The Strange Business of Variant Covers: Pt 2
Get ready for some boring numbers!
In the last instalment of this series, I briefly spoke on some highlights on the history of variant covers. With such a proliferation of variant covers available, you would think it's generally easy to just go to a store and pick and choose whatever you would want from all of the options. The trick is, your local comic retailer might not be able to qualify for certain variants for a broad many number of reasons.
Usually, the types of order qualifications a retailer has to deal with can be broken down into these categories:
1- Order all: This means there are no limitations. If DC offered a Cover A and a Cover B, the retailer can order as many of either as they would like for their store and customers. In the case of DC comics, Cover B may not be available to reorder after its initial arrival due to a lower print run and high demand.
Above is an example of a solicit in a DC catalog, with the variant cover B denoted as being a card stock variant cover (meaning the cover is on a thicker paper stock, and therefore cost a dollar extra).
2- Incentive: A retailer may order a limited quantity of a variant depending on how many copies of the normal cover they order. For example, I can order one copy of the 1:25 ratio variant cover for Dark Knight Returns: Golden Child #1 for every 25 copies of issue #1 we order. Usually, ratio variants are offered for every 1:10, 1:25, 1:50, and 1:100. They can reach up to 1:250, 1:500, and 1:1000.
It's also worth noting that DC bothers to try and show all variants at the initial solicitation, while Marvel can't be bothered. But am I bitter about this? No no no no no......yes.
3- Gateway: These are a nightmare, and usually something only Marvel Comics subjects retailers to although I believe Boom did it a bit as well. We call them gateway variants because we have to unlock a door that blocks us from ordering any quantity of the variant. Here's an example of an actual order restriction:
Meet or exceed 175% of orders for Doctor Strange #24 SE (JUN170891) with orders for Doctor Strange #381 regular cover, and this variant is order all you want.
Retailers are required to match or exceed their order for a previous issue of a series by a certain percentage, in this case 175%. Only when we do that, then are we allowed order the variant (in any qty in this case). This means that while we are placing orders we have to fish out our old ordering codes and do a bit of math, which really slows down the speed of doing our monthly orders. This hasn't been as much of a problem as of late, but it was a nightmare back in 2017.
4-Retailer Exclusives: Retailers are able to arrange with a publisher a unique cover that will only be available at their store (in-store and online). These are expensive projects and require bulk ordering (usually exceeding 1500 copies), so not too many smaller stores will ever have these types of variants. I'll dedicate another instalment to this series to chatting about these as it's actually a pretty interesting part of the business.
5-Through a 3rd Party source: Remember that company I mentioned last time, Dynamic Forces? Sometimes they get their hands on certain variants (perhaps exclusives from Midtown Comics or another source) and offer them through our distributor. Sometimes retailers trade variants with other retailers, at conventions or online. There are a few different back channels to getting exclusive variants, some easier to deal with than others so it may often not be worth the effort unless you have a ton of local demand.
The details I listed above are core factors in what decides the cost of a variant. As retailers may be requested to pursue certain variants by their customers, they will have to take into account the cost of that pursuit and if it's worth the effort. The final price of a variant is determined by the retailers (unless it's set by a 3rd Party in the order forms). So for us at the Comics Dungeon, I would generally price according to a few factors. On ratio variants, I would usually let the ratio decide the value. If it was a 1:25 ratio, I would mark it up at $25. This would change though depending on the overall cost of qualifying for that cover.
When variants arrive on your invoice and are imported into your software, their cost is usually programmed in as the same cost as the normal covers. So a 1:25 Spider-Man ratio variant arrives with a cover price of $3.99 and a cost of say $1.99 (assuming your store may get 50% as wholesale, it's different depending on the size of your store's orders). We have to go into the system and re-program the retail price up. The cost though? Well, this is where it just depends on the retailer. Technically, it cost $51.74 for the 1:25 variant (the cost of 25 copies of the main issue, plus the actual charge of $1.99 for that variant on the invoice). But hey, I order 40 copies of Spider-Man anyway. I was going to pay that cost regardless, and most of the normal covers are pre-ordered copies for subscribers. So, I'll just put $20-25 on the 1:25 ratio variant, because A) $50 seems way too high, B) most of the cost will be recouped when people buy their pre-orders of the normal covers, and c) pricing it lower will (hopefully) move it faster.
