Nearly 50% of the comic book market consists of variant covers

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Although this is the best time in recent comics history for sales and quality, the current sales success doesn’t come without an asterisk: the huge number of variants that almost every publisher is pumping out. Industry observer Johanna Draper Carlson does some math and concludes “Variant Covers Are Propping Up the Comic Market”. A look at this weeks shipping schedule revealed that nearly half of the periodicals shipping were variants:

This week (tomorrow), there are 167 comic books coming out. I took the list and removed digests, trades, books, magazines, and toys, leaving only comic issues, to get that number. By the way, there are 267 items total, so pity your comic store staff having to sort through all that.

Then I removed all variant and second printing covers, leaving a total of 95 line items. That means that 43% of the new comics for sale tomorrow are duplicates of something already released. Nearly half the market is variant covers.


Carlson also noted publishers that didn’t do variants: Alternative, Bongo, Kenzer & Company, Oni Press, and Titan. On the other hand, the following publishers all had a variant for every comic they published: Archie, Aspen, Avatar, Big Dog Ink, Boom!, IDW, Microcosm, Valiant and Zenescope. She was surprised that Marvel has relatively fewer variants than other publishers, but they make up for it by double and triple shipping.

Is a reliance on variants to boost sales the rotten core at the center of comics current success? It was speculation and variants that brought down the inflated tulip-craze-like comics boom of the early 90s. Is this more of the same?

As we’ve noted here before, we’ve checked in with retailers and they’ve all given a variation on the “I know what I’m doing this time,” response. They point to a stronger, more varied customer base, weeding out retailers who don’t know what they are doing, and some publisher restraint as factors that makes this variant boom less of a danger.

In fact, my gut feeling is that it isn’t the comics business that’s in jeopardy here, but the publishers who rely too much on variants instead of quality material. Is it these companies that are being “propped up?”

Comments

  1. other671 says:

    So JDC looks at one week of shipping, provides no context, and The Beat is off and running with Industry Doom And Gloom. Par for the course.

  2. Leandro M. Duarte says:

    omg that Avatar cover °o°

  3. It’s all fun with numbers. Figures lie and liars figure. Blah blah blad de blah.

    There’s simply no way that 43% of sales in the comics market are derived from variants.
    And thanks for using that particularly graphic and LCD cover from Avatar to illustrate the piece. Their variants are by far the easiest to skip over when I do the monthly order.

    Percentage of sales at Flying Colors from Avatar variants? Zero.

  4. Rebecca DeMeyer says:

    Just FYI, that cover is NSFW. :\

  5. Heidi MacDonald says:

    Joe, thanks for checking in here. I think the matter of variants and incentives is one that needs to be constantly checked in on, as the recent super villain cover disaster shows.

    I was a little shocked by what I found when I googled “Avatar torture variant” myself.

  6. Thomas Baumbidell says:

    Variants are a separate line item in the Diamond system- they are not a separate line item in practical terms; ie they are usually racked/sorted all as one title.
    It’s like having the same shirt in different colors and claiming that “Blue shirts are propping up the clothing industry”.

    They’re all shirts.

  7. This is a tad misleading. Sure…nearly 50% of the unique products on the shelf are variants, but that in no way reflects volume. For your purposes, a 1:100 variant carries equal weight to a regular cover of Batman, when the unit sales are miles apart.

    I see what you’re getting at it, but a quick look at the headline would make it seem like you’re asserting that nearly 50% of comics sales are in the form of variants, which they’re flatly not.

  8. Well, I am a retailer, and I do think that the industry relies way too much on variant covers. Content should be king, not packaging.

  9. I talked to my local retailer about this recently because I’ve always had trouble getting my head around the whole variant model. He said the store has one or two customers that want the variants. Those customers pay a large enough premium (sometimes in advance) for the rare versions that it covers to store’s entire order on the book, including the extra copies needed to qualify for the variant that the store is not sure they’d be able to sell otherwise. In this scenario, everyone wins: the collectors get their variants, the retailer is not assuming any additional risk, the publishers and creators sell more copies in the direct market, and because retailers are ordering more copies than they would ordinarily, there are extras available on the shelf for casual buyers who didn’t pre-order. Seems like a good way to turn the obsessiveness of a few collectors into a broad-based benefit.

    Not sure if this is the standard model that retailers use, but if so, it makes plenty of sense and does not seem unsustainable.

    That said: torture variant covers? Ick.

  10. george says:

    Variant covers? Didn’t they help bankrupt the comics industry in the ’90s, when people got wise to the gimmick and stopped spending on extra copies?

