Variant vs Chase covers: How chase covers can ultimately harm Publishers…

Daredevil1in75 Superman Unchained 1in50

Variant covers and chase covers have become a staple of the comics industry in recent years, helping inflate sagging sales and fueling a “gotta have them all” collector instinct wired into some fans.  A week does not go by without a large number of multiple covers coming out and gracing the racks at every major comic shop across the land.  Don’t believe me?  Check out this article from Diamond with a checklist of recent variant covers.  Wow!  That’s a LOT of variants!

But did you know that these “multiple covers for the exact same comic” come in several different varieties?

1st lets talk about normal variant covers, which are different from chase covers.

Unity5a Unity5b Unity5c

A variant cover is printed in an equal ratio to the regular cover. This means the multiple covers are printed in a 1-for-1 ratio. For every cover with image A, there’s one with image, B, and maybe one with image C.  In some cases the Publisher makes the variants available as separately order-able codes in Diamond’s Previews catalog, in which case Comic Shops, and consumers, can order whatever cover strikes their fancy (and also means they may not exist in exactly equal ratios, but will vary depending on which cover was more popular and ordered more).  A variant cover will normally cost regular cover price for the comic.  Shown above are 3 separately order-able normal variant covers for Valiant’s Unity #5.

SupesWW 1-25 Unity5 1-30 SA1-50

A chase cover is more rare than a regular cover. For example, 1:10 means that for every 10 regular covers there is 1 of the chase cover available. 1:25 means one chase for every 25 regular covers.  Prices comic shops will charge for chase covers will vary depending on the ratio of the issue.  A 1:10 may cost $6 to $10 (or more).  A 1:25 may cost $10, $15 or even more.  Shown above are the 1:25 Robot Chicken chase cover for DC’s Superman/Wonder Woman #6, the 1:30 Matt Kindt chase cover for Valiant’s Unity #5, and the 1:50 Mike Deodato chase cover for Marvel’s Secret Avengers #1.

Let’s be honest here.  Variant/chase covers present some cool images for both readers and collectors.  Publishers only make them because they increase sales.  But don’t just believe me, here is what Image Publisher Eric Stephenson said on the topic at the 2014 ComicPro conference:

Same with gimmick covers and insane incentives to qualify for variants that will only have a limited appeal for a limited amount of time.

Everybody moans about variants, but here’s the honest to goodness truth:

You stop ordering variants; we’ll stop making them.

They are only produced to shore up market share, that’s it and that’s all, and when used in conjunction with quantity-based incentives, they don’t sell more comics, they just result in stacks of unsold books that send the wrong message to your customers about the titles, your stores, and our industry.

That type of marketing is built on short-term sales goals that do little to grow and sustain readership, and it’s a trick that’s been done to death in other industries, to diminishing returns.

There you have it, from an industry insider who pretty much knows what he’s talking about.  Publishers make these covers because they sell and shore up their market share.  End of story.

Fan reaction  runs from the logical “If you don’t like them, don’t buy them” to the snarky “Boo Hoo!  If you can’t afford them, don’t buy them!” to the enthusiastic “Cool!  I MUST have that cool cover for my collection!” to the unequivocal  “I hate variants, I never buy them”.

Archieband StarlightParlov X-Men JeanGroot

I like cool covers, like many other fans/collectors.  I buy some variant or chase cover at least once a month (I got the Archie & Starlight shown above as variants I was able to choose at cover price and the 1:50 X-Men cover was a chase that I paid a bit extra for).  Regular variants are great, I’m all for choice.  But while I think they look really cool, I think chase covers are actually harmful to comic shops and therefore harmful to the comic industry and will ultimately harm both Publishers and fans.

Lets go back to the difference between variant covers and chase covers.

Variant covers are mostly fine.  They offer a choice to the consumer and don’t generally force a comic shop to artificially increase their orders to qualify for a particular cover.  The best of all worlds for variant covers is where Publishers offer separately order-able line items for the various normal variant covers.  Aspen, Avatar, Dynamite, Image, IDW, and Valiant all produce these kinds of normal variants every month (they all also produce chase covers to go along with the regular variants).  I look at the comics solicits each month and dutifully choose the variant cover that I think looks the best out of the many options available to me on my order form.  I’m generally very happy when given the choice, sometimes the collector in me takes control and I actually order more than one cover for the same issue when I think there are multiple covers that are all too cool to pass up, but that’s my choice, nobody is forcing that on me.