Also? Some covers are just fugly and I feel guilty charging people money for them.
This was the 1:100 ratio variant to Dark Knight III #1. This is not worth $100. I can prove that with science.
How about this one, how much do you think the following is worth?
That was the 1:100 B&W variant to Batman #21 (2013). That ain't worth $100. It has since settled down to $60 in some price guides and that's still way too much.
Which brings up a very important point. Will anyone care enough about the variant to buy it? I've had 1:50 ratio variants that would normally be put at $50 retail but were so underwhelming that I decided to drop them down to $20 or $30 and they still didn't sell. Often times retailers don't get to see what these covers will look like until their arrival, so we order on blind faith that it will have a hot artist or be so unique and striking that it will sell fast.
If you're really lucky though you have a completist looking to buy all covers regardless of the art. But sometimes this can equate to a nightmare as well.
Quick story time! I once had a customer who always wanted every cover to the Garfield comics published by Boom back in 2012 and beyond. Some issues of Boom's Garfield series actually had 1:20 and 1:30 ratio variants, because.....Garfield?
Putting aside the moral and ethical dilemma that there are Garfield variant covers.....
I explained that I had no other Garfield collectors, so I would normally order maybe 2-3 copies for the shelf at most. This person absolutely needed these variants though, so they offered to pay the total wholesale cost of 20 copies of Garfield for the variant as they did not want the 20 copies. We did this for a bit and mostly it meant that I was sitting on piles of Garfield that were technically paid for but were taking up space. The main problem though is at a certain point our distributor kept sending us damaged copies of the variants, and we could not ever get nice copies as replacements. Eventually the customer bailed on us out of frustration, and we were left holding the Garfield bag.
Enter one of the largest problems with limited variants. There is no guarantee that that we will receive a nice copy of a rare variant that someone is willing to pay a premium for; there's no guarantee that we'll actually receive the variant at all. Shortages are a constant bane to retailers, and in some cases, we'll be charged for items that will not be packed due to any number of errors from the distributor warehouse. Then we'll have to report the damaged or shorted item and hope for a replacement that's not damaged. If the variant was for the shelf, then the window of opportunity is shrinking on actually selling it because the initial week of release is the best chance to turnover product. And what happens if they can't replace it, due to a small print run and rarity? We'll, we'll be credited the cost of the variant. The listed cost. The $1.99 official invoice price, but not the price of over ordering any quantities of the main cover we normally wouldn't have ordered. So yeah, we're just screwed.
Quick mental break from all the numbers!
Q: Who's Arnold Schwarzenegger's favorite Namor villain?
A: It's not Attuma!
Onto a different sort of pain, let's chat a bit about gateway variants. There are a handful of different types of problems with this ordering method, and it all depends on the language of the gateway restrictions. I'm going to give you a couple examples:
1) TOTAL INITIAL ORDERS MMPR #1 [JAN161182, JAN161187, JAN161188, & JAN161189 COMB] MATCHING OR EXCEEDING 200% INITIAL ORDERS MMPR #0 [NOV151136] MAY ORDER FREE MMPR#1 LAUNCH PARTY VAR COVER QTY UP TO OR EQUAL TO TOTAL MMPR #1 INITIAL ORDERS.
So first of all, that loud thud you just heard was the sound of my body collapsing after suffering a massive brain aneurysm. Ok, so to translate, if I ordered twice as many copies of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers #1 (in total spread across its 4 order-all variants) as I did my orders for Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers #0, then I am allowed to order the equivalent number of copies of the Launch Party variants as I did the 4 order-all variants. Now, these were free variants, so these all sound like fair numbers. But I just wanted to snatch an example of the language of gateway variant ordering for you. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being no instructions necessary to 10 being the most convoluted language to order friggin comic books, this was actually just a 7 on the scale. This was just the worst one I could pull from memory.
