By Todd Allen
As you’re probably aware, one of the marketing tactics Marvel is using to secure initial orders for their Marvel NOW! (Are you supposed to scream NOW! when saying that out loud?) relaunch is offering retailers variant covers tied to the number of copies of the book that are ordered. This has started a little bit of grumbling and that grumbling’s starting to be a little more public.Brian Hibbs was the first one to broach the topic, commenting on the mentality that a retailer effectively has free inventory if he can sell that variant copy for the amount he paid for the “normal” run of a title. How pervasive has it become?
Well, I counted up all of the comics being offered to me by the “Premier” publishers (Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, IDW) to sell in October of 2012, and a full forty percent of them had at least one variant.
Hibbs is a little unusual in that he goes out of his way not to have any variant covers on the shelves of his store. If you want a variant, you better better order it from him ahead of time. I’ve shopped at some stores that don’t make a big deal out of the variants and either just shelve them with the “regular” covers or stick them in the subscriber boxes. Other retailers will offer them for a premium price in the store or go straight to eBay.
What does Hibbs hear the rationale for retailers loving variants is?
On the retailer side, I frequently hear statements like “Incentive variants allow me the ability to find the ceiling on books that I would have otherwise had to guess lower on.”
Which Hibbs is quick to point out is really odd. If you don’t have any idea how many copies to order, that doesn’t bode well for your inventory control… or you’re a subscription service disguised as a shop. Hibbs suspects the real reason is:
I totally appreciate that many retailers like variants, but let’s at least be honest about it and admit that it’s actually because they like selling a comic that cost them $1.50 for a crisp $20 bill.
Hibbs suspects that part of how this works is the “completist” collector.
In fact, one of the reasons that we have eight printings of “AvX” #1 is that there’s a significant number of retailers who are bringing in more copies of each printing just for customers who want to have “complete” collections. They can generate a couple of thousand more unit sales with each printing that way.
Mostly he’s disgusted at the mark-ups on what are essentially new comics.
Enter Rich Johnston. Rich has been known to cover the speculation side of things over at Bleeding Cool. That will including talking about the odd variant cover. For that matter, he’s accused of causing some of the speculation on comics. So when Rich starts say “this is getting a little out of control,” it bears paying attention to.
Rich points out that part of the comics crash of the mid-to-late 90s was the speculators and collectors getting overwhelmed and getting out.:
The whole thing crashed of course, as the market over-saturated, people could no longer afford to collect all the covers and instead decided to buy none of them. Suddenly shops were stuck with huge amounts of comics they could not sell, and retailers, distributors and publishers went bust.
And it _was_ pretty ridiculous back then. Flash over substance and greedy publishers trying to cash in with no eye on sustainable revenues or circulations. And while he didn’t mind hyping comics based on the _content_ of the comics (Chew being a book who’s early sell out he hyped to the heavens — good comic, low initial orders and with TV in play, now a really hot book), he’s starting to see flashbacks to the 90’s.
But of late, things are taking a worrying turn. The RRP variant, where retailers who attended a certain event received a special version of a comic, was followed by the 1:200 variant, where retailers had to order a tonne of comics to get a special version, joined by 1:150, 1:100, 1:50, 1:25 and :10 covers often on the same book. Again and again for first issues, for second, for third issues, across every line where every book is getting relaunched.
He sees the possibility of the variant covers reaching a saturation point. This could mean the price going down for them or maybe collectors giving up on variants altogether. So if you’re a retailer ordering extra copies because the price of the variant offsets the cost of those extra copies, you could suddenly be in a hole. And be in a hole on a LOT of books. Hibbs has that percentage as 40% for the major publishers.
But if it goes on like this, it will collapse. And then so will the shops that depend on them now. Not the majority of shops, maybe, but the direct market is not the most stable beast. Can it really survive, at this moment, ten percent of shops going bust owing tens of thousands of dollars to publishers and distributors to get variant covers that they now can’t sell?
And I’ll admit, I’ve been concerned about this sort of thing happening. If you look at the comics industry, particularly since DC and Marvel have become more closely intertwined with the quarterly corporate balance sheet, you’ll see a tendency to overplay gimmicks until they’ve broken the model. Variants were a big one in the 90s. Crossovers have come and gone a couple times. Right now the variants are the gimmick du jour.
The mechanics of a variant crash are a little more complicated. When both the anti-variant store owner and the guy hyping speculative comics agree that variants tend not to hold their value for more than a few weeks, this does give it a little more credibility as a potential problem.
The first question, and this is a bit more specific to Marvel NOW! is whether the single copy consumer demand is anywhere near in line with the incentive levels. Let’s be honest, Avengers Vs. X-Men seems to have sold through pretty well, so everybody made money. If the new title launches sell through like the titles they’re benchmarked against, the worst case scenario in a crash is the retailer doesn’t make out like a bandit on the variant. This was the same question when DC did their New 52 relaunch: some of it’s returnable, but if it doesn’t sell what the cash flow going to look like while the shops are waiting for the refund. With the New 52, that didn’t end up being a problem.
But that’s more a DC/Marvel facet of the potential problem. You go down a level and you see a lot of smaller publishers with variant covers. Boom, Dynamite and Avatar (the publisher of Bleeding Cool), for example, all have variants baked into their business models. How badly does an over-all variant crash — regardless of whether a variant crash would close shops — effect smaller publishers that highlight variants? The stakes could be higher for the little guys. For that matter I’ve had more than one retailer tell me that Image second printings are effectively variant covers, as are DC’s titles that include a digital download code for an extra $1.
Nobody really knows what the saturation point is for variant covers or the extent to which completists are driving the overall comics economy. It doesn’t seem likely there’s rampant speculation going on, but we’re not far removed from the lowest point the Direct Market has seen, either. Nobody wants to backslide.
It’s important to separate out the convention-specific variant covers from this conversation. Those aren’t being tied to retailer orders. They have more in common with a concert t-shirt. You were at the convention and got the special edition of your favorite comic. It’s a slightly different ecosystem.
In a way, this tendency towards an over-emphasis on variant covers reminds me a little bit of crowdfunding.
No, hear me out. If you look at something like the Cyberforce crowdfunding project, you’ll see that ~1,400 people financed a mini-series. If variant covers are really generating extra orders from retailers for comics that sit in inventory, unsold, that means that a small number of completists paying premiums for variants are subsidizing (at least parts of) the industry.
Are we due for a variant crash? It’s too soon to tell. The current boundaries for variants don’t appear to have been discovered yet. But that could well change by January.
Todd Allen wears a lot of hats. At various times he’s been (alphabetically), a bouncer, college professor, humor columnist, Internet producer and an NBA/WNBA Beat Writer, among other things. He’s the author of Economics of Digital Comics. You should probably read it.