Yesterday saw the announcement that Nordic media conglomerate Egmont has acquired its rival, Bonnier Books. Since then, the Danish media have written a great deal about tendencies in Scandinavian book culture (where the presence of bookstore chains is steadily growing, causing predictions that they will eventually end up dictating publishing), in which both Egmont and Bonnier are major players. Here at the Metabunker, the development as it pertains to Danish comics culture especially is cause for concern. Egmont’s acquisition may have huge consequences, at least for the Danish market. Both companies have their own comics divisions: Egmont has Serieforlaget and Bonnier has Carlsen. And though both publishers are very commercially driven, they are extremely different in terms of attitude, philosophy and market strategy.
So, here’s the Metabunker’s four-point worst case scenario for Danish comics culture, and at the end of this piece, a constructive what-to-do:
1. Carlsen, owned by Bonnier Books, has been the best and biggest publisher of comics in Denmark for ages. Although you certainly can’t please everyone, few critics, readers and fans would deny that Carlsen is numero uno when it comes to publishing all kinds of comics. Among Carlsen’s merits is the succesful introduction of manga to a broad public in Denmark, the popular breakthrough of the so-called graphic novel, as well as the republication of such classics as Prince Valiant (the Danish edition of which forms the template for the American one) and Tintin in handsome editions. Among Carlsen’s trademarks are high production values, dedication to detail and great respect for the author’s works and intentions. Although Carlsen in the nineties were accused of conservatism and lack of innovation, it seems these years that the company has a very good sense of what is happening in international comics culture. Carlsen has sometimes seemed a little slow to catch up with the latest trends, but the company’s well-known patience might explain this: it took quite a while to introduce manga, but the reward was huge: Denmark is said to be the country where Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball has sold the most copies per capita.
2. Serieforlaget, owned by Egmont, is a completely different company; it mainly produces comic books under license (primarily from Disney, DC and Marvel) made for the newsstands. Although many of Serieforlaget’s titles are produced in a rather careless way, Danish Disney and superhero fans don’t seem to care much, but lately the publisher has begun producing “quality publications” such as The Complete Works of Carl Barks, The Complete Blueberry, and Neal Adams’ Batman, as well as graphic novels such as Watchmen,, Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat and Emmanuel Guibert’s The Photographer. The problem is that Serieforlaget doesn’t have the editorial or production know-how and capacity to publish these books in a satisfactory manner. Especially the ambitious Carl Barks-project, which will surely be the template for any future edition in the original language, has been handled completely incompetently and has received strong criticism from many parts of the Danish comics community. However, many of the other prestige projects are also poorly handled, which is not particularly surprising, since Serieforlaget has always primarily been concerned with quantity. This philosophy explains the company’s lack of innovation; much of its success is due to the fact that Egmont has a very strong hold on magazine distribution to supermarkets, newsstands, etc. With this powerful distribution, by the way, it is astonishing that Serieforlaget hasn’t been able to succeed as a manga publisher. Really strange, in fact.
3. Worst case scenario: The analysis isn’t hard: If Serieforlaget takes over Carlsen it will be a very, very, very sad day for Danish comics culture. As in other Western countries, comics are currently enjoying exciting developments, developments to which no-one at Serieforlaget seems interested in paying attention. In Serieforlaget’s hands, a lot of Carlsen’s both commercially and – dare we say? – artistically satisfying projects would be completely lost, with the ultimate loser being the culture and its readers.
4. What to do? An important question, but fortunately easy to answer: if we at the Metabunker were CEO Erik Barfoed, we would do the following:
– Let Serieforlaget continue publishing comic books for the newsstands, because that’s what Serieforlaget does best.
- Let Carlsen take over Serieforlaget‘s graphic novels and prestige projects, because Carlsen is way better equipped to do this.
- Regarding manga, it would be natural to assume that Serieforlaget would take over Carlsen’s manga titles, due to their newsstand distribution. BUT: since no one at Egmont seems to care about manga, since Carlsen’s manga titles are better and more carefully produced, and since Carlsen alone is responsible for manga as a Danish publishing phenomenon and thus has much greater expertise, Carlsen should obviously handle both their own and Serieforlaget’s manga titles. Distribution could then be handled by Egmont.
Much is at stake here. Danish comics culture was almost declared dead some ten years ago, only to blossom up in the most surprising way. We at the Metabunker are not prepared to write any obituaries, so would the people in charge please make the right decisions?