Numerology, 2007 version

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Reader my friend, reader my love,
We are back with what is becoming the yearly installment of an article full of figures and trend considerations — a topic that du9 usually steers clear from, more attracted that we are by narrative arcs, witty lines and poetic perspectives than sales curves and others points of progression. But this is also the opportunity, through this little virtual window, to observe, ponder and question, without losing sight (within this forest of figures) of our fascination for the “ninth”.
So, reader my friend, reader my love, please embark with us in this brand new numerology[1]

Figures !

The same problem of getting actual figures raises its hideous head every year. And indeed, even if there are no less than two different companies (GfK and IPSOS) that deal in France with the comics market in particular, and the publishing industry in general, they happen to be quite overprotective when it comes to releasing figures — unless you’re ready to pay for them. We are therefore limited to consider what we can get without investing — for a reminder, du9 is a purely volunteer-based and independent initiative, relying on spit and polish to produce personal satisfaction.
Last year, this situation had led to some arcane convolutions to get the best out of GfK‘s (short) press release. Thankfully, this year we chose to turn to the data published in Livres-Hebdo in their pre-Angoulême article[2] as well as the Top 50 of the best-selling comic books for the previous year.
Finally, the yearly report by Gilles Ratier (general secretary of the Association des Critiques et journalistes de Bande Dessinée) was reliably released at the end of December. And like any other year, this report collects a huge work of inventory duly counting releases, listing publishers and praising the biggest print runs — and (with figures and percentages to boot) uses the opportunity to deliver some observations and analyzes of very variable interest.

Thus, all the sales figures that will be commented in the course of this article are based on the IPSOS data published in Livres-Hebdo ; likewise, all data related to print runs and number of releases by publisher are taken from Gilles Ratier’s yearly reports.
On our part, we have tried to bring to the table sharp questions, astute calculations and critical insights. And now, reader my friend, reader my love, things are going to get horribly technical…

Vitality ? or “so far so good, so far so good”

According to the Livres-Hebdo article, 2007 is “a good year” continuing a streak of 13 years of continuous progression — even if there are some signs of slowdown, with only a +1.8 % growth compared to 2006. Based on IPSOS figures, the French market in 2007 represents 34.1 million comic books sold, for an overall revenue of €319.2 millions.[3]
Moreover, we are also given two brightly colored pie-charts that display the respective market shares of the main publishing groups, bringing to light the extreme concentration of the market overall (the top five actors controlling 75.6 % of the market) and the manga segment in particular (the top five actors controlling 85.3 % of the segment).
These figures prove particularly interesting, as they allow, indirectly, to question the actual vitality of those major actors over the past years, and gauge the reality of the “mangalization” that Gilles Ratier had announced two years ago. With a little trickery, we can indeed rebuild the great lines of the market breakdown, including the share of manga in the sales of each of the major groups.


||Book sales in millions||
|Publishing group|Total|Manga|Manga Share|
|Média Participations|11.8|3.9|33 %|
|Glénat/Vents d’Ouest|5.4|2.9|53 %|
|Delcourt|3.2|1.4|43 %|
|Flammarion|2.8| ?| ?|
|Soleil|2.6|0.3|10 %|
|Hachette|1.6|1.2|72 %|
|Bamboo|1.0|–|– |
|Panini/Marvel|0.9|0.5|59 %|
|Kurokawa|0.8|0.8|100 %|
|Others|4.0|1.0|24 %|
|Overall|34.1|11.9|35 %|
Of course, with a lower average retail price (6.7€ for a manga volume to compare with 9.4€ for the overall market), the manga segment is somewhat less important in the revenue of the large publishers. But some disparities do come to light, with some publishers appearing very dependent (Glénat and Delcourt, both relying on manga for over 30 % of their turnover) and those that are far less (Soleil with less than 10 %, or Bamboo and its manga label Doki-Doki generating only marginal sales).

