Tempting isn’t it? A market of almost four billion people just waiting to propel your circulation figures into the stratosphere. Too good to be true? Probably. Christopher Collins, international circulation director of The Economist imparts some of the lessons he has learnt publishing in Asia.
An old, sadly departed, colleague of mine when asked which was the biggest difficulty he faced in selling in Asia, would always hold his hand out, