The status of the European market for comic books and the degree of digitisation of the sector were the main topics of a conference organised on 29 January in the framework of the Angouleme Rights Market, the professional programme of the Angouleme International Comics Festival, by the consortium behind the EUDICOM project. The project, co-funded by the Creative Europe programme of the EU, aims at strengthening the digital dimension of the European comic books market by supporting European publishers to go digital.

The first step of EUDICOM has been to carry out a survey of the European comics market and assess its level of digitisation. According to data form the past few years, as presented by Luc Bourcier (Izneo), comic books represent a worldwide market of some 6 billion EUR, with 4 major territories involved and a growing digital dimension, especially outside of Europe. Japan is the largest comics market in the world: worth 2.6 billion EUR (43% of the global market), its revenues are 55% from digital; South Korea has a market of 662 million EUR (11%), with half of the revenues from digital (back in 2015); in the US, the market is worth 927 million EUR (15%), with a digital share of 8.7%; France comes in fourth with 550 million € of sales (8%), of which 3% digital; the rest of the world completes the picture with 1.342 billion EUR of sales.

As for the European landscape, initial findings from the survey carried out by the EUDICOM project show that the comic book market is only significant in a limited number of territories and that detailed information on comic book sales, especially in digital, is hard to come by. Comics publishing is somewhat of a niche sector, often with relatively weaker links with the rest of the publishing sector (also in association terms, with comic publishers sometimes not being members of publishers’ associations). In most cases, the digital penetration in the sector is very low.

EUDICOM has partners in 4 focus countries (France, Italy, Poland, and Spain) and, through the Federation of European Publishers, another 16 countries were surveyed, with Belgium and Germany also offering some detailed information. Enrico Turrin (Federation of European Publishers) gave an overview of the results of this initial survey, looking at number of titles, number of publishers, turnover, digital catalogues and more.

Among the countries for which precise information is available, the big European markets (France, Germany, Italy, Spain) produce 3-4,000 new comic book titles per year (France on top), the mid-sized ones (Belgium, Poland) some 1-2,000 (Belgium punches above its weight). European-style comics and manga are the most popular genres. There are between 100 and 400 comics publishers in Germany, Italy and France (the latter has the most), fewer than 50 in Spain and Poland and 75 in Belgium (once again, a high number compared to the overall size of the market). In terms of turnover, comics represent 2 to 6% of the publishers’ sales in most territories, with notable exceptions France (15%) and French-speaking Belgium (around 33% of local publishing revenues). Average comic book prices range from 7.50 to 15 EUR, with no clear link with a country’s average income. Digital catalogues comprise between a few to several thousand titles in Italy, Spain, Germany and Belgium, and more than 20,000 in France, whereas very few digital comic books are currently available in Poland.

Data from the rest of the markets covered reveal first of all that very little information is available on comic books production, this likely being in the hundreds of titles per year in those territories with some presence of comics publishers. However, in those countries often there are very few comic books publishers, and sometimes hardly any. Comic books represent a very small share of the total book market, in most cases less 2% (there are exceptions); the comic books market is a niche one, mostly based on imported titles. The level of digitisation is very low.

Looking at the individual countries more in depth, Italy – as data presented by Piero Attanasio (Italian Publisher Association) reveal – has 265 publishers active in comic books, which produced 2,904 new releases in 2019. 28,023 comic books are in commerce, with an average price of 14.07 EUR. Manga and European-style comics are the main genres, representing respectively 37 and 33% of production. The digital share of the business is modest but growing: 603 digital new releases came out in 2020 (about one fifth of the oriented titles), an increase of 63% compared to 2019, with an average price of 9.30 EUR (two thirds of the average price in print). There were 3,776 digital books in commerce (13% of printed titles), plus 38% compared to 2019. Altogether, turnover from comic books in 2020 in trade channels was 43 million EUR (some more than 2.5% of the total), an increase of 42% on 2019, and this does not include sales in specialised comics shops (fumetterie), newsstands and during fairs and events. The last few years have seen a boom of comics books series sold in bundle with newspapers. Italy is also home to a rich calendar of fairs dedicated to comics, with more than 70 events planned for 2021.

The Polish comic book market is quite small, explained Paweł Timofiejuk (Polish Comics Association), with some 10 million EUR of yearly turnover (below 2% of the total). Manga is the main genre, followed by European-style comics (if Polish comics are included in the category). Average price is 9 EUR. 1,144 titles were published in 2019 and 1,032 in 2020. Title production has increased tenfold in the past 20 years, and threefold in the past 10; in recent years, more comics have been published in the country each year than in the entire communist period. More than 40 publishers are active on the market, with Danish group Egmont being the largest. Publishers tend to specialise by comic book categories. The digital market is very young, with some experimentation going on, and also some attempts already abandoned; a few manga publishers are developing their own platforms.

The Spanish market in 2019 – as per data presented by Miguel Jiménez (Federation of Spanish Publisher Associations) – saw the publication of 3,243 print comic books (some 5% of the total) and 289 digital titles. Turnover was 63 million EUR (around 2.5% of the total). Planeta and ECC are the main publishers in terms of titles published, with more than 600 each. Manga and European-style comics are the most popular genres as to production. Kiosks account for the largest share of comics sales in the country, followed by bookstore chains.