Moreover, the past two years have seen the comic book market enter an era of consolidation, in particular on the segment of the Asian production. Thus, Delcourt has grabbed Tonkam, Hachette acquired Pika, and Vents d’Ouest purchased Albin-Michel‘s back-catalogue of L’Echo des Savanes books. And this is never a good sign.
Indeed, consolidation periods are moments when publishers consider that the forthcoming growth of the market is no more sufficient to support their development based internal initiatives (what is called an “organic growth”). And despite the fact that they usually turn out to be more expensive, acquisitions then become the key way to keep on growing in a less favorable context (through “external growth”).

This slowdown trend is by the way confirmed by the comments relayed in Livres-Hebdo, which indicate a manga segment “rather stagnating”. It is important to add that all Japanese “blockbusters” have already been licensed, and that the Japanese market is struggling finding new best-sellers — notwithstanding the fact that the intense publication pace in France is quickly catching up with the original publication, which would then see the chart-toppers go from six or seven yearly volumes down to four in the best cases…
It is not hard to imagine not-so-bright tomorrows as some publishers relying too much on Asian productions suddenly lower their ambitions (as well as their catalog).

Vitality ? or “highs and lows”

This rather cloudy forecast on the manga front does not deter publishers, since according to Livres-Hebdo, no less than 41 publishers should release at least a manga volume over the first half of 2008, or five more than last year over the same period. Yet, if the sales figures of the manga segment can be very attractive (as they are the key driver behind the inclusion of Panini or Kurokawa among the largest publishers), they hide a reality that is far more contrasted, and which we had already brought out last year : in manga, Naruto is in a league of its own.
Indeed, the top 50 best-selling books for 2007 feature no less than 15 volumes of the adventures of the ninja apprentice, cumulating sales of 1.3 millions books. Taking into account the 18 other volumes published so far, a (rough) estimate brings the total Naruto sales close to 2 million books over 2007 — a situation very comparable to last year’s, as 2006 presented the same dynamics : 17 titles in the top 50 for 1.2 million books, and a total sales estimate at 1.5 million books. Which is to say, considering that 11.9 million manga books were sold in 2007, one manga in six sold in France is a volume of Naruto.

Most remarkable is the fact that Naruto carries on recruiting new readers, as the first volume is ranked #23 in the best-selling books for 2007 with over 81,000 books sold. Moreover, the 27th volume (released in January 2007) registers sales around 131,000 books for its whole year, or a progression of +40 % compared to the sales of the 21st volume (released in January 2006) with 93,300 books over 2006.
It comes as no surprise that the title sees an impressive growth of its initial print runs, jumping from 60,000 books in 2004 to 220,000 books in 2007. Still on the manga side, One Piece, Fruits Basket and Nana have all seen their initial print runs more than double (but with far lower numbers), and FullMetal Alchemist registers a nice +60 % progression. Finally note the good performance of Death Note, a series that was launched on its “latest hit in Japan” status, and for which the first volume (released in January 2007) passed the 78,000 books mark.
No wonder then that publishers keep on taking position on the segment, and enter serious rights negotiation bids with the Japanese publishing houses, in the secret hope to stumble upon the next manga big thing.

Regarding the non-Asian production, things aren’t looking so good. Indeed, the only big progressions are due to “marketing concepts” such as Les Profs [The Teachers], Les Rugbymen (surfing on the World Cup), or Les Blagues de Toto. For the others, get ready for strong erosions…
The chart below, for instance, compares the initial print runs for the ten biggest “recurring” series of 2005, with their initial print runs in 2007.[4] The conclusion is definitely clear-cut : over a two-year span, those market drivers seem to have lost 12 % of their potential, with XIII the only series registering a positive evolution … thanks to its two-album finale.


