While print publishing's had a tough time in the states and in many parts of the world over the past few years, the magazine industry in China is apparently booming.
China has become a huge market for luxury fashion, with consumers buying more than just clothes and accessories. According to a piece in the New York Times this past weekend, young Chinese women are spending huge chunks of their incomes on Chinese versions of Western fashion glossies such as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Elle, etc. They're obsessed. And Western publishing houses like Hearst are making bank.
Fashion labels are putting even more money into advertising in China than in the states and these glossies practically have more ad pages than they know what to do with. According to the Times, both Cosmopolitan and Elle have to publish twice monthly over there because one would be too thick to print, and Vogue has added four extra issues per year. So, is this it? Is China the solution to print's decline here in the West?
The thing is, these publishers' ability to make money has little to do with their publications' quality or popularity. We spoke with Huang Hung, WWD's China File columnist and Chinese media mogul (she made the Time 100 in 2011), who sums it up thusly: "In my opinion, in a country of 1.4 billion, any magazine with a printrun of less than one million copies cannot be called popular. However, western fashion magazines are very dominant in the sense that there are no local alternatives."
According to Hung, fashion magazines aren't actually that popular in China and there is no third party auditing system, meaning there's no way to know if the distribution numbers reported by publishers are accurate. She speculates, "If you ask me, no one is really distributing more than 150,000 copies in the market, which is nothing. However, the dominant players in the China fashion magazine business have successfully prevented third party auditing, and successfully dominated at least 90% of the fashion advertising market."
So, who is buying fashion glossies in China? What about all those superfans the Times quoted? "Fashion magazines do have a critical role in fashion industry [in China]," Hung said. "It's more of a status symbol. If you visit someone at home, having Vogue on the coffee table is like having a New Yorker magazine in New York."
The Times piece quotes Zena Hao, a "24-year-old publicist, avid follower of fashion trends and proud owner of four Prada handbags," who says print is preferable to digital (despite the overwhelming popularity of Weibo). “Magazines are just like books. People want the real thing, not just a flash on the iPad."
While the Times may have found someone who prefers print to online (there are definitely plenty of American nostalgics who prefer to pour over a glossy editorial with their hands, too), Hung says young people are switching to online more and more. She says only Elle is still popular among young readers and "might be the first glossy to establish popular status in China," but "the young ones are now really switching to the Internet."
Regardless of what the kids are into these days, the publishers of Vogue, Elle and the like probably won't encounter much viable competition anytime soon. What few independent Chinese fashion magazines there are, like one called iLook that Hung publishes (which struggles to survive), depend on distribution income rather than advertising. "We once lobbied for third party audit in China," Hung said. "In a fair market environment, our niche distribution will not seem so distant from the bloated distribution figures of the giants. Advertisers don't pay attention to large distribution, rather they prefer a safe environment for their advertisement." She contends the advertising environment for online publications is "lousy" as well.
Even Vogue had a difficult time entering China when other publishers dominated the market. Allegedly, when Vogue came and took away some of the others' advertising income, Trends Media Group, who publishes Harper's Bazaar and Cosmopolitan, reported Vogue for a "minor regulatory technicality," which forced Vogue to move its whole editorial staff from Shanghai to Beijing. They're not messing around.
China may be huge, but there's not a whole lot of room for new, innovative fashion content to make money. As Hung puts it: "Its a game between publishers and advertisers; readers are irrelevant."