2) The next example is from Mighty Thor #700, which had a lenticular variant as part of the Marvel Legacy promotion back in 2017. The requirements were: Meet or exceed 175% of orders for Mighty Thor #19 (MAR171002) with orders for Mighty Thor #700 regular cover and this variant is order all you want.
So, much simpler language. The trick here is that Marvel required retailers to order more copies of the normal cover to be allowed to order copies of the lenticular variants, which were going to be generally more desirable. Now, Thor during this period was pretty popular for us. So, let's say I averaged 50 copies per issues, and that includes the issue they want us to exceed 175% of. So, now I have to order 88 copies of Mighty Thor #700 regular cover if I want the lenticular. Uhhhhhhhhh......no? That's an additional $114 in cost in this case (#700 was a $5.99 issue!). For copies of a cover that's not the one that will be theoretically in high demand! We're essentially being told to screw ourselves with unsellable inventory to be allowed to order (and pay for) the version of the book more people may want. That's a really messed up form of blackmail, ok?
Needless to say, we did not play ball on that one. Of the many lenticular covers (I think there were 52) Marvel wanted to play that game with, I think we only qualified for half, possibly less. We only ordered the ones where we didn't have to punish ourselves on and throw money away. Yes, we want to make our customers happy, but we can't bankrupt ourselves in the process. The only other option would be to charge $10 for every lenticular, which isn't sustainable because the lack of demand on any of them would regulate the price downward in the market. And guess what? The lenticular job was ugly as hell on most of them, making both images a cluttered mess.
Great job lining the images up there guys!
And eventually, because we did not have all of the lenticular covers, some of our customers shopped elsewhere for them, which was fine. The trick is, some customers wanted to pass on the normal covers we pre-ordered for them because they decided they wanted to get the lenticular elsewhere upon realizing they had the option. So we either had to be hard-asses on it and demand they buy what we ordered for them, or we eat the cost of the book we couldn't return. Marvel forced us into a series of lose/lose situations, which y'know, always feels great.
There are good ways in which publishers can handle these types of variants. IDW and Boom do both allow certain windows of returnability to some of their books, so we can reduce the risk. If say IDW were to launch a new Sonic The Hedgehog series and offer a 1:10 variant to incentivize sales, they would generally make the normal covers returnable. I had a really dedicated Sonic fan who would like every cover, so in this case they would be get the normal A & B covers, and then I would charge them $8 for the 1:10. There's no need to overcharge them because even if I don't sell through 6 copies of that Sonic #1 I could eventually return them and get credit back with a minor restocking fee. The hope from IDW is a complete sell through, and they are showing they have confidence in their product and a willingness to work with retailers and absorb some of the risk.
When all is said and done, ordering variants is a convoluted and messy part of comic retail. We have to assess a lot of risks, crunch a lot of numbers, and hope against hope that someone will care in the end. Collectors are a fickle lot, and unless they are devoted to completing a run they can just as easily ignore a variant cover that you took a risk on ordering. The Comics Dungeon had at least 3 full long boxes of unsold variants by the time we shut down our business. At a minimum estimate, that's around $7500 of retail just taking up space. We could only hope that in most cases the cost was covered in selling the normal covers required to receive those variants, but that still means you're sitting on dead inventory. Then you need to list it online, which requires time and money and no guarantee of any sell through. You can cart them around to conventions and blow them out for $5 a pop, but what happens when you can't go to conventions as we've seen in 2020?
You could just not bother with variants, except for the low risk ones you would have been able to order anyway. But if you're a sizeable store with a lot of good customers who are often looking for variants, you don't necessarily want to let them down all the time by just saying you don't want to bother. It's all about finding a balance, which is one of the most difficult things in this industry because it requires equal parts trend forecasting, constant market analysis, a little clairvoyance, a lot of patience, some magical free storage space, and an 8th day to the week being added just for comic retailers.
And if farmers can have Daylights Savings Time, I think comics retailers can be given Shmaterday to deal with all of our orders.
Stay tuned as I'll tackle the subject of retailer exclusive variants on the next instalment of this series!