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John Jackson Miller and other pop culture archaeologists interested in comics history.


Sunday, November 4, 2018

Historical document alert: 1961 Marvel sales push letter to wholesalers now auctioning

by John Jackson Miller

A fascinating find is now being auctioned by Heritage Auctions: a form letter from Independent News Company, distributor for Marvel Comics in 1961, offering wholesalers an improved return on issues sold above a certain quantity. (Hat tip to Patrick Ford for alerting me to it.)

This was in the time before Marvel's Silver Age phenomenon got going; Fantastic Four had just started, and the other titles in its line were all romance, horror, or western books. In the letter, Independent News vice president Harold Chamberlain tells wholesalers that "a 3¢ per copy bonus will be paid on all Marvel Comics sold over 60% in each agency!" 

Imaged by Heritage Auctions,
That'd be 25% of cover price at the time, which had just gone up to 12¢ — and so a significant bonus. The 60% refers to sell-through — Independent wanted to see no more than four in ten unsold copies returned for credit.

But what's tantalizing about this letter is the comment that its recipient marked in pencil on the letter: "None ever sells as much as 60%". The remark would have come from one of the resellers — and it appears to be in line with what we know about Marvel's sell-through levels on the newsstand at the time.

What we know about that comes from the Postal Circulation Statements; I have a complete run of the Marvel ones, eventually to all be posted here. Beginning with the 1963 reports, publishers were legally obliged to report how many copies they printed, as well as sold — allowing us to make estimates of sell-through levels.

Looking at the filings for 1963 titles, we see the following sell-through levels:

Tales of Suspense: 59% 
Journey into Mystery: 59% 
Tales to Astonish: 59% 
Strange Tales: 59% 
Rawhide Kid: 59% 
Kid Colt Outlaw: 58% 
Patsy & Hedy: 58% 
Modeling with Millie: 56% 
Patsy Walker: 56% 
Millie the Model: 55%

Nothing above 60%, but they're close. The titles with the super-hero content in this era were clustered at the top, with the romance titles at the bottom — though within a narrow, four-point range. So 60% looks to be a reasonable goal to offer to distributors.

The letter touts that Marvel's seventeen titles had combined sales in 1961 of 18 million copies, a figure that looks reasonably close to what we'd expect, going by postal statements. Interestingly, that's only about half what Marvel sells of its periodical comics today — though, of course, that's across a much larger number of releases.

Bidding begins tomorrow, Nov. 5 on the item, with the close of the auction slated for Nov. 11. There's another page to this document, not depicted by Heritage; hopefully whoever wins will share the contents with the world. (Update: Hake's previously sold the letter for $253 in 2016, and has the second page online; it simply denotes the on-sale dates of the eligible issues. Thanks to Frank Motler for the find!)

Comichron founder John Jackson Miller has tracked the comics industry for more than 20 years, including a decade editing the industry's retail trade magazine; he is the author of several guides to comics, as well as more than a hundred comic books for various franchises. He is the author of novels including Star Wars: KenobiStar Wars: A New Dawn, and the Star Trek: Prey trilogy. Read more about them at his fiction site.

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