||Compared initial print runs||
|Title|2005|2007|Evol.|
|Le Petit Spirou|600,000|415,000|-31 %|
|Largo Winch|500,000|455,000|-9 %|
|XIII|500,000|550,000|+10 %|
|Cédric|400,000|288,900|-28 %|
|Kid Paddle|400,000|380,000|-5 %|
|Boule & Bill|380,000|350,000|-8 %|
|Le Chat|375,000|320,000|-15 %|
|Lanfeust des étoiles|300,000|300,000|-|
|Spirou et Fantasio|215,000|160,000*|-26 %|
|Les tuniques bleues|200,000|170,000|-15 %|
|Total top 10|4,055,000|3,558,900|-12 %|
Even if this trend brings light to some serious “adjustments”, it is a general one. Some would argue that this was compensated by a larger number of titles benefiting from a strong support by their publisher. Unfortunately, the analysis of initial print runs provided by the five largest publishing groups show that, if we take manga out of the equation, the situation has worsened since 2005.

While the number of titles with an initial print run over 300,000 books remains unchanged, the number of “second tier titles” (with print runs between 100,000 and 200,000 books) have decreased, shifting towards the “third tier titles” with print runs under 75,000 books — most certainly the consequence of a mutation of the market, that takes on a “long trail” dynamic.
And indeed, the positive progression (+10 %) of the largest print runs cumulated between 2005 and 2007 hides a twofold reality : manga books that double their importance (with average print runs progressing by 45 %), while albums lose ground with average print runs registering a -13 % progression…

Diversity ? or “producing more to earn… as much”

Of course, print runs are nothing if they are not followed by corresponding sales. Thus, the Beaux Arts special issue dealing with bande dessinée mentions a 10 % progression of the return rate — which further amplify the decline observed above. Over the past years, the idea of overproduction has been evoked as a necessary evil : true, production is increasing, but the decreasing print runs (and sales) are to blame — a quick justification for the impressive inflation of the number of new releases, that nearly tripled between 200 and 2007.
Considering the charts in the annexes of Gilles Ratier’s report, the trend is blatant for the manga segment, with a constant progression since 2000 (+529 % !), while the five largest publishing groups have seen a more reasonable evolution with +82 % over seven years. And this observation was enough to bring back the ominous threat of the yellow peril… forgetting along the way that an important part of those new titles were released by the same publishing groups.
The situation is somewhat different when we recompose those large groups and integrate their contribution to the manga segment. The five of them (Soleil, Dupuis-Dargaud-Lombard, Delcourt, Glénat and Flammarion-Casterman) represent about 2000 titles a year, of which 1500 new releases — or about half the overall production. And if we take out SeeBD (the small manga imprint having finally gained back its independence from Soleil), the number of titles and new releases published by those groups since 2004 has seen a steady growth — registering a +37 % progression between 2004 and 2007.


||Number of new releases per year||
|Publisher|2004|2005|2006|2007|
|Soleil (without SeeBD)|149|227|305|219|
|Dupuis-Dargaud-Lombard|263|307|302|357|
|Delcourt|275|308|333|404|
|Glénat|209|252|247|242|
|Flammarion-Casterman|130|177|148|183|
|Total|896|1094|1187|1222|
Please also note that the chart above does not include the production of the Futuropolis imprint, which Gilles Ratier aggregates with the Gallimard group.[5] Indeed, this “newcomer” on the market is particularly interesting, since after only three years of existence, its catalog already counts close to 80 books (4 in 2005, 36 in 2006, 39 in 2007) — with a “cruise speed” objectives at 50 books for 2008.
In comparison, there is no notable increase in the number of productions from the “independent” publishers, as the chart below shows.[6]


||Number of new releases per year||
|Editeur|’00|’01|’02|’03|’04|’05|’06|’07|
|L’Association|27|24|25|26|14|23|35|27|
|Les Requins Marteaux|–|19|16|17|14|18|17|8|
|Six Pieds Sous Terre|–|9|14|–|19|26|26|23|
|Cornélius|–|–|15|12|10|10|11|13|
|Total||52*|70|55*|57|77|89|71|
While the large publishing groups have entered a headlong rush, increasing the number of their releases to protect their market shares, the small publishers prefer to spend more time “working their books” and keep a number of releases adapted to the (small) size of their structures.
By the way, this search for a better quality in their approach is most certainly the reason behind the various distributor changes that happened during the past year.

