Store-Exclusive Variants: Good For Retailers & Sales Numbers, But Are They Overused?

"Harley Quinn #1" retailer exclusive variant cover
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Valiant Entertainment

Along with the recent increase in the number of comic books - and, a dramatic increase in the number of variant covers - the industry has also been seeing a move toward custom, "exclusive" variant covers offered to retailers.

For example, in April, Marvel Comics is offering nine different titles to retailers as exclusive variant covers - the highest number for one month from one publisher in recent memory.

Publishers offer exclusive variants to comic book stores (and other outlets for print comic books) but require the purchase of hundreds - or sometimes thousands - of issues from that print run. The variants usually feature unique artwork on the cover, and one recent retailer exclusive comic book Valiant did for Collector's Paradise even offered a custom interior pages.

Although the practice gives retailers the chance to brand their store name and offer a collectible item, exclusive retailer variants also work to inflate book sales numbers for the publishers who offer them.

As Newsarama continues a series of articles examining issues affecting the comic book industry's direct market, we now talk to retailers about exclusive retailer variants, and whether they're a benefit for retailers.

Local Appeal

Credit: Jessica Garvey (Archie Comics)

Although retailers admit that customer variants don't usually make sense for their stores, several we surveyed had tried them to great success.

Matthew Price, co-owner of Speeding Bullet Comics in Norman, Oklahoma, said his store's variant of the Archie Comics title Josie and the Pussycats in 2016 had a local hook, which he thought made sense for the shop.

"We did [the Josie and the Pussycats exclusive variant], both to celebrate the title and to showcase the work of Oklahoma artist Jessica Garvey, who we think is fantastic," Price said. "So it was nice to be able to do that, and if there’s a local hook for a variant I can see the appeal."

"I've done several custom variants for Flying Colors over the last few years," said Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California. "In most of those cases, I want the variants to give my local fans something they couldn't get any other way. To that end, we did an Avengers Stand-Off variant by local artist and fan favorite Art Adams with art featuring a local Pleasant Hill landmark. When we went 'old school' on our Betty & Veronica #1 variant, I asked artist Des Taylor to channel Dan DeCarlo with Betty & Veronica in front of our shop.”

"Making exclusive and local custom do occasionally make sense and give local fans something special." Field added.

Bret Parks, owner of Ssalefish Comics in Winston Salem, North Carolina, said his story has done "exceptionally well" with store exclusive variants.

"I think our customers have responded really well to those covers because they are a unique item that can't simply be purchased from other retailers and also because they have local brand loyalty," he said.

Credit: Art Adams (Marvel Comics)

Special Anymore?

Yet some retailers voiced concern about retailers overdoing it on custom variants. Some wondered if the collectability approach to comic books could be overused to the detriment of the industry's future.

"We have seen publishers over the years pitching anybody an exclusive," said Jesse James, owner of Jesse James Comics in Glendale, Ariz., calling the overuse of exclusives a "black mark" for utilizing them.

"Many stores are doing these just to say they did one," he said. "Others have no marketing plans once they get them. Publishers in 2017 need to start vetting these stores and making sure it’s right for both companies and the future of exclusives."

But even James said he likes exclusives, if they're done right - with a plan for truly marketing the product and utilizing them to promote the store brand.

"We have learned that you have to do projects that both the publisher and your brand can work together on every step of the way, to make a great cover for the fans," he said.

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