Now that we know that sales of the art book went to benefit Make-A-Wish, Howard of Fixitinpost.org has offered what I think is the most sensible explanation yet for why the print run was limited to 1,000 books:
As I speculated on our post-SDCC podcast (plug, plug), I’m assuming that the limited numbers are due to a royalty structure or something similar. When companies commission artwork, there’s generally a clause that allows them to use the artwork for certain non-commercial purposes (promotions, charity, etc.). The definition of “non-commercial” is usually determined by the number of units produced, be it of a toy package or even the art itself. Again, this is all speculation, but I totally get the “legal limitations” reason/excuse.
The idea is that Mattel could only print 1,000 books for charitable purposes. Any more and they’d have to start paying royalties (or perhaps just larger royalties) to the artists. (Of course, I think it’s a shame the artists–rarely the wealthiest members of society–can’t be paid more royalties by a big corporation like Mattel via an actual for-profit production run, but that’s a separate issue.)
So here’s how I see this whole thing unfolding. Someone at Mattel got the idea to do an art book. Maybe it was originally going to be just an internal thing, for the MOTU team, like Holiday Hal. But then someone came up with the idea of selling some of them to benefit a charity (I do think the charity aspect was probably there from the very beginning). Once they looked into the legal issues, they found they could print 1,000 copies before major royalties had to be paid.
So the question became, where could they sell the 1,000 books? I think this is where the poor decisions were made. Mattel decided to sell the book at SDCC, but spent a week teasing collectors beforehand about a special bonus item that, as it turned out, few collectors would ever own. Selling the books at SDCC did allow them to make an easy cash-for-book swap, minimizing any processing expenses. But poor supervision of the SDCC sales resulted in an absolute mess in which it’s possible more resellers than collectors got the books.
Here’s how I would have done it:
1.) Announce the books’ existence immediately, with no teasing about a “special mystery item” to gin up interest and, afterward, resentment.
2.) Announce the Make-A-Wish connection in that same initial press release, as well as referring to it as a “special print run” of 1,000 books made just for charity. By not mentioning the Make-A-Wish connection up front, collectors were left with the impression that Mattel had limited the print run to 1,000 copies (with no more ever to be printed–they skipped the whole Make-A-Wish angle but made that repeatedly clear) for no good reason at all.
3.) Finally–and this is key–I would have sold the books on Mattycollector.com with a limit of 1 book per customer. The expenses on Mattel’s side go up, because they have to work with Digital River and cover shipping costs and so forth, but the savings in collector ire and positive PR from the charity angle would be worth it, in my estimation.