Tail Eating Syndrome

The other day I claimed that I was not going to go on a diatribe about my distaste for the practice of publishing variant covers, particularly as an ordering incentive. Apparently I was wrong.

We do not carry variant covers unless it's unavoidable. In the case of Infinite Crisis, it is not a matter of choice. Yet, I know for a fact that it has increased our sales by at least 25% because several customers want to have both covers or simply can't decide between the two (I have to admit that I generally prefer the Perez covers, but that's not the case for every issue). Even with the bump in sales this provided, I would still have preferred a single cover for each issue which might have allowed me to use my sales skills to convince a customer to try another series (a OYL title, perhaps). In the long run, we would see more money from a customer picking up a news series than getting two covers of the same book. And, quite frankly, a few customers who did not want to shell out for both covers spent quite a while deciding which cover they wanted (and seemed to have a bit of a bitter taste in their mouth from having to choose in the first place).

Still, the incentive variants are even worse. Its pretty typical of any business to offer some sort of incentive to your customer to spend more money, whether it's luring them in with a buy one get one free deal or offering a better discount if they purchase a higher volume of product. Very rarely are these incentives actually worth it and in the case of variant cover incentives, they actually do harm.

Jumping into the wayback machine for a minute, a few years ago Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics, laid out the pro side of this argument (I'm chopping it up a bit for the sake of space, but go here to read the whole column):

Over the past decade comics publishers have voluntarily increased their output
of premium cover editions that they pass on to retailers, usually for only a
nominal cost, or even sometimes for free...the new executive team at Marvel is acutely aware of the market for comics collectibles, and has promised to make darn sure that any book touted as a "limited edition" will actually have a very small quantity produced...This will help protect consumers from the scams that sometimes occurred during the 1990's, when many "limited editions" had print runs dictated only by how many were ultimately ordered.

I view this trend toward publishers creating alternate covers as a way of helping retailers as a great step forward...the future of our entire industry is resting upon the shoulders of approximately 1,000 comics retailers, many of whom can barely cover their weekly new comics bill. The fact that the publishers have at long last discovered a low cost method for them to financially help retailers build their capitalization base delights me...there are still some members of the comics retailing community who suffer from guilt at the thought of actually being paid by the comics publishers for taking on additional risk. That number is steadily dwindling, however, as a growing number of those comics retailers who do not avail themselves of the financial incentives that they have earned join the ranks of the unemployed. While I think those retailers hastened their own financial demise through poor decisions, I still very much regret their departure from our community... I very much hope that all comics publishers continue to provide retailers with sales incentives through limited promotional editions, and that collectors come to a greater understanding of the financial needs of comics retailers. Limited promotional books will not solve all of the financial problems of the comics retailer community, but I believe that they are an excellent step in the right direction.

Needless to say, this is an example of how to make more money by selling to the same base of consumers rather than increasing the size of that base. What's interesting about order incentive variants is that they are an example of publishers' (and Diamond's) attempt to do the exact same thing. Rather than trying to increase their number of customers by creating programs to help new stores open, thereby increasing the size of the direct market, the idea is to convince their existing customers to buy more than they can reasonably sell in order to get these incentive variants. It's a system that leads to stagnation and ultimately results in the snake eating its tail. Brian Hibbs pretty much dismantled this argument at the time. A few highlights:

See, the "problem" is that Chuck's perceptions are filtered through the lens of being one of the largest retailers in the DM...That means Chuck'll get 11+ copies of this very rare variant. Meanwhile, back in the rest of the DM, there are 3800 stores, so the "average" store gets... um... no copies of the variant. That's because the "average" store orders about 18 copies of Wolverine -- less than a third of the target number of 65 for-a-variant. Oddly, I'd have little problem if Chuck had said "Variants are good because they make me more money" -- but the suggestion that they're great for the market as a whole, or great for the smallest stores struggling the most is really far from any kind of reality. Because most stores never even qualify for the things...I think variant covers send exactly the wrong messages to comics consumers (because, let's face it, your comics are, in the main, actually worthless as a "collectible").

That last part is pretty much the driving force behind what we do here. I understand that it's fun to collect comics. I enjoy the fact that I have the entire run of Starman. But I am under no illusion that those comics are even worth the prices printed on the cover. The only way that a collectible increases in value is if supply or demand drastically increases. Otherwise we're talking about penny stock here. To try to trick a customer into paying a premium for something that they then will have to sell at a premium to a customer who will almost universally regret the purchase a few years down the road is a miserable idea that leads to customer dissatisfaction. As I said, if we're trying to get our regulars to spend more money, it's a much healthier business decision all around to get them interested in new series rather than shelling out a lump sum of money for a product that offers no additional value.


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