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ISSUES WITH BACK ISSUES

My name is Mike Sterling, and I sell comic books for a living.


So, back issues. Even if a particular store doesn't want to deal in back issues, it's gonna get some eventually. Unless the people running the store somehow manage to order the monthly issues perfectly on the nose for rack sell-out every single time, they'll have a handful of Amazing Spider-Man or Green Lantern left over and they gotta do something with them.

As a manager for a store that's been around for over a quarter of a century, believe you me that we've had plenty of time to build up, and deal with, back issue stock. Here are a few things I've learned over the years about dealing with back issues in a store environment...and maybe you might find a couple hints about dealing with your own collection at home.

ORDERING FOR BACK ISSUE SALES

The general advice given to comic book stores on ordering for back issue sales is "don't." It's better to sell out than have any left over, which is the accepted wisdom, and in a lot of cases, that's very true. Some comics just don't sell as back issues, and it's okay to be glad to see the back end of those as they leave the store. Plus, with the ever-increasing prevalence of trade paperback reprintings, there's less pressure on the customer to get every single issue...if they miss a particular storyline, it's easier (and maybe cheaper) to pick up the book reprinting that story than trying to piece together the story from the back issue bins.

The reverse is true as well...some comics always sell well as back issues. They may vary from area to area, but at our store, comics like Ultimate Spider-Man and Uncanny X-Men and Batman are perennial sellers. Noting which comics move as back issues, and ordering a few extra for later post-rack sales, usually doesn't hurt.

There are also cases were not having back issues available on certain series hurt sales on successive issues. Mini-series are particularly prone to this. For example, DC Comics' recent Space Ghost series sold unexpectedly well on its first issue, leading to sell-outs of that debut installment across the country. When the subsequent issues were released, customers would pick one of them up, ask for the first issue, and when we told them it was sold out, they'd put the issue they had back on the rack.

Perhaps you're beginning to see the problem for comic stores trying to plan their orders. You want to have enough of the early issues of a new series or storyline to satisy latecomers, but you don't want to get stuck with too many should the anticipated sales not follow through. Of such things are overflowing comic shop back rooms made.

One oddity is the comic series that doesn't sell as a new issue, but primarily as a back issue. At our store, the most notable example of this was the Robotech line of comics, as released by Comico and Eternity. They would just sit there on the rack, but as soon as they entered the back issue bins, the Robotech fans couldn't buy them fast enough.

CARE AND FEEDING

I noted in a previous column that, if a store is carrying back issues, some effort should be made to having some kind of reasonable filing system that both the employees and the customers can easily use. I've been in enough stores that have their old comic stock randomly shoved into unmarked boxes that I know I wouldn't want to deal with that situation at our store.

On top of being organized, the comics should at the very least be bagged. When you have people pawing through the books, unbagged books are going to get very frayed very quickly along the top edges, so put 'em in bags, for pete's sake. And as far as bags go...the standard, clear plastic polypropylene bags are just fine, a good mix of affordable price-point and protective quality for your funnybooks. I know, I know, you got people out there who are "Mylar sleeves...or nothing!" The hard Mylar sleeves are probably the best solution for any kind of paper storage, but you pay for that privilege as well: a single Mylar sleeve can cost as much as 15 to 20 times the price of a single polypropylene sleeve, which is fine for your Action Comics #1, but bit of an overkill for your Dazzler #1, really. I use polypropylene bags on all our comics at the shop, and for all the comics in my collection as well. Perhaps these bags don't last as long as Mylar, but I figure by the time they start breaking down and turning into a hazard to our funnybooks, I'll be dead of old age and it'll be the problem of whoever inherits the collection.

If you use polyethylene sleeves (the softer, less crispy clear kind), keep in mind that they're probably best for short term use only, and you should swap them out every few years. They seem to age and break down very quickly...I've processed collections at the shop where I strip the polyethylene bags off the comics we've bought, and when you put 'em all into a big pile, you can really see how yellow those bags have turned. You don't want those old bags pressing against your old paper collectibles.

As far as backing boards go...well, if you've got the space, and don't mind the additional expense per comic, then go ahead and throw a board into each of your back issues as well. You should note, though, that while taken singly a backing board doesn't look like it takes up much room, a hundred of them together can form a pile two or three inches thick. If you backing board all of your comics, you're going to lose that much space per box for back issue storage. If you're short on space, or have a large number of back issues (or both, like our store), you might want to save the backing boards for the more expensive books. For example, at our shop, we try to only use backing boards on comics that are six or seven dollars or more, or that are really nice, mintier-than-mint comics that we'd like to stay that way.

