Today, I’m staring down the initial order deadline for titles releasing in November. The initial order deadline is something I neglect to realize is coming until a few days before they’re due – and while there’s always a lot of prep that is done ahead of time, going through the order book will still take a full work day of mostly uninterrupted thought to get through. Every month is a completely new challenge, with different series popping up all the time, and new incentive programs to ponder all the way through. The goal: make sure you have enough for shelf when the comic hits the stands. The reality: you will never ever succeed at doing this. There are hundreds of titles, and many of them you will have to much of, or too little of. Sometimes all it takes is for one or two people to come in from out of town or to try out your shop for the first time, and suddenly your carefully crafted system is in shambles for one or two of the books on your shelf. Inevitably, this is the one period of time when you suddenly get… I don’t know, let’s say 10 people walking through your door, looking for issues of Spawn when you rarely, if ever, sell copies from the shelf. They know you are out. They can smell the blood in the water, and they want to punish you for it.
Hi. My name is Brandon Schatz. Welcome to my irregular retail therapy session.
This week, considering the fact that initial orders are due and I’m looking at the order book already, I figured it would be a great time to discuss variants and the poisonous culture that surrounds them. As always, this is going to be full of laffs. I hope your chuckle muscles are ready.
DEGREE OF VARIANTS
November is the second month in Marvel’s big All-New, All-Different launch cycle, and as such, we are in the eye of the storm. Much like DC’s DC You initiative, Marvel is doing this all in a sizeable chunk, albeit in nearly bite-sized morsels over the course of several months. At this point in time, while DC tends to flail and pump out new initiatives in fits and starts, Marvel has produced a relaunch program that nearly hums like clockwork. They pick a linchpin title, and get that one out the gate first – in this case, it’s the Brian Michael Bendis penned Invincible Iron Man title. They let that launch with relatively little noise surrounding it – which in this case means setting the Final Order Cut-Off date unseasonably early for its date of release, giving retailers one clear choice for where to put their money, thus ensuring a healthy launch for the book. From there, they do the gradual roll out, focusing on tiers of books. A Spider-Man book launches. An Avengers series launches. A Guardians of the Galaxy series launches. An X-Men book launches. One or two second tier books relaunch. One or two fresh titles launch. Any one area is not flooded with content, letting retailers and readers alike focus their attention on certain areas of the publishing schedule. The process repeats each month until the line stabilizes. In a few months, new titles will be launched in a secondary, smaller blast to fill in holes left by under performing books in the publishing schedule, and more often than not, these titles are a bit more risky. If they don’t hit, another season of launches is just a few months to a year away. The cycle continues on a seasonal basis.
It’s a system that seems to frustrate long time readers and retailers, but one that I quite enjoy. It borrows the language of television – a medium dealing with millions on a regular basis, rather than thousands – offering seasons of stories that ebb and flow, always offering something new when titles inevitably start losing steam. Unfortunately, this marketing system is paired with a highly destructive variant program that is dripping poison into the veins of the industry.
Now a quick side note: yes, the store I co-own is called Variant Edition. It’s a name we chose quite deliberately, because it sounds very put together and responsible, and offers us the opportunity to pitch the store to people regularly. If you’re reading this, there is a high chance that you are neck deep in the industry, and understand all the lingo – but the majority of the people out there have no idea what a “variant edition” is. When they ask about the store, they inevitably ask why we called it Variant Edition, and we explain: a variant edition is a comic that features an alternative cover image, but contains the same contents. We liked the name Variant Edition because we are a comic store, and we have similar contents to other comic stores, but we’re not the stereotype – we’re something different.
And in a way, that’s one of the only things that I like about variants – they offer the consumer a choice. What aesthetic do they like best? What speaks to them more? That, I like. The culture that has sprung up around variants? Not so much.
In the current order book, Marvel alone are offering 134 variant covers (this doesn’t include a few announced retroactively, which I’ll be adjusting during the final order cut-off period). All but one of these variants comes with a qualifier. Sometimes you just need to order ten copies of a certain book to get the aforementioned cover. Other times, you have to order 100. Then there’s the ones where you have to exceed 150% (or whatever number they’re using) of a different comic you ordered in order to unlock a particular variant. After you meet that qualification, you can order whatever you want. You just have to spend a lot of money for that “privilege”. The problem with that is simple: whereas the variant should be treated as the means for a customer to further connect with the product, it’s usually treated as collector bait, or worse: blackmail.