    As for “torture variant covers,” it appears that Crossed (a series I had never heard of until today) has been doing this for quite a long time. I’m sure lots of 13-year-old fanboys drool over it:

    http://www.comics.org/issue/691811/cover/4/

  11. Thomas Wayne says:

    Regardless of what the actual percentages are…it’s scary to think that any portion of comic sales is driven by variant covers….eventually that fad will pass (AGAIN) just like it did with gimmick covers in the 1990′s. So when that fade passes will the secondary market fall apart again just like it did in the 90′s? Will the solid sales numbers the industry has had over the last 2 or 3 years fall with it?
    As a comic book fan these things scare me….and it should scare you to.
    Bottom line….great story and art should sell a comic…not a variant cover. If sales from such covers are actually over 5% we should all be highly upset because that won’t last forever and it will lead to books (including some great ones) being cancelled or retooled out of a need for a sales bump.
    So sad….

  12. Yeah…this is a little misleading. The market is TOTAL SALES, not NUMBER OF ITEMS AVAILABLE FOR SALE.

    The follow-up piece should be about the dollars in sales for that week, and what percentage of THAT pie came from variant covers.

    Also, that “torture variant cover” is one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen in a while. I wish that had not been the image for this article, because that is a whole other story.

  13. I believe the real problem with variants comes from a retailer having to order an extraordinary quantity of regular copies to be able to get the variant.

    While it’s mentioned that all Archie covers in the week dissected had variants, they are all “open order”. Retailers can order as many or few as they like without any preconditions. We just like offering out of the norm versions of our characters ’cause they look cool.

  14. Heidi MacDonald says:

    I have swapped out the Avatar cover because the more I looked at it, the more disturbed I got.

    Ski, thanks for chiming in here. (For those not in the know, Jim Sokolowski is Archie’s SVP, Sales & Business Development.

  15. James T says:

    Avatar is sick.

  16. Synsidar says:

    What makes the percentage of variant superhero comics (presumably) covers significant is that the purchase of them isn’t driven by marketing. Supply and demand is much less relevant than it is in a normal consumer market, in which consumers choose between alternatives, so the market is artificial, and any significant reliance on variants for income makes the market more artificial. The best situation, by far, would be for variants to not be a factor at all.

    SRS

  17. Jeremy Henderson says:

    I agree the amount of variants is getting ridiculous, but is there any indication that readers are buying multiple copies of the same issue to get the variants? Personally, I don’t usually care which cover I get if there are more than one available.

  18. I think the REAL question is: “are variant covers deforming sales patterns on books?”, and I think the answer there is very inconclusive. As far as I can tell from sifting through Diamond charts for the average title variants only add about their own ratios — that is, a 1:10 adds maximum of 8% on most books (every 11th copy).

    It looks like only on the “big” books, do variants play a significant factor — it looks like at least some people are “rounding up” their orders on (say) SUPERMAN UNCHAINED to get the 1:100. But that makes sense: if a work isn’t popular, producing more variants of it isn’t going to do a whole lot. If it IS popular, then a certain percentage of people will want more than one version. This is true in virtually EVERY field.

    BUT, mathematically speaking, if the retailer is selling that 1:100 for the same/more than what they increased orders by, that’s not only economically “good”, but it increases the READING STOCK on the racks for readers. Albeit at the expense of those with poor impulse control.

    In the 90s the issue was NEVER the *variants* — it was that the PRIMARY (usually sole) cover was gimmicks over content, and that a class of retailers (generally those from the card industry) inserted themselves as speculators. I simply don’t see THAT happening in most local markets any longer.

    (whenever possible I try to keep my store 100% variant-free; but some times the publishers force them on us)

    -B

  19. So the retailer has to purchase 20 or more copies of a book they know they can’t really ever sell, to get one variant that one customer will pay a premium for? Seems like this artificially inflates sales numbers and gives creators, editors and publishers a false sense of how the work or the creative teams are being received. This can’t be a sustainable thing.

    Personally i hate variants. Sell the books on the awesomeness not with gimmicks and promises of rare collectibility.

  20. Dunno… I think what makes the variants seem gimmicky is the ratio (1:10 or whatever) and the fiction that the variant carries the same cover price as the standard issue. It makes a lot more sense if you just think of variants as high-priced collectibles that stores can special-order for the customers that want them – same as archive editions or Artist Editions or whatever – except that the publisher then also throws in an extra bunch of standard issues for the retailer to sell (or not). Yeah, that pumps up sales figures, but does it really make any difference whether it goes down in the ledger as selling one book for $75 or 15 books for $5?

    Smart retailers don’t preorder expensive books without some assurance they they can sell them – preferably through a pre-order or prepayment; if they follow that rule with premium variants, it shouldn’t be any more of a problem than carrying any other deluxe, limited edition item.

  21. Joe Illidge says:

    Avatar cover still shows up in window on main page.

  22. When I go to my comic shop and see a ton of one book, I know they had to order a varient. They also tell me its worth it because they have someone that will pay a few hundred for the book. I hate to tell them the book will NEVER be worth what they paid down the line.

