Newsstand vs. Direct Edition Comics

By Benjamin Nobel, June 17, 2016

Newsstand vs. direct edition comics: an important distinction that all collectors should know about (yet, a distinction that most don’t currently even think about but clearly you are thinking about it, otherwise you wouldn’t have landed here, so I say “bravo” to you for putting thought into something most of your peers are currently ignoring!).

Beginning in 1979 (1977 if you count Whitman multi-packs from Western Publishing), two distinguishable types of comics were sold, corresponding to two distinct distribution channels.  If there’s one take-away I’d like you to have after reading this post, it is this  to put your own thought into the question: should I prefer one type over the other when collecting a given issue?  My own answer/conclusion is illustrated by the graphic below:

The two distribution channels effectively sorted the comic book market into a mostly-collector group (who cared about preservation of condition), and a mostly-reader group (who just wanted to read the comics and may not have even saved them at all let alone preserved them in high grade condition). Comics printed for the two different channels are discernible (you can tell them apart), arising from the fact that newsstand copies were returnable and the publisher needed a way to tell returnable copies apart from non-returnable copies. Sales to the mostly-reader group plummeted after the mid-1980's... Given the choice of a surviving Near Mint collectible comic after the mid-80's from the one channel or the other, the more rare and therefore more preferable choice is an NM newsstand copy.

My own conclusion: given the choice of an NM copy of any given comic I’m looking to collect, after a certain publication year I prefer the newsstand version hands down over the direct edition version; and there are other variations to know about too such as 75 cent variants (which I consider a “no-brainer” as the more preferable version).

And here’s Greg Holland’s brilliant chart that provokes thought about the same newsstand-preference collecting question in a different way:

Greg Holland's Brilliant Newsstand Distribution Rarity Chart

The two distribution channels effectively sorted the market for comic books into a mostly-collector group (who cared about preservation of condition and for the most part made their purchases in specialty comic shops and therefore took home direct edition copies), and a mostly-reader group who shopped for their comics on the newsstands (who for the most part just wanted to read the comics and may not have even saved them at all let alone preserved them in high grade condition).

CGC only distinguishes newsstand comics from their direct edition counterparts in specific special situations, while for the vast majority of comics they simply lump together newsstand and direct edition copies by issue number on their online census.  This is unfortunate because the relative rarity data between the two types graded by CGC is therefore forever lost for the vast majority of comics that have passed through their doors and wound up on their online census…  In other words, when looking up any given comic book by issue number on CGC’s census we cannot count how many have been graded of each type, for the vast majority which lie outside of the special situations.

Despite the fact that CGC lumps most of them together by issue number, comics printed for the two different distribution channels are discernible (you can always tell them apart, even after both types were given UPC codes), arising from the fact that unsold newsstand copies were returnable and the publisher needed a way to tell returnable copies apart from non-returnable copies (learn more about this difference).  So even without separation by CGC, collectors can still do their own visual separation and decide which one to go for when collecting any given issue.  And for that decision, it is important to think about the difference in numbers.   Not just survivorship numbers but the number of copies of each type originally sold…  Were sales of one version lower than the other?

It turns out that sales to the mostly-reader group (newsstand sales) plummeted after the mid-1980’s while sales to the mostly-collector group (direct edition) surged and became the primary form of comic book distribution (discussions including from Jim Shooter — Marvel’s ninth editor-in-chief — make this trend crystal clear)…  So:  Given the choice of a surviving Near Mint collectible comic after the mid-80’s from the one channel or the other, my own conclusion is that the more rare and therefore more preferable choice is an NM newsstand copy.  Even as early as 1982, the survivorship disparity seems to overwhelm the original distribution disparity, making high grade newsstand copies more rare than high grade direct edition copies.

2013 Bean-Spillage By Chuck Rozanski

newsstand-sales-plummet

Hint: it is the percentage of Marvel’s comic book distribution over time as revealed by an insider, for one of the two “types” of comics mentioned in the title of this post…

In 2013, an industry insider “spilled the beans” about the difference in distribution numbers between newsstand and direct edition comic books over the course of time, at Marvel.

