SHANGHAI — Few events have been more anticipated by this city’s fashion community than the recent launch of Chinese Vogue. When the magazine’s first issue was released in mid-August — featuring a gold foil logo and gatefold cover of Gemma Ward with five Chinese models — the Mainland was immediately abuzz, and skeptics who had been forecasting the much-hyped title would never appear were finally silenced.
Such intense scrutiny would rattle some, but Angelica Cheung — the second editor on the project since development began three years ago — has been having a good time. “We are not launching rockets here,” she said in her office in Shanghai. “There is pressure, but so what? You have to enjoy it.”
The arrival of Vogue has brought more than just glitzy launch parties and rampant gossip. It has also brought increased the attention to China’s still-fledgling magazine industry. The Mainland magazine boom — this fall, there was a new Chinese edition of Travel + Leisure; Rolling Stone is launching in early 2006, and Elle, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Maxim and Madame Figaro are already here — has been spurred by the increase of foreign luxury brands looking to connect with Chinese consumers.
“The fashion industry has really driven the magazine industry here,” said Su Mang, executive publisher and editor in chief of the Chinese version of Harper’s Bazaar. “As long as companies are still coming to China, the magazine industry will keep growing.”
Like most things in China, the field isn’t without its complications. China’s central government has extensive regulations, including one that prevents foreign publishers from wholly owning magazines published and sold there. Interlopers must partner with local Chinese publishing houses for operations. Vogue, for example, is a joint venture between Condé Nast International and Chinese publishing house China Pictorial. (Like WWD, Vogue China is part of Condé Nast Publications Inc.)
There are also strict censorship policies in China, although most of the consumer lifestyle magazines stick to non-sensitive topics — sex, fashion and relationships are OK; pro-democracy or anti-government articles are not.
But the biggest check on industry growth seems to be the lack of a centralized auditing system.
“Circulation figures are an open secret in China,” said Sirena Siru Liu, the China representative of magazine consulting firm Media Convergence and the former publisher of the Mainland edition of celebrity glossy OK!, which launched in May 2004. “Magazines will say [their circulation is] one number, but everyone knows it’s just a fraction of that.”
Many titles claim circulations of around 300,000, with as much as 90 percent of that coming from newsstand. In reality, industry insiders say most major consumer magazines have actual circulations in the 30,000 to 50,000 range. (Even that, though, is impressive, considering the standard newsstand price is RMB 20, or $2.50 — normal by U.S. standards, but a large amount of pocket cash on the Mainland, where the average annual salary for urban employees is about $1,700, according to government statistics.)
There are pitfalls to such a lax circulation policy.
“If you look at advertising in China, less than 2 percent is spent on magazine publishing, versus over 10 percent in the United States,” said Huang Hung, the chief executive officer of the China Interactive Media Group, publisher of iLook (a local fashion magazine), the Chinese version of Seventeen and Time Out city magazines for Beijing and Shanghai. “The reason why people don’t like advertising in magazines here is that they don’t have audited circulation numbers to help verify the readership. It’s something the industry needs to correct.”
For now, she’s one of the few publishers taking matters into her own hands. The CIMG titles were recently audited by BPA Worldwide, a well-respected industry monitor. “It’s already having a positive effect [on advertising sales],” said Hung, who puts iLook’s circulation at about 50,000 and Seventeen’s at about 100,000.
Soon other magazines may have to follow suit: The government agency General Administration of Press and Publication has announced mandatory auditing could begin as early as January, though most industry experts don’t expect such rules to be imposed for at least two or three years.
Regardless, Chinese magazines are clearly gaining clout with consumers. This summer, 3,000 women flooded two Shanghai department stores with coupons for a free tube of Lancôme Hypnose mascara that had been packaged in the Chinese editions of Elle and Rayli (a Japanese title that’s considered by many to be the leading magazine on the Mainland).
“In China, young women are facing a lot of things already,” said Vogue’s Cheung. “In the office, they have office politics; at home, they have relationship problems; society is changing rapidly, they’re trying to keep up. Vogue is not here to remind people about the harsh reality every day. It’s really for a young girl to sit down and read Vogue and dream a little bit and think, ‘Maybe I can become better.'”
Like most of China’s international titles, the magazine combines content from sister publications abroad (in Vogue’s case, fashion shoots from photographers like David Slijper and Terry Tsiolas) with local elements (a spread on leading Chinese designers). Industry watchers say they hope Vogue’s arrival will help shake things up in a marketplace where most women’s magazines are virtually indistinguishable on the newsstand. “To be different is easy,” said Cheung. “To be different and still sell well, that’s the challenge.”
Already, there are signs of change: Elle, which has been publishing on the Mainland since 1989, recently put out a television ad to help increase its visibility. It’s believed to be the first TV promotion for a magazine in China.
“This has been a market where you have to please advertisers, not readers,” said Liu. “I think Vogue’s launch has the potential to change the industry. Its competitors are now going to be forced to do something to differentiate themselves … They may not be able to compete with Vogue’s budget, but they will start to look at what they can do better.”