Mangas: How alternative publishers are coping with market juggernauts

INVESTIGATION – The success of Japanese comics in France is dizzying, but only a handful of publishers dominate this lucrative sector. Faced with them, the independents must compete in inventiveness to stand out.

With 47 million copies sold in France in 2021, twice as many as in 2020, it is impossible to deny the explosion of manga in France. But not all publishers benefit from this craze in the same way. Indeed, half of the sales of these Japanese comics last year were concentrated on only 17 series.

A handful of publishers share the biggest slice of the pie: the historical Kana (naruto), Panini (Demon Slayer), Glénat (One Piece) and Pika (The attack of the Titans), and those that flourished in the 2000s such as Ki-oon (My Hero Academia, Jujutsu Kaisen), Kurokawa (Spy x Family) and Kazé, now Crunchyroll (Kaiju #8).

In this context, how do the smallest publishers manage to find a place in the sun? Le Lézard noir, Noeve Grafx, Akata, Mangetsu, naBan and Shiba, crowned with several successes in bookstores, unveiled at the Figaro their recipes.

Take care of the book object… and maintain an affordable price

“The first thing on which we wanted to mark our difference is the confection”, explains Bertrand Brillois, editorial manager of Noeve Grafx. Launched in November 2020, this manga label completes the offer of Noeve, a publisher specializing in art and photography books. Embossing, debossing, hot stamping, selective varnish, swelling varnish, lamination with iridescence or rubbery side… Noeve Grafx offers an impressive diversity of techniques which aim to “to make manga a beautiful book”.

The case of Vigil is quite emblematic: full color large format, embossed cover with golden title, five different papers… Moreover, the texture of the dust jacket of Don’t Call It Mystery imitates the hair of his hero and that of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid looks like reptile skin. “We try to improve, in consultation with the rights holder or the author, everything that can be improvedsums up Bertrand Brillois. The hearty collector’s edition of Steam Reverie in Amber is, for example, unprecedented in Japan.

Steam Reverie in Amber collector’s edition. Noeve Grafx

Despite everything, the price of Noeve manga remains reasonable, starting at 7.95 euros, which is the case for its three best-selling titles of 2021, Rent-a-Girlfriend, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid and Stop teasing me Nagatoro (between 30 and 50,000 copies sold). Bertrand Brillois simply explains that he chose a “lower margin” than the competition, while remaining profitable.

Build and retain community

What would a publisher be without its readers? Not much! Very close to his community, Mangetsu understood this well. Launched in March 2021, this label recently joined the Hachette group along with its parent company Bragelonne. In terms of number of monthly releases, financial resources and staff, the functioning of Mangetsu remains for the moment comparable to that of an independent structure.

Every month, at full moon (mangetsu in Japanese), collection director Sullivan Rouaud meets his readers on YouTube to present the latest releases, talk about sales figures and announce a new product to come. “Tsukimi”, a live broadcast on Twitch in the company of a guest, completes the monthly device. The audiences for these videos remain modest (between 1,000 and 11,000 views per video on YouTube) but target the most engaged booksellers and readers.

Excerpt from Mangetsu’s 9th “Tsukimi” show, with Sullivan Rouaud (left) and the artist TiersMonde. YouTube screenshot

Mangetsu is particularly attentive to feedback from its readers. “The first edition of Tomie had small errors with the paper which was too thin. We quickly corrected the situation,” explains its collection director. This manga is close to 40,000 sales today.

Assume a clear and alternative editorial line

To sum up Akata’s editorial line, Bruno Pham mentions three axes: “feminine manga”the “social manga” and the wacky (“I like describing the collection WTF?! like a icy fluid manga»). The first two axes, which often overlap, give Akata a marked identity with many works dealing with social violence and discriminatory issues (rape and harassment in In the grip of silence, deafness in A Sign of Affectiontransidentity in Boys Run The Riot…).

“You have to be able to take it on because it can be very polarizing, says the editorial manager. We get criticized a lot for that because supposedly we change the subject of the works, that we politicize them… We also have homophobic comments on our editorial line with calls for harassment.

Akane Torikai is one of Akata’s leading authors. His last title, Saturn Return, is in the running for the title of Best Asian Comic of the Year awarded by the ACBD. Akata

Akata is undoubtedly the publisher most attached to shôjo, that is to say to manga intended for a female audience, generally written by women. “I will always claim the importance of shoujo, insists Bruno Pham. If we think in terms of international comics, there is no other country than Japan that has given so many places to women as authors. However, the shoujo has the reputation of selling poorly… It is a speech maintained by the media and certain editors, and that tires me. If we couldn’t sell shoujo, we would have shut down a long time ago.”

We want to decipher contemporary Japanese society, to show a real Japan far from postcards

Stéphane Duval (The Black Lizard)

First focused on horror with authors such as Suehiro Maruo, the editorial line of Le Lézard noir took a turn in 2009 with Le Vagabond de Tokyo, “social chronicle and marker of what was to become of the catalog”, explains its director of publication Stéphane Duval. This desire to “to decipher contemporary Japanese society, to show a real Japan far from postcards” can be found in the work of Shinzo Keigo (Weed) and Minetarō Mochizuki (Chiisakobe). Regularly selected in Angoulême, Le Lézard offers a sometimes demanding catalog but also very accessible manga, such as its bestseller The Midnight Canteen (150,000 copies sold since 2017) and children’s books.

“When you’re a small publisher, you shouldn’t try to place yourself at the level of the big ones, that makes no sense. The best way [de s’en sortir] is to find a hard core of readers who will be interested in your titles through your choices, and that these are relevant to the “color” of the catalog”believes Christophe Geldron, editorial manager of naBan, who has notably succeeded in uniting around science fiction titles Destination Terra (12,000 sales) and Millennium Darling, currently well received.

Have flair and control costs

A success in Japan will not necessarily be a success here. It is therefore necessary to have a flair to unearth the rare pearl… and not necessarily to take into account the presuppositions. “Sports and samurai manga are supposed to not work in France”, recalls Sullivan Rouaud. Mangetsu has nevertheless chosen to publish a football manga (Ao Ashi) and several titles rooted in the Edo period including chiruran and Butterfly Beast, “two huge reliefs” because they have become “its two best middle-sellers”.

With respectively 25,000 and 4,000 sales, old boy and Colorless are the two biggest hits of naBan and Shiba. naBan / Shiba

“Being a publisher means being a good manager, putting the cursor at the right level in terms of objectives, says Bruno Pham of Akata. A book sold in 3,000 copies but well controlled can be more profitable than a book sold in 10,000 for which we had double the objective. The editorial manager of Akata is still betting on a minimum print run of 3,500 copies in order to keep it available in the catalog, “even if it takes ten years to run out”.

Some unethical publishers who don’t care about losing money on certain projects

Bruno Pham (Akata)

The explosion in sales in 2020 and 2021 has nevertheless had the effect of increasing the price of licenses that French publishers pay to Japanese rights holders, to the point of complicating the work of independents. Stéphane Duval of the Black Lizard thus recounts having made “an unreasonable offer” to land the last Shinzo Keigo, Hirayasumi. On the other hand, he could not succeed in obtaining the new series of Akiko Higashimura, Gourmet Detective, recovered by Delcourt-Tonkam.

Without pointing the finger at a house in particular, Bruno Pham denounces the practices of “some unethical editors who don’t care about losing money on certain projects” and just want “stifle competition”. An opinion shared by several of his colleagues.