Since the time of that bean-spillage, awareness among collectors about the newsstand versus direct edition difference has slowly but surely started to expand…

  • Overstreet still does not “break out” newsstand comics in their price guide as of today…
    • BUT, many prominent comic shops such as MyComicShop and Mile High Comics have begun to “break out” newsstand comics.
    • AND, for certain newsstand comics with cover price differences or other notable differences, the popular online price guide, ComicsPriceGuide.com has begun to “break out” those newsstand comics with their own entries and their own values.
      newsstand-vs-direct-example

      Amazing Spider-Man #36 is one example where ComicsPriceGuide.com breaks out the newsstand version and gives it a separate value.

      Amazing Spider-Man #607 Cover Price Variant

      Amazing Spider-Man #607 is another example where ComicsPriceGuide.com breaks out the newsstand version and gives it a separate value.

  • CGC still does not “break out” the vast majority of newsstand comics on their census, simply lumping most of them together by issue number together with their direct edition counterparts…
    • BUT, they do now break out specific newsstand edition comics in special cases with certain manufacturing differences, or UPC code “errors,” or cover price differences, as distinct census variants.  Meaning the rarity numbers of these special case newsstand comics can self-express in the census data over time and serve as a proxy for examining the rarity of other ‘surrounding’ newsstand comics.
      • Some of the variant names for these, such as “$2.99 Newsstand Edition” (for certain 2003-2006 era Marvel newsstand comics which carried higher cover prices than their direct edition counter-parts) and “$3.99 Newsstand Edition” (for certain 2007-2013 era Marvel newsstand comics when during a window of time these were given $1.00 higher cover prices than their $2.99 direct edition counterparts) will naturally make collectors curious when they do a census lookup for a given issue and see those other versions exist, and wonder, “I don’t own that $3.99 version… what is that?”

  • For many comics, we still don’t see a market price difference between newsstand and direct editions…
    • Value for the Canadian newsstand edition with $1.00 cover price has “pulled away” from regular direct edition copies, for Secret Wars #8.

      BUT, for certain highly valued keys, and in certain cases where collectors are more keenly aware of the difference, we are seeing newsstand comics trading with a notable premium to their direct edition counterparts, such as Image issues like Spawn #1 and #9 where newsstand edition market values have pulled apart from direct editions, and the under-7%-distribution-rarity 75 Cent Variants (Canadian Newsstand Editions) which are given a market price premium in many cases such as the example at right (but still nowhere near the premiums one might expect relative to their rarity and relative to the premiums given to the 30 and 35 cent variants of the 1970’s, and it is still widely possible to find these variants for sale for “regular” prices where sellers don’t know what they have).

  • Most sellers of comics books still do not think about or understand that there is any difference between newsstand and direct edition comics, and do not title (nor price) their comics accordingly when they list them for sale…
    • BUT, some sellers are recognizing the difference, and listing their comics for sale with the word “newsstand” in the listing title when theirs is a newsstand copy, and sometimes also applying a premium price for newsstand comics.  (If you’ve ever been looking for a given comic, and found sellers pricing newsstand versions higher than direct editions, leading you to wonder, “why are newsstand comics worth more?” … that’s your answer — either you’ve found a seller who understands there is a difference in relative rarity and has priced their copy accordingly, or, you’ve found an issue like Spawn #1 or #9 where newsstand values have pulled apart and collectors are simply bidding up these sought-after issues for their rarity.)

These “buts” above put us at an interesting point in time sitting here in 2016, when it comes to the direct edition vs. newsstand edition distinction in the collector’s market for comic books.  For so many years, the idea of prizing newsstand comics for their relative rarity was simply completely under the radar for the vast majority of collectors, who were busy gobbling up direct edition comics from their local comic shops, and even shunned newsstand comics as inferior (the staff manhandled them! they were damaged before collectors even got there to buy them!  some of them cost more — what a rip-off, right?!  some of them didn’t even have glossy paper!  or lacked centerfold posters — what an “inferior” product to be avoided, right??  [Wrong!  but they didn’t put thought into the distribution numbers so how can we blame them for failing to consider relative rarity back at the time these were originally on the stands?!]).

