Atomic Avenue, the site for both buyers and sellers of comic books, went live early this morning. I’ve already written about how I think it will make the trade of comics more accessible to neophytes, as well as easier to sell. But last night I also thought about how it will change the near-religious reverence some people have for price guides.
Comic book price guides (of which ComicBase is one) are both a blessing and a curse. In the beginning, comics weren’t considered anything more than a pamphlet or a magazine, but a few decades in, some people had started collecting comic books, and were willing to pay a rare-book prices, and sometimes quite a lot, for older comics, especially if they were in good condition. But exactly how much they’d pay, or should expect to pay, was largely a matter of mystery or bargaining power, until one of the comic book collectors, Bob Overstreet, decided to compile a guide listing the average price of older comics. I don’t personally know the origins of his price guide, but I believe he called several comic book dealers (some of which, back then, may well have been rare book stores and antique shops) and asked them what prices they were asking for the comics they had for sale. Then he published the results and made comic book history.
In his own way, he created the comic book industry. Just the information that old comics had value, and a specific value at that, got people digging around in their attics and closets for their kiddie books. Those people then either sold the books off, or decided to become collectors themselves. Comic books started being regarded more like antique magazines or books instead of pamphlets, interest in comics burgeoned, and stores that specialized in just comic books, both old and new, appeared. The Overstreet Price Guide expanded to evaluate the broader range of comics now actively for sale.
On the down side, people also took Bob Overstreet’s price guide far more seriously than they should have. Before price guides came along, the buyer might take into account his desire to get his book off his shelves and his need for money; the buyer would factor in how much he needed the comic to complete his collection, and how many others might be selling it. There was always some room for give and take, with the goal of trading money for book topmost. But once the Overstreet price guide came along, the game changed. If it said The X-Men #129, preserved well, was worth $30, the seller considered himself a fool if he asked any less for it, and the buyer who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay that high a price, simply decided it wasn’t worth persuing.
Sadly, the system ended up creating its own kind of monster. Overstreet continued consulting his advisors, but as dealers, their interests were behind keeping values up. Other retailers used the Overstreet price guide as a marketing tool, for instance, advertising all their back issues for sale at half of Overstreet’s published values, since they could still make a profit with those numbers. When ComicBase came along, we took a different tactic, and started pricing our comics by the values on completed sales. One of our users complained because he was finding comics at exactly our values–and he was used to always beating the values in a price guide. And as for lesser-known comics, it was anathema to even suggest a used comic could be worth less than its original cover price, even though in the markets that originated the trade of older comics, used books may go for as little as 25 cents.
People were so afraid of leaving their price-guide-designated comfort zone, back issue sales stagnated. Auctions (as well as dealer sales and bargain boxes) kept the trade going, but it was far from ideal for a buyer in search of specific issues, or for the dealer, whose overstock had him selling a $2 comic book he’d kept overpriced at $3.50 for months, selling the same book for 50 cents.
Atomic Avenue, on the other hand, lets sellers and buyers see how many other issues of a comic are for sale, and at what price. For instance, Cable #1, from a forgettable early 1990s title, is available from 6 sellers on ComicBase today. The 3 sellers sure of having near mint copies are all selling theirs for the list price, but one of the sellers with a very fine to near-mint copy is selling his for 15% less than anyone else. If I were in the market for Cable #1, he’s the one I’d buy it from, and he’d be $3.33 richer as a result. As more buyers and sellers come online, the true market price of Cable #1 will make itself known. Maybe it will remain an issue that sells for $4 in 60 days or less; maybe the price to guarantee getting Cable #1 out of your collection and into cash is $1. The fact is, the number printed in a book isn’t that important any more: what is important is the price at which the seller is willing to sell, and the buyer willing to buy. And that’s what Atomic Avenue is all about.