Diversity ? or “hits and misses”

But let’s get back to the best-selling books of 2007. Not surprisingly, established series continue to rule, and the Top 50 chart will only hold two new series and three one-shots.[7]
Worse — among the top 20 best-selling titles, there are no less than 17 titles that belong to series counting 10 volumes or more.[8] And in the place of actual “novelties”, we get a serving of good old reliables : in 2007 as well as in 2006, the average age of the characters and series appearing in the top 50 is at ten years — and jumps up to thirteen years if we take out manga.[9]
In this context, one can wonder how the series targeted at a younger audience faer — and to realize that Boule et Bill and Astérix et ses Amis (major releases of the first half of the year), as well as Le petit Spirou et Kid Paddle (major releases of the Fall) are struggling and barely sell a third of their initial print run — which was already revised downwards.

Among older readers, one could think that things are a little less dire, with top-selling full house by Van Hamme. Sure, but — but it should be noted that Largo Winch, released in March, only manages to sell half its initial print run, a performance barely on par with the last two XIII volumes released in November.
Nothing exceptional though for the finale of the saga with the amnesiac agent : in spite of a double-punch pushing sales over the half-million mark, contrary to Naruto (which has its volumes #1 #7 in the top 50), all this media attention hasn’t helped push the sales of the first volumes in the series — thus failing to recruit new readers.

Behind, the situation is less than stellar : the new Thorgal shows a significant decrease compared to the last (-6 %) in spite of an additional month of sales ; the last Lanfeust des Etoiles was released even later than in 2006 (December 12 versus December 6), but its 26 % sales erosion can be likened to the -6 % registered by the Trolls de Troy released during the summer ; finally, quite a dip for Le Sommeil du Monstre by Enki Bilal, which follows a strong performance of its third volume with sales of Quatre ? down by 46 %.
In fact, one has to look at the lower tiers of the charts to find two titles registering a slight progression against the previous year, to wit Les Naufragés d’Ythaq (+8 % with 52,000 books) and I.N.R.I. (+1 % with 48,600 books).

Also note the remarkable performance of Persepolis, which, with its 93,700 books sold, prove that a movie-adaptation is far more efficient than an award in Angoulême to feature among the best-sellers. Indeed, there’s still work to establish the value of comic books for themselves…

On another subject, note that the “marketing products” that appeared two of three years ago are beginning to show their limits : the fifth volume of the Rugbymen, despite a release alongside the World Cup, performs modestly selling only 41 % of its initial print run — most likely suffering from being lost in the surrounding media noise ; moreover, the Blondes series is seeing a steep slowdown with … its sixth book over three years (with a -18 % evolution compared with the fourth volume, released about a year earlier). Thanks to the current news though, the two “political” titles from Vents d’Ouest (La face karchée de Sarkozy and Sarko 1er) see satisfying seles, but raise the question of a possible cannibalization on the long run.
To finish with, this top 50 also presents some major absences — namely Kaamelott volume 2 (with a 160,000 books print run), the latest Adèle Blanc-Sec (140,000 books), or even the third volume of Magasin Général (with 110,000 books), in spite of Fall releases and prestigious antecedents — the previous volumes featuring well among the best-sellers for 2006 (with respectively 89,900 – 66,700 – 53,100 books sold).

This multitude of trends converges towards a rather simple conclusion : manga aside, the comic book industry does not manage any more to create new leading series, and struggles maintaining the existing ones. Would it be the end of the “bande dessinée populaire” ?