  23. I stopped ordering variant covers more than a year ago. They’re not worth worrying about.

  24. Glenn Simpson says:

    I asked my mail-order store how they handled this. I knew they charged people a price for the variant, but I didn’t know what they did with the extra books they had to order. At the time, I didn’t know they had a brick-and-mortar also, so that’s where they sell the extra books. But one interesting thing he told me was that their normal orders usually cover whatever variants they need for the people who want them. So in that situation, not only are they getting paid for all of the books they order, but they are still getting a premium price for the one variant.

  25. george says:

    James T said: “Avatar is sick.”

    Their motto must be: “Wertham was right, and we’re the proof!” Let’s hear it for the proud publisher of “Lady Death: Fetishes”:

    http://www.comics.org/issue/865605/cover/4/

  26. Chris Hero says:

    After reading the comments, I think the term “variant” is a bit of a misnomer. It seems like the issue is whether incentive covers are propping up the market in any way. I mean, if a company like Archie wants to make 2 or 3 different covers for the same book for the sake of having a few nice covers out there, I don’t really see the harm in that. When a cover is used as an incentive to order more books…that doesn’t seem like a good idea.

  27. Torsten Adair says:

    Oooh… number crunching? Statistics?
    And guess what? Diamond sent out the September Previews PDFs last Friday!
    Let me go take a look at the retailer order form…

  28. Torsten Adair says:

    Boom! used to offer 1:1 variants on the Disney titles.
    Pick the coolest cover, regular price!

  29. @ChrisHero I concur–the definition of “variant” needs to be defined, and the differences between “incentive” clarified. Are all of Dynamite’s and Zenescope’s “variants” included? If so that’s most of it there–both release several variants per issue, some order-all-you-want, some incentives. IDW releases a “subscription variant” for every issue now, it seems (who’s ordering those for subscription-only, by the way?), but in any quantity. I spread the numbers around the non-incentive variants. It seems most people aren’t being completist about these types of variants, but cherry-picking their favorite art. It can work in a books favor–I ordered heaviest on the Fiona Staples cover of Red Sonja #1, figuring it’d catch Saga fans’ eyes. Dynamite’s saying “we’re going for the Saga fan”, and I can get with that. Contrast that with Kick-Ass 3 #1, with 6 variants that when all connected spell something–they’re going for what Brian Hibbs called the ones “with poor impulse control.” Again, I try and figure out how many we’ll sell and spread the numbers across the variants, hoping the one person who needs to have them all, if they exist, find their’s early.

  30. Saipman says:

    Multiple covers are not the same as variant covers.

    As long as I, the buyer, can order any given cover from Diamond, I see no threat to the industry. Sometimes, if I see more than one cover I like, I’ll order a second cover. The risk to my retailer of this activity is extremely low.

    The real threat to retailers comes from having to order an insane number of copies to get a “rare” variant cover. If these covers can be flipped quickly, it’s all good. If not, they pile up and over time people forget they even existed.

  31. Peter says:

    First of all, the headline features one of the most massaged statistics ever. 43% of distinct SKUs does not equal “Nearly 50%” of the total market. Variants maybe account for a 10-15% increase in sales on titles that use them.

    But if you want to look at what drives this, where this market comes from, and why it persists, you need look no farther than your neighborhood comic shop. Variant covers exist, linewide reboots happen everywhere, because these are the things retailers believe in and put their weight behind selling. Want retailers to order large and try to move a lot of books? A #1 issue with a pile of incentive covers is the way to do it.

    Retailers make the collectibles market, and rely on it to finance their shelf copies of major titles. If Saga had a stronger incentive variant program retailers might actually order it in quantities high enough to avoid selling out early all the time. Without incentive variants retailers do not have enough faith in their product to order high enough to find their sales ceiling and just look at business they have to turn away as a sign of demand and not as a failure on their part to expand their market.

    It’s also important to point out that using incentive variants to get more product on the shelf so that the stores don’t sell out, and stores ending up with a certain number of unsold copies in the end, is a feature and not a bug of this system. The reader base of a title can’t be expanded if people can’t find the book on the shelves. This in itself is a perfectly sustainable model as long as retailers operate sensibly. The part that’s going to collapse is the collector’s market, as the amount of product reaches saturation and the perceived value of the rare cover is destroyed and the buyers stop being willing to pay a premium.

    The collapse there will hurt retailers, many of whom seem to have literally no idea how to order without incentive variants. Without the push from variants to actually stock up on product, they will probably resume their usual order cycle of slowly and voluntarily shrinking their own business by assuming sales go down across the board month to month and aiming to sell out early every month.

  32. I just want to say that anyone who buys more than one copy of a single comic book at today’s prices needs to have his head examined.

