Are French comics finally ready to jump into the digital era?

Article  by  Kevin PICCIAU  •  Published 25.07.2013  •  Updated 25.07.2013
French-speaking digital comics may have managed to get recognition in festivals, they still represent an undefined and wavering market. Strengths and weaknesses of a sector with great potential but in lack of economic models.


Are French-speaking comics stranger to the difficulties that hang on the publishing sector? Some quick analysis have been made in that sense when the 2012 figures came out[+] NoteAurélie Filippetti, French minister of Culture and Communication, was among the « optimists » who have been largely criticized, in particular by professionals.X [1]: whereas the publishing sector as a whole registered a 2,5% decrease of its turnover in the French-speaking part of the European market, comics achieved a 1,2% turnover increase in 2012, for physical sales, ending the year with a € 352 million turnover. Figures might send some positive news, but, compared to the 4,7% increase of print-runs on the same period, the performance is not impressive at all and reveals a serious overproduction problem.
This lack of control over production that overwhelms the paper channel finds some kind of counterpart in the digital field, which is clearly underexploited by French-speaking comics. French creators do use the digital area to promote their work with great enthusiasm, but they massively choose to propose content for free, contributing to a vivid free offer. But when it comes to merchandizing comics online, most of professionals are very reluctant, fearing the lack of clear juridical rules and of a relayable economic model. In this context, few publishers trust in bringing their catalogue into the digital area by their own means. Except Numilog, the great online library (dedicated to books in general and not only to comics), in which Hachette Livre has been very active, the online comics market is essentially build by third-party actors.
French comics' delay concerning the digital transition is even more striking when it is compared to the situation in the United States and in Japan, the two other great countries where illustrated literature is of primary importance, with comics for the first one, and mangas for the other. If US comic publishers did succeed in creating an autonomous and vivid digital market, estimated to a $75 million-value for the year 2012, Japan also jumped into the digital era: in 2009, the turnover for illustrated books already reached $265 million and 83% of books bought via mobile phones were Japanese digital comics. 2010 confirmed the successful transition to digital norms, with mangas on mobile phones representing 15% of all manga sells. Some initiatives did appear in France and the rest of the French-speaking area to give dematerialization its chance, but they all remained too much isolated or too timorous to give the digital market the strong impulsion it needs. Here are the main strengths and weaknesses of a still hesitating sector.

AveComics, a French mini-ComiXology?

According to specialists, among them Gilles Ratier, the ACBD's general secretary[+] NoteThe ACBD is the French Association of comics' critics and journalists. Read the © ACBD annual report 2009 by Gilles Ratier.X [2], it is not until 2009 that the expression « digital comics » gained a real meaning for French production and that traditional publishers started to consider the potential of a market that seemed to be meant to exist. Choosing 2009 as the year 0 for the French digital comics market is not difficult to understand: one of the first great commercial project for online comics, AveComics[+] NoteMore rarely spelled Ave!Comics.X [3] appeared in 2009. Only one other big initiative dedicated to French digital comics had been implemented before: digiBiDi, a start-up and platform created in 2008.
AveComics was created by Aquafadas, a company based in Montpellier and specializing in digital and video editing softwares. It is surely the most audacious contribution – being one the first initiatives and proposing the most advanced technology – to the building of a pay-offer for French-speaking comics. AveComics was not Aquafadas' first step in the field of dematerialized comics: the company already presented an app dedicated to digital comics in 2006, MyComics. From the beginning, AveComics has been thought to invest all possible digital channels, from classic computers to mobile devices. In 2009, the iPhone still wasn't the mass phenomenon it had to become later and mobile devices still hadn't make their entrance on the market: the one solution for AveComics was to propose a software for iPods. From 2010, the app could surf on the iPhone's success and was updated several times. AveComics now covers all WebOS, iOS or Android systems with its own tools; it also relies on external partners to offer its catalogue greater exposure, adopting the ePub or the .AVE formats (the .AVE format being specific of AveComics) to be present on online libraries like the FNAC library[+] NoteIt has to be specified that an .AVE file bought on the FNAC site can't be read with an AveComics app, the FNAC accounts not being connected to the AveComics tools.X [4]. Due to Aquafadas being bought up by Kobo, the Canadian mobile devices' manufacturer, in October 2012, AveComics should soon benefit from another relay, the KoboBooks platform, which international version aims at more or less 10 million users. 

