Thursday, I attended a session in the “rights balloon” (let’s hope it’s not a “rights bubble”) entitled “Franco-Belgian BD business in the USA Today.” The panel, moderated by noted English comics blogger Paul Gravett, consisted of four American editors, a Canadian, and an Englishman (full disclosure: I’ve worked with three of the four Americans). Editors were asked to summarize the challenges of doing Euro-comics in Anglophone countries. I was familiar with many of the issues from stateside panels, but it was interesting seeing them brought up in a foreign context. To sum up:
- Publicity. Publishers depend on having an author on hand to promote books at fairs, readings, and publicity events. This is especially essential when debuting first-timers, foreign authors, or both. This is also often impossible. Neither authors nor publishers on either end, foreign or American, have the funds for travel. US publishers are leery of taking on foreign talent for lack of ways (money and presence) to promote it. It’s an old excuse, but one that the cultural arms of foreign governments are now trying to help out with, providing travel funding.
- Scouting. How do Anglophone publishers even find out about comics from abroad? While one main answer was “rights agents”—that tireless army in the international trenches—editor Calista Brill of First Second noted that their founding editor was born French and bilingual. Peggy Burns of Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly told a story about Aya de Yopougon, the series by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie. In 2006, the day after she’d heard it’d won at Angoulême, she went down to the store, bought it, and hand-delivered it to head editor Chris Oliveros’s house. Alex Bowler of Jonathan Cape, based in London, pointed out that until now their foreign list—and North American cartoonists, quite popular in Britain, counted as foreigners—was acquired from other publishers, notably Drawn & Quarterly and Pantheon, but that he hoped to start doing some looking on his own, since he was sure there was a wealth of untouched stuff out there.
- Series. Are they worth doing? So much of Belgian-Francophone production consists of series. Yet each installment can take a long time, often on an irregular schedule. US publishers have said they risk losing audiences, with their short attention spans—especially publishers who work in the traditional “floppy” monthly issue comics format. Irregularity disgruntles fans. Carol Burrell of Lerner Graphic Universe had some good news. As a partly educational publisher, Lerner has also targeted libraries with their graphic imprint, and libraries are faithful to series. To them, series are investments for which they’re willing to wait.
- Format issues. Traditionally, Franco-Belgian comics, or BD, are in approximately 10 x 14 hardcovers of forty-eight to fifty-six pages. This was a format that Franco-Belgian indie comics have tried their best to break with. Resizing and cover changes can lead to readability issues and conflicts with authors. American publishers often wind up shrinking the book size, and sometimes releasing a single book over several issues or volumes. That’s what Mark Smylie of Archaia successfully does with the ongoing series Okko and The Killer. However, single “floppy” issue sales have fallen off, with fans preferring to wait for the collected “graphic novel” versions of series they like. Peggy Burns talked about the decision process behind putting out Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s memoir Drifting Life as a single eight-hundred-page doorstop. “It was done for visual effect,” she concluded, “but also because as a small press it’s harder to keep two volumes in print than a single one.” Alex Fowler recounted Cape’s success experimenting with different formats for Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, initially published in four softcover parts by L’Association and two hardcovers by Pantheon. Cape’s final version was a trade paperback single-volume edition that proved to be last year’s best seller at Foyle’s, London’s largest independent bookstore.
The panel was notable for the variety of comics output represented. Drawn & Quarterly and First Second were both indie in the “alternative comics” sense—but First Second had Macmillan backing, and like Lerner, also courted the youth market. Archaia and Image were also indie publishers, but while Image had a fair number of traditionally “mainstream American” superhero comics, Archaia fell somewhere between the alternative and mainstream markets, focusing on artfully produced genre fare with innovative storytelling—anything, said Smylie, but superheroes. Bowler pointed out that until quite recently, comics were treated as a genre, not a form—as if someone who liked comics would like all kinds of comics. Whereas in reality, comics were a form that could accommodate the telling of any kind of story—and this was what publishers needed to try and change in the public consciousness.