A post from my old Marvel blog concerning covers.
Two more thoughts on covers, in response to things different people mentioned during the long sequence these past few weeks.
1) As we’ve moved further and further into a Direct Market-driven model, the purpose of the cover has changed somewhat. Traditionally, like most any other magazine, the cover was the one and only point-of-purchase display to entice a prospective buyer into picking up the mag. This was as part of a returnable system, in which a company would set a print run on an issue, distribute the copies to retail outlets, sell what they could, and then accept returns and give credit for unsold copies, destroying the remains. It’s not a very resource-effective system, but it’s the way periodicals have been sold for decades.
In the Direct Market model, each retail outlet orders specifically how many copies of each item they want to carry, and purchases them on a non-returnable basis. What this means is that, if you’re a publisher, your print run is very, very close to your final sale (no waste), and every copy of the book is sold and profited from at the moment you send it off to the retailer.
So really, in this system, the company is selling to the retailer first, who turns around and flips the issue to his customers in order to make his profit. But this means that, while the cover is still important to the retailer’s ability to make a sale (and to the publisher’s, indirectly, since a poor showing on a given issue will inevitably result in fewer orders for the subsequent issue), what’s really crucial to selling for the companies is the Previews catalog. The information and visuals shown at the time of solicitation is what the retailers order from, and typically is what their regular customers use to adjust their pull lists. (I don’t know if this is really still the case, but some years ago, there were some shops that didn’t really maintain much of any wall-stock–almost all of their sales came via pull-lists.)
Which isn’t to say that the cover is completely unimportant in the Direct Market–it’s still your best bet for catching the eye of the browsing comics reader and possibly getting him to thumb through and maybe purchase your comic. And the cover art is typically what’s used int eh Previews catalog in the first place. But the cover doesn’t have to shoulder the sales burden alone in the Direct Market.
2) Variant covers. Somebody asked for my thoughts on them.
Personally, I don’t entirely see the appeal. But clearly, there are a lot of people who like them, or at least some of them. And while that’s the case, I don’t think there’s any real harm in having them, so long as a reader who doesn’t want to be bothered can get the story at the typical cover price under one cover or another.
I do think there’s a danger inherent in relying on variant covers too heavily to sell your product, though. The marketplace can be fickle, and if we reach a point where the readership as a whole is turned off by variants, that bubble is likely going to burst all at once. And when it does, if everybody is counting on the revenue generated by variants to make them profitable, retailer and publisher alike, then we’re going to have a real problem on our hands.
But it’s not readily apparent where that point of no return is; it’s deceptive. In the same way that, in years past, people would have told you that it would be detrimental to have two, three, four Spider-Man titles, or that Wolverine was appearing in too many places and that would kill his appeal. Both of those seemed like sensible arguments at the time, and yet the elasticity of the marketplace was much greater than most people realized at that point. So it’s difficult to gauge where the edge of the cliff is. One thing’s for certain, though: as soon as they stop moving the needle in terms of selling copies, publishers will stop doing them.