 Presentation of the AveComics app
If AveComics is often mentionned as a great force helping the French-speaking comics' digital market to flourish, it is partly due to its serious exploration of technological possibilities. By proposing sound and video for many titles of its catalogue, AveComics is worth to be compared – for daring innovation – to the « US champions » Marvel and DC Comics. Another advantage of the Aquafadas project is its multi-screen scheme, like the one implemented by Amazon on its Kindle: the user can easily switch from its computer to its smartphone and vice versa, continuing the reading exactly where he stopped.
Being the entity that gathers the greater number of publishers – a little more than 80 –, AveComics could be compared to ComiXology, the giant for comics relay on the US market. Besides partnerships with average-size publishing houses like Soleil and Marsu Production, AveComics convinced great references of the comics area to join its project, among them Glénat, Casterman and Les Humanoïdes Associés[+] NoteAlso known as Les Humanos, it was founded in December 1974 by Mœbius, Jean-Pierre Dionnet, Philippe Druillet and Bernard Farkas.X [5]. Just before the opening of the 2013 Angoulême Festival, Allison Reber, communication manager for AveComics, revealed the platform’s international ambitions and the wish to « propose new formats », confirming the will to be more than ever a model for the diffusion of digital French-speaking comics. If mangas still aren´t integrated in the project, AveComics already promotes some English titles, in particular thanks to its partnership with American publisher Top Cow, owner of successful titles like Teen Wolf, Speed Racer or Wanted.
Thanks to these partnerships, AveComics´catalogue currently gathers more than 2000 titles[+] NoteEstimation for the beginning of 2013.X [6]. If this volume surely means a progress, considering what the platform was at the very beginning (a hundred of titles in 2009), AveComics is still holding backwards compared to another big player, Izneo, which succeeded in developping a larger catalogue with the participation of fewer publishers. 
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Izneo : a challenger aiming at the largest offer

« The greater choice of digital comics »: this is what Izneo, result of an alliance between twelve French and Belgian publishers belonging to the group Media Participations[+] NoteFrench-Belgian group dealing with both book publishing and distribution.X [7]. Izneo appeared one year after the first big initiative AveComics with a legal pay-offer made of approximately 600 albums, in May 2010. Entering Summer 2011, the platform already had made it up to 2300 titles (which is more than what AveComics had achieved entering Summer 2013) and continued getting bigger ever since. Izneo´s big success was to overpass 3000 titles at the beginning of 2013 having no more than 25 partners. The ratio catalogue / number of publishers is clearly more « profitable » in the Izneo case, in comparison to AveComics.
Despite of its great performance, Izneo had to face two important withdrawals at the beginning of 2012. After two years of collaboration, the Delcourt group (including the publishers Delcourt, Soleil and Tonkam) decided to entrust Hachette Livre with the management of its digital titles, Hachette already being responsible for the diffusion of the physical versions. Delcourt argued it was looking for « coherence in the work done in both areas: synchronised release dates, harmonised data bases ». It didn't take long to see Glénat, another prolific comic book publisher, imitate Delcourt, speaking of « intern strategic choices ». In definitive, Glénat and Delcourt have the same argumentation. Glénat also choosed to join Numilog, the online library which Hachette managed during a while before retroceding it, in April 2012, to its founder and CEO, Denis Zwirn. Hachette justified this operation explaining that Numilog had to gain more independence and to be open to all possible publishers. Numilog's first online comics offer was released at the beginning of 2013, right for the 40th Angoulême Festival. With Numilog, users are given one and only option: titles are only to be bought (streaming being excluded) as units (there is no kind of package or subscription at all).
Glénat also opened its catalogue to Apple's iBookstore with the purpose to reinforce the single-unit-buy logic. Izneo does propose to buy comics as single units, but it made global subscriptions its real priority: the « abo BD » option (literally « comic subscription ») offers 15 comic books to read (with a delay of 10 days for each title to be read), at the price of 9,90 euros per month, the user being free to choose any comic in the whole catalogue. Many publishers think this solution is hiding a potential loss of income that shouldn't be underestimated, if compared with what can bring comics proposed unit by unit, no matter if the option is selling or streaming.
At the end, the French-Belgian book specialist didn't seem to suffer so much from the withdrawal of his two big partners, if we consider that its turnover tripled in 2012 compared to 2011, reaching 1 million euros, thanks to 200 000 downloads through its platform and its mobile apps. With Les Humanoïdes Associés joining Izneo, during Spring 2012, and thanks to the trust of others like Dargaud, Dupuis, Le Lombard, Casterman or Futuropolis, the lost of Delcourt and Glénat could be compensated in a certain way and made it possible for Izneo to maintain its reputation.
Amélie Rétorré, Izneo´s head of development, has great expectations for the on-going year and hopes the platform will be able to triple its turnover once again. The challenge doesn't seem impossible, since Izneo is taking advantage on a field where French-speaking comic book publishers still are quite absent: at the beginning of 2013, the platform opened a new section on its site, dedicated to mangas.