YOUR BACK ISSUES VS. THE CUSTOMERS

Ideally, I'd keep all of our back issues behind the store's counters, so that any customer interaction with them could be monitored. Realistically, there are a couple reasons why that would be impractical. One, you could easily spend your entire day taking the X-Men boxes off the shelves for customers who want to see them, and two, if you have a ton of back issues like we do, you just plain don't have the space.

The compromise we've reached is by having the customer-accessible tables on the main floor filled with boxes of back issues for currently-running, or relatively-recent, series (or series we're just trying to spotlight), and have the back issue boxes of older, defunct, or expensive comics out of the customers' reach, behind the counters. This is mostly ideal, as you're no longer asked to get the same box off the shelf time after time, and for the more expensive books, you can keep an eye on who's going through them and how they're being treated.

"How they're being treated." Ah, yes, here's the tricky situation with leaving the comics out on tables. Let me demonstrate through pictures:

Here is the proper way to lift a comic book out of a comic box:

Separate the comics in the box with one hand, then lift the comic you'd like to see out with the other, holding it straight without bending the spine.

For God's sake, don't do this:

Or this:

And if I catch you doing this:

...I'm going to smack you with a stick. (Stunt comics handled by a professional -- well, me -- were used for these photos. Don't try those last three at home. Or at a comic shop. Well, maybe somebody else's comic shop, but not mine.)

And no, having all these comics in backing boards won't protect them from being bent in half by a determined customer. Trust me, I've seen it happen.

In order to facilitate that proper handling, it's the comic store's responsibility to make sure the customer-accessible boxes have sufficient slack to allow for easy comic retrieval. I've been in enough stores where the comics have been shoehorned in so gosh-darn tight that it's a struggle to pull just one book out. Plus, having room in the box makes it easier for those customers who have only one free hand (if the other is in, say, a cast, or -- there's no easy way to say this -- missing entirely) to separate 'n' lift the old funnybooks.

EXCESS BACK ISSUES

It happens to everyone. You think you've got your orders perfect on a title, and, without warning, it sheds every reader it had and you suddenly have a pile of unsold comics. Or you order a new first issue, thinking it'll sell great, and it tanks immediately upon release. Having that happen once in a while isn't so bad, but let's say, theoretically, that it happens only once a week. After a year you have fifty-two issues with too many copies left over, and after several years, suddenly you have a back room of, well, junk.

What do you do with the excess?

You can always dump them in a bargain bin: quarter boxes, dollar boxes, half-price boxes, whatever you call them, it's a good way to move dead stock. One caveat...try to resist dumping books that are too new into the bargain boxes. Nothing annoys a customer more than finding a book for 50 cents that they just paid $3.99 for last month. Plus, it may get an uncomfortable number of your customers used to the idea that if they don't pay full price for the comic today, they might be able to get the comic for cheap in a couple months.

You can use them as promotional material: at our store, we put together three-packs of all-ages material pulled from the excess stock and use them as giveaways in exchange for coupons we have distributed at local public events.

You can blow them out to one of those bulk buyers that you occasionally see ads for in the trade mags. You may only get pennies on the dollar, if even that, but which would you rather have? A long box filled with The Second Life of Dr. Mirage #1, or a couple bucks? Try buying a hamburger with a box full of Dr. Mirages, that's my answer to you there, pal.

Donate them: give them to a library, to a hospital, or wherever else that could use them. Even church groups...don't laugh! My girlfriend teaches Sunday school at a local Catholic church, and the comics I give her to give to her students are always a big hit! If you have an inkstamp of some kind with your store name and address, be sure to tag all the giveaway books before you dispose of them...let the people who get these comics know where to find more! You'll probably be able to write these promo books off your taxes, as well.


So, there you go, just some of my semi-random thoughts on back issues. If you have any questions, concerns, additions, or offers of shoeboxes full of twenty dollar bills in exchange for a full run of Death's Head/Killpower: Battletide III, please feel free to e-mail me at cbg (at) progressiveruin.com...I'd love to hear from you.

-- Mike Sterling

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