Let’s hit variant covers first. I recently read an article by The Beat about variants being almost 50% of the market. This type of crap reporting is what I would expect from some other sites, but not The Beat. The near 50% is on items offered and has noting to do with actual numbers. So item one could be New Book #1 and item #2 would be the 1:100 variant. Meaning the actual items percentage for variants are 1% of the market, not 50%.
Anyway I had a store back in the mid-nineties and variants were all the rage at that time. It did hurt the market and almost turned comic books in baseball cards with a market dominated by collectors and re-sellers and not by actual readers. Today the variant stuff is stupid and amusing, but it is not as bad as ruining the market place.
What variants are doing for the companies is a way to try and inflate the sale numbers on books. The idea being that the retailer, who is ordering 75, may get daring and order 100 to get the variant hoping he can sell the variant on the secondary (EBAY) market and make his money back. Since direct market books are non-returnable the retailers who are gambling like this will not be around for long anyway. They will lose their shirts when the book only sells 25 copies and the variant only went for 5 times cover price. Still the companies continue to offer them since it does jack up the sales on certain books.
To be fair some companies, like Dynamite offer 4 different covers on each comic but fill them with the regular order. They are true variants and not chase variants. They still have the limited variants, phantom variants (stupidest thing ever) and some now have subscriber variants. The only person this really preys upon is the collector who feels the need to own every cover of a particular issue. I feel bad for that collector who continues to but all four covers of the Shadow series every month. That person is paying $16 for a decent story by Roberson with some so-so art work. I could care less about what I get whatever cover my store shoves in the box for mail order is fine by me.
So are variant covers a problem? I don’t think so. My store gets variants just based on their normal orders. Eventually what they can’t sell week one for $10 they try and sell the long box worth of variants for cover price or less as a special on occasion. (Short aside: I always wonder if the variant cover is better, shouldn’t the company being using that as the cover?). The stores that order too many books to get a variant will not be in business for long. As the demand decreases the companies will slow it down. The only inherent problem I can see for variants are companies maybe basing their business plan on jacked up sales as opposed to trying and make the best book possible. The market has both readers and collectors. In order to cater to both I believe as long as print is here we will still have the occasional variant to garner attention and maybe boost the sale of a certain book.
The bigger problem is the special cover and DC I believe may have solved that problem with the 3D books coming out in September. They have pissed off readers and retailers alike so that while it will be a sales success, it will cause a nasty backlash against publishers doing this type of stunt again. Of course I’m kidding as long as the fans lap it up and the sales are thru the roof they will come back and f**k the fanbase again – because they liked it. Hell I’m hoping to Ebay any of that 3D stuff I get and make my money back and maybe a little more.
The special covers have their place, when DC wrapped extra cardboard around the Death in the Family books; I thought that was a great way to give the tie in books a trade dress. As a retailer I wanted that type of help, especially when the cover price is not raised. But jacking up prices by a dollar on every book to just get a special cover is not what I would want as a retailer. Shorting the orders is ever worse. Now the retailer disappoints the customers who want it and they end up trying to save face with their base of customers.
Are special covers a problem? Yes, because it is a gimmick and a device so over used by publishers that it no longer provides any merit. Will they go away? Nope, as long as something sells it will continue. The big two are corporate comics. We will see great stories at times from great creators and often get some very cool moments, but do not mistake the fact that this is not about trying to tell the best stories, this is about selling the most books. The only way it becomes about telling the best stories or when the best stories are the biggest sellers.