One of the biggest challenges publishers face - particularly smaller publishers - is making sure there are enough copies on store shelves to meet the full potential demand for a book. And one of the tools in every comic book publisher's tool box is the variant cover - a special, usually more rare copy of comic book issues that feature unique cover art.
Used well, a variant cover can market an important issue to readers, as well as encouraging retailers to order more copies for the shelves, according to retailers and publishers.
But some retailers are voicing concern about a glut of variant covers recently. Is it possible to have too many variants? Or variants that don't add to the success of a comic book? And does that hurt only the publisher who makes the mistake, or the industry overall?
As Newsarama continues a series of articles examining issues affecting the comic book industry's direct market, we talked to retailers and publishers about the use of variants.
BOOM! Studios' President of Publishing and Marketing Filip Sablik told Newsarama thatwhen variant covers are managed responsibly, they can benefit publishers and give retailers the opportunity to possibly generate extra revenue.
"Variant covers benefit publishers in that they increase sales, provide additional visibility for key titles, and potentially provide additional opportunities for press and publicity," Sablik said. They also give "fans the opportunity to add collectible or unique pieces of art to their collections."
"The benefit, obviously, is additional sales for the issue with the variant," said Richard Stradley, vice president of publishing for Dark Horse Comics. "Especially for first issues, the goal is to attempt to push orders as high as possible, since (except in rare occasions) orders for each successive issue tend to drop in a fairly predictable manner."
Sablik - who previously worked at Diamond Comic Distributors for five years, talking directly to retailers - said that the BOOM! executives and editors at his company try to put themselves in the shoes of retailers and customers before they release a variant.
"We're always looking at each series, as well as the intended audience for that series, and asking ourselves questions like, Is this a series we can curate authentic variant covers with? Can we do something fun that will attract additional attention? Does the audience want the collectability? Will a variant cover(s) on this series benefit the retailers?" he said.
If the answer to those questions is yes, Sablik said his company will start to brainstorm ideas. "For if we, as fans, think an idea for a variant cover is exciting, we move forward with it," he said. "If it doesn't excite us, we don't."
"Dark Horse approaches variant covers on a case-by-case basis," Stradley said. "Is the property well known, well liked? Is the work of the creator producing the variant cover sought after? Can the variant be tied to some other ordering incentive—for instance, a returnability or discount threshold? Will those factors combined move the needle enough to make the variant worthwhile?
"But the potential negatives are certainly worth considering," Stradley added. "As an example, unless the artist producing the variant, or the property for which the variant is being produced, is especially notable, orders for the variant may not cover the cost of creating or printing it."
Dinesh Shamdasani, CEO and chief creative officer at Valiant Entertainment, said he's concerned about publishers trying to out-do each other with "increasingly high-level variants," as many of these variants have become unattainable for the casual collector.
"These variant programs aren’t really designed with the retailer or fan in mind, which is what makes them seem like a burden to some, instead of another exciting part of this medium," he said.
Retailers we surveyed also voiced concerns about variants being overused recently - particularly variants that require a certain order threshold before they're available to retailers.
"Appetite for variants has waned steadily over the last few years, especially on the Marvel side," said Ryan Seymore, owner of Comic Town in Columbus, Ohio. "Initially, the hip hop variants as well as the other random/order threshold variants sold well. With the most recent Marvel NOW soft reboot, they have all but ceased selling.
"With DC, the variants do better since they aren't attached to any order threshold and remain at cover price," Seymore said. "At this point, I believe the current glut of variants has only hurt retailers who are chasing variants by over-ordering titles just to get them. Early on, I was guilty of variant chasing myself and my bottom line alerted me of my error."
"Marvel fundamentally doesn't seem to understand the idea of how to give our customers a sense of satisfaction at their purchase," said Bret Parks, owner of Ssalefish Comics in Winston Salem, North Carolina. "Why should Alex Ross be the standard cover while artists that have never been heard of and frankly aren't at the caliber of Ross be incentivized?
"Oftentimes, when we run out of a Marvel book on the shelf, the variant becomes the shelf copy and is sold at cover price," Parks added. "Some customers are still disappointed and would rather have the regular cover."
Several retailers said Marvel could learn some lessons from DC's approach to variant covers.
"DC has chosen a method for variant covers that works for them, the guests and the retailers," Seymore said. "By not attaching the ability for the shop to acquire to any order requirements, shops can order what they need and the guests can make personal preference choices without having to pay top dollar for the cover art they prefer."
"The 'open to order' variants that DC and others provide as subscription variants don't seem to have 'investor' value so they just give the customer more choices - and that's great," said Charlie Harris, owner of Charlie's Comic Books in Tucson, Arizona "The ones that require the retailer to increase their orders or jump through other hoops are most often from Marvel, frequently have no artist attached and often arrive with art by creators who don't have large fan bases. It's unusual to have them be worth more than cover price."
"I do wish that DC would still do ratio variants," Parks countered, "but admittedly the returnability of their titles and the higher sales due to the lower cover price do make up for it."
Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California, said variants, in general, make ordering more of a challenge, so they do stress out some retailers.
"Variants, even 'open to order' variants, can be huge curve-balls for how we order," Field said. "And it's a shame that some fans only want a certain cover that a publisher purposely makes it difficult for retailers to qualify."
But Shamdasani of Valiant said the publisher tries to only attach a variant to issues that are expected to sell better - communicating to a retailer that this might be an issue worth ordering more heavily. A retailer will have some certainty in the demand from the existing ongoing Valiant readers in their store [when they order]," the CEO said. "Pre-orders will give them a sense of the customers who buy other publisher's books regularly enough to pre-order their books and are looking to jump in. But the retailer still has to estimate demand from customers who don't pre-order, casual readers, the Valiant curious, our lapsed fans, walk-in customers, and more.
"Every week we hear reports of stores selling out of our books by noon on the Wednesday of release," he continued. "That means that only the demands from those who pre-ordered and customers who walked in before noon on the first day were met. Anyone that looks for the book after noon on the release day, later that week, or when the next issue is released, can't get a copy and becomes a missed opportunity to grow our readership. Variants are a tool to help mitigate this and get more books onto shelves. By providing retailers with a higher value item, we can help lower the risk of bringing in more copies and more fully meet demand."
"All of that being said, we must all be responsible in their use," Shamdasani said. "We spend a significant amount of time conceptualizing, building and enforcing our variant programs. Valiant's stance has always been that they're not worth doing unless they can be done well and in the service of bringing in new readers. We've rejected many, many variant programs out of hand because they didn't contribute to growing readers or because they would tax our fans who collect them too heavily."
The executive said he's noticed the over saturation of the market by other superhero publishers.
"Putting 1-in-5,000 variants out there on a regular basis is a nuclear option that strains fans and retailers, and has substantive effects that immediately ripple outward to smaller publishers like us," he said. "Coupled with the fact that more high-quality comics are being published today than at virtually any other time in the industry's history, shelf space has become heavily contested."
Matthew Price, co-owner of Speeding Bullet Comics in Norma, Oklahoma, summed up the feelings of most retailers when he said he'd rather have better comic bookss than better variants.
"I heard someone say, and I wish I could attribute this, that variants are basically the 'trading cards' of today’s market," Price said. "And I think that’s probably true in many ways. Some people like to collect the various pieces of art; others just want the story inside. I do wish there was more of a push to make the best possible cover be the piece of art you are using to sell the majority of the copies of the book."