Numerology, 2008 edition (I)

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Reader my friend, reader my love,
For the fourth year in a row, du9 takes the opportunity of the Angoulême Festival to explore the dark realms where economic bubbles, trend curves, profitability points and other growth perspectives roam. Welcome to a new “Numerology” — also know as the art of making numbers talk.

For the bystander wondering about the health of the bande dessinée market, a concert of discordant echoes have risen during the first months of this year. On one hand, some celebrate 2008 as “a tonic year that is unabashed by the global economic crisis”[1] ; on the other hand, some wonder about “the state of bande dessinée : long live the crisis ?”[2] ; while others remain unsure, with the yearly Livres-Hebdo dossier asking “bande dessinée : what salvation outside of the panel ?”[3]
And while Livres-Hebdo hails “the maturity of a market enjoying constant growth over the past fourteen years”, also noting that “for the past twelve years, bande dessinée sales have grown at a systematically higher rate than the overall book market”, the interviewed publishers are circumspect at best : Guy Delcourt speaks of a market which “reached a plateau two years ago”, Casterman CEO Louis Delas mentions “strong turbulences”, and Philippe Osterman (Dargaud’s editorial director) emphasized a “total overproduction”.
In the light of those contrasted comments, it becomes all the more interesting to ponder the subject and try, using the available data, to assess how the bande dessinée market really fares.

A halfhearted market

Based on the available figures, Livres-Hebdo claims that “so far, everything is (nearly) alright” and hails a bande dessinée market that remains on a growth dynamic : “according to the Livres-Hebdo/I+C panel data, comic book retail sales have increased by over 3 % in current euros”. Compared to a rather sluggish book market (+1 % in current euros), this is a remarkable performance. Overall revenue would thus grow from 319.2 million euros for 2007 to 328.8 million euros in 2008.
But the article remains strangely silent on the less glorious aspect of this year 2008 — that is the decrease of sales in volume : with 33.6 million books sold in 2008, the bande dessinée market registers a 1.5 % decline. This represents a loss of half a million books from 2007, with its 34.1 million books sold.

Indeed, it seems that the solid health of bande dessinée over those past years is essentially linked to the increase of retail prices. While the average retail price of the segment was about 7.60€ over the 2001-2005 period, it saw a sudden increase after 2006, passing the 9.00€ mark — with the average retail price in 2008 now at 9.80€. At constant prices, the 31 % progression over 2005-2008 turns to a meager +1.8 %.
This impressive increase (+29 % in three years) affects the manga segment (+28 % with an average retail price of 6.90€ in 2008), but more particularly the remainder of the production (+38 % with an average retail price of 11.50€). This can well be the consequence of the increased number of released titles that stray afar from the traditional “album” format, with higher prices : omnibus versions, but also the various graphic novel collections launched by the major publishers (Ecritures, Futuropolis, Shampooing, etc.) which benefit from a wide distribution.

The decline of the reliable brands

The sustained progression of the bande dessinée market, with its high and lows, should not hide the deep transformations that can be observed in its sales repartition.
Over the past years, the importance of the best-selling titles has progressively diminished. In 2001, the top 50 titles listed in the annual charts published by Livres-Hebdo/I+C controlled 28 % of the total market sales. Since 2006, this share is down to 13 %, representing a progressive scattering of purchases across a larger number of references. Yet, this decline of the top 50 should not be blame on the sole expansion of the market — it also shows a solid erosion of the performance of best-selling titles, particularly evident since 2006. A telling fact : 2007 was the first year since 2000 where no book was over the 300,000 sales mark for the year.

1. The decrease of the top 50

Cumulated sales of the yearly “top 5” have decreased from an average of 2.1 million books sold over the 2000-2005 period[4] down to 1.2 million books sold yearly since 2006 — or a 45 % drop. In comparison, the cumulated sales of the titles ranked between #31 to #50 remained stable around a million books sold, with modest 3 % erosion.
We are witnessing here a contraction of the top 50, with a serious decrease of the spread between the #1 and the #50 ranks. This situation is getting closer to that of the book market in general, even if this spread remains significantly more important : x11 versus x4, respectively.

||Yearly sales average per tier||
| |2000-2005|2006-2008|Evol. %|
|Cumulated top 5|2.13m|1.17m|-45 %|
|Cumulated #6-15|1.64m|1.10m|-33 %|
|Cumulated #16-30|1.35m|1.08m|-20 %|
|Cumulated #31-50|1.07m|1.04m|-3 %|
|Cumulated top 50|6.19m|4.40m|-29 %|
One should also note the limited renewal of the series featured in this yearly top 50. Over the 2000-2008 period, only about a hundred (104) of series appeared among the best-sellers — a “generous” number, considering it differentiate a certain number of spin-offs, whether Blueberry/La jeunesse de Blueberry/Marshal Blueberry or Lanfeust de Troy/Trolls de Troy/Conquérants de Troy/Lanfeust des Etoiles. This concentration is even more significant at the top, as since 2000, only 14 series appeared in the “top 5”, with four making a single apparition.

