price variant, so CGC might have just as easily chosen to put it in that other special situation category, one which I’ll talk more about in a bit]. Here are just a few of the other many examples of Marvel newsstand comics that exhibit this “borrowed” UPC code phenomenon:
3.99 Newsstand Editions
Here’s the one “special situation” category that I know for certain CGC only considered this year (2016), specifically because of the submission of Doc Collection newsstand comics. There is an entire publication “window” during which newsstand comics were priced $1 higher than their direct edition counter-parts (which had cover prices of $2.99). If you’re thinking this reminds you very much of 35 cent variants then you’ve had the same thought as me: it might very well be the case that Marvel was testing a price increase for a period of time by measuring newsstand sales (because this cover price variant “window” was followed by the direct edition regular pricing broadly catching up to $3.99).
Whatever the reason for the existence of this cover price variant window, my applause goes to CGC for making the great decision to “break out” newsstand comics from this cover price variant window as distinct census variants! Since newsstand copies of ASM #600, 606, and 607 are cover price variants (in addition to having that “incorrect” UPC code phenomenon), CGC ultimately changed the name for those — possibly for the sake of consistency across the title — so you may find older graded copies out there that say Newsstand Variant, or, you may find newer ones that say $3.99 Newsstand Edition.
Here’s an example of what the CGC Census currently shows for ASM #607:
It will be very interesting to watch the census numbers accumulate over the course of time for these and other $3.99 Newsstand Edition comics; this “era” of newsstand publication was very close to the point in time where Marvel ended sales to most newsstand outlets — I’ll talk about that further a little later. So for the census data to differentiate the newsstand comics from their direct edition counterparts during this cover price variant window is going to be exceptionally interesting as the data fills out over the fullness of time.
And because these $3.99 newsstand comics (and also $4.99 when the regular copies happened to be $3.99) are from an entire window, there are lots and lots of titles collectors can dig into for interesting major and minor keys to consider collecting. Just a few examples that I find particularly interesting:
- Amazing Spider-Man #569, $3.99 Newsstand Edition (Anti-Venom key)
- Amazing Spider-Man #601, $3.99 Newsstand Edition (Jessica Jones app.)
- Amazing Spider-Man #606, $3.99 Newsstand Edition (J. Scott Campbell cover may go down in history as a “modern classic cover” a good test of which is whether it is being cover-swiped by others in the future, because why swipe a past cover unless there is something really important about it?)
- Amazing Spider-Man #607, $3.99 Newsstand Edition (another famous J. Scott Campbell cover)
- Amazing Spider-Man #611, $3.99 Newsstand Edition (Deadpool app.)
- Amazing Spider-Man #617, $4.99 Newsstand Edition (1st New Rhino)
- Incredible Hulk (2008 series) #1, $3.99 Newsstand Edition (1st Red Hulk)
- Daredevil (1998 series) #111, $3.99 Newsstand Edition (Lady Bullseye)
- Wolverine (2003 series) #67, $3.99 Newsstand Edition (Old Man Logan Story-line)
- Daredevil (2011 series) #21, $3.99 Newsstand Edition (Superior Spider-Man cameo)
- Venom/Deadpool: What If #1, $3.99 Newsstand Edition (Venomized Deadpool)
- New Avengers #35, $3.99 Newsstand Edition (Venomized Wolverine)
- This post is about Marvel but a similar $1-higher newsstand phenomenon took place at D.C. as well, encompassing their “Rebirth” for example
These are just a few examples to get you thinking (I go into more depth for some of these examples here), and they only scratch the surface of this fairly large cover price variant window. And I’ll say again, my applause to CGC for breaking out this “class” of cover price variants, I find it exciting that in the fullness of time, this decision will give collectors great CGC census data to study, to compare newsstand versus direct edition rarity in this time period. As I’ll get to later in this post, it was very close to the wind-down of Marvel’s newsstand distribution, and an industry insider has even suggested the relative newsstand rarity towards the end (2013 being the end for Marvel) may have been as extreme as 1-in-50 to 1-in-100 for Marvel in those later years. I’ll also share a pertinent quote from Marvel’s David Gabriel related to this, but first, here is a very interesting Q&A with the seller of the Doc Collection, posted with their permission:
A Q&A with hirivercomics, seller of the Doc Collection
Q) I feel very fortunate to have picked off some of the Doc’s comics at auction, especially some Amazing Spider-Man books in incredible shape. But there are notable “holes” in the Doc’s ASM run, which seem to correspond to the UPC code that was used on them. At some point, Marvel started “cycling” the codes on these, alternating between “Amazing Spider-Man”, “Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man”, and “Sensational Spider-Man”. It seems every third comic was missed by the Doc?
A) I was puzzled by Doc’s Amazing run when I first saw it — after they started putting Amazing and Friendly on the UPC code every third issue was missing! I found out later about the missed ones that they had Sensational Spider-Man on them!!!
Q) For the missed Amazing Spider-Man issue numbers with the Sensational code on them, do you know if this missed distribution was specific to certain types of stores, or certain regions?
A) I found some out there with the Sensational code and the seller/sellers were all from the Northeast (NY,etc)! During the time Doc was getting his, I can tell you that there wasn’t anybody in the Atlanta area with newsstand comics anymore!
Q) What about the Doc’s area?
A) The drugstore was the only store in the entire North Ga area to receive news stand comics! Like I said this would most likely mean that from south of Atlanta to maybe even the Fla border to the northern Ga borders there was only the one store receiving these!! I’m sure that the far northeast of the country (where bigger cities with a more walking population were) was still getting more news stand copies!
Q) It is really fascinating that they cycled the ASM codes, and they only sent two out of every three ASM’s to the drugstore based on those codes. Were there other titles that his store simply wasn’t sent?
A) They didn’t get a large variety of titles — No Flash, Wonder Woman, Action, Ghost Rider!!! Since the store owner wasn’t concerned with titles and was the only client for the distributor, there wasn’t any rhyme or reason to the ordering!!
Q) Is there any way to estimate how many newsstand copies of a given title or issue made it out there to the public?
A) No one can actually find out how many of an issue were printed if any. A Holy Grail is Daredevil Vol 2 # 15 – rumor has it that there was a news stand version, but no one I know has ever seen it! Also Amazing Spider-Man Vol 2 # 559 and Annual # 37! I only know of one guy that has a 559. I was offered $1,500 for the three if I could find them!!!
Q) I’ve noticed some Doc listings where there’s a sticker over the UPC code, like the Wolverine #47 listing, I’m curious if you can tell what’s behind that sticker, i.e. is this maybe a case where there wasn’t a distinct print run of newsstand copies for that issue number and the distributor is using copies from the direct edition print run and covering up the UPC code with a sticker to get the right code onto it?
A) According to what I’ve been told when there was a mistake like with price instead of reprinting them, a sticker was placed on the comic! Along with the 47 I’ve found JLA 118 and Superman 677 had stickers also!! Even crazier is that there’s two different stickers for the Sup 677–I only have one of them!!
Q) Are you able to reveal the total size of the Doc’s newsstand collection and how many you’ve already sold?
A) The Doc collection originally had around 50,000 comics–it’s down to around 6 or 8,000 now!!
Relative Newsstand Rarity: Giving Us Two Ways To Win Instead of One
When collecting a given comic book issue, its value may go up as collectors grow to prize that issue more highly over time — maybe for example because that issue contains a key first appearance of a character that gets more popular, or because the issue is particularly important to the story-line in some way, or is an important work for a given artist or writer, or other such typical reasons. But whatever the reason a particular issue’s value may rise in the future, that’s just one way to win: i.e. you made a good choice about which issue to collect.
The way I see it, all of the examples of “special situation” newsstand comics I’ve discussed here — Canadian Editions (higher cover price), Newsstand Editions (manufacturing differences), Newsstand Variants (UPC code “errors”/borrowing), and $3.99 Newsstand Editions (cover price variance) — are clearly going to be proven out over the fullness of time as more rare than their “regular” counterparts. And incredibly, collector awareness of these variants is so low, that at the present time it is possible to win these variants at auction for regular prices or very close. If you’re able to pay little to no premium for the more rare version, that gives you a second way to win. Collectors of Iron Fist #14 or Star Wars #1 or any number of comic books during the 35 cent variant window of 1977 could have placed 30 cent copies or 35 cent copies into their collections when targeting any given issue they were looking to collect… and until 1998 very little attention was paid to the difference. But fast-forward to today, and clearly, collectors who targeted the 35 cent copies have been more richly rewarded… because they had two ways to win instead of one. Not only did the issue itself climb in value, but the rarity premium grew (or “exploded” may be the better word — look where the Star Wars variants are valued today!).