Chase covers are insidious because they are designed to manipulate the buying patterns of the local comic shop owner.  Shop owners who want to satisfy a customer desire for a particular chase cover will order extra copies of a comic in order to qualify for an incentive chase cover.  Do they normally sell 20 copies of Superman/Wonder Woman?  Well, if they order an extra 5 then they can get that cool 1:25 cover.  Normally think they’d sell 40 copies of Secret Avengers #1?  Well if they order an extra 10 copies they can get that sweet Mike Deodato 1:50 cover.  This is really why most comic shops will charge extra $ for that chase cover.  They are trying to cover the out-of-pocket expense they have to fork over on the extra comics that they bought to get that chase cover.  Making it less of a hit to their bottom line when they have a pile of extra comics sitting unsold on their racks or sold at a loss in $1 bins.

Why is this bad for Publishers?  They sold extra copies of a comic (which is non-returnable), their circulation went up on paper.  They have their money.  It’s bad because piles of unsold comics sitting on the rack or in $1 bins send a bad message to shop owners and fans alike.  I would argue that it is better to have READERS who are buying a comic every month because they are interested in following the characters and story than to have a BUYER who bought a comic a single time because it had a cool cover or because someone thought it was collectible and would have future resale value (Free tip for people who want to get rich on comics: 95%+ of chase covers typically peak in price within 60 days of release.  The farther down the road you get, the less chase covers typically sell for.  There are exceptions, but I have bought tons of really cool chase covers, primarily as art objects, a year or more after publication for cover price or less.  These are books that were selling for $20+ the week they were released.)

There is a certain herd mentality to collectors.  When a comic is “hot” and flying off the shelves people have a tendency to want to check it out to see what everyone else see in it or even just so they don’t miss out on “the next big thing”.  Oh!  There are only a couple of copies of this comic left on the rack, I’d better check it out before it’s gone!  When a comic is readily available with lots of copies warming the rack there can be less interest.  After those first couple of weeks of prime sales time in the shop (which may actually be only 1 week) the likelihood of the comic selling at cover prices goes down dramatically.  I cannot tell you how many comics I have checked out from $1 bins that ended up there in as little as 3 weeks after the on-sale date.

So let’s get to the point
Sorry for rambling on, let’s bring this home.  Variants and chase covers sell.  If they didn’t Publishers wouldn’t make them.   Chase covers will increase sales some amount by getting shops to order extra copies to qualify for the incentives, though to be honest, since they do some kind of 1:25 chase cover theme each month it’s not as much about increasing sales at this point, but rather maintaining the inflated sales that will evaporate if/when they go back to just doing normal covers.

So, Publishers maintain their inflated sales each month with gimmick chase covers.  Some number of fans who thinks those covers are cool end up with them, either by paying an inflated price or because they have an “in” with the store owner as a regular customer and they are slipped to them at regular price.  Does this increase the readership of their comics in the long run?  Not really.

Granted, if a shop can actually sell the chase cover for a largely marked up price that covers the (discounted) cost of some/all of the issues they bought to qualify for the chase cover, they are essentially getting “free comics” to sell.  This works IF the chase cover sells for the marked up price.  I have seen far too many of these sitting unsold in comic shops with big price-tags on them (and later often sold at vastly marked down prices) to believe that this works universally for shops. Those unsold chase covers represent lost sales and lost profit.

Magneto FF Baby SHe-Hulk blank

Let’s look at another ‘flavor’ of variant covers, this is one Marvel is fond of.  They do variants that a shop can order as many of as they want as long as their orders hit a certain level, for instance if a shop orders 110% the quantity of the current issue as they did of some other issue #x then they can order the animal variant, or blank sketch cover variant or Skottie Young Baby variant for the current issue.  This also requires a comic shop to potentially artificially increase their order numbers.  Let’s go back to a real world example: My local shop qualified for the Magneto #1 animal variant (seen above) without doing anything unnatural, he was planning to order more copies of Magneto #1 than the reference issue because he thought he could sell them.  I didn’t originally order Magneto but thought this was a very clever cover.  I picked it up (for normal cover price), took it home, read it, and loved it.  Now I’m going to be buying all the subsequent issues of Magneto, Marvel has created a reader for this title instead of selling a single 1:25 chase cover.  My shop didn’t qualify for the She-Hulk blank cover.  He told me he’d have had to increase his orders to the point where he though he’d have a significant number of unsold copies.  So there were not any blank covers for me to buy.  I like to get these and bring them to cons and get artist sketches on them, I’d have bought 1 or 2 of these in addition to the regular cover had they been available for sale, alas they were not.  Lost sales, for both Marvel and the shop.