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DigiBiDi, the real French pioneer

Why are AveComics and Izneo naturally presented as the two key accelerators for the French-speaking comics market, while digiBiDi – the first to appear on the market, according to the chronology – always remains in the background? The truth is digiBiDi has a different approach, let’s say a double vocation: on the one side, digiBiDi is meant to be a commercial tool like AveComics and Izneo ; on the other side, it aims to be a window for French-speaking creation without monetizing exposure. In this second function, digiBiDi becomes some kind of indirect commercial tool. To be more specific, digiBiDi proposes from the very beginning to read online, for free, the first pages of some books as they exist in their physical edition: this is the « preview ». The idea is to increase sales on physical books.
Considering its 4000-titles-rich catalogue, one could be tempted to declare digiBiDi the allmighty champion in the world of French-speaking comics, due to the amplitude of its offer. But most of the titles appear to be included in the preview logic, which does reduce the catalogue’s impotance a lot for the « real » digital part. At the end, digiBiDi doesn’t win upon its challengers.
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bdBuzz: an app that caught attention

There are other relays for French-speaking comics that could do worry the big players. The free app bdBuzz is one of them. With 3200 titles available, it has nothing to envy Izneo, and even less AveComics. According to the 2012 annual report released by the ACBD[+] Note© ACBD annual report 2009 by Gilles Ratier.X [8], the bdBuzz app has been downloaded, since it was launched, more than a 100 000 times, a performance that makes it a valuable strength on the French-speaking digital comics market. It should be noticed that, despite being a digital tool, bdBuzz is also active in the physical market: it provides users with a secured interface allowing to buy directly on Amazon. The app, which was especially conceived for iPhones and iPads, makes the difference by producing some proper editorial content, i.e. news relating to the large world of comics, should it concern digital or physical releases. This is one strategy to force users to turn to a new way of reading and to tools they still didn't really adopt.
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Les Autres gens: a single pay-per-read experience

Away from classical commercial paths, scriptwiter Thomas Cadène gathered a group of cartoonists in order to give its chance to a different kind of pay-digital comic: the project, conceived as a feuilleton and entitled Les Autres gens, has its own website and proposes its content under subscription, after it has been given free access to the comic during the whole month of March 2010, when the project was launched. Les Autres gens lived till the end of June 2012 with three pay-per-read solutions given to users: 2,79 € for one month, 15 € for 6 months and 29 € one year. The initiative did convince a lot of readers, but the subscriptions' number still wasn't sufficient to make it possible to sustain the project through the only digital solution: in April 2011, Dupuis started to publish Les Autres gens in physical version, each volume corresponding to one month of online publication.

Many other authors decided to promote their digital work in common initiatives, but no project did reproduce the audacious equation implemented by Les Autres gens. 8comix, gathering eight authors, is a brilliant example of an « independent » use of the digital sphere to promote a brilliant creation, but sticking to a free offer.
All these single initiatives help to diversify an offer that remains clearly incomplete despite of counting with a wide range of authors, publishers and other comics specialists. With publishers being represented on several platforms at the same time, the different offers turn to propose the same titles: as a consequence, there should be no more than 6 000 digital comics on the French-speaking market, according to the facts published in the ABCD annual report for 2012[+] NoteBilan annuel 2012 de la BD francophone © Gilles Ratier, secrétaire général de l'ACBD.X [9]. This figure, which doesn't only take into account digital titles published in 2012, but all digital comics available at the end of 2012, no matter when they were released, is quite deceiving, considering that it exceeds physical releases very lightly: 5 565 comics were published in paper version in 2012, according to the same annual report.
By comparing these two figures, two weaknesses come out. On one side, it is very clear that the digital sphere doesn't reproduce all titles appearing on the physical market. The digital market remains nothing but a minor option. On the other side, the relative poor number of digital comics reveals the weakness of digital first projects, which consist in thinking one given content as a digital book in priority (giving way to a physical version not being automatic ; the production of a physical version is secondary and only follows successful results in the digital market). Better use of the digital first solution would surely do good to the digital comics market, which potential is far from being used at his maximum, neither as a parallel market to the physical sphere, nor as a complementary market being fed by independent content.
Results are even less encouraging according to Sébastien Célimon, head of digital development for Glénat, who shared his estimations with French newspaper La Croix: the French-speaking digital comics market would be made of no more than 3 500 titles, just a little more than the half of physical production.
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ComiXology, an American giant about to rule the French market?

The whole range of solutions being implemented makes it very clear: French-speaking comics are still in need of a model in the digital area. At the end of January 2013, Guy Delcourt made an announcement of first importance for the whole sector: the Delcourt publishing house is giving way to a great digital project, in collaboration with US giant ComiXology, which is consequently entering the French market. ComiXology is entrusted with the digital diffusion of a catalogue which includes the best-seller Walking Dead in its French version. The American partner will also bring his expertise to build first-quality digital apps, like the ones it developed in its own territory for DC Comics. The first ComiXology app for Delcourt was launched in March 2013, offering a brand-new tool to a very popular title, Lanfeust de Troy.
The Delcourt-ComiXology couple is aiming to have 1 200 online titles for the end of 2013. On July, the 1st of 2013, 400 titles were already available on the French version of the platform and the « French comics » category of its mobile app. In order to give all its chances to the project, ComiXology opened a local office in Paris and convinced 13 other publishers to join in, among them Glénat, Panini Comics and Soleil. Thanks to its solid reputation, the American giant shouldn't stop its conquer plans in France: being in Paris is a key position to embrace a larger market, the European one.
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Izneo and Numilog join forces to strike back ComiXology

The introduction of a new mainstream element – ComiXology – on the French digital comics market changed the game quicker than one could think: at the beginning of July 2013, Izneo and Numilog decided to react to the US giant's discrete offensive by joining forces in an agreement that connects and unifies their catalogues. The titles Numilog is taking care of – comics published by Glénat, Delcourt, Pika or Vents d'Ouest, for example – will soon be available in the online library BDComics by Izneo, while Izneo itself will allow Numilog to promote its own catalogue (Dargaud, Dupuis, Casterman, Bamboo, for example) to other libraries.

The alliance between Izneo and Numilog makes Delcourt and Glénat go back to their ex-partner Izneo, whose motto « the largest offer » has never been so true, thanks to the integration of Numilog's assets. In fact, the Izneo-Numilog partnership does create the biggest catalogue ever in the field of French-speaking comics. In the coming fight betwenn ComiXology and Izneo-Numilog, Delcourt is meant to be omnipresent, his titles being included in both offers, a strategy that should have a positive effect on its selling performance. Still, no one knows which force will be able to gain the readers' preference: the trust that generates the big ComiXology machine, fed by a strong reputation and successful experiences, or the wish to be true to some kind of « national », and thus more « legitimate » logic, where players of the French-speaking area do manage the contents produced on their very own territory.
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French comics 'Annual report 2009 © Gilles Ratier, ACBD general secretary.
French comics 'Annual report 2012 © Gilles Ratier, ACBD general secretary.
NAECO, Sébastien, État des lieux de la BD numérique : enjeux et perspectives, Éd. Numeriklivres, 2011.
Photo credits: 
- Izeo app for iPad (Visuels presse / Izneo)
- Presentation of the AveComics app: Hadopi / Vimeo
- Manga catalogue / Izneo
- Home page / digiBidi
- Home page Les Autres gens
- Home page / 8comix
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  • 1. Aurélie Filippetti, French minister of Culture and Communication, was among the « optimists » who have been largely criticized, in particular by professionals.
  • 2. The ACBD is the French Association of comics' critics and journalists. Read the © ACBD annual report 2009 by Gilles Ratier.
  • 3. More rarely spelled Ave!Comics.
  • 4. It has to be specified that an .AVE file bought on the FNAC site can't be read with an AveComics app, the FNAC accounts not being connected to the AveComics tools.
  • 5. Also known as Les Humanos, it was founded in December 1974 by Mœbius, Jean-Pierre Dionnet, Philippe Druillet and Bernard Farkas.
  • 6. Estimation for the beginning of 2013.
  • 7. French-Belgian group dealing with both book publishing and distribution.
  • 8. © ACBD annual report 2009 by Gilles Ratier.
  • 9. Bilan annuel 2012 de la BD francophone © Gilles Ratier, secrétaire général de l'ACBD.
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