Thursday, May 20, 2010

Collect Them All

With magazine sales dropping ever lower, more and more publishers seem to be trying to boost sales by creating "Collector Editions." Specifically, publishing the same issue with a variety of different covers. Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide do it from time to time; if the cover feature is about a hot TV show or movie, there will be a set of covers, each featuring a different star or stars from it. It makes me wonder, though, how many extra copies they sell. Is there really much a collector's market for old issues of EW?

The variant covers have become a mainstay in the comic book business. In the first two weeks of May, for example, DC Comics produced a dozen comics with variant covers (and one of them had two). One can only presume that there are still enough fanboys out there clamoring to have one of every version that makes this viable.

But while this is now a gimmick to sell more copies of an issue, its origins in the comic book business were for the opposite reason: We had sold too many copies.

In the autumn of 1989, DC was releasing the first issue of Legends of the Dark Knight, a new Batman title. It was a period when comic book shops were plentiful, there were multiple direct market distributors of the books, and competition was fierce among them. Anticipating major sales of a new #1 issue starring the Dark Knight, the shop owners ordered substantial quantities.

[A quick aside to those who don't know how the "Direct Sale" comic book market works: In the traditional publishing business -- for books, magazines, newspapers, et al -- the stores receive copies on a returnable basis; whatever they sell they pay for and what they don't sell can be sent back for a credit. In the comic book business, the store owners order copies of the books at a substantial discount, but they cannot send them back, so they will order only what they think they can sell.]

When the orders for Legends of the Dark Knight #1 came in, they were much higher than expected. Bruce Bristow, who was head of the Marketing Department at the time, feared that there would be many thousands of copies unsold and that that could have a critical impact on the cash flows and financial stability of many of the shops. So he proposed a way to make the copies more collectible: We would add an "over-cover" to the issue, producing four different versions, that would prompt collectors to buy four copies of the book instead of one.

And that is what we did. LoDK #1 had four versions -- the same Bat-emblem with a lime green, blue, pale orange or magenta background. (You can get a look at them here:!dc/legendsdarkknight) As hoped, the variants did increase the sales of the books for the shops. And a whole new marketing ploy took hold in the comics business.

One amusing note about LoDK #1. As the Production Director, I was directly involved with this, including ensuring that equal numbers of each version would be shipped to each distributor and, through them, each store. To that end, I was in the Ronalds Printing plant as the books were being bound and watched as one of each version came off the machine consecutively, over and over. Every carton of 200 books contained 50 of each and if you pulled any four consecutive copies out, you would have one of each.
Within the first week of sales, however, we started getting reports about how the blue version was the rarest or how we had under-printed the orange version to make it more collectible. All of this supposition was based on someone going to his local shop and finding differing quantities of each color. But the reason there might be no more of a color was not that we had under-printed them; it was that that color was the most popular. Not everyone was going to buy four copies of the same magazine; those readers who bought only one picked the color they liked best. In fact, if the shop had only the magenta ones left, that is the version least likely to be in collections... and it would ultimately be the rarest!

In the two decades since, all the comic book publishers have jumped on the multiple-cover bandwagon. So it must still be working as a way to pump up sales or they presumably would have stopped by now. But with standard comic books selling for $2.99 to $3.99 each, how many readers can afford to buy more than one? And after you've read one copy, are you going to even open another?

Too bad I'm not selling this blog. It would be interesting to see what would happen if I posted this same essay with four different titles...


  1. I hang my head in shame... I AM guilty of this, but only when one condition prevails - that the art on the cover is so good that I want to have that, as well as the mainstream cover.

    The only times I remember doing this were for "Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds" and "Brave and the Bold #1". In other words, for George Perez' work. I might have done it with an alternate Alex Ross cover if I think about it, and I would have looked for the classic Legion artists on the alternate "Superman and the Legion of Super Heroes" six-part... but then, if I'd had the choice, I might have chosen those alternates INSTEAD OF covers by Gary Frank's perfectly serviceable talent (and pretty tasty at that...)

    But when I think of multiple covers, I almost always think of speculator boom... and it turns me off. So I am getting the opposite signal of what they want to send.

    I remain,
    Eric L. Sofer
    The Silver Age Fogey

  2. Bob,

    I remember that first issue of Legends of the Dark Knight. I chose only one copy, because, IMPO, was buying 4-5 copies each of the first five issues really worth the investment? If you bought all the variant covers, I figured, you had to complete the story arc 4-5 times. So, I opted for just 1 copy. The speculator feeding frenzy that would follow was a fool's errand, I felt. With most comics----and weekly mags like Entertainment Weekly----being mass produced, there's no real point in speculating.

    I retired from collecting comics 2 years ago because it has gotten to the point where, with the economy the way it is, it isn't feasible to spend 15-25 dollars a week on comics I'd like to continue reading, but I also have to consider more important concerns, like paying bills and putting food on the table. If only the industry could roll back to where we were about 10-15 years ago.....!