In 2011, IDW published a Godzilla comic with a new promotion. If retailers ordered a large amount of copies, 500 or so, they could get a cover exclusive to their store. And they saw a massive bump in order numbers as a result.
The idea caught on and every major publisher bar DC Comics joined in. By the time DC Comics decided they could ignore this activity no more with the launch of Dark Knight III, one publisher had already sworn off doing them ever again.
In 2015, Bleeding Cool was the first to tell you that Image Comics were scrapping the idea of retailer exclusive covers, for individual issues at least. They stated,
After much internal deliberation, Image Comics will no longer be offering single issue retailer exclusive variants. While the intent of this program was to offer our retailer partners the opportunity to have exclusive content in order to build strong continued series sales at their stores, data accumulated over the last year suggests these variants only serve to further feed the speculation market, artificially inflating first issue sales, and thereby doing little to positively affect a series’ longterm health.
Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson expanded on this days later, telling Bleeding Cool,
When Corey Murphy came on as Director of Sales, she took a hard look at the numbers for these exclusives and how they affected long-term sales on the series they were associated with, and one of the most surprising things we learned was there were numerous instances of accounts ordering 1,000 copies or more of an exclusive cover, then never ordering a single copy of the series past the first issue.
Even when that wasn’t the case, there was no long-term benefit to doing these covers, and really they just perpetuate the notion that first issues are all anyone should pay attention to.
By the same token, if you are a publisher trying to force your comics into the marketplace with exclusive variants retailers can only order by irresponsibly increasing their orders: Stop. You’re getting a short-term sales boost at best, and you don’t benefit from stacks of unsold books cluttering up the stands or being shoved into dollar boxes.
However, today, it’s reverse ferret time. After lobbying by many comic book retailers, Image Comics are returning to publishing retailer exclusive covers for single issues, though with the caveat of “long-term series growth in mind”.
The first will be made available for the launch of Youngblood #1 in May and will feature exclusive retailer covers by Rob Liefeld and Jim Towe.
Image are restricting it to single store variants, so I guess no Phantom, no Ghost, no Forbidden Planet/Jetpack, no Newbury Comics, no Fried Pie, no Gamestop variants. And they will also have lower qualifying numbers for smaller stores so they can participate in retailer exclusive covers too, starting from 500 – the qualifying number for that Godzilla retailer exclusive cover, back in the day.
However Image Comics will insist retailers order certain amounts of the second and third issues of a series as well as the first, in order to qualify. Which might help fight that second issue drop off….
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