Talking Shop: The Variant Effect - Do They Sell Books?

Exclusive: Uncanny X-Men #510 Variant

Superman: World of New Krypton #2 variant cover

For die-hard fans of comic books, the release of estimated sales figures is a monthly ritual. Everyone loves to talk about the reasons behind this comic selling a few thousand more copies than that comic, and why the top sellers reign supreme.

But industry insiders often point out a sales tactic that most fans don't take into consideration -- the variant covers.

As Jimmy Palmiotti pointed out in an interview with Newsarama last year, “It’s funny – people always forget in comics how things go up and down – one company does better than another, or one book sells more than another, but I mean, you have to look at it as ‘Well, that book had seven alternate covers, and this one only had two, so of course it sold more.'"

But do variant covers really make that much of a difference?

"Yes, variant covers make a difference in how I order," said Bret Parks, owner of Ssalesfish Comics in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Since I want my store to be the kind of place that is not only friendly to readers, but also a brick-and-mortar store where completists can still tick off everything on their want list, I order all Marvel and DC variants. If I am planning to order 60 copies of a book and a 1:100 variant is later offered, I up my order to 100."

In fact, all of the retailers we asked said they do sometimes bump up their order numbers to get certain desirable variant covers that are sold as a "sales incentive" or at a ratio. While some variant covers are offered as a 50/50 cover, meaning there is no need to increase the orders to get them, many are offered at a rate of 1-in-10 or 1-in-50. (For the layman, what that means is that a retailer has to buy a certain quantity of a title before one variant cover can be purchased. So a ratio of 1:50 would mean the first 50 copies would be the regular cover, but the 51st issue purchased -- only after a retailer reaches that 50-issue mark -- will be a rare issue with a cover by a high-profile artist like Steve McNiven or Jim Lee.)

Uncanny X-Men #510 variant

Stores usually make up the money spent on the extra issues they order for variants by increasing the price on the variant cover, since it has a greater scarcity. So dishing out an extra $6 for four extra copies in order to reach the "10-copy" required level would be made up by the price tag of a $10 variant cover.

How to price the variant cover depends on the ratio, although sometimes the artist or the level of desirability come into play.

"I struggled with this for a long time when I opened," said Shawn Demumbrum, manager of SpazDog Comics in Phoenix. "How do you value one variant over another? I decided that I would price it $1 for each one in. A '1 in 25' book is priced at $25. A '1 in 10' book is priced at $10. If a box subscriber buys a variant, they get it at half the one of price. It's another reward for being a box subscriber."

Parks agreed with the ratio being the starting guide for variant cover pricing. "I usually just price them at the ratio and work my way down from there," he said. "For example, when the 1:100 Weapon X #1 variant was released, I priced them at $100, but subscribers received their loyalty discount just as they would with any other book. I’m sure a better deal can be found online, but most of my customers prefer to hold the book in hand before purchasing."

Yet a lot of retailers said they keep their "ordering for the variant" numbers low, and it always depends on the popularity of the title and the artist of the variant cover.

"We only order more of a title to get a variant if we are already close to hitting the number for the variant," said Craig Lopacinski of Neptune Comics in Waukesha, Wisc. "If we are only five copies away, we will increase the order. If we are 25 copies away, we usually don't, unless it's a book that can support that type of increase."

Amazing Spider-Man #595 variant

"If I am close to hitting a cut-off mark to qualify for the variant offered, then I do increase my order to get it," said Jason Pierce, owner of Alter Ego Comics in Muncie, Ind. "For example, if I order 22 copies of a comic and there is a variant that requires me to order 25 copies of the title to get it, then I might! A lot of it depends on the artist for the variant. Retailers normally don't get to see the cover to the variant beforehand. There is nothing worse than increasing your numbers to hit the qualifying mark, then have the regular cover look better than the variant."

Ordering higher quantities of comics for collectors makes some people in the comics industry nervous, since the business suffered so much from the sudden end to the "boom" created in the early '90s by comic book collectors. Retailers said they recognize the danger, but believe that variants can also offer benefits to the industry.

"On the positive side, it might sometimes cause a retailer to bring in extra copies, which might allow the book to find a larger audience," said Matt Price, owner of Speeding Bullet Comics in Norman, Okla.

Lopacinski of Neptune Comics said he uses the unsold issues that he needs to meet variant levels as free promotional giveaways. Others pointed out that some variant covers encourage appreciating the artistic side of comic books.

"I like the Justice League, Justice Society and Superman/Batman covers, which were relatively stand alone covers until you put them together," said Demumbrum of SpazDog Comics. "Together they made a piece of art."

Other retailers say that they hate trying to order for the variant and often just don't do it unless it's a huge event comic where demand for the cover warrants it.

Flash: Rebirth #2, variant cover

"We learned our lesson with Dark Tower," said Mike Wellman, owner of The Comic Bug in Manhattan Beach, Calif. "At first, rabid Dark Tower fans insisted that we get the sketch cover, no matter the cost. So we were ordering tons of copies of the regular issues to take care of the five or six folks that didn't mind shucking out $75 or $50 for the variants. Around the third or fourth issue, those folks did the math and stopped getting those covers. So we were stuck not only with lots of unsold Dark Towers, but unsold, overpriced variants as well. We now order one-fifth of what we used to order at the height of Dark Tower-mania."

There is a growing concern among some of the comic shop owners that the number of variant covers coming out right now is too many.

"Variants are a double edged sword of sorts. On the one hand, if it is a special event such as Secret Invasion, or the first six issues of a new series, then variants are fine. And expected," said Jermaine Exum, manager of Acme Comics in Greensboro, N.C. "They provide the customer with something cool to collect that is somewhat limited and it provides the retailer with a means to cover their investment in the week's releases faster.

"However, what we are seeing is an over-saturation of variants in situations that perhaps do not warrant them," he said. "We have variant covers on books like Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers. We have variant covers for Vertigo comics, even though those customers traditionally, at least at Acme, have zero interest in variant covers. I felt like the Wolverine Art Appreciation variants were an interesting experiment, but ultimately was a failure on the actual shelf."

"There is a huge glut of variants right now," said Dean Phillips of Krypton Comics in Omaha. "You can see this at comic book shows. Retailers with boxes upon boxes of unsold variants! DC and Marvel are choking the market with variants on almost every single issue! They are not special anymore."

"I would actually like to see less in the way of variant covers," said Wellman of the Comic Bug. "If there were only three or four really nice, meaningful variant covers per week, we would feel more inclined to showcase them, maybe even charge more for them.

Fantastic Four #561, Ape variant
Fantastic Four #561, Ape variant
Fantastic Four #561, "Ape" variant

"Here's the thing, if there were some actual value behind variants that we were confident in, we'd be more inclined to order up on certain titles to meet the incentive levels," he said, "but with the amount of variants that companies are producing and seeing how many of these comics go unsold, offering variants is pretty meaningless to us."

All of the retailers said they could survive without variants just fine, and they prefer their business being driven by readers. But they recognize collecting is always going to be a part of the industry as long as you can bag and board a comic book.

"We have certain customers that have made us aware that they want any and all variants, reprints, and editions for certain series. The completist is as valid and active a fan as the next," said Exum of Acme Comics.

"Only major events or anniversary issues should have them," said Charlie Harris of Charlie's Comic Books in Tucson. "We need to have something for the collectors to trade other than silver and golden age books; something for the new generation of readers and collectors. But for the long term, readers are more important to our businesses than speculators, as the investors invariably and eventually lose interest."

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