Take a look at this modified look at some of Marvel’s upcoming hip-hop variants, as made by Strange Adventures:
The hip-hop covers have garnered a lot of attention for Marvel, both positive and negative. I don’t want to gloss over the negative part too much, but I’m definitely not the voice who needs to be heard regarding this matter – so please see the collection of links at the end of this article for more information. Suffice to say, the result of all of this attention means there are people champing at the bit to get their hands on these covers. The only problem? Marvel has some hoops that need to be jumped through to get them. This is where the blackmail comes in: if you want your customers to get these covers, you have to jump through those hoops – which means you are ordering copies you know you probably won’t sell in order to get these in-demand covers in. So, how do you cover the cost of this? Well, by increasing the price of those sought after covers. Or worse: say you’re a store that qualifies for some of these cover naturally. They are in quite a high demand, and again, you already have your orders covered by the copies of the regular cover you’ve brought in – so you don’t order a whole lot of the variant. Low supply. High demand. What happens?
This variant scheme is built to make sure there is a low supply of higher demand product – with the by-product being increased, and often unsustainable level of regular product on the market. Retailers have been trained to combat this by increasing the price of the sought after comics – but the byproduct of that is a situation where people are paying a much higher price for a product that speaks to them, for a terrible, unsustainable reason. What’s more, it creates the appearance where Marvel, and the retailer, are attempting to unjustly profit from an appropriated culture. And hey – they are, and we are, and that’s something to talk about, but at a base level, having the comic stickered up well over cover price certainly isn’t going to help appearances. It’s honestly one of the main reasons we don’t chase after variants that we qualify for – and even when we do qualify, we sometimes opt out, unless it’s a particularly great image. Regardless, the whole thing is a bad situation – and that’s before you even get to the clear over-reliance this industry has on variant culture in general.
Remember when I said that Marvel was offering 134 variant covers for November? Well, they are only shipping 63 titles – and a few of those are two issues of one book. So easy math says there’s more than two variants for every single issue released on average – or rather, the market is supporting the weight of an immense amount of product with a third of the unique product as a base. This is not a sustainable model, but one that’s born out of the ever increasing pressure that the companies are under to keep profits and volume up. I absolutely understand why they need to do it – there is a demand in place to show more and more and more from shareholders or higher ups, and the growth rate expected often far outstrips what can be achieved organically. I don’t envy anyone at the big two whose job it is to meet these quotas either directly, or indirectly. That said, it’s clearly building a flawed system – one that will surely collapse given the slightest amount of pressure in the wrong areas, at the wrong times.
This doesn’t even begin to touch the truly decedent qualifying structures of some recent variants. For issue one of DC’s Dark Knight III, they are offering a 1 for 5000 variant. To be fair to them, this variant will feature an original sketch from Jim Lee on it. Marvel on the other hand, is offering a 1 for 4999 copy variant for Deadpool #1 that I believe is just a black-and-white reproduced “sketch” version of another one of their Deadpool #1 variants. There are a few others than have 1 for 500 qualifiers on them, a few others that clock in at 1 for 100, and a slew of covers that need you to order 25 copies in order to get just one of a certain other cover. All of this contributes to a glut of product – the kind that clearly cannot be sustained in this fashion – and has some pretty dark portents for the future of the industry – but honestly, I’m running a little low on time to dig both hands into that for this week, and there’s another thing I want to discuss as well.
Because of all of that meandering nonsense wasn’t enough already.
Last time in The Retailer’s View, I talked about how DC’s marketing for their new line-up really failed to connect with retailers and readers. Well, since that column went up, a few things happened. First, the publisher published their December solicitations wherein they cancelled a swath of books, including Justice League United, Omega Men, Gotham by Midnight, Lobo, Sensation Comics featuring Wonder Woman, and Batman ’66. (In the week that has passed, Omega Men was granted a stay of execution, letting the series play out its originally scheduled 12 issues.) There was also the notable absence of Doomed and Green Lantern: Lost Army, which representatives said were always intended to be six issue stories – which I think is kind of hilarious, just… in a really depressing way.
