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Home > Bart Beaty's Conversational Euro-Comics

Bart Beaty Dissects Gilles Ratier's Market Overview
posted January 22, 2009
 

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By Bart Beaty

It's somewhat challenging to sum up Gilles Ratier's overview of the French comics market. On the one hand, as he illustrates in stunning clarity and amazing detail, French comics publishing continues to expand at a rapid clip. On the other, because the report lacks sales numbers (relying instead on print runs) it's hard to know exactly where everybody stands. As a snapshot of the comics industry as a whole, it is clear that it remains a huge part of the overall landscape of French book publishing. What that means for individual publishers and cartoonists, particularly in a period of economic downturn, is not entirely clear.

One of the ways to think about this report, however, is as the answer to the question: Why I am always so desperately confused about what is going on in French comics? I usually travel in France several times per year, and I visit comics shops there regularly. I'm still always amazed, however, that books that I am keenly interested in, even in series that I read with great avidity, can come and go without me ever noticing.

This is why: In 2008, 4746 French comic books (albums, mangas, graphic novels, books of illustrations by cartoonists, or books about comics) were released. Of those, 3592 were new releases, or approximately 70 new releases per week. There were 410 new releases in November alone. That's a staggering number, and it is impossible to keep up. I can think of very few stores in Paris that would even carry all those new releases, let alone have the space to present them to the public, even for a short period of time.

One would suspect that the most logical result of this kind of super-production of books is that major chains (Virgin, FNAC, E. LeClerc) will focus predominantly, or exclusively, on the best sellers and perennials, leaving literally thousands of books looking for a niche or a micro-niche in comics and other specialist stores.

imagePrint runs for 2008 tend to bear out this suspicion. The biggest star of 2008 was, unsurprisingly Zep, whose 12th Titeuf book had a print run of 1,832,000 copies. This was more than triple the second place book, the 18th Blake et Mortimer book (by Andre Juillard and Yves Sente). In all, 12 series had print runs of at least 200,000 copies (Naruto, the top manga, actually had six volumes totaling 220,000 copies each). All of these, of course, were new volumes in long-running series (Largo Winch v. 16, Le Chat v. 15, Thorgal v. 31, Cedric v. 22), with the sole exception of XIII Mystery (Ralph Meyer and Xavier Dorison), which was the first volume of a spin-off from the long-running and best-selling XIII series by William Vance and Jean Van Hamme.

A little further down the charts a few unusual books pop up. Putain de guerre!, by Jacques Tardi, clocks in with 150,000 copies in print. The fourth volume of Manu Larcenet's Le Combat Ordinaire (translated in English by NBM) has 132,000 copies circulating. Both Joann Sfar (Le Petit prince) and Emile Bravo (Spirou: Le journal d'un ingenu) cracked the 100,000 mark. In total, 95 different books had print runs of at least 50,000 copies.

On the manga side, Naruto dominates, with Death Note (180,000 copies each for volumes 8 through 12) close behind. Fullmetal Alchemist, One Piece, Dragon Ball Z, Fairy Tail, and Samurai Deeper Kyo are the rest of the strong sellers. In all, 1,453 mangas, manhwas, and manhuas were released in France this year, only slightly behind the 1,547 Franco-Belgian comics, and far outstripping the translation of American comics (240).

imageRatier argues that the French comics industry is entering a period of maturity and stability. One sign of that maturity is that 201 books that were at least 20 years old were re-released last year, often in new "complete" formats. From this perspective, the industry has learned the lessons of the music industry and Hollywood during the DVD revolution, about the importance of monetizing back catalogues. The question, as always, will be how long that trend can continue, but it is a tremendous source of revenue in the present.

Another sign of stability is the fact that we are seeing a tremendous concentration of resources at the top of the industry, with the 15 largest publishers controlling 70 percent of the market. Nonetheless, grass roots and alternative publishing is alive and well. 265 different publishers released at least one book last year. Most of these target smaller niches within the comics world, some quite profitably.

But what does it all mean? As I said, it's hard to say. I was hearing complaints from cartoonists about the effects of unrestricted growth in the field several years ago, and it has spiraled ever upward since that time. If we were to make an argument strictly from the point of view of production, then these are clearly the very best of times. If we're making an argument about the ability of publishers to connect with audiences or for cartoonists to make a living practicing their art, then we'd still need more data.

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