Instead, collectors all those years have concerned themselves with a myopic focus on the condition of the comics they were taking home and newsstand comics were overlooked and under the radar of the “serious collector.”  And no comic shop owner was going to step forward and point out newsstand desirability to their customers, that would be crazy!  They wanted those customers to stay right there in the shops!

Today, most collectors are still completely in the dark about the newsstand versus direct edition difference.  Most collectors today are using Overstreet for their guide values (and within the pages of Overstreet, the newsstand vs. direct edition distinction is completely hidden from view… even when the 75 cent cover price newsstand variants begin to exist in 1982 this example Overstreet page simply ignores them, despite making special mention of 30 and 35 cent variants).

Most sellers don’t think about the difference, don’t title their listings with the “newsstand” keyword when theirs is a newsstand copy, and therefore end up mis-pricing their rare newsstand copies for sale in-line with the going rate for direct edition copies — even when the newsstand copies are $3.99 cover price variants such as Amazing Spider-Man #606 ($3.99 Cover Price Variant), Amazing Spider-Man #607 ($3.99 Cover Price Variant), and Venom/Deadpool: What If #1 ($3.99 Cover Price Variant) just to name a few examples, this difference is broadly unknown and undiscovered by the masses as evidenced by sellers often pricing their rare variant copies in-line with “regular” comps:

Two sales of ASM #606 from earlier this year: the one at the top is the $3.99 newsstand edition, while the one at the bottom is a regular prevalent direct edition copy.

Two sales of ASM #606 from earlier this year: the one at the top is the rare $3.99 newsstand edition, while the one at the bottom is a regular prevalent direct edition copy.

Similarly, $3.99 newsstand edition copies of ASM #607 can be found for prices in-line with regular prevalent direct edition copies.

Top copy: a rare $3.99 newsstand edition, priced in-line with the bottom copy: a plain old prevalent direct edition copy.

What If Venom Possessed Deadpool: Top Copy, $3.99 Newsstand Edition; Bottom Copy: Regular $2.99 Direct Edition.

What If Venom Possessed Deadpool: Top Copy, a rare $3.99 Newsstand Edition; Bottom Copy: a plain old direct edition copy ($2.99 cover price).

Most collectors today are using CGC for their professional grading/slabbing (and the newsstand vs. direct edition distinction is for the most part hidden in the census results, because newsstand and direct edition comics are “lumped together” for all but the special cases of manufacturing differences, cover price differences, or UPC code ‘errors’ [I actually think of this particular special case as “UPC code borrowing” — read more about an instance of this phenomenon here]).

But questions are being increasingly asked by collectors!  I know because I’ve been asked…  And I put up these pages to answer:

Why Do Some Comic Books Have Barcodes?

• Why Do Some Comics Not Have Barcodes?

• Why Do Some Comic Book Barcodes Have A Line Through Them?

• Why Are Newsstand Comics Worth More?

The people asking these questions are basically asking — and noticing — the same basic thing: that there are distinct “types” of comic books you’ll find out there for issues published after 1977. And the collectors asking these questions want to know — want to understand — the differences between these types. What exactly is different? Should I care about these differences? Is one type more rare? Is one type more valuable?  Should I sell one type and buy the other?

This curiosity — asking these questions and learning the answers — is producing an inevitable “snowball effect.”  The more total people who know the difference, the more sellers there will be who are going to title their listings with the “newsstand” keyword and demand higher prices for their high grade newsstand comics.  The more collectors see such listings, the more they’re going to ask these questions about the difference.  The more time goes on, the more those answers they find online are going to be up-to-date answers.  Hopefully as more time goes on we’ll also see more information and estimates about the relative rarity difference “shaken out” from people in the know, drawing even more attention to the newsstand vs direct edition discussion.   One prominent comics research site, Comichron, has published comic book sales estimates showing for example that for 2013, just 6.8% of estimated sales were newsstand copies ($25 million) versus direct edition at 93.2% ($340 million), across the industry for the year.  And remember, these more rare newsstand copies are always discernible from their more prevalent direct edition counter-parts!  As research like this makes its way around, collectors will take notice.