So, had any of these been available as just normal variants that were separately order-able, they could have resulted in increased sales all by themselves.  Given the “qualifying order quantity” requirements, they may have increased sales at some shops, but not at my local shop.

I’m not in favor of a shop ordering extra copies that they think they cannot sell just to get a special cover.  I’d rather a shop order properly, stay profitable and in business, and grow readership.  Normal variants promote this as the “best of both worlds”: They allow there to be lots of cool cover out there for publishers and shops to sell and fans/readers/collectors to buy and (hopefully) read.  Chase covers appeal to the worst aspects of comics; artificially inflated sales and a false perception of value/collectibility over story content.  Speculation on the value/collectibility of gimmick covers almost killed the direct market in the 1990s.  Hopefully we’ll weather this storm with the direct market intact once again.

As British statesman Edmund Burke said (later paraphrased by George Santayana): “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

Bob Bretall: Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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9 Responses to Variant vs Chase covers: How chase covers can ultimately harm Publishers…

  1. Rana says:

    Your blog posts are very informative and explained better than I’ve found.

  2. loudlysilent says:

    Thanks for this post, Bob! I’m actually a sucker for Skottie Young’s covers. I have his X-Men #1, Infinity #1, Avengers #1, and Secret Avengers #1. I never knew how these affect LCSs, so this was really interesting!

    • I buy some of those Skottie Young covers too. I think they’re some of the least problematic variants (way better than 1:25 and 1:50 chase covers). Kind of hard to know though, Marvel has a lot of really arcane requirements on getting ahold of these that they only really communicate to the retailers.
      Seems like bigger stores have fewer problems getting their hands on these things.
      No denying that they’re cool

  3. Pingback: DC is Listening: A modification to DC’s 1:25 chase poilicy for theme covers | ComicSpectrum – Bob's Blog

  4. doug says:

    So, I am a new comic reader. 28, never really been into comics. Suddenly, I find myself wanting them after having received a few through Lootcrate. Spider-Man and Deadpool’s new series together in particular. Anyways, this post literally answered every question I had about what I should or should not be buying. Thank you!

  5. Weston John says:

    Thanks for this article…very interesting.

    My LCS is ordering 25 Doctor Aphra #1 copies based on subscriptions and anticipated demand, so they don’t expect to qualify for the chase variants.

    How do the store variants fall into this narrative? For example the Doctor Aphra #1 variants seem to include 3 chase variants and several store variants. I bought the Ashley Witter variant from the Hero Initiative because I liked the art (and I’ll buy the regular cover from my LCS), but I don’t think this would impact the LCS because it’s not a typical chase variant. I think you just have to buy it through the store that commissioned the store variant…in this case Brain Trust. How do the stores go about getting Marvel’s (or another publisher’s) permission to commission the artist and sell the store variants? What are the typical economics involved (asked another way…how much would the store pay the variant cover artist and publisher for each issue and are there typical guidelines the for pricing that the store would use to sell the store variants)?

    • I don’t think there is one standard for store-specific variants, they will typically involve the store making a commitment to buying some number of copies that could range from 500 to 1000 or perhaps even more. Sometimes there is a “shared exclusive” that will have the same cover art for several stores, but each store will have their own logo printed on the cover. Shared exclusives would typically require a purchase at the lower end of the scale.
      In most (all?) of these cases, it is not the store who is making a deal with a cover artist, it is the publisher that handles all those logistics, with the understanding that there will be a certain minimum purchase of copies by the store.
      So, in the end, the store will have a big pile of those exclusives comics that they paid anywhere from “normal discounted” price for up to maybe close to cover price. They can either make money off them by up-charging for them (Midtown comics frequently does this, selling store exclusives for $10 and up) OR they can use them as a promotion for customers (I have gotten store exclusives from Third Eye Comics that were being sold at normal cover price). Stores will often augment sales by offering copies on-line so completist fans can buy them for an upcharged price.

      • Weston John says:

        Thanks for the detailed answer. So, the risk to the store (and to the hobby in general) is that they might bite off more than they can chew and be left with stacks of unsold copies? In the case of the Ashley Witter Doctor Aphra #1, there are 3,000 color, 1,500 b/w and 1,500 “pink” versions. I am assuming it is an allotment shared between Legends Comics and The Brain Trust Facebook group with each store/group committing to a total of 6,000 books, which seems like a ton.

        I bought the Ashley Witter version because the artwork is stunning…IMHO by far the nicest artwork of all of the covers.

  6. Yes, exactly. The risk to a store getting an exclusive is that they are left with copies they cannot sell or have to dump at a loss.
    That said, worst case is they give them away as promotional items which they should at least be able to write off on their taxes.

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