Doomed and Green Lantern: Lost Army were both solicited and treated like ongoing series, right up until now. It’s a strategy that I said would have benefited a book like Prez, as retailers are honestly less likely to support anything labelled as a mini-series. The fact that DC is now claiming these books to have been secret minis all along means one of two things: one, they are attempting to save face with two ongoing that under performed and are being fairly disingenuous about it – or two, they had a slate of mini-series, and decided to act inconsistently towards marketing them, giving Doomed and Lost Army the tiniest extra push by giving the appearance of an ongoing status. Whichever scenario is true, it shows how very chaotic the publishing and marketing plan is for the company at this moment – and how they have no clue how to fully utilize the tools at their disposal.
Almost all projects should be solicited as ongoing concerns. A lot of people don’t like that idea, because it supposedly makes ordering comics harder. How do you know when to taper off a series when it’s going to end? How do you know you should order heavier on a first issue so that you can sell it through the series’ two to five year run? Simply put: you don’t. Ordering in this fashion is a remnant of an old system where comic shops were the only place people could get their hands on stories, and the single issue format was the be-all, end-all. Today, stories are collected with regularity, often right around the time a storyline has wrapped. These stories are also available digitally in perpetuity, and often at a far lesser price than the physical copy (after a few months have passed). For the reader, what is the benefit of having the single issues available to purchase years from now, when there are easier and cheaper formats to grab to help bring you up to speed? Yes, some people prefer the single issue format – but those readers are usually in either every week or every month to grab those single copies – and the ones that aren’t are generally pretty happy with a second or third printing to bring them up to speed. The only reason to use older ordering models, is to placate the collector’s market, which is often volatile and always, always, always unsustainable.
I’ve always believed that ordering for readers is the right way to go. They’re the ones who always come back for the books that they love. They’re not just buying things to flip, they’re buying things to enjoy, and when you work up a nice relationship with them, they will be with you for as long as you and the medium maintain their interest. These people are the beating heart of the industry, the ones who will stick with you through thick and thin as gimmicks bloom and die. They are more than happy to get a second or third printing, because they just want to read the story. They also don’t really care if a story is ongoing, or just a few issues – they just want to be entertained – and when they’re not being entertained, they’ll walk away from the series. Issue numbers don’t matter. Series length doesn’t matter. It’s story – and it’s ordering to sustain match the interest of your regular readers. And honestly, if you’re really concerned about having back stock, by the time a story or series is wrapped up, you’ll get issues trickling back towards you as some people tour around the various comic shops, looking to get rid of some books they read, but no longer need in their collection – and since it’s back stock, a retailer can often pick that product up for cheaper than they paid Diamond for their initial orders. Or at least, that’s my take. I’m only five months into running my own store after eight years of thinking I could do better, so we’ll see how that all shakes out. Currently, things are going far better than we’d originally projected, so there’s that.
PICS OR IT DIDN’T HAPPEN
For what it means, DC isn’t even consistent with how they present their mini-series to readers. Some of the number ones have the “of six” denotation. Prez doesn’t. Most of the others lose this demarkation as of issue #2, with only Bizarro continuing its numbering. The reason for this? Who knows. Regardless, they aren’t being consistent with their message – if they even know what message they’re trying to convey at all.
They also retroactively placed twelve issue limiters on Telos and Superman: Lois and Clark after previously announcing them as ongoings alongside Titans Hunt. Why? Who knows. Maybe they were always twelve issue minis, or maybe these titles were approved before the final numbers came back on Convergence (including returns) and they decided to talk things back. Honestly, there doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason for how DC is presenting or marketing their series these days, and that lack of concrete confidence is really hurting them. (Plus, a Telos series? Really? Go ahead and try to pitch that to a person on the street. You can’t.)
TO BE CONTINUED…
There’s another edition of The Retailer’s View on tap for next week. If nothing crazy happens, it will be about how comic shops became clubhouses, and how the clubhouse mentality is bad for the industry. If something crazy happens, it will probably be about that instead. Working ahead is a hell of a thing.
Until next time…
[Brandon Schatz is an owner of Variant Edition in Edmonton, Alberta and has spent the past nine years working behind the comic book counter. In his spare time, he writes about the comics and culture. You can find him on twitter @soupytoasterson and at his website, Submetropolitan. The opinions expressed are those of Schatz and do not necessarily reflect those of The Beat.]