As the U.S. comics market continues to grow, a small invasion of French comics material is helping enlarge the range of genres in the market. The relationship between the French and U.S. comics industries was the subject of a one day pre-BEA symposium organized by the Bureau international de l’edition francaise (BIEF) and held May 26th at the French Embassy.
With speakers from both sides of the pond, the meeting offered a ton of statistics on both markets, with Sophie Castille of Mediatoon and Étienne Bonnin Glénat delivering numbers on France and former DC Comics publisher Paul Levitz and Columbia university’s graphic novel librarian Karen Green giving stats on the American side.
The event is part of a renewed effort by BIEF to attract more attention to French comics in a growing U.S. market that is changing to be more accepting of content beyond the superhero genre that has dominated it for decades. More such efforts are planned. Castille announced that in the fall of 2015, a coalition of 13 comics publishers from eight countries is launching Europecomics.com, an EU-cofunded online venture aimed at the North American market that will provide information and highlight events around European graphic novels.
Comics—or “bande desinée” as they are known in France—make up a much larger portion of the French publishing market than they do the U.S., about 12.5% of all the books published, compared to about 3% in the U.S. According to statistics from Livres Hebdo (the PW of France) 349 French comic publishers put out 5000 graphic novels in 2014, compared to 1500 graphic novels distributed in the U.S. through Diamond. Sales in France were led by the latest volume of the long-running humor comics series Asterix with 1.634 million copies sold.
Graphic novel sales in the French market were estimated to be about 408€ million (or $458 million) compared to sales of about $415 million in U.S. graphic novel sales—part of the $870 million overall industry sales Levitz estimated for 2013, including $365 million in periodical comics and $90 million in digital sales. While the U.S. GN market seems to be even in size, per capita it’s a different story—Francophone comics fans outspend the U.S. $8.66 to $0.36 per person, according to statistics put together by Comixology. 36% of all comics sale are through bookstores. The French publishers emphasized that comics are not a subculture in France, they are part of the culture. “In France every adult and child has read a graphic novel,” Bonnin said, explaining the difference in two countries cultural embrace of the comics medium.
While the visual splendor and wide ranging subject mater of the French market was amply on display, it’s still been a slow road to bringing the material to the U.S., as explored on another panel. Moderated by PW’s Calvin Reid, the panel spotlighted publishers Mark Siegel (First Second), Adam Lerner (Lerner Publishing Group/Graphics Universe) and Terry Nantier (NBM Publishing), retailer Terence Irvins of Books Kinokuniya and Consortium Distribution president Julie Schapner.
Nantier described his 40 year career bringing French-language comics to the U.S.—they now make up 50% of the NBM list, and 20% of the Papercutz list for younger readers. Nantier chooses material based on quality and key marketing opportunities, citing Anne Goetzinger’s Girl in Dior, a popular history of the fashion designer, which attracted media coverage from “Elle and Town and Country, and many places that would never have covered comics before. We want to go beyond a certain set of comics fans,” said Nantier.
At Lerner, French graphic novels make up 25% of their Graphic Universe imprint, Lerner said. “I wouldn’t say I’m a Francophile, but it just so happens that French graphic novels are wonderfully done,” he said, citing autobiographical comics with strong storylines as ones that do well. Lerner has just hired editor Greg Hunter to oversee the line.
“The process is constantly changing,” said First Second’s Mark Siegel of picking books to publish. “The books that do well are the ones that you have to publish. We’ve had surprises but we learn the hard way.” One pleasant surprise is the Sardine series, which has sold 90,000 copies of Sardine in Space.
Consortium distributes a number of smaller publishers, including Nobrow, Uncivilized and Koyama Press. Their biggest success to date was Julie Maroh’s Blue is the Warmest Color which sold 36,000 copies based on the publicity over the controversial and explicit 2014 film based on the book. But here too growth has been recent. “Indie bookstores haven’t always been on board but they’re getting better,” Schapner noted.
Irvins reported that Kinokuniya has recently started branching out from its manga base to more European and America comics, and a recent event with Goeztinger was a big success. But having an educated staff is key to selling books. “Being a fan and being aware help sell material,” he said.
Even in a numbers-heavy presentation, there were some key statistics. The digital market for comics is lagging far behind in France, with about 1% of the market—about where it was five years ago in the U.S.—partly due to the subsidization of bookstores by imposing price minimums, but also due to older backlist material not having any digital rights available. Comixology and Idzeo are two companies working the change this.
Publishers were asked the minimum sales for success. NBM is break even with about 1,000 copies; for Lerner it’s about 3,000 in library binding and 3,000 in trade paper. At Consortium “1,000 is good, but 5,000 is better,” said Schapner. While there are many factors at First Second, which is part of MacmIllan, “if it’s under 10,000 copies it’s not great,” said Siegel. “But it can be a quarter of a million copies like American Born Chinese.”