Feeding the Dragon
One of the largest and most successful distributors of U.S. consumer magazines in China isn't Hearst or Conde Nast or Rodale. It's b-to-b publisher IDG. The publisher's technology focus, which first endeared it to the Chinese government nearly 30 years ago (along with the publisher's willingness to play ball) has led to Chinese ventures that generate more than 10 percent of IDG's worldwide and royalty-based partnerships. IDG today distributes titles such as Hearst's Cosmopolitan, Conde Nast's Modern Bride and Rodale's Men's Health.
But what about other, smaller publishers that don't have the relationship or the pedigree? For them, reconciling the nuances of the Chinese market can be difficult.
Business-to-business publishers actually have an advantage over consumer publishers because the Chinese government is less controlling of b-to-b content. However, content violations are still rampant.
Crain Communication's Plastics News entered China in 2005 with a bi-lingual Web site and a weekly e-mail newsletter with 15,000 subscribers. Plastics News took a digital-only approach for two reasons: one, the Chinese government requires foreign publishers to partner with a Chinese publisher on all print ventures (but not digital); and two, distributing a print news publication in a country the size of China would have been both prohibitively expensive and inefficient. "We wanted to try to sidestep or postpone that and get our brand known. We do breaking news and our Web site turned us into a global news service," says Robert Grace, editor and associate publisher.
Crain executives took some initial trips to China and met with publishing consultant Paul Woodward of BSG Asia. They also contacted trade associations and asked the Chinese customers of their Western customers if they'd be willing to share marketing lists. "It was not as successful as we hoped," says Grace. "Some shared, but it didn't prove to be the mother lode we hoped. We ended up buying lists and worked with trade associations."
Plastics News has been pirated and Grace says there's little recourse. "We went to a trade show last year and found an entire English-language glossy magazine that had lots of ads and nothing but our content. Word for word, including photos with captions except the byline and any credit. We figured the Chinese language version would run rampant and act as a kind of viral marketing."
Since the government controls subscriptions, advertising is a primary revenue stream for U.S. publishers, but getting full value is hard. "The difficulty is getting people to understand why you cost more than the Chinese price," says Grace. "We're paying for a staff of 15 editorial people who travel around the world and create content and somebody else is paying for a cut-and-paste editor. It's a cultural thing. They're not bad people, they're good people, they work hard. There are very ethical people in China, they just don't see the problem with borrowing content that's repurposed for the â€˜common good.'"
While the market has potential, don't expect easy ROI. The Chinese market is still hungry for Western ideas but these days is more interested in developing domestic businesses than courting foreign investment. "There is a tremendous upside to publishing in China but one needs a lot of patience and a real dose of reality medicine before going in," says Grace. "There's not a quick buck to be made there. Everyone talks about building relationships and that's true anywhere in the world, but it's very important in China and complicated by language and cultural differences that most of us Westerners don't even have a handle on. Take it slow and steady and continue to be seen and provide value. If you provide value to their equation, then you're going to be accepted."
Magazines in China
An estimated 50+ international magazine titles are active in China with local editions (both b-to-b and consumer)
China has about 9,000 total magazine titles, with 3,200 b-to-b titles (of which roughly two-thirds are scientific, medical or academic)
41 percent of China's b-to-b publishers are universities or research institutes; 27 percent are quasi-government trade associations, 16 percent are government or Chinese Communist Party organizations
11 percent are state-owned enterprises
Only approximately 4 percent are publishing companies.
Source: American Business Media