As an example of a demonstrably-rare CGC-recognized newsstand variant that is being overlooked resulting in a situation where collectors may place the newsstand version into their collections for a cost basis pretty much in-line with the going rate for direct edition copies, consider Amazing Spider-Man #606: here is a screenshot I took earlier this year of two copies, one being the rare $3.99 newsstand edition and the other being a plain old direct edition copy:
Notice that the $3.99 newsstand edition is the top copy (if you look closely at the UPC code you’ll recognize it as a newsstand copy), while the bottom copy is one of the prevalent direct edition copies that make up the vast majority of what you’ll find out there if you go looking to buy a NM copy of ASM #606. These two copies were priced pretty much in line, and you’ll further notice that the seller of the newsstand edition did not title it as such, in other words their listing title does not have the “newsstand” key word in it, nor the $3.99 keyword, etc. This seller therefore may not have realized their copy was any different from all the rest… and so they priced it in-line with the market price for the issue number broadly. The same lack of market awareness can be observed in eBay sales of issue #607:
The same phenomenon can in fact be found among examples from all of the different “special situation” categories I’ve talked about in this post. But one cannot rely on a “refined” eBay search with “newsstand” in it to find them, so there is extra effort involved in reviewing all the new listings and doing your own visual screen for newsstand copies, but with that extra effort and a lot of patience I’m certain you can find these newsstand bargains out there, giving you similar cost basis to the going rate for their direct edition counterparts. And if you can get in at a similar cost, then you will have those two ways to win: the issue number may climb in value, and the relative rarity may command a premium in the distant future, the same way 35 cent variants were initially overlooked but command such a premium all these years later.
Newsstand Rarity: Discussion & Estimation
[ Related slideshow: newsstand rarity discussion & estimates ]
If you like the idea as I do of having “two ways to win” then you’ll also be interested in getting a sense of just how rare these newsstand comics may in fact be relative to direct editions… And for this, one must focus on the industry: what was happening with the two comic book distribution channels, at different times? This subject has been a topic of discussion and estimation by industry insiders, with one particularly valuable discussion that I’ll get to in a moment, published by Chuck Rozanski. Rozanski has written extensively about comic book distribution and is cited by Jim Shooter as follows:
“In the mid to late 1970’s, the comic book Direct Market started to evolve. The story of its origins is told better than I could ever tell it, starting here: [ this links out to Rozanski’s “Evolution of the Direct Market Part I” ]. I differ from Chuck Rozanski’s accounts only in details, which are in the big picture, of no consequence. To wit, I believe that I was present for his first meeting with President Jim Galton and, in fact, played a part in making that meeting happen. … ”
— Jim Shooter, Comic Book Distribution Part III
The above Rozanski link shared by Shooter is a great read with multiple parts. Shooter himself has also described how by 1986, he was concerned about how the distribution pendulum had swung so far in the direction of direct edition, and he came up with ideas to support the ailing newsstand market, including the idea of a newsstand exclusive (which ultimately was “shot down”):
“I felt that we needed the newsstand market. That, if we became completely dependent on the Direct Market, we’d wind up in the same position as when we’d been entirely dependent on the newsstand market. Up the creek without a paddle. Screwed. Helpless. At their mercy. I spoke with Marvel’s newsstand sales manager, Denise Bové. Denise was in charge of our dealings with Curtis. Like me, she felt the pendulum had swung too far. So did our Curtis account people. We came up with a number of support-the-newsstand-distribution ideas. I suggested, for instance, doing a newsstand exclusive. Why not? You know the Direct Market shops would go to their local ID’s and buy copies anyway. It would be a big hit for the ID’s, and maybe the retailers they served. And great PR in that market. Maybe get them interested in comics again. A little. That would have been in 1986. At that point, I was engaged in daily battles with the President and the other owners of Marvel.”
— Jim Shooter, Comic Book Distribution Part III
But Shooter would lose this support-the-newsstand battle, and direct edition sales would grow to that point he had feared where ultimately they were entirely dependent on the direct market, and eventually Marvel would shut down the newsstand channel entirely (very interesting quote from David Gabriel on this subject I’ll share in just a minute).
“The Direct Market was easy money, quick money, sure money to the brass — not that any of them had ever set foot in a comics shop or even opened a comic book. To them it was about moving the units and collecting the cash. Might as well have been widgets we were selling. But, they knew the Direct Market was shooting fish in a barrel. Why jeopardize that? Circulation V.P. Ed Shukin, both Kalish and Denise’s boss, kept his head low and his mouth shut. He knew which way the wind was blowing upstairs. So, Denise and I lost and Kalish won. I was gone from Marvel not too long afterwards, so, it was my problem no longer. Kalish passed away in 1991, but ultimately Marvel arrived where she wanted it. And that’s where we are now.”
— Jim Shooter, Comic Book Distribution Part III
The point in time when newsstand sales were overtaken by direct edition sales was estimated by Rozanski to be in that same 1985/1986 timeframe that Shooter is talking about above: in “Modifications to the Distribution System,” Rozanski revealed the following information about newsstand versus direct edition sales figures by year in the 1980’s:
“Because I had such a personal vested interest in the growth trends of the Direct Market, during the early 1980’s I quizzed everyone at Marvel who would give me figures as to what impact comics shops were having on the sales at company. I derived the following estimated numbers specifically from conversations with Jim Shooter, Ed Shukin, Michael Hobson, and Carol Kalish:
1979 Direct Market 6% of Marvel’s gross sales
1982 Direct Market 20% of Marvel’s gross sales
1985 Direct Market 50% of Marvel’s gross sales
1987 Direct Market 70% of Marvel’s gross sales
While the exact figures may vary slightly from my derived estimates, the fact remains that Marvel’s choosing to open up their distribution system to new entrants in 1979, and providing working capital at the same time, turned out to be the turning point in the history of the company. In fact, if you consider that the expansion in market share by the Direct Market was paralleled by the simultaneous collapse of the newsstand business, it becomes clear that Marvel Comics would not have survived the 1980’s without the robust growth in comics specialty shops.”
A later-year newsstand sales percentage and Marvel’s 1999-era thinking about the newsstand distribution channel was revealed by Marvel VP Bill Jemas — newsstand sales were cited to be 14% when Jemas arrived in 1999, and he described how the company had made a decision to “walk away” from the newsstand:
“When Jemas arrived at Marvel in 1999, newsstand sales were at 14%, according to the BPA’s audits for the first half of the year, and the company made a conscious decision to walk away from the newsstand in favor of reprint collections in bookstores, owing to the serialized nature of the stories. “I have a pretty good imagination, but I can’t see a twelve-year-old going to a newsstand six months in a row to pick up the right Spider-Man comic to get a complete story. I can see a twelve-year-old going to a bookstore and picking up a book with the whole Spider-Man story in it,” is how Jemas explains the decision.”
— The Business Of Content
In the book Economics of Digital Comics by Todd Allen and Mark Waid, Marvel’s newsstand percentage is said to be down to a mere 4.25% by 2003:
“Examining Business of Performing Audits International’s (BPA) “Circulation Statement for the 6 Month Period Ended June 2003” for Marvel Comics, several interesting things come to light. First, in the breakout for May 2003, the Total Qualified Circulation is 3,095,661 copies. Of that number, only 131,625 are “Single Issue Sales,” or newsstand-distributed copies. If May is representative of Marvel’s circulation, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, then only 4.25% of Marvel’s circulation comes from the traditional newsstand distribution system.”
— Economics of Digital Comics
From there, if we fast-forward ten years to 2013, Marvel’s David Gabriel reveals that Marvel’s single-issue newsstand comics program ended to what were the last remaining newsstand outlets (those last outlets being Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million). But equally interesting is that Gabriel indicated that newsstand sales had ended to all of their other newsstand outlets about two years prior — which would have been circa 2010-2011:
“Gabriel confirmed that Marvel’s single-issue comics program to bookstores has been ended. He said that Marvel ended newsstand sales of print comics “about two years ago,” and the single-issue program at BAM and B&N “ended almost three months ago to no fanfare or notice from the comics industry.” Gabriel said “the business in the direct market [the comics shop market] is a much stronger model and try as we might, we have not been able to make the comics newsstand model work for years, I don’t think anyone has.”
A great comics research resource, Comichron, estimated industry-wide 2013 newsstand comic book sales of only $25 million versus comic store orders (direct edition) of $340 million — add those two numbers together and we reach a total of $365 million. Divide $25 million into that total, and that would put the estimated newsstand percentage at 6.8% for 2013, versus direct edition at 93.2%.
Anything in the “single digits” is already an extremely low percentage worthy of collector attention; but there are other estimates out there which come out even more aggressive on the side of rarity for Marvel in its last years of newsstand sales. Chuck Rozanski, whose Marvel estimates from the 1980’s I quoted before, is the owner of Mile High Comics, a comic book retailer. Mile High’s website proclaims they are the largest comics dealer in the USA, with over 10 million comics in inventory. And in 2013, Rozanski would give more estimates of newsstand rarity, including an estimate of 1-in-50 by 2005 and 1-in-100 by 2013 for Marvel. These estimates may have been informed in part by an interesting exercise that few other people would be in the position to do: breaking out this kind of enormous inventory to separate newsstand and direct edition comics, and see where the numbers fall. According to Rozanski, before this project, some savvy collectors were specifically demanding newsstand copies, and meanwhile other dealers with knowledge of newsstand rarity were pointing out how stupid he was being to continue to charge equivalent prices for the two types:
“All of the above information was interesting, but completely irrelevant to our website until just about two years ago. At that time, we had the dual circumstances arise of certain astute collectors demanding that we send them only bar coded (newsstand) editions, while a couple of very smart comics dealers (with whom we have good relations) telling us that we were being very slow and stupid for not charging a premium for our bar coded issues. We resisted that pressure for a while, but after a few months of watching this new demand for newsstand editions emerge in the back issue comics marketplace, we decided that we had no choice but to comply with this new reality.”
– Chuck Rozanski, Newsstand Editions History
Although we must take his estimates with the proper grain of salt since his exercise of “breaking out” the two versions may have allowed survivorship difference to creep into his numbers (newsstand comics seeing a much higher typical destruction rate than direct edition), and while furthermore we must be cognizant of the fact he is selling newsstand comic books on his website, it is also the case that few other people out there would have this kind of internal database to draw information from: i.e. having performed this incredible undertaking of breaking out that enormous inventory, he can look at his database and see the count of newsstand copies versus direct edition copies he’s accumulated after buying so many comic book collections and accumulating so many back issues. He can presumably see the comparative counts by issue number, title, publisher, and year. Doesn’t that make you a little bit jealous, that hobbyists like you and me do not have access to that same wealth of information?
As I said in the beginning of this post, it would have been fantastic if CGC had counted the two different types for every issue so we could compare CGC census data to Rozanski’s estimates for Marvel, but alas, CGC only does so for our “special situation” categories that I reviewed here. So Rozanski has something the rest of us do not, something not even CGC has: a ton of internal data about newsstand versus direct edition rarity. Non-public data of course, that we cannot review — but I for one am glad Rozanski worked on his estimates and then shared them with collectors. Whether he is on the side of aggressive with his 1-in-50 by 2005 and 1-in-100 by 2013 estimates for Marvel into the end of their newsstand sales, or whether the numbers for Marvel are more like Comichron’s 2013 industry-wide newsstand estimate of 6.8%, is something we’ll start to see reflected in the CGC census data in the fullness of time, as it fills out for $3.99 newsstand editions. And that — hobbyists getting to see the newsstand versus direct edition census count across this new “class” of variants — is something I for one cheer! 🙂
But one thing to conclude from all of this is fairly clear to this collector and perhaps you will agree: regardless of precisely how relatively rare newsstand comics are to their direct edition counter-parts, they are definitely more rare by some very large margin especially in those later years: and that margin gives us a second way to win. When collecting any given late modern comic, I therefore prefer to collect the newsstand version, especially out of those “special situation” categories where we get CGC-recognized variants that I talked about here and especially when I can pay little to no premium to do so!
Happy Collecting! 🙂