In France, the manga bubble never burst—although it may be starting to deflate a bit. Last year, French publishers released more new volumes of manga than of Franco-Belgian comics, and while manga sales have dropped considerably in the U.S., they have stayed positive or stable in France until last year, when they dipped for the first time.
While numbers for all of 2013 aren't in yet, a report released by ACBD, the French comics critics and journalists association, states that manga sales dropped 7.2% in value and 8.3% in units sold in the first six months of 2013 compared to the previous year.
The vast majority of the Asian comics licensed in France are Japanese manga; of 1,555 released in 2013, 1,456 were manga, 79 were manhwa, nine were manhua, and one was from Taiwan. Asian comics, including manga (Japan), manhwa (from Korea), and manhua (from China) made up about 40% of new releases in France in 2013, according to the ACBD report. The market is dominated by a handful of blockbusters, with the top ten selling manga accounting for half of all manga sales. Nonetheless, the manga market is broad as well as deep, with 41 different publishers releasing manga last year (compared to fewer than a dozen in North America).
In an interview during the International Comics Festival in Angouleme, France last week, Walter De Marchi, editor-in-chief of Panini Publishing, estimated that in the market as a whole (not just Panini), sales of shoujo manga (aimed at young girls) are down about 15%, shonen sales (for boys) are down 5% to 6%, and seinen (adult) manga sales are up slightly (although this is a much smaller sector of the market). He offered a threefold explanation for the drop in sales: The economic crisis, which affected everyone; changing habits of girls, who are reading less and spending more time on other media; and an excess of titles on the market.
Laurent Duvault, director of international media development for the publishing group Média-Participations, also cited teenagers' interest in other media as a reason for the decline in manga sales. He sees multimedia licensing as the solution: "We have been lucky enough to convince Shueisha [the Japanese publishing house] to give us the full chain of rights for Naruto--the manga, TV rights, merchandising," he said. "For the first time we were able to work on a Japanese property as we do with other books, with TV series, websites, everything around one character."
Another factor that has affected sales in Japan and the U.S. is the lack of new blockbuster properties. "Because we caught up with 30 years of creation of Japan in 10 years, we are facing the same issue [as the Japanese]: We have the same trouble with finding new artists, finding a second wave, and revamping the market," Duvault said.
While North American publishers are striving to publish manga in English as quickly as possible after its Japanese release, often via digital media, the delays are longer in France. De Marchi said that until recently, Japanese publishers would not even give French publishers a contract until the book was released in Japan. "It takes time to do a good adaptation," he said, and as a result, French manga often lag their Japanese counterparts by at least four to five months.
Duvault pointed to this delay as a factor in increasing piracy: "Kids don't want to wait. They just rush for the first source." And, he said, they have been trained to expect their online manga for free.
French audiences were first introduced to manga via anime, which was widely broadcast on French television in the 1980s and 1990s, and while stricter broadcasting standards have reduced the amount of televised anime, it is still an important factor. "This is why you can still find manga in bookshops everywhere [in France], because it is still on TV, even if there is less than before," Duvault said.
New readers are finding manga in different ways as well. "We used to find new readers through French comics," Duvault said. Then there was a shift: "For the first time, new readers came to manga without reading comics. Readers came organically without reading BD [French comics]. So it was a self-sufficient population that grew up by itself."
Margot Negroni, a manga editor at Panini, pointed to seinen manga (titles aimed at young men) such as Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys as series that a new reader might pick up without being a manga fan. Negroni and Duvault also cited the work of Jiro Taniguchi. "Taniguchi was the first Japanese artist to have his own area, not in the manga section but in the French section [of bookstores]," Duvault said. "It was a graphic novel approach, not a manga approach. With the artist's consent, it is flipped." (Flipping is the process of reversing manga artwork so that the manga reads western style, from left to right) With this approach, he said, publishers can sell manga to adults who don't find the teen genres appealing.
Panini will launch fewer new titles this year than in previous years, De Marchi said, explaining, "We didn't want to continue to have an invasion of new titles, so we are going to launch ten new titles next year, mostly shoujo." That will include Tora to Ookami, by Boys Over Flowers creator Yukio Kamio. And one of Panini's most important projects is the kanzenban (deluxe) edition of 20th Century Boys, which will be available beginning in July. Japanese publishers usually release these collector's editions once the serialization of a manga is complete, but in this case, De Marchi said, Urasawa's publisher had no such plans. "We asked to be the first publisher in the world to do it," De Marchi said. "Mr. Urasawa wants to check everything, so we worked on this project for one year to convince him to let us do it."
Despite the dominance of Japanese manga, Duvault still sees a lot of potential in comics from China and Korea. "They all learned from manga and have a new generation of storytellers that are doing original things," he said. "It is amazing. I go to China and I notice improvement every time. They are not copycats of manga any more--they have original artists and original storytelling. They have ingested manga and made something new out of it."