By Brian Hibbs
So, one of the things that I think that is really harming the comics industry is the wide-scale proliferation of variant covers. Once-upon-a-time, variants were a novelty, kind of cute, fun to collect, and something that, in and of themselves, could create a higher profit margin for retailers at the same time. When used sparingly, they’re generally low-risk. But something changed: that which was a rare novelty has somehow transformed into a major aspect of any publishing plan, while the very ubiquitousness of the variant has essentially cratered the commercial value of all but a tiny handful of those covers.
Before we go much further, it might be valuable to discuss the various kinds of variants. By and large, I would define two different axis upon which variants can spin out: I’ll call it Availability and Applicability.
Availability is determined by, well, how available something is to buy. Generally speaking you can divide this further into “Open-to-Buy” (OTB) and “Gated”. OTB variants are literally “buy whatever you want, however you want” – you can buy 10 of cover A, and 10 of cover B; or 10 of cover A and 1 of cover B; or 1 of cover A and 10 of cover B; or, really, any other variation of quantity that you might desire.
On the other hand, Gated variants demand some action from the retailer in order to qualify to purchase any at all. Sometimes this is expressed as “order one for every X in sales” – for example, being allowed to order a single copy of cover B for every ten or twenty-five or fifty or even in some modern cases, every thousand copies purchased of cover A; sometimes this is gated by a percentage of a different comic entirely. For example, the Skottie Young cover for Secret Empire #1 from Marvel has this gate: “Meet or exceed 200% of orders for Civil War II #8 with orders for Secret Empire #1 regular cover, and this variant is order all you want”. In other words, if you ordered one hundred copies of Civil War II #8, you have to order at least two hundred copies of Secret Empire #1 in order to be able to even order a single copy of the Skottie Young cover. But once you meet that threshold, you can order anything you like.
As a general rule, a Gated variant is going to try to encourage you to order more comics that you would have otherwise, whether that’s “Oh, I’m already ordering 24, a 25th copy won’t kill me” or the kind of crazy percentage jumps that are asked for the Young example.
Obviously, as a retailer, I think that OTB variants are more egalitarian for access to the marketplace, but Gated variants have an often greater chance of having legitimate greater secondary market value simply because there is at least a theoretical limit on how many copies can make it onto the national market. While that secondary marketplace value probably shouldn’t be a major consideration for most creative work, it can be a valuable proposition to the profit margin of the individual retailer, many of whom continuously find those margins squeezed deeply in other ways.
On the other axis from Availability is what I’ll call Applicability – or “where is the interest from?” At the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of variant covers are going to be purchased by someone interested in the collectability of them. And I don’t mean that in the Dirty Word sense of “will this be worth more money some day?” as much as the sense of “This is something fun I might like to have in my collection!” The latter is a good impulse.
On one side of the Applicability spectrum might be multi-title cover programs like Marvel’s Skottie Young or Hip Hop variant series that run (for years!) – they’re designed to appeal within themselves, and maybe not even in relationship to what’s between the covers. We absolutely have people who try to collect these kinds of releases for its’ own sake. And the more appeal the over-arcing design and audience might be, the better, because the wider the audience can be, right?
On the other side of Applicability would be, hm, “Covers that only their mom would love”, I guess – things that end up only really appealing to the people who have a collecting compulsion (rather than desire). I have customers like this, as well, people who are buying every variation only because it is offered to them, and who feel their collection is incomplete without even a single piece of issued art from that series.
At the end of the day, I would subjectively categorize this split as the difference in intent between “Are we trying to get more money from the already existing readership?” versus “Are we trying to find new ways to draw new eyes to the things that we do?” One is a good impulse that can serve a marketing function at the same time as generating cash flow; the other is both morally suspect and ends up shrinking your customer pool in the long run.
Too many variants fall on the former side of that line, in my view – they’re designed purely and simply to get a small raise in print-run size primarily through people who have compulsion issues. And why not? For the cost of a simple plate change you’re going to sell an additional percentage of books (it appears, through backwards reading of the charts – that is comparing how issues without variants compare to issues of the same series with variants – that a typical less-Applicable variant might be something like 8-10% in the overall national market), so why not make that plate change, especially if this keeps the book from becoming unprofitable?
Because this is the dirty little secret that we just never talk about: there are a pretty wide variety of comics that wouldn’t be profitable at all if it wasn’t for those extra percentage of sales that the variants add. Once you’ve launched your book with a variant that inflated your sales by 10%, it’s really difficult to then willingly cut that if you’re close to the edge.
The problem (as it sometimes can be) is distribution policies by Diamond – in 2009 Diamond raised their threshold for distribution to $2500. That is to say that if it wasn’t believed (and proven out) that you could sell $2500 wholesale of your individual product (so something more or less like $6000 retail), Diamond would stop distributing comics from you, and possibly cancel that individual title’s order (though, I’ve never ever seen any reporting to suggest this is at all a problem, rather than a fear)
I don’t have any inside or first-hand knowledge of Diamond implementation, but it appears to me from the outside looking in that either 1) Diamond was not able to enforce this rule on “Premier” publishers, because of prior contract language or 2) that Diamond brand managers were given discretion on how they applied this to long-term publishers (and it’s probably a combination of both, really) but what it appears to have amounted to is a tacit understanding that “variants count” towards that publishing minimum for the parent book. Why do I think that? Because it seems clear to me that the vast majority of the variants themselves couldn’t clear the distribution threshold.
Here’s a single example: the Feb sales estimates says that Uncanny Inhumans #19 sold 19,341 copies. This book had a 1:25 variant. This means that if (somehow) this comic was only ordered in increments of 25 (it isn’t) and that every single one of those orders also wanted to pay for that 26th copy (they don’t), there would be (and lets round up for grins) 774 copies of the variant sold. At a $3.99 comic, that’s $3088 retail, or perhaps $1300 wholesale? Well well well below Diamond’s minimum.
(And, not exactly related to this discussion, but can they actually print just 774 copies of a single cover from Marvel? Back in the day, I remember touring Quebecor Printing [they printed there then], and us being told that simply turning one of those big commercial printers on then immediately switching it off spat out something like 1600 copies or something – they’re not designed for low-print-runs like this. Maybe this has changed since then, but every time I run this kind of calc I think to myself “Man, it seems like there should be way more copies out there, and how would anyone know if the publisher wasn’t just selling them out the backdoor themselves?” But, I digress.)
And, obviously, it isn’t just Marvel: take John Carter: The End from Dynamite – the Feb charts show just 7348 copies sold. It has a 1:20, a 1:30, a 1:40, and even a 1:50 cover – that means that the 1:20 probably can’t be more than 368 sold, while the 1:50 is just 147 copies maximum – that’s like $240 wholesale, there about, on that last one.
So, clearly, either the rules aren’t being followed, or “Main + Variants = same thing” is the rule being applied.
But that means that catalog space, mind space, my and ~2700 other accounts ordering time is being soaked up for multiple lines in the catalog that are pretty obviously selling less (and in some cases way less!) then 500 copies in a national market.
I don’t think it is at all irrational to demand that catalog space for access to the national marketplace should be limited to material either with genuine wide national appeal or that could be grown to that.
The order form is now crowded with publishers like, say, Titan or Valiant or Zenescope, who literally release no comic with less than three covers, and many new ones with five or six – and virtually all of these publishers are selling less (often significantly less) than 10k copies (of all of those covers, combined!), meaning an average of under four or fewer copies per Diamond account (often significantly fewer). Just how is it that we, as an industry tolerate this particular state of affairs? Trust me when I tell you that there is no actual profit in it for Diamond to be distributing 150 or less copies of a 1:50 variant with a $2 wholesale-to-retailer cost. There’s probably not any profit in it except for maybe 10 or fewer retailers, to be handling those copies either, really (the aftermarket, at least as reflected by eBay sales, appears to be super-tiny on these)
There is, for sure, a place for variants in the national wholesale marketplace – but that’s really in books with significant sales (eg: over 10,000 copies sold, kind of bare minimum – and I’d be much happier if the line was 25k or even higher), and anything below that should probably be relegated to direct-to-consumer and kept the hell out of the wholesale system.
