The National Distributor was like a bank as much as anything else. It financed the creation of the publishers’ magazines or comics by paying the publisher an advance based upon the anticipated sales of each issue.
The National Distributor arranged with local distributors to deliver to retail outlets. These local distributors, called Independent Distributor Wholesalers, or “ID’s” almost without exception had a monopoly in their city or region. Pittsburgh, for instance had Triangle News. If you bought a magazine or a comic book anywhere in the greater Pittsburgh area, Triangle News had gotten it to the point of sale. The New York area was a large enough market that it had Hudson News, Kable Media, and I don’t know, maybe more. At that time, there were, as I recall, more than 500 ID’s in the United States and Canada.
The National Distributor set “draws” for each ID, that is, how many copies of each given comic book or magazine would be shipped to them. The total of all the draws, plus copies to be sent to subscribers and office copies comprised the print run for each comic book or magazine. ID’s were seldom interested to participate in setting their own draws, and you’ll see why in a minute. Except, once in a while, an ID would decide to simply stop carrying comics, therefore making their draws zero, if you call that participating. Only very rarely did any ID’s request higher draws on any comic book, as many did with The Life of Pope John Paul II. We even got reorder requests from ID’s on that one.
Wise publishers did not accept the National Distributor’s draws and set the draws for every title for each ID themselves, based on past sell-through performance. Publishers, who were paying to print and ship those copies were a lot more careful. The idea of “order regulation” was to minimize waste—give each ID as many copies as they were likely to sell and a few besides, just in case the issue got hot for some reason.
The comics, bundled on pallets, were shipped directly to the ID’s by the printer (and subscription copies were mailed by the printer). The ID’s sorted the comics and delivered by truck a supposedly appropriate number of each issue to each retail account—newsstands, drugstores, supermarkets, what have you. Generally the retailer unbundled the magazines and comics and racked them. Some ID’s provided that service.
At the same time the ID’s drivers were delivering new issues, they picked up the unsold ones from the previous month, the “returns.” The retailer would remove the old stuff and set it aside, or the driver would pick them off the racks. The retailer paid the ID only for the number of copies actually sold. The ID counted up the returns from all the retailers and paid the National Distributor for all copies sold. The National Distributor paid the publisher the difference between the advance and the actual sales revenue, less their commission. Of course, sometimes, if sales weren’t as good as anticipated, the advance was more than the sales, and the publisher owed the National Distributor money. Generally, that was deducted from the next advance.
The reason unsold books were called returns is that, in ancient days, all unsold copies were returned to the publisher intact!
Publishers were free to redistribute their publications to secondary or international markets, offer them through a back issue service, or sell them for pulp.
The cost of shipping the returns back was a burden. Eventually, ID’s were allowed to merely tear the covers off and return those as evidence of the number unsold.
Of course, some ID’s would then sell some of the coverless books through various lower-tier or bargain outlets, or for paper pulp.
Then, again to save chump change on shipping covers, the ID’s were allowed to tear off just the top part of the covers. That actually had the unintended side effect of making the copies marginally more saleable through the less-than-proper outlets.
That’s how things were when I started. There was a “general store” in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, a run-down, old building with that musty old frame building smell, in an area called Coverdale, which I believe had been the company store back when Coverdale was a mining town. They sold coverless and partial cover comics there. That’s where I bought Amazing Spider-Man #2, with half a cover for a nickel. I wondered how come that store had comics with half the cover missing until Mort clued me in.
By the mid-seventies, when I started working at Marvel, newsstand distribution had taken another turn for the worse. The distributors were able to force publishers to accept “affidavit returns.” No more full copies, no more covers or partial covers. ID’s sent in only affidavits that alleged how many copies they’d sold.
So, it worked like this….
Marvel’s circulation people would determine how many copies of, say, Fantastic Four Triangle News should draw. Let’s say, for the sake of round numbers, V.P. Ed Shukin decided that it should be 10,000 copies. Months later, Triangle News would deliver an affidavit to Marvel’s National Distributor, which was Curtis Circulation at that point, swearing that they’d sold 3,000 copies. The accompanying payment would be for 3,000 copies.
Now, let me tell you what really happened. In this hypothetical instance almost certainly, Triangle News received 10,000 copies of a given issue of the FF—the people at the printer, World Color Press, were pretty reliable. Triangle News would have distributed some copies to the retail outlets. A few retailers actually liked carrying comics, but most were indifferent. Comics weren’t after all, an absolute necessity to most retailers who sold periodicals, in the way that Cosmopolitan, Playboy, Time and Sports Illustrated were.
So, let’s say they actually delivered 5,000 copies to the retailers. If they bothered to deal with unwrapping and sorting, if they had room on the trucks….
Most likely, they’d only actually deliver comics to retailers who would complain if they didn’t get comics and places that sold enough comics to make the driver’s effort worthwhile.
Let’s say the retailers sold 4,000 copies! Pretty good. 80%. 1,000 were returned to the Triangle.
Remember, 5,000 copies of FF never left the warehouse, so then, Triangle had 6,000 copies. No need to deface the comics under the affidavit system. So, they might sell some copies at a discount to bottom-feeder retailers who came around looking for a cheap merch, or shrink-wrap bundles of comics into “bricks,” which warehouse clubs like Sam’s or Costco would buy. Or they might sell them to secondary or international markets, just as the publishers used to. Or toss them into the paper wolf and sell the pulp.
So, Triangle News might, hypothetically, have sold all 10,000 copies, albeit many at a steep discount and some for pulp.
But they only paid for 3,000.
And that worked so well, why not claim to have sold, and pay for only 2,900 the next month? 2,800 the next month?
So, Marvel’s newsstand sales through Triangle looked pretty grim. Under 30%?! Geez, Louise!
I don’t remember what the breakevens were like in those days, and I don’t have time to dig out the paperwork or do the math, but under 30% was probably below breakeven considering direct costs only, certainly considering contribution to overhead.
If Marvel “regulated” their draw down to try to stop the bleeding, say cutting Triangle back to 7,000 copies, to keep making the same money with their affidavit scam, Triangle would swear to even lower sell-throughs.
Here’s a statement of ownership from the very first comic book of mine ever published, Adventure Comics featuring Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #346, on sale around April 1966:
|Click to enlarge|
Average print run for twelve issues for which final sales information was available, “As of Oct. 1, 1965,” it says, was 757,000 copies. Take away the subscription and office copies and the print run, or draw, for distribution through the National Distributor/ID Wholesaler system was, on average, 746,418. Copies sold through that system, on average, 510,000. That’s 68.3%. Not bad. And other DC titles, like Superman, did significantly better.
I’ll provide the documents when I get time to find and scan them, but ballpark, Marvel’s sell-throughs via newsstand outlets was in the 40% range when I first started there, but trickled down steadily.
Aha, here’s one sales analysis. I’ll show more later:
Things were pretty bad for comics in the mid-seventies.
Then the Comic Book Direct Market developed! It saved us, then!
And it’s killing us now.
NEXT: Fish in a Barrel
P.S. For those who can’t wait to read more about the origins of the Direct Market, Chuck Rozanski has a great account of the early days starting here: