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Sales across the channel

Barely a stone’s through away, and with a population of over 60m, the French market has lots to tempt UK publishers, though the small matter of language and a vibrant domestic publishing sector don’t help. COMAG’s Graeme King gives an overview of the French market and highlights the main opportunities, and pitfalls, for would-be exporters.

By Graeme King

It is no great surprise to see English-speaking territories like the USA, Canada and Australia ranking in the top five export markets for UK publishers. However, it is remarkable to think that, for many UK publishers, France is the number one ranking non-English speaking export market. Remarkable, because the general level of English comprehension in France is not perceived to be as high as it is in Scandinavia, Holland or Germany and it’s a very mature market. There are French language titles covering practically every category, due in no small part to the fact that the world’s largest publisher, Hachette Filipacchi Médias, is French. This means the French can choose a French language equivalent, instead of having to buy an English language title, in their choice subject.

The market

Given that the number of UK ex-patriots is less than 100,000 out of a population of nearly 62 million, it is amazing to think that close to 3.3 million copies of UK magazines were sold in France in 2004.

This is not to suggest that only ex-patriots are buying English magazines, but they are an important group to consider. More important are UK tourists and business travellers. In 2004, France hosted 75 million visitors from around the world of which 19% came from the UK. This is a sizeable group that is relatively easy to target, by supplying outlets in major cities, in tourist areas such as Paris and the Côte d’Azur and outlets at the principal travel points across France. Granted, French people do buy English language magazines in great numbers and publishers will disregard their French readership at their peril, but publishers do need to identify and target the ex-patriot and tourist ‘communities’ as well, as they are hugely important to UK magazine sales.

The economy

With unemployment at around 10% and economic growth at less than 1%, the French economy is in a state of inertia (at best) and magazine sales are in decline. Indeed, January to April 2005 volume sales show that international and French magazine sales declined by 9.2% and 6.5% year-on-year respectively. It is encouraging, in a way, that UK magazine sales fell by only 1% in the same period. However, of the just over one billion magazines (worth €1.85 billion) sold in France in 2004, UK magazine sales represented only 0.33% share of the total!


There are several options open to UK publishers, one being to hire a van and distribute copies to retailers themselves. This is in compliance with the 1947 Bichet Act, which champions freedom of distribution to all publishers and is an exercise that many regional newspapers follow. Realistically, however, UK publishers and distributors have a choice between two main distributors: NMPP (based in Paris, representing 85% of press distribution and distributing around 650 titles from the UK) and MLP (based in Lyon representing approximately 15% of press distribution).

The distribution system is similar to that in the UK. Copies are delivered from the UK by lorry to the French distributor’s central warehouse, where they are broken down and distributed to the 190 wholesalers throughout the country (this figure has decreased from 341 wholesalers in 2000 – the result of a conscious effort to consolidate distribution). The wholesalers then forward copies on to the retailers in their service area.


There are approximately 31,000 retail outlets selling magazines of which only 1,200 regularly take imported press. This figure increases to a maximum of 4,000 in the peak summer months, when campsites and seasonal shops also start to place orders. Most of the retailers are independently owned outside of the main chains such as Relay. The Relay stores are similar to WH Smith in that they mainly handle magazines and have limited space for stationery, books, cards and confectionery. There are approximately 780 Relay stores located across France, mainly at travel points, but also in hospitals, shopping centres and on the high street. The Relay stores are hugely important to the sales of UK titles. The chain handles over 2,500 titles per year including 600 imports and represents over 8.5% of total press sales in France and regularly over 60% of sales for many UK magazines.


France has one of the most mature press markets in the world with over 3,000 titles being distributed to retailers and only a limited amount of shelf space available. Indeed, in February 2005, French publishers established new measures in an attempt to reduce the overcrowding on the newsstand. Under the principle of equality and impartiality (laid out in the Bichet Act) every publisher still has the right for their title to be displayed. However, each French language title is now submitted to new rules, which will limit their supply and may well assist the visibility of imported titles on the newsstand.

Competitive advantage

Because of the strength of competition from domestic titles and other English language imports, UK publishers have to consider pricing, promotions and added value such as covermounts and supplements to enhance their product, just as they do in the UK.

Price. The price of a UK publication can be greatly affected by the ‘Commission Paritaire’ rating that it receives from the government. A magazine is subject to either a 2.1% or a 19.6% VAT rate. If the magazine is published at least four times a year, has less than 60% advertising and offers general information to its readership, rather than a branded message, the magazine is entitled to the lower VAT rating which significantly reduces the Euro price. Certain magazines (adult sector titles, for example) automatically receive the higher VAT rating.

It is important for UK publishers to seek information and advice from their export distributor with regard to pricing their product competitively. It is true that imported titles are considered to be premium product and therefore people expect to pay a higher price than they would for a domestic magazine. However, UK magazines can gain readership from other imported titles by simply funding a lower, more competitive price, giving up some publisher remit to enable the French distributor to lower the local price.

Promotions. Different promotions are available in the main chains and independent stores and can be region specific. Promotions need to be chosen carefully. (Again, consult your export distributor.) Promotions around large events like the Cannes Film Festival, Monaco Grand Prix and Paris fashion shows get booked up very early, so it is best to plan far in advance. Sales during the promotion need to be monitored closely to gauge whether the exercise is cost effective.

Added value. Publishers are advised to include supplements and covermounts on export copies as well as on UK copies to make their magazine more attractive to the reader. French consumers are price-conscious rather than being brand-loyal.

Local language. Publishers may also consider translating their titles into French so that they can reach a much larger readership. There is a large element of risk (but also great reward!) involved here and publishers should consult their export distributor.

Regional and seasonal sales

UK magazine sales are generally strongest in two main regions. Firstly, in Ile-de-France (Paris and the suburbs – including the main airports of Orly and Roissy - Charles de Gaulle) and secondly on the Côte d’Azur (the coast from Marseilles along to Monaco and inland). These two areas can represent up to 90% of sales in France for a magazine on their own and it is vital to have a strong presence here - particularly during the summer when there is a huge influx of tourists to the coastal areas. The summer months are an ideal time for UK publishers to uplift their supplies and take advantage of the increased number of British tourists. Having a presence at the main travel points around France is also important – the Relay stores at Nice airport, Charles de Gaulle airport and in the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Nord are among the best selling outlets for UK press.

Specialist distribution

Specialist outlets outside the main distribution channels are difficult to supply. The main distributors of foreign press distribute through the main network, which includes some specialist outlets but there are a great many other outlets that remain unreachable. If a UK publisher is looking for more niche distribution, they may wish to consider distribution by a specialist distributor, like Import Press, who can distribute to specialist fashion outlets around Paris.

Time sensitivity

Time sensitivity is not a huge issue as most UK titles are on sale across France within a week of on sale date. However, it is interesting to see that since some UK newspapers have started to print in Vitrolles, near Marseilles, on a daily basis, their sales have increased greatly.


Something for publishers to bear in mind is that French distributors have up to five months from on sale date of a monthly issue to claim their returns. Therefore publishers will not receive a decent steer on sales for a particular issue until at least three months after on sale date, by which time two more issues have been distributed and another is being finalised.


Publishers should also be aware of the growing number of subscribers in France. Currently up to 25% of all magazines sold are bought on subscription.


UK publishers should look at France as a potentially strong market for overseas sales. However, the publisher has to be realistic and accept that they are not going to supply (or sell) as many copies in France as they do in English-speaking markets. They should expect efficiencies to be lower than in the UK (anything over 35% efficiency should be considered acceptable). They should price the product competitively and make it as attractive to the consumer as possible. And, finally, publishers should always consult their export distributor for information and advice, be it in France or anywhere else.