Especially as we move more and more to FOC (“Final Order Cutoff” date) primacy for ordering, this directly means that the window for properly considering your ordering choices shrinks as we add more publishers and more titles into the FOC system. A year and a half ago (see below) a week of FOC might be 200 or so titles. I just finished one recently that was 334 books, and there are still more publishers coming on board.
The problem with having to wade through so many items on the order form that you’re not going to order (besides increasing the time it all takes) is that it makes it that much harder to find the comics that you want to order. It’s a psychic space where your thoughts as a person making an order have to run towards minimizing failure and lowering risk, and not towards maximizing growth. That’s the worst possible mindset in which to order comics.
Here’s a special treat for you, to help really illustrate the problem: a video of my going through a FOC (“Final Order Cutoff”) order from August 14, 2015. Enough time has passed that none of this really seems like especially sensitive information here a year-and-a-half later. This was when Marvel was doing Secret Wars crossover series, and DC was failing to stick the landing on the “DC You” rebirth, and the market has changed a lot from those halcyon days! At two hours, it’s pretty long, but it’s also a book-by-book, and pretty in-depth, look at how I (at very least) approach ordering comics during the weekly FOC process, made for publishers, but now declassified for you.
And we’re ordering more than 50% more line items at FOC now than we were 18 months (ish) ago, so every problem you see here is magnified dramatically.
There are ways to do variants that aren’t harmful, though it certainly isn’t easy, but themed variants that encourage their own Applicability while also being OTB can be a win-win for everyone – one possible example might be the month DC comics did a line-wide movie poster variants. That attracted a lot of curious eyes, many of them from outside the usual readership for those books, sold in a strong way, and got people talking. But that’s not an idea you can cleverly conceive and execute well twelve times a year, and many of DC’s other line-wide cover months were really atrocious (like putting Green Lantern on every title – even ones the character has never appeared in! – for the 75th anniversary of the character… Not a lot of native audience for that one!)
But if you’re going to do line-wide themed variants, I do think two things are important – first and foremost: do not gate them. I like Marvel’s Hip Hop and Skottie Young covers because a wide swath of people find them attractive and want to collect them for the sake of collecting them. That’s a great great thing! And then I absolutely hate them because Marvel sometimes locks some of them behind absurdly unrealistic gates that I could never even come close to meeting unless I did something gross like buying comics that I knew I couldn’t resell, and then charging super-premium prices for the variants in order to offset that knowing loss. Frankly: only being able to offer an incomplete line of a collectible is a sure way to make your retailers look like an asshole.
The other thing that’s absolutely critical is giving retailers a real opportunity to be able to gather orders and properly assess interest by soliciting material far enough in advance. More and more and more publishers are starting to offer “FOC variants” – variants that retailers are first told about on the week that FOC is due. This practice is gigantic “fuck you” to retailers, because it takes our ordering processes from being a considered one that is based upon data and proven metrics to an emotional one that is based on “gut” and tight windows of opportunity.
It may well be that I have customers that are interested in, say, Image’s “International Women’s Day” or “April Fool’s” variants – there could even be many customers who want one or either of those – but unless and until you give me eight-or-so weeks to poll customers and find out, all I am capable of doing is throwing a dart at a dartboard in a completely random guess.
And asking a Direct Market retailer to throw a dart in 2017 is just an entirely messed up thing to do, counter to your long-term best-interests.
At the end of the day, there are multiple issues with the ways that comics are bought and sold in the Direct Market, but a good percentage of them could go away if Diamond just enforced their own rules about how many copies an individual item has to sell to be allowed to access national distribution and take up my time and space and attention in our sole ordering tool.
We should cut the product of variant covers by at least ninety percent, and make them something actually special and rare and truly collectible (in the right sense; in the “fun of collecting!” way) again.
I don’t (really) mind ordering one hundred new comics each and every week; but I do deeply deeply mind because of the waste of my time and my bandwidth when that’s suddenly three times as many as its suddenly normal that virtually every comic issued has two variants!
The madness must end.
Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.
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