  33. That said, that Red Sonja cover is adorable.

  34. Heidi MacDonald says:

    >>>>The collapse there will hurt retailers, many of whom seem to have literally no idea how to order without incentive variants. Without the push from variants to actually stock up on product, they will probably resume their usual order cycle of slowly and voluntarily shrinking their own business by assuming sales go down across the board month to month and aiming to sell out early every month.

    Peter, interesting comments. Are you a retailer?

  35. I find it fascinating to explore the notion that more variants mean, in many cases, more shelf space & more exposure for a particular title. In the busy & overcrowded marketplace (standing in front of my LCS’s shelves) I find that as a consumer, I’m often drawn to series with variant covers and enjoy selecting one favorite cover. Some series, like the recent Shadow series, make it difficult, yet fun.

  36. Saipman says:

    @Allen Rubinstein

    I can’t argue with you there. Sometimes I think I need to have my head examined for buying any of today’s comics.

    That Red Sonja is the ‘subscriber’ variant cover or so I’ve been told.

  37. Gary Dunaier says:

    As a reader, I don’t like variant covers. I only want one copy to read, and in most cases I’ll pick up the “real” cover unless I really, really like the variant and it’s the same price (for example, the variant issue of Valiant’s Harbinger showing the characters as 8-bit video game characters)… and I bristle when a variant cover actually SAYS “variant cover” right there on the front.

  38. v wiley says:

    Despite the wrong emphasis on exactly what percentage of sales variants make up, as long as there’s a demand for the product, retailers will follow their customers demands. Many shops cater to them, some not at all. It depends on what the store’s customers want to buy.

    Very few variants are worth more than their “normal” versions. Like regular comics, variants have a speculative life span that reflects the desire of the comic in the first place. When asked about this here at The Comix Gallery, I state that variant buying is strictly for those with disposable cash to do so, and they should never buy variants for other than the reason they like them.

  39. Diamond combines all order codes in its reporting, so there is no way of knowing what the volume of variants is relative to regular cover sales.

    My sense — and it is only my sense — is that variants in the early 1990s were less likely to actually be rare. Refugees from the collapsing sportscard market were helping to feed the demand for chase or limited covers, but it took a while for comics publishers to recognize that ratios needed to be pretty high for the variants to hold aftermarket value. (Anybody who placed a bet on any of the five X-Men #1 covers would have soon found that there was more than a million of each one printed.) I haven’t done any work on this, though.

    I tend to agree that the variant business is more for the hardcore collector who chooses to participate, and not central to the business model. The premium package exists at the car dealership because there’s somebody out there who takes it.

    (I also rank speculation and variants lower on the totem pole of reasons for the early 1990s collapse than most — it was more like the real estate bubble, with easy credit from multiple distributors causing the number of comics-buying accounts to balloon. But it’s all inter-related.)

  40. Since publishers have been doing variants for awhile, do they hold their value? I see that Amazing Spider-Man with the variant cover of the old unused Ditko Amazing Fantasy #15 cover selling on Ebay for hundreds of dollars, but do books like that hold their value? If you look up the Death of Superman black bagged issue, which upon publication in 1993 was often selling for $25.00, is now selling on Ebay for $10.00 or less on average. Some sellers try to get more, but unsuccessfully. Someone had a set of ten of them which sold for $75.00, which at $7.50 each may not be a good investment based on what they actually sell for today. The books which seem to hold their value aren’t variants, but are books which had a greater than expected demand when published, like the final issue of Eclipse Comics Miracleman.

  41. Xenos says:

    It’s scary to see that the industry has pretty much built itself around making a profit from pretty much the mentally ill. Instead of a healthy growing market, they’ve decided to get blood from a stone by milking the remaining 45 year old fanboys with OCD. They might get some new blood, but they’re luring them in using gimmicks designed for people are compulsive gamblers and collectors to an almost sick degree.

    I’ve criticized Marvel and DC for flooding the market, but maybe I’ve contributed by supporting smaller publishers who follow suit. IDW and Boom! and Dynamite and those sick snuff porn providers Avatar sure all are guilty of it. Yet for some reason I give them slack. I guess because they’re smaller and trying to make their way in that small 30% of the market the big two don’t control. They’re stuck rowing in the wake of those giants. I don’t know if that make it right or just worse and I’m a hypocrite.

  42. Karolina Jones says:

    Holy shit, guys. Did you even take, like, rudimentary courses in economics?

    The “market” in this case consists of the amount of product per unique item. E.g. If DC prints 100,000 copies of the new Batman comic, and prints 1,000 copies of a variant for that issue, that means that 1% of the market (for that specific comic only) would consist of variant sales/market/product.

    You’re comparing something from an assembly line to pieces of unique artwork. There is not ONE Batman #1079 for sale and ONE Batman #1079 variant for sale. There’s 100,000 non-variants and 1,000 variants.

    Come on, man. Because school.

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