My background in the comic industry, before coming to work for Bleeding Cool, is a little different than some of the other contributors here. I found myself trying to be a publisher in the late 90s… which was a horrible time to try that. I have written, colored, inked, lettered, done layouts as well as dealing with printers, distributors and conventions. About the only thing I haven't done in this industry is pencils… and none of us want that to happen, trust me. Needless to say I have a better than average knowledge of how this industry works from all sides. And when I have a chance to talk about the industry of comics, I jump at it.
Now I write for Zenescope along with quite a few other publishers and one of the questions I get has to do with variant covers. Those readers who have been around a while all become a bit twitchy when the talk of multiple covers comes up because of the boom/bust of the 90s. A chunk of the blame for the collapse of the industry back then falls on variant and gimmick covers. Zenescope uses variant covers all the time and people want to know why. The last series I did for them, Neverland: Age of Darkness, had three or four covers per issue. The simple answer is because it keeps them in business and allows them to put out books at a $2.99 cover price. It's not just Zenescope though, publisher like Valiant, Boom, IDW and Dynamite use variant covers all the time.
The truth is that retailers order more copies of a book when there are multiple covers and those additional sales can make or break a series for a publisher.
This leads me to a discussion I had this week with Nick Barrucci from Dynamite. Nick is actively going after the Image Comics fans with his Creators Unleashed line. What he's trying to do with the line is a few different things. First he's trying to bring in some big named writers with indie/Image cred like Joshua Hale Fialkov, Peter Milligan, Duane Swierczynski and Rick Remember. He's setting the price point at $2.99, he's making the books fully returnable and he's only doing the one cover. He made the book cheaper and returnable in an effort to get retailers to order as many as possible to get them out to as many readers as possible. In doing so there isn't much of a margin for error, so they can't overprint the book like the normally would.
In our conversation it was obvious that Nick was worried about the initial orders for the latest Creators Unleashed book Terminal Hero. He's never had a problem revealing order numbers, so I asked him what was a comfortable threshold for a $2.99 book, how many orders does he need to make it worth doing? Between 9,000 and 10,000. The current orders for Terminal Hero #1 is 9,852, comfortably in that range. Except it's not issue one that he's worried about. A comic can drop anywhere from 25 to 50% in sales between issues one and two. The reason for this is retailers are more comfortable trying a first issue but are asked to place orders for a second issue before the first issue has shipped. This means it's crucial to get as many fans asking the retailers for the first issues so it carries over to the orders for the second issue.
An example of that is another Creators Unleashed title The Devilers #1. The initial orders came in at 10,000 and after a PR push, final order cutoff (FOC) numbers came in 14,000. So how does that translate into sale for the second issue? The numbers on that right now are at 7,400… that's a 48% drop and well below the range they want it to be in for a $2.99 book.
I had two questions come to mind at that point… and you probably do too. The first one was simple, why not sell the book for $3.99? Other Dynamite books go for that amount. The answer was simple. He really wants these books to get into as many hands as possible. And when you raise the price you will lose some of your orders. You look at another book Nick thinks is severely under-ordered, Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers #1. This book is done by Joe Casey based on the creation of Jack Kirby and has a cover price of $3.99. Initial orders here are only 7,030. The comfortable threshold for a $3.99 book is 8,000. So the current order numbers don't even hit that and issue two will be well below. So just raising the price isn't necessarily the answer.
That led to my second question, why not do variant covers on these books. I expected a financial based answer like the cost of putting in a second cover negates the increase in sales or something like that. But according to Nick the truth is a variant cover or two would help, but he really just wants to make good comics that people buy to read. He'd prefer not to use gimmicks to inflate sales. And since he's going after the Image Comic readers, that's not a publisher who does a lot of variants… some, but not a lot.
So when you are a publisher like Dynamite and you are bringing in 2.3% of the total unit market share for a month, you can take a chance on putting a book out for $2.99, making it returnable and not offer variant covers… but you are counting on the readers to tell the retailers that they want the books and you are counting on the retailers to take the chance and ordering enough of the first two issues before they ever get a copy of the book. And you are printing to order because there is no cushion to overprint. But you only do it on books you really have faith in.
If you're a publisher like Zenescope taking in only .7% of the total unit market share, you don't even risk it and you offer variant covers.
Why do publishers offer variant covers? Sometimes it's necessary to keep a book at $2.99… and sometimes its necessary to just keep it being made.
Since Nick was so good about giving me numbers for this piece, it's only fair that I tell you that the final order cutoff for both Terminal Hero and Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers is coming up quickly if you want to let your retailer know you are interested.