2. Struggling Franco-Belgian series
As bande dessinée top sales rely on well-established series, it is important to consider the evolution of their performance over the years. Indeed, the release of the twelfth album of Titeuf last August was saluted as a major event. With an announced print run at 1,832,000 copies, there was no doubt this was one of the key releases of the year.
Yet, the conclusions that one comes to when considering actual sales is far less conclusive. True, with nearly half-a-million books sold in the French market, Le sens de la vie is by far the best-selling bande dessinée, and the second best sale when considering all types of books combined. But this performance needs to be put in perspective with the previous years.

Titeuf albums are published with clockwork regularity, every other year in late August.[5] In 2002, La loi du préau had generated sales of 892,600 books. In 2008 over a similar period, Le sens de la vie had reached 495,400 books sold — or a 44 % drop for a new release performance. Yet, the initial print run went up from 1.4 million copies for La loi du préau to 1.8 million for Le sens de la vie, or a 31 % increase.
More generally, sales of the whole series are facing a strong erosion, from 1.4 million books in 2001 to less than a million in 2008 — or a 30 % drop. Or even -67 % when compared to the exceptional 2002 year with its 3.3 million books sold in the series… The attached graph displays the evolution of sales since 2001, and show how the “editorial phenomenon” that Titeuf represented came to a halt starting 2004. Strange coincidence, this was also the year that Zep received the Grand Prix at the Angoulême Festival.

|Titeuf overall[6] |1.6m|3.3m|1.6m|1.7m|0.8m|1.1m|0.7m|1.1m|
|New release||893k||835k||571k||495k|
|Print run||1.4m||2.0m||1.8m||1.8m|
This trend is apparent on many “established” Franco-Belgian series. Sales of new releases show a strong erosion, which results in a generally moderate adjustment of initial print runs.
I agree these observations only cover the sales of new releases during the first year of availability, and do not cover sales of the back catalog. Yet, most actors of the industry do recognize that the market has seen an increase of the rotation of titles at retail — in other words, a book shelf-life becomes shorter and shorter, and back catalog sales diminish.

||Franco-Belgian series performance evolution||
|Series|Period|Sales (in 000s)|Print run (in 000s)|
|Astérix|’01 -> ’05|2 288 -> 1 305 (-43 %)|3 000 -> 3 178 (+6 %)|
|Blake et Mortimer|’01 -> ’08|459 -> 267 (-42 %)|500 -> 600 (+20 %)|
|Boule et Bill|’01 -> ’07|345 -> 120 (-65 %)|500 -> 350 (-30 %)|
|Cédric|’02 -> ’08|144 -> 64 (-55 %)|304 -> 273 (-10 %)|
|Lanfeust des étoiles|’01 -> ’08|193 -> 127 (-34 %)|360 -> 300 (-17 %)|
|Largo Winch (Spring)|’02 -> ’07|363 -> 218 (-40 %)|556 -> 455 (-18 %)|
|Largo Winch (November)|’05 -> ’08|225 -> 204 (-9 %)|500 -> 490 (-2 %)|
|Le chat|’01 -> ’08|247 -> 123 (-50 %)|320 -> 320 (0 %)|
|Le petit Spirou|’01 -> ’07|375 -> 125 (-67 %)|600 -> 415 (-31 %)|
|Les profs|’02 -> ’08|76 -> 66 (-13 %)|100 -> 200 (+100 %)|
|Les Tuniques Bleues|’02 -> ’08|126 -> 62 (-51 %)|205 -> 167 (-19 %)|
|Lucky Luke*|’04 -> ’08|412 -> 137 (-67 %)|650 -> 535 (-18 %)|
|Spirou et Fantasio**|’04 -> ’08|87 -> 45 (-48 %)|250 -> 121 (-52 %)|
|Thorgal|’01 -> ’08|163 -> 93 (-43 %)|300 -> 300 (0 %)|
|Titeuf|’02 -> ’08|893 -> 495 (-44 %)|1 400 -> 1 832 (+31 %)|
|Trolls de Troy|’02 -> ’08|127 -> 92 (-28 %)|180 -> 160 (-11 %)|
|XIII***|’00 -> ’07|476 -> 286 (-40 %)|500 -> 550 (+10 %)|
Notes :
* The performance of the Lucky Luke release in 2008 has to be put in perspective — since the book only had four weeks of sales, compared to three months for the 2004 release.
** Note that the 50th volume in the Spirou et Fantasio series does not appear in the 2008 Top 50 published by Livres-Hebdo. We have considered the sales of the #50 title to calculate the sales evolution.
*** The conclusion of the XIII series in 2007 had seen two simultaneous releases. The #18 book had sold 286,300 copies by end December, versus 279,900 copies for the #19 book.

Beside the particular case of the last Spirou et Fantasio book, obviously released to “purge” the Morvan-Munuera contract with a minimal print run, it could be surprising to see publishers maintain high print runs, as sales of the new releases show decreases around 40 %.
Still, in a context of increased title rotation, it becomes crucial to maximize title exposition — a “missed” sale today being unlikely to made up in the future. Publishers then prefer to print in large quantities, even too large, to ensure an important presence at retail — some even resorting to “rogue deliveries”, by sending bookstores books they haven’t ordered, in the hope of forcing their hand.
The importance of an initial print run then becomes a commercial asset, and ceases being the “reasonable” expression of an actual sales potential.

Manga and the end of a key driver

As it’s been the case for a few years, the important share held by manga on the bande dessinée market will be noted : 37 % (in volume) and 26 % (in value) in 2008, to compare with the 40 % of new releases observed by Gilles Ratier.
Nevertheless, after the striking progression over 2001-2005, the contribution of manga to the bande dessinée market has stabilized over the past three years around 35 % in volume, and 25 % in value.

||Manga contribution to the bande dessinée market||
| |2001|2002|2003|2004|2005|2006|2007|2008|
|In volume|9.6 %|11.1 %|18.5 %|21.9 %|27.8 %|34.2 %|35.5 %|37.1 %|
|In value|(–)|(–)|(–)|15.3 %|20.0 %|24.4 %|25.0 %|26.0 %|
The role of the major publishers in this installation of manga on the market has to be emphasized. The five main publishing groups (Média Participations, Glénat, Flammarion, Soleil and Delcourt), which control over 70 % of manga sales in France, have strongly invested in the segment since 2006, in the search for the successor of Dragon Ball. While at end 2002, they had only about 30 ongoing series, they released about 30 additional series in 2003 — this number climbing to 60 new series launched each year over 2006-2008. End 2007, those five publishing groups had over 200 ongoing manga series — to complete with the hundred or so series that had reached their (natural or anticipated) conclusion during the course of the year.

||Number of new manga series launched during the year||
|Publishing Group|2003|2004|2005|2006|2007|2008|
|Média Participations|1|5|8|7|13|14|
|Groupe Glénat|8|6|7|15|8|13|
|Groupe Flammarion|3|6|5|7|12|9|
|Delcourt (without Tonkam)|9|9|9|14|10|11|
|Total Major Groups|29|34|39|59|59|61|
1. A very concentrated market
While manga is often presented as the promising segment of the bande dessinée market, reality is somewhat less rosy. The manga segment is first and foremost extremely concentrated, and its success relies on a handful of best-selling series. And indeed, the top 3 properties control close to 30 % of the total sales of the segment, with the top 10 series representing around half the manga sales in France. The sole Naruto still represent one manga sold in six — and sells 11 times more than Negima !, the #10 best-selling manga property in 2008.

Moreover, following a progression in line with the increase of new releases over the 2001-2004 period (the sign that the market had then the capacity to absorb this new offer), 2005 sees the first clear signs of saturation , with sales over the past three years reaching a plateau.
The publishers behind those few successful series are then particularly dependent and weakened : in 2008, Kana (manga publishing arm of the Média-Participations group) relies on the three series Naruto, Death Note and Kyo for 73 % of its sales in volume ; Glénat Manga generates 65 % of their sales with One Piece, Dragon Ball and Bleach ; and the sole Full Metal Alchemist property represents 41 % of Kurokawa sales.

||Sales in million books||
|Publishing group|Total|Manga|Manga Share|
|Média Participations|11.0|3.7|34 %|
|Glénat|5.4|3.0|55 %|
|Delcourt|3.4|1.5|44 %|
|Flammarion|2.6| ?| ?|
|Soleil|2.5| ?| ?|
|Hachette|1.9|1.4|70 %|
|Bamboo|1.0|–|– |
|Panini/Marvel|0.9|0.6|65 %|
|Kurokawa|0.9|0.9|100 %|
|Others|4.1|1.2|29 %|
|Total|33.6|12.5|37 %|
This situation is very directly reflected in the print runs announced by the publishers. If Naruto leads the pack at 220,000 copies per volume, with Death Note right behind at 180,000 copies, those numbers quickly take a dive : 90,000 copies for Full Metal Alchemist, 72,800 for One Piece — all publishers considered, only 14 series enjoy print runs larger than 40,000 copies per volume. For perspective, over 80 Franco-Belgian series in 2008 had initial print runs larger than this figure.
Though Alain Kahn (Pika’s president) ensures that “manga remains one of the few growing segments”, caution seemed to be prevalent in 2008 — indeed, a majority of series saw their initial print runs unchanged, or revised down. Similarly, the launches of new series have been very moderate, whether they enjoyed a pre-existing notoriety ((Dragon Ball Z at 70,300 copies, Saint Seiya at 50,000, Hokuto no Ken at 35,000) or a positive buzz (Fairy Tail at 70,000 copies).

2. The limits of the model
A telling sign in 2008 : Naruto, the emblematic title of the manga success, is losing steam. Indeed, there is a significant slowdown of the sales progression of newly released volumes, at the same time that print runs stabilize.
Moreover, overall sales of the series show a slight decline for the first time, registering a 7 % drop from close to 2 million books in 2007 to 1.86 million in 2008.

||Naruto Performance||
|Release|#|Sales|Evol.|Print Run|
|Jan. 2005|15|61,200|–|110,000|
|Jan. 2006|21|93,300|+52 %|130,000|
|Jan. 2007|27|130,900|+40 %|220,000|
|Feb. 2008|34|133,000|+2 %|220,000|
True, Kana can rely on the strong performance of Death Note, which overall sales show a 55 % progression from 395,000 copies in 2007 to 613,000 in 2008. But it is important to note that this is nearly all the contribution that can be expected from this series. To begin with, the sales of the new releases already present signs of erosion : the #1 volume had sold 78,100 books in 2007, while the #8 only reached 72,200 books over a comparable period in 2008. Moreover, with only 12 volumes in total, the Death Note series has already come to its conclusion, and 2009 should only bring in residual sales.

Two series already show the limits of this publishing model, which relies on dynamics akin to those of periodicals.
Firstly, after many years of solid performance, Dragon Ball declines in 2008 with a 28 % drop of its sales. If the series had been supported by a recurrent repackaging strategy, it seems to have reached a saturation point. And the end of the publication of the “deluxe edition” has probably suffered from the upcoming “perfect edition”, expected for … February 2009.
Secondly, the series Kyo reached its conclusion in April 2008 with the publication of its 38th and last volume. With only two releases in the year instead of the usual six, the series sees its sales down a third from 2007. Nothing surprising in this performance — for reference, the sales of volumes 36 to 39 of Naruto published over the May-December 2008 period represented 24 % of the series total sales for the year.

The health of the segment over 2009 is therefore legitimately questionable, as a number of top-selling series have reached their conclusion (Kyo, Death Note, Fruits Basket) while others, dependent on the Japanese publication, experience a significant slowdown of their releases (Full Metal Alchemist, Nana).
2010 should be even more problematic, as it will be the turn of Naruto, Bleach, One Piece and Negima ! to go from six to four yearly releases — at best. This means that the totality of the Top 10 best-selling manga series would, in just two years, suddenly be coming to a halt. And as most high-profile series have already been exploited, there is little hope of finding new titles capable of sustaining the segment.
One can also wonder if the relative facility of publishing manga hasn’t impaired the capacity of the major publishing groups in renewing their brand lineup targeted at a teen audience, with the result of weakening their offer in the medium run.

Finally, the shadow of the Japanese publishers hangs over this picture, as they have been reinforcing their presence beyond their domestic market : to wit the various maneuvers of the three largest publishers, Shûeisha, Shôgakukan and Kôdansha in 2008 (subsidiary opening and other joint ventures) in the objective of “bringing flexibility in the exploitation of their licenses on the Western markets”. Notwithstanding the experimentations in digital distribution, such as Shûeisha’s Jumpland platform, already available in four languages (Japanese, English, French and German).
Yesterday a source of growth for the industry, the manga segment could well be on the brink of running out.

[Reader my friend, reader my love, this is to be continued].]


  1. Gilles Ratier, in his yearly report for the ACBD (Association des Critiques et journalistes de Bande Dessinée).
  2. L’état de la bande dessinée : vive la crise ?, collective published in January 2009, Impressions Nouvelles.
  3. In issue 761 dated January 23, 2009, p.64-72.
  4. Voluntarily excluding the exceptional 2001 year, which had benefited from the 2.3 million sales of Astérix et la Traviata.
  5. Except for 2006, which was published mid-October.
  6. Overall sales of the series (including the two “specials”, Le guide du zizi sexuel and Petite poésie des saisons) have been calculated based on data included in the yearly Livres-Hebdo Top 50. Starting 2005, a number of titles in the series do not appear in the charts, and the sales shown here have been estimated in the most “optimistic” hypothesis, considering that the “missing” titles generate the same level of sales as the title ranked #50.
Dossier de in January 2009