Recently I had a day off from work and picked up copies of both the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards published by F&W (Krause) as well the brand new Beckett price guide book on autographed cards. As usual that got me to thinking about some of the differences which evolved over the years between Krause and Beckett and the short and long-term influences on the hobby.
The first and most obvious difference is in what the two books cover. The Krause book covers pre-1981 baseball cards which not only is a finite world but also one in which very few new discoveries are made each year. Although there is continued and growing interest from a younger group of collectors, especially in pre-World War 2 cards, many of those collectors also do not use print media for any information. A great example is that two really excellent magazines, Vintage Baseball Cards and Collectibles (VCBC) as well as Old Cardboard have never truly gotten a foothold or made a profit. Old Cardboard, good as it is, has decreased the print run from four times a year down to twice a year. With that background, why would Krause continue to print their Standard Catalog each year?
To me, and this is the conundrum for F&W, what they did was absolutely correct from a “business platform” yet the wrong decision was made for the right reasons. Thinking back about 15 years now, I still remember Frank Barning (Baseball Hobby News editor), who was writing a column for Sports Collectors Digest and doing all his leg work via email, writing me and saying something to the effect of “Beckett will defeat Krause in the pricing and hobby publishing world because of your big lead in Internet presence.” Of course in 1998, I don’t think any of us really realized just how powerful the Internet would end up being compared to more traditional media. Why just yesterday, I was reading an article (on my computer) about the differences in covering Presidential campaigns between 2000 and 2012. One of the key differences was just a scant decade ago, ensuring outlets such as Newsweek, Time and the New York Times had great access because many media members followed their lead while by 2012, there were tons of different outlets to post information on line.
Since 2000, the sports memorabilia hobby has continued on that self-same path. I did not look at the 2013 OMC statement for Sports Collectors Digest but I would wager their subscription total has fallen beneath 10,000 copies plus Tuff Stuff no longer publishes. When the decision to kill Tuff Stuff was made, that was absolutely correct business decision because frankly, if you are not making money from a product, you stop producing it. Since the highlight of Tuff Stuff was a multi-sport price guide, everyone who served in the price guide area was let go. However, that decision, although correct from a business decision did have at one consequence which was the ending of a comprehensive standard catalog. If I had been making the decision, I would have let go everyone in the pricing area but the baseball editor so he (or she) could continue to gather pricing and checklists on newer sets. What that would have done is enable Krause to print a robust and really comprehensive Standard Catalog for $49.99 or more instead of the $29.99 it is at outlets such as Barnes and Noble. If you sell an extra 4.000 copies at the higher price level, which I think is entirely possible, then the baseball pricing expert actually pays for him or herself and you have a book which continues to compete with the Beckett Almanac of Standard Cards and Collectibles.
So, in conclusion for Krause, while their personnel and hobby book decisions made perfect sense, those decisions have relegated F&W to a diminishing base as well as producing a work which frankly is sort of boring. Again, if I were producing the Standard Catalog and just doing a vintage book, I would not limit the book to 700 pages. Instead I would create the “monster” book and put the vintage kitchen sink in and charge quite a bit more so my profit is higher. I like to say F&W (Krause) made all the right decisions but the end result made for a perfect case of the law of diminishing returns.
The same day I picked up the Standard Catalog I also picked up the new Beckett guide to Autographed Sports cards. There were some very impressive parts of the book including the very nice photo library of Hall of Famers as well as a listing for all sets. In addition, since autograph cards are truly the most popular part of today’s modern hobby, a book such as that is a nice reference tool. Plus producing books such as that one is actually pretty easy for Beckett as if you check the On-line Price Guide (OPG) there is an easy way for all cards in any search to be identified as autograph cards. Thus a simple computer query can pick up any and all autographed cards so a book such as this can be produced with a modicum of effort.
Of course, in a quick review of the tome, I thought there were some real areas of opportunity to improve the book. The first one, was for the debut book at the very least, complete checklists should have been issued instead of just the better players listed. And the second improvement would have been to find a photo for each and every “base autograph” set so there is a visual guide. While that may push up the cost by $5 or so, my personal belief is that the extra dollars are worth it to the collector. However, no matter what the decision is, producing a book such like this speaks well to Beckett adapting to modern hobby movements. And thus Frank Barning was absolutely correct, Beckett did “win” the hobby checklisting and pricing war and is producing books which make sense for the hobby going forward as opposed to Krause still fighting the 20th century war.