Comics Economics, Part 10

By | Sunday, November 23, 2008 Leave a Comment
This one should be a given for comic book fans, but...

Crime does not pay.

A couple days ago, a woman reported that $80,000 worth of her comics were stolen. Personally, I think her story sounds really fishy -- $80k worth of comics in six boxes left in a communal basement? If you knew you the comics' value and knew to keep them bagged, why would you leave them in such an insecure location, which would also be prone to dampness, mildew and mold? Plus, the boxes conveniently held 100 40-year-old mint condition books? Seems awfully suspect to me.

But, setting aside the plausibility of the woman's claim, let's assume the story is true as presented. Let's assume those boxes did hold $80,000 worth of comics, and they were stolen because someone's getting hit bad by the economy and heard that comics are still good business.

Question: if you had six boxes of comics and wanted to turn their value into cash, what would you do? You'd try to sell them, obviously.

If you're trying to sell comics, you've got a few options open to you. You could hold a garage sale, but I think you'd be hard pressed to get even remotely near what you thought they'd be worth. You could take them to a comic shop, but you'd still only get a percentage of their value and there'd be a fair chance the owner would recognize the books as being stolen. (How many people have 100 mint-condition Amazing Spider-Man comics drawn by Steve Ditko that they happen to want to get rid of?) You could try putting them on eBay, but that's a decidedly public (i.e. risky) way to try to pawn stolen goods.

There really isn't a good way. At least, not in the short term. You'd really have to wait quite a while "until the heat's off" before you could try to sell them and not worry too much about getting caught.

The comic book community is a fairly closed group, a fact that has been causing publishers problems for years. But that also means that collectively, that group is relatively aware of what's going on in the business. You know who's writing or drawing for which publishers, what new promotions are coming out in the coming months, and when a large theft occurs. It doesn't exactly run like clockwork, but how often do we hear a story a comic collection, or a series of original artwork pages, being stolen -- only to hear when they're caught a week later because the thief tried selling the ill-gotten gains?

Even if the theft isn't well-publicized, shop owners are pretty quick to spot suspicious activity. Speaking of a 2005 burglary, Gene Roberdeaux, manager at Bookman's Used Books, Music & Software said, "Pretty much every red flag went up when these kids came in with these comic books. They didn't know what they had in their hands... They just wanted to get rid of them, which is another red flag." I've even read stories where the there was a good chance there were stolen comics trying to be pawned off on someone, but there was no report of a theft in the first place!

Now, admittedly, there are going to be some less-than-scrupulous dealers who don't care where the collection came from, as long as they think they can make a profit from re-selling it. But, by and large, I think the only thing you can do with a stolen comic book collection is to keep it. There simply isn't much of a black market for stolen comics.

Psstt... hey, bud! How'dja like ta buy this here CGC 9.4 Wonder Woman I've got in my coat pocket?

"Cute, Sean, but that's not really economics. What about that bit you said earlier about a comic shop only buying a comic for a percentage of what it's worth? That sounded kind of economics-ish."

Actually, that's pretty simple and shouldn't take long to explain.

Those values you see listed in price guides? Those number are what SOME people are willing to pay for a comic. If you have a near mint copy of Action Comics #1, there's a lot of people who would like to have it. Some people want it more than others, and some people can afford to spend more on it than others. There might be a few folks who are willing to spend over $2,000,000 to get it, but I don't have that kind of money. In fact, at the moment, I'd be hard pressed to spend more than a couple hundred bucks on it. That's what the comics' value you is TO ME, because that's what I could afford to spend on it. But to SOMEONE, it's worth $2,000,000 and that's what shows up in price guides.

Now if you take your collection into a comic shop to sell, they're going to go through and see how much it's worth TO THEM. Some of the figure they might quote you is going to do with how much money they can afford to give you at that time. But the other thing to remember is that a comic shop is a BUSINESS. They're going to take whatever comics you try to sell them, and sell those same comics to someone else. And, like any middleman, they're going to add some markup to the book's value so they earn some profit on the venture.

If they buy a comic from you for $100, they're not going to sell it for less than $100, right? They'd lose money that way. If they sell it for exactly $100, they still lose out because it used up some of their time and energy, but they ended up right where they started financially. They could've spent the time doing something else. So they need to sell it for more than $100.

The businessmen I've talked to usually offer to buy comics at about half what they think they can sell the issues for. Inevitably, some of the books don't get sold at all, but the 50% profit margin on the ones that do sell helps to counteract that. That way, the retailer still makes a profit, even if some of the books languish in the back issue bins.

And because a retailer almost certainly can't sell a comic for MORE than what's listed in price guides, the price they offer to buy it from you is going to be lower than that. In my experience, as I said, by about half.

Clear? Good.

Let me add just one final note that I'm going to take a bit of a hiatus from the Comics Economics series. I'm thrilled that it's been as well-received as it has been, but these posts have been much more time- and thought-consuming than my regular ones, and I need to devote some time towards getting some holiday preparations underway. I'll definitely continue on with regular postings, and throw out an occasional Comics Economics update as I have more time to put into them again. Hopefully, though, this series has given you all something to think about, and I hope people are able to continue the discussion in their own respective venues.
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