One upon a time, Mark Herr used to be director Of Purchasing at Diamond Comic Distributors, and worked there from 1985 to 2005 . Now he works in grocery retail on the shop floor. But he has such stories to tell and he has allowed Bleeding Cool to share a few of them. Such as the origins, at Diamond Comic Distributors at least, of the comic convention exclusive variant cover. Something that is very common and you will see all over San Diego Comic Con this year. But here's where it began.
In 1998, the manga/anime genre was in full swing in the states, with publishers like Viz Communications and Tokyopop (previously called Mixx Entertainment) selling a lot of 200 page books reprinting the best of Japan had to offer.
That year, for San Diego Comicon, Naoko Tajeuchi, creator of Sailor Moon, was scheduled to appear, courtesy of Tokyopop. So, Stuart Levy, the head of Tokyopop called me and said, "We need something simple for her to sign. So, I want to do an exclusive comic book for San Diego. It would reprint just the first chapters of Sailor Moon, be regular comic book size. I want to do a solid pink cover with silver foll of Sailor Moon's icon. I want to print 5,000 of them, have you guys sell them to the retailers at the show. They can sell them to the consumers. There's a set retail, but no price on the comic itself, so if the retailers want to charge more, they can." It seemed like a no-brainer to me, so I said of course, we can make it work. (I'm pretty sure the number was 5,000 with a $2.95 retail, but I won't swear to it. I also don't know if he kept any for his company. I know we got the number we agreed upon).
So, getting ready for San Diego is one of the busiest times of the year. I would have thought I would have mentioned this plan to my boss (VP of Purchasing Bill Schanes), but you know, maybe I didn't. So, San Diego arrives. The book arrives at our booth. I talk to our sales guys (The late Dave Hawksworth and Mike Schimmel for sure, probably Tim Kartman was there as well) and they understand what they have to do. And then, Bill shows up and seems surprised at what's going on. (Again, not 100% sure if I told him or not) He starts rattling off questions that I might not have thought through, like what if we don't sell them all and who will pay freight to get them back to our disattribution center, and so on. And our sales guys assure him there won't be any left over. But, he is clearly not happy with me. (Not for the first time, not for the last time.)
And we sell them all in like an hour and a half. Or something like that. It takes no time at all for retailers to understand a potential gold mine. Even if they don't sell them all at the show, they can take them back to their stores and sell to their customers a book with a popular character, with a very low print run, that could only be gotten at this one convention.
And so, the next year, Diamond had like ten San Diego exclusive comics to sell to retailers, from the biggest publishers. All the idea of my boss. I believe they were all just variant covers with content you could get anywhere. But, at that point, variants were already a big deal in the industry. These were from the biggest publishers, with print runs bigger than 5,000 (is what I recall). No, I don't remember what they all were. I might have notes on them somewhere in this house or I might have chucked all that stuff a long time ago.
Anyway, by the year after that, publishers and manufacturers began doing their own convention exclusives that you had to come to their booth to buy, cutting out the traditional retailer and distributor chain. I remember a few years later, a retailer complaining at one of our breakfast for retailers events, the only two companies on the show floor that weren't selling directly to his customers were Diamond and DC Comics.
So, I'm not saying Stuart Levy created the comic convention exclusive. There might be something that predates this, that I am not aware of. But, what he did do was show a lot of people that there was money to be made in doing so. And that forever changed what was going on with the comic convention floor. For better or for worse, I don't think Stuart gets enough credit. Maybe because people just don't know. But, now you do.
Joseph Michael Linsner replied "My company Cry For Dawn started doing variant covers in 1991, which were only available at conventions. We didn't start it, but plenty of guys were doing it before all of that."
Mark Herr added "I'm not saying he invented it. Just, this is where the big publishers (and Bill) took notice. I know you guys always had to do guerrilla marketing. And because it worked, the bigger guys stole it." Always the way…