Conclusion, as even the best things have an end

Obviously, we would love (within reason) being able to lay our hands on more exhaustive sales figures that would allow us to dive in and study in detail the reality of the situation, and assess the varied successes of the different initiatives and collections.[10] But unfortunately, we have to content ourselves with what we have, and we will refrain from over-analyzing those 2007 figures. But here are the key observations we can draw from them.

The manga segment continues playing a major role in the vitality of the French comic book market. Most publishers have taken position on the segment, in the hope of benefiting from the strong performances of its few best-sellers. Yet, considering the medium-term perspectives that indicate a slowdown of the release pace as well as the difficulty to find new titles in order to compensate, it is likely that some publishers will find themselves dangerously weakened by becoming too dependent on Asian productions.
Outside of manga, there is an overall erosion of almost all the major traditional Franco-Belgian series, with obvious issues in establishing new “brands”. It is therefore not surprising to see publishers turn to “marketing products” built around a simple concept or linked to a license and/or some actuality, but those show their limits and have trouble withstanding an intensive exploitation. The attention given to author-driven collection to try and capitalize on the audience of small press publishers is another attempt to find new sources of growth in an unfavorable context.
While the larger publishers increase the number of releases to compensate for the erosion of their sales, small press publishers tend to moderate their publication schedule, preferring to devote more attention to the launch of their titles.

Regarding the larger publishers, we have to put emphasis on the fact that, once again, those limited tops cannot reflect the totality of their activity — the good or not-so-good ideas, the projects and the experiments.
Whether it is with laboratory-collections, anthologies that bring back some classics (Spirou et Fantasio or Tif et Tondu), or the more-or-less interesting attempts at hybridization (from Shogun to Dofus including the forgettable “Lanfeust manga”), they wonder, they explore, they try to seduce this “long trail” and win over/back this new audience.
In a context of eroding established values and in the perspective of a manga wave reaching the end of its stellar growth, the Chinese saying/curse sure comes to mind : “May you live in interesting times”. And hoping that the years to come will be rich in new discoveries.

And once again, this yearly roundup is the time to witness how the business models of the larger publishing groups and the small press publishers are different — while they apparently deal with the same thing (comic books), but exist within spaces, problematics and stakes that are rarely the same…

Notes

  1. The art of letting the numbers speak, of course.
  2. “Bande dessinée : La guerre des étals”, p.76 to 84, Livres-Hebdo #717 dated January 18, 2008.
  3. Please note that the figures produced by GfK in 2006 reported a slightly larger market (around 40 millions books for 2006), and this discrepancy led to a few heated arguments at the beginning of last year. In order to remain coherent in the following analysis, we will stick to the ISPSOS figures, and consider that they cover the same perimeter from one year to another.
  4. This list voluntarily ignores two titles, to wit the last Astérix and the Titeuf special. Please also note that the last Spirou et Fantasio was released in 2006.
  5. The Futuropolis imprint is a joint-venture between Soleil and Gallimard.
  6. Those figures are based on the number of releases in Gilles Ratier’s yearly reports. Figures relative to FRMK or Ego comme X are not listed, which explains why they are not included — but there is little doubt that the same behavior will be found for those other “historical indy publishers”.
    Moreover, the other Small Press publishers all present this incline for moderation, whether Vertige Graphic, Le Cycliste, La Boîte à Bulles, Atrabile, Warum, çà et là, etc.
  7. Antarès and Death Note for the series, Persepolis and the two books on Nicolas Sarkozy by Vents d’Ouest for the one-shots.
  8. 18 if we consider the seven volumes of Lanfeust des Etoiles as belonging to the overall Lanfeust series.
  9. Considering the initial year of release for the first volume in the series featured in the top 50 best-selling titles : 1997 for 2007 (1993 without manga), 1996 for 2006 (1993 without manga).
  10. Once again, any generous donation willing to help further this study with a more complete vision will be gladly welcomed. Please contact the author of this text, full discretion guaranteed.
Dossier de en janvier 2008