Variant Hate. Now with More Penguins.

When I was selling comic books for a living, I hated variants.

With the passion of a thousand fiery suns supernova-ing.

They always struck me as a money grab.

Not necessarily on the part of the store1 – we had to recoup our costs by selling the variants at a higher price (especially for those with a buying threshold (e.g. buy-25/50/100/200/500 and get a variant)), especially for those titles that we wouldn’t normally order high for – but on the part of the publishers.

And on the part of comic book geeks. There was always the industrious shop regular who’d ask for the variant once it was announced in Previews or someone who said “I totally want every single variant for [insert comic book title here” or “I totally want every single variant [by this artist]”. You’d note it and, when making your orders, you’d take that into account. Come the Wednesday of that variant’s release there would be a run on it by several regulars. Other times, we’d have piles of variants that no one wanted and we would liquidate at cons. A lot of the times (and this happened more with Marvel titles than with DC), customers would complain because of the increased price of the variants.

Ordering variants is a lot like most monthly orders by retailers: it’s an art as much as a science. We’re not mind readers and we can’t predict which variants will have a run on them by the store regulars. Over time, and by examining sales and subscription data, you get an idea of which variants will be most desired by your customers. And, most of the time, buying thresholds on the likeliest titles to be popular aligned with sales numbers (which meant that we could usually meet demand). Other times, not so much. To say that trying to predict the desirability of an upcoming variant made my job just that bit more annoying and a lot more difficult.

In a recent interview with ICV2, DC SVP Sales Bob Wayne, commented that DC Comics is re-examining the way that it approaches variants and that

We’re just trying to make sure we keep a balance between the different ways that we can draw attention to books.

I see it a different way. I see it as exploiting the “collectability” of comics (which has been ebbing and flowing since the comics collapse in the 1990s) – despite the fact that, as Brian Hibbs points out,

variant covers are ultimately worthless. Past the first quarter on sale (and usually the first week or two at that), there’s seldom any demand of any significance for the overwhelming majority variant covers. Even very “rare” ones. And retailers know this, because we’re the primary people buying and selling them.

As a recent article from ICV2 points out:

we’ve been down this road before, and when the collectible side of comics is exploited to the extent that consumer and retailer budgets become exhausted, it collapses, as both pull back.  This smells like it could be that moment.  We hope it’s not.

From a business perspective, it also skews sales numbers, making it that much more difficult to decipher sales patterns and to get an accurate idea of – and this is especially important on the non-keystone titles from a publisher – which titles are selling and why. This could mean that certain (really shitty) titles – that happen to have a lot of variants – would continue to be published, while more-deserving titles are cancelled.

Author’s Note: As I was writing this article, I came across Brian Hibbs’ magnificent piece on The Henious Growth of Variants. It’s a fantastic read and, while we raise a couple of the same points, he raises so many more. Go read!


1 I added in the necessarily because some (exceptionally greedy) retailers do overprice their variants – oftentimes to a ridiculous degree.


One thought on “Variant Hate. Now with More Penguins.

  1. Pingback: Oh, ourvaluedcustomers, You Hit It On The Head | Diary of a Comic Book Goddess

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