From our continental correspondent: Angoulême – the future of BD in the US

Published On February 2, 2011 | By Wim | Comics, Continental Correspondent, Conventions and events

English-speaking public with very particular ideas about what comics should be. Or the Anglophone publishers in Angoulême.

Alex Bowler from Random House had come to Angoulême looking for direct contacts.  As a British publisher, he faces great competition from US firms, who often buy the rights to a book for the whole world and not just the North America territory rights. Todd Martinez (from Image) was looking for properties that would fit into the Image brand.

(Angoulême 2011: Peggy Burns, Todd Martinez, Alex Bowler)

Peggy Burns represents the North-American publisher with probably the most European of taste: Drawn And Quarterly.  At least 25 % of the titles from their catalogue are translated from other languages from all around the world, from Finland to Africa, from Japan to Belgium.

When educational publisher Lerner first started its Graphic Universe imprint, it was fairly much limited to classic superhero comics. Now, editor Carrol Burrell explained, they are starting to move to a more European style, maintaining good connections with publishers like Dupuis and Dargaud.

If there was one lesson Calista Brill from First Second had learned, it’s the simple fact that it is impossible to predict whether a graphic novel will be a success or not.  Still, there are a few factors that can contribute to that success, as she explained with the example of Guibert’s Le Photographe.  That book was very timely and topical when it was published, and the author was available to promote it himself.  In order for the American market to pick them up, books have to deal with subject matter that Americans are familiar with, or that at least has a global feel to it.

(Angoulême 2011:  Mark Smylie Calista Brill Carroll Burrell)

Mark Smylie from Archaia confirms this.  Their most successful foreign books, Le Tueur (The Killer, by Jacomon and Matz) and L’Histoire Secrète (by Pécau, Kordey and others), both dealt with subjects that are quite recognisable for American readers who are familiar with the genre of the thriller and the epic fantasy tale.  The fact that The Killer got optioned by Paramount did not harm in getting some attention either!

One thing all of the people on the panel agreed on, was the fact that the format is a major problem in getting bandes dessinées get picked up.  Most major chains will not sell hardback books, since they are considered to be too expensive.  Also, many typical BD are simply too tall to fit on the shelves of your typical bookseller (actually this is a problem for many booksellers and not just with European BD – understandably shelving is designed for standard paper and hardback novels. When I worked in a high street bookstore I improvised by using spare displays for children’s picture books, which proved very successful – Joe).  For that reason, books quite often are shrunk into a format that resembles the average paperback.  One of Random House’s biggest successes was a collected edition of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which was shrunk to the size of a pocket book.  Drawn and Quarterly is moving away from hardbacks for the same reason.

(that international man of comics mystery, Paul Gravett at Angoulême)

Carroll Burrell explained that there are more elements at stake. Quite often, European comics tend to have very similar covers along a certain series, whereas American publishers are looking for distinctive, in your face scenes on the covers of their books. Secondly, a book should preferably have a self-contained story.  While series are very interesting for the library market, who will buy all issues in order to be able to offer a complete series, sales figures to individual customers tend to fall drastically the longer the series, quite often to as much as 50 % from issue 1 to issue 2.  Also, it’s cheaper and simpler to keep a single volume work in print.

A similar account was given by Mark Smylie.  Initially, Archaia tried to publish BD in a traditional American pamphlet format, splitting each book into two episodes.  These days, they will often go straight to collections: the pamphlet market has completely gone down due to the success of the graphic novel, and when people like a comic, they will often wait for the collection, rather than buy every following pamphlet issue.  Even if that makes the risk that any resulting collection will be even larger.

Generally, all members of the panel agreed on the fact that it’s easy to determine whether they like a foreign book.  It’s much more difficult to determine whether it will sell (a problem for any publisher at any book fair, prose or comics, instinct and experience are all you can go on – Joe) – quite often there are still misconceptions about comics in a typical European format: they’re either thought to be for a typical mature reader (based on Heavy Metal’s tradition) or for children (Astérix, Tintin).  One segment, though, that seems to be booming, is the market for graphic novels for the young adult market.  Since there still are not that many good book-sized comics for kids around, this sector seems to still show considerable possibilities.  Still, one always has to bear in mind that a young adult in Europe and a young adult in the US are not necessarily the same thing!


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