1999 – When exclusive Comic Convention coverage became a hit
Once upon a time, Marc Herr was purchasing manager at Diamond Comic Distributors, and worked there from 1985 to 2005 . Now he works in in-store retail grocery. But he has such stories to tell and he allowed Bleeding Cool to share some of them. Like the origins, at least at Diamond Comic Distributors, of the exclusive comic convention variant cover. Something that’s very common and you’ll see everywhere at San Diego Comic Con this year. But that’s where it all started.
By 1998, the manga/anime genre was in full swing in the United States, with publishers like Viz Communications and Tokyopop (formerly Mixx Entertainment) selling numerous 200-page books reprinting the best of Japan.
That year, for San Diego Comicon, Sailor Moon creator Naoko Tajeuchi was scheduled to appear, courtesy of Tokyopop. So Stuart Levy, the head of Tokyopop, called me and said, “We need something simple to get him to sign. So, I want to do an exclusive comic for San Diego. It wouldn’t reprint that the first chapters of Sailor Moon, be normal comic size I want to make a plain pink cover with a silver folly of the Sailor Moon icon I want to print 5,000, ask you to sell them to retailers from the show. They can sell them to consumers. There’s a retail set, but no pricing on the comic itself, so if retailers want to charge more, they can.” It seemed like a no-brainer to me, so I said sure, we can make it work. (I’m pretty sure the number was 5,000 with a sale price of $2.95, but I won’t swear to it. I also don’t know if he kept any for his business. I know that we got the agreed number).
So, getting ready for San Diego is one of the busiest times of the year. I would have thought I would have mentioned this plan to my boss (Vice President of Purchasing Bill Schanes), but you know, maybe I didn’t. So San Diego is coming. The book arrives on our stand. I talk to our sales people (the late Dave Hawksworth and Mike Schimmel for sure, probably Tim Kartman was there too) and they understand what they need to do. And then, Bill shows up and seems surprised at what’s going on. (Again, I’m not 100% sure if I told him or not) He starts asking questions that I might not have thought about, like what if we don’t sell them all of them and who would pay the freight to bring them back to our dispatch centre, etc. And our salespeople assure him that there won’t be any left. But, he is clearly not happy with me. (Not for the first time, not for the last time.)
And we sell them all in an hour and a half. Or something like that. It doesn’t take retailers long at all to figure out a potential gold mine. Even if they don’t sell them all at the show, they can take them back to their stores and sell their customers a popular character book, with a very low circulation, that could only be obtained at this one convention.
Fair check and a stained copy in relatively poor condition for such a 9.0 item, just sold for $360. A copy in 9.2 sold for $620. A 9.8 edition has an asking price of almost $6000.
And so, the following year, Diamond had like ten exclusive San Diego comic books to sell to retailers, from top publishers. My boss’s whole idea. I believe these were just variant covers with content you could get anywhere. But, by then, variants were already a big deal in the industry. These were from the biggest publishers, with print runs over 5,000 (that’s what I remember). No, I don’t remember what they all were. I might have notes on them somewhere in this house or maybe I threw it all away a long time ago.
Anyway, the following year, publishers and manufacturers began making their own convention exclusives that had to be bought from their booth, thus cutting the traditional chain of retailers and distributors. I remember a few years later a retailer complained at one of our breakfasts for retailers that the only two companies at the show that didn’t sell directly to their customers were Diamond and DC Comics.
So I’m not saying that Stuart Levy created the exclusive comic book convention. There may be something that predates this that I’m not aware of. But what he did was show a lot of people there was money to be made doing it. And that forever changed what was happening with the comic convention floor. For better or worse, I don’t think Stuart gets enough credit. Maybe because people just don’t know. But, now you do.
Joseph Michael Linsner replied “My company Cry For Dawn started doing variant covers in 1991, which were only available at conventions. We didn’t start it, but a lot of guys were doing it before all of that.”
Mark Herr added “I’m not saying he made it up. Just, that’s when the big publishers (and Bill) noticed it. I know you always had to do guerrilla marketing. And because it worked, the big guys stole it.” Always the way…