And, the more comics where a market premium for newsstand copies starts to stand out (like in the case of Amazing Spider-Man #36, like in the case of Spawn #1 and #9, and like in the case of high grade Canadian price variants), the more likely Overstreet is to react to the market — i.e. to consider breaking out a separate entry in the guide either for specific newsstand copies of a given issue or an entire “class” of issues like 1980’s cover price variants or $3.99 Newsstand Editions of the late 2000’s.  And if we eventually get a separate entry in the guide for such newsstand-only variants, then seeing that entry in the guide, more collectors will start to ask these questions about the newsstand versus direct edition difference.  And the snowball of awareness will continue.

Here’s a chart of the estimated distribution breakdown by year at Marvel, adapted from the bean-spillage article by that industry insider that I mentioned before, for anyone who hasn’t yet seen these numbers:

Direct Edition comic book sales overtook newsstand sales in 1986.  Newsstand sales would dwindle as a percentage down to 1% by 2013, after which Marvel pulled the plug on newsstand sales.

Direct Edition comic book sales overtook newsstand sales some time around 1986… Newsstand sales would then dwindle as a percentage down to an estimated 1% by 2013… after which Marvel pulled the plug on newsstand sales entirely.

A table laying out Rozanski’s estimates and also those of other sources (another of the sources: a quote referencing 14% newsstand at Marvel by 1999, citing a BPA audit, plus a highly interesting discussion from Marvel VP Bill Jemas about the company’s business decision to “walk away” from the newsstand):

Rozanski’s bean-spillage was timed with the demise of Marvel’s newsstand distribution channel and his estimates were said to have been informed by discussions with Marvel insiders; he also described having gone through the staggering task of breaking out his enormous inventory between direct edition and newsstand comics (Rozanski owns Mile High Comics which proclaims to have back issue inventory of ten million comics).

In 2013, Marvel’s David Gabriel revealed 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), and Gabriel also indicated that newsstand sales had ended to all of Marvel’s other newsstand outlets 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.”

For the 2013 year — Marvel’s last for newsstand sales — comics research resource Comichron had estimated the industry-wide newsstand percentage at 6.8% for 2013, versus direct edition at 93.2%.  With Marvel winding down/ending its newsstand sales entirely in that year, it could very well be the case that their sales were much smaller than other peers within the larger industry-wide total…  Were Marvel’s sales as small as Rozanski’s 1%-by-2013 estimate?  One thing’s for certain to this collector: for later modern comics, newsstand copies are the more rare version by some wide margin; therefore give me an NM newsstand copy over an NM direct edition copy any day of the week, hands down. And in those last years for Marvel I think it is an absolute no-brainer to seek out the newsstand version especially in those “special situations” where CGC recognizes them as distinct variants and the count of copies will increment independently from direct edition copies.

If you want to read more about newsstand versus direct edition comic books, the next posts I want you to read are these below:

• Newsstand Variants, $3.99 Newsstand Editions, and The Doc Collection

Comic Book Newsstand Editions: Understanding The Difference

75 Cent Variants (Canadian Newsstand Editions)

UPDATE:

9/16/2016 — I came across a 2003 newsstand rarity estimate for Marvel at 4.25% newsstand. I’ve put up a slideshow of newsstand rarity discussions and estimates to collect quotes and information that I’ve collected on the subject.

2/3/2017 update on the rolling snowball of growing newsstand awareness: “Nice book, too bad it’s a direct edition”

4/20/2017 update: CBCS has announced that going forward they will start breaking out newsstand comics distinctly from their direct edition counter-parts!

June 2017 update: CGC is now also “breaking out” $2.99 Newsstand Editions as census variants!

6/15/2017 update: ComicsPriceGuide.com now breaks out newsstand copies of ASM #607 in their guide at a premium to regular copies!

Happy Collecting! 🙂

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