Picture the scene: your job is in an area that will have experienced growth – and more, and more growth – for almost twenty years. Yet, by now your biggest worry is nothing more than this boom.
This superficially paradoxical case describes the current state of the French comics market that is still Europe’s largest market for comics. If twenty years ago 700 brand-new comics were released, in 2014, that total reached 5,410 (!) and 3,946 were actually newcomers. Naturally, the market has grown over the past two decades: graphic novels, numerous film versions and especially Japanese mangas have presented a new readership with the comic. Yet the growth of sales is anything but proportionate to the plethora of new publications.
This has consequences, which have been noticeable for several years, – for many publishers as well as writers. The bookstores are flooded with new releases whose lifespan is getting shorter and shorter. The average editions have collapsed. Anyone who sold around 12,000 comics beforehand is now happy selling several thousand books. Fewer and fewer writers and illustrators can live from their work and even high earners have had to make concessions: even if the high-flyers like “Asterix”, “Titeuf”, “Blake & Mortimer” and “Lucky Luke” continue to be the major top-selling books, it’s rare for even the most popular editions to sell more than 300,000 copies.
And then there’s the recession. The big publishing groups Delcourt-Soleil, Média Participations and Glénat, which dominate 37 % of the market, can for now resist the recession – nobody wants to be the first to stop this spiral. Overproduction coupled with the recession also mainly confronts medium-sized and small publishers lacking financial reserves with existential problems: enterprising and artistically advanced publishing houses like Rackham from Paris and Atrabile from Geneva have cut back their publications to the basic economic minimum. After the furious start, the publisher L’Apocalypse (Paris) has taken a break for over a year and even L’Association, France’s leading publisher for authors, is reducing its production and recently refocused its programme along more commercial lines. Several years ago this approach would have been unthinkable.
The Big Three seem unconcerned about this – last year Delcourt-Soleil alone published 778 comics, the same as Média Participations (with Dargaud, Dupuis and others), even if they ultimately deprive their own authors. But the collapse of the independent publishing scene, which emerged in the 1990s, could have major consequences – the essential innovations happened and happen here. No L’Association? That means no “Persepolis”.
The unique thing about the comics market is that we’re still talking exclusively about books. With less than 1 % of sales, the e-comic remains a side show (read more about this in my next blog). The comic industry is searching for its commercial success more and more with cross-media solutions. A growing number of comics, even in France, supply scripts for real and animated films and the collaboration between comics and games is reinforced. There is also another outlet for this link: in 2013, for example, in France, the potentially record-breaking 200 literary adaptations were published.
As France is the only European country where the comic is commercially and culturally relevant, and continues to set the pace as well as being the main trendsetter, the situation in this country also influences other European comic markets. The German-language market is a case in point: even if we’re way off the 5,400 new publications mark, here the number not just of comic innovations, but also publishers handling comic books has mushroomed. Now, German comic publishers are also realizing the ominous cocktail of overproduction, competition and recession – even a publisher like Reprodukt is cutting its production and orienting its programme along more commercial lines.
The commercial and cultural upturn in the world of comics seemed so irresistible that everyone always quickly joined in, and nobody thought of consolidation. The comic is faced with major challenges, perhaps even heading for decline – and nobody seems to know the answer to the urgent questions.
The figures are from the annual “Rapport Ratier” survey by Belgian comic journalist, Gilles Ratier. This report is published annually by the Association des critiques et journalistes de bande dessinée (ACBD):
© Christian Gasser
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright