Rolling for Initiative is a weekly column by Scott Thorne, PhD, owner of Castle Perilous Games & Books in Carbondale, Illinois and instructor in marketing at Southeast Missouri State University.  This week, Thorne discusses how comic publishers have classically gone about enticing stores to carry new comics, and the merits and pitfalls of deep discounting and returnability.

I'm going to segue into comic retailing for a bit here since we do sell comics as well as games.  One of the major problems publishers have is getting customers exposed to new comics.  There are two ways generally that publishers have approached this:  deep discounts and returnability.

Deep discounts.  In general, discounts off of MSRP on comics range from about 45% to 55%, depending on the publisher and how much the store buys from the distributor.  To encourage stores to take a risk on a new title or to increase quantities purchased of an issue the publisher wants to push, the publisher will increase the discount on that title to 60% or more.  The publisher might, for example, offer the first issue of a new book at 75% off MSRP to increase purchases.  When Marvel Comics used Diamond Comic Distributors as its distributor, the publisher would offer discount incentives on assorted titles: buy 20 of this issue and get an additional 10% off, buy 40 and get 15% off, and so forth.  After Marvel moved its distribution to Penguin Random House, these incentives went away.

Publishers will offer tying discounts as well:  Exceed the quantity ordered of Batman #162 with the quantity ordered on #165 and get an extra 10% off, tying the discount to the quantity ordered of another title.  Generally, I've found that discounts do not increase additional sales, because, unless I think the book will sell, the extra copies, even discounted, will just clog my shelves.

Returnability.  I'm a bigger fan of using returnability to get stores to try out a new comic: meaning either all copies are returnable, or if a store orders over a certain quality, copies are returnable.  Image Comics used this to great effect to increase purchases of issue #193 of The Walking Dead.  Image Comics didn't tell retailer or the reading public that would be the final issue and had even put out solicits for issues past #193 to keep the end of the series a secret.  However, retailers were told that all copies of that issue purchased would be returnable.  Retailers taking advantage of that offer found they had plenty of extra stock, at little risk to themselves, to satisfy the increased demand caused by the ending of the series.  Returnability allows retailers to mitigate the risk of trying out a new series.  Even better is when the publisher offers returnability on the second and third issues of a new book as that allows stores to judge sales of the series more accurately.

One problem publishers run into with returnability is offering it in conjunction with ratio variants.  If a store buys 50 copies of House of Slaughter, for example, the store may then buy a copy of a limited-edition cover, which it can then generally sell for 10 to 20 times cover price.  Returnability applies to ratio covers, and a store could, if it has the upfront capital, buy 500 copies of House of Slaughter to get 10 ratio covers and then return unsold copies of the main book three months in the future for credit.  The publisher gets the money within a month of the book’s release but then gets hit with huge returns three to four months in the future, which really hurts profitably.  In addition, we see more ratio covers hitting the market, reducing the limited numbers of the cover that should come on the market and devaluing them.

One way to fix this is to decouple ratio covers and returnability, so that books that are bought returnable do not count towards purchase of a ratio cover, while books purchased to quality for a ratio cover do not qualify for returnability.  We would likely see fewer ratio covers offered for sale and more reasonable quantities of returnable books purchased.

Oh, by the way, we have a lot of Magic: The Gathering coming out this fall.  By my count, one major set releasing every month September through December (see "‘Magic: The Gathering’ Release Calendar For 2022/2023").  Sheesh.

Your thoughts? Email

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of