With 86 million EUR of turnover in 2019, comics represent one third of the turnover of French-speaking publishers in Belgium, according to data collected by FEP. 28 publishers are active on that market, the main being Dargaud-Lombard, Dupuis and Casterman. Average sales per title in the categories for which data are available were 3,260, and average price was 15.02 EUR. In Flanders, 47 publishers are active; Daedalus, Dupuis and Standaard produce the most tiles. Turnover in 2019 was 11.5 million EUR and some 600 new titles were published, with an average price of 7.48 EUR. A digital catalogue of 4,000 is available. 125 publishers operate in the comic book market in Germany; the largest for title production are Tokyopop, Panini, Egmont Manga and Carlsen. More than 3,000 were published in 2019 and turnover is between 100 and 150 million EUR, with an average price of 12.98 EUR. The digital catalogue comprises more than 6,000 titles.

FEP also presented the little information gathered about a series of other countries: Austria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden, and The Netherlands. In several of these countries the comics market is very small or almost insignificant, with few publishers and in some cases barely any; some countries’ comics market is dominated by publishers form neighbouring territories with a shared or similar language (this is the case of Slovakia with the Czech Republic, Sweden with Denmark and The Netherlands with Flanders). Very little is going on in terms of digital sales.

The impression of a largely untapped digital potential also comes from the preliminary results of a series of interviews with individual publishers also carried out in the framework of the EUDICOM project. Comic books publishers in general enact a digital presence and strategy, but often limited to marketing, whereas many have little, if any, digital products and sales. Most publishers, however, do plan to go digital also with their sales, in any case provided that the conditions are ripe. There is altogether a positive but cautious attitude towards digital; purely digital options are for the time being not seen as viable. Asked about the challenges of going digital, respondents point at readers’ attachment to paper (many approach comic books with a collector’s mindset), digital piracy (it is impossible to compete with free of charge illegal offers for publishers wanting to remunerate authors and conduct a viable business), the need to find a viable business model and the risk of a wrong placement of digital products; the arrival of webtoons and the aggressive strategies of their publishers is also an issue. Most publishers still see digital comics as a potential opportunity; many say they could use a dedicated platform, if it were accessible, fair, effective, and technologically supportive, especially because the majority concurs in highlighting the need for important investments in order to launch a digital business.

Amidst some difficulties in finding data and in comparing different countries, the general picture that emerges is that of a digital market for comics that is very small, but at the same time that presents a huge opportunity for growth, indeed a largely untapped potential that risks being fulfilled by non-European players.

Here is where the EUDICOM project comes into play: the aim of the project is in fact to strengthen the distribution of European digital comics. As illustrated by Thierry Baujard (Izneo). The idea is to develop a capacity building programme for European comics publishers, focusing on technology, market opportunities, business models and marketing in a digital environment, with a view to help and support publishers – especially small ones – in digital experimentation and to share knowledge and best practices across Europe. In the mid-term, the objective is to increase the presence of European comics talents on digital platforms, improve accessibility and distribution of European e-comics, support the growth of the European comics sector, and offer new distribution opportunities to its operators. Ultimately, the goal is to make Europe a leader in digital comics.

The project plan envisages carrying out research and identifying comics publishers to understand the state of the market status and the publishers’ requirements, developing online resources (webinars and a MOOC) to address the main issues faced by comics publishers in going digital, stimulating exchanges of best practices and knowledge online and through high-level events, testing an e-comics platform for local publishers and enacting a programme for dissemination and publishers’ recruitment all over Europe. The opportunity for participation will therefore be open to all European comic publishers.

The project was initiated by Izneo, a French company active in the digital distribution of comics, with content from 250 publishers worldwide in several languages. Despite being the top platform in its field in Europe, Izneo is not a very big player – explained Mr Bourcier, who argued that Europe was lagging behind in the growing digital comics market. He identified a “generation factor” among the main reasons for this: millennials look for entertainment on smartphones first, and they read fewer comics. With a view to make the sector gain new readers, EUDICOM intends to make comic books become part of the digital entertainment arena. Mr Bourcier said he did not believe digital would cannibalise print sales. He added that a geographical factor was also at play, with publishers hesitating in Europe, while in other areas they were convinced and acting upon that conviction, so that European players needed to move too.

This is perfectly exemplified by the webtoons phenomenon, a recent disruptive format from Korea: serialised comics designed to be read digitally on smartphones, they are taking many markets by storm. According to a recent research, time spent on webtoons tends to be longer than time spent reading paper comics, and webtoon series appeal to non-readers, including in countries without an established comics market (they have opened new markets in South East Asia, for example). Webtoons have the potential to generate higher average revenue per paying user than Netflix, YouTube or Spotify. In terms of user engagement indicators (time spent, frequency, retention, etc.), webtoons in Korea have already surpassed music streaming services and are now comparable to video streaming services.

EUDICOM focuses on distribution because platforms are the gateways to readers. Starting from a better understanding of the comic books market, the project will help European publishers go digital (making their content available via digital platforms), trying to identify levers to stimulate the reading of digital comic books (via platforms), supporting the development of digital initiatives (in formats compatible by the platforms), strengthening the circulation of European content in Europe and beyond (via multilingual platforms) and ultimately encouraging the emergence of competitive European platforms to face the US and Asian ones. The project is supported by the European Commission under the Creative Europe programme; the Commission was present at the event and provided an overview of the opportunities available for book publishers in the upcoming Creative Europe programme 2021-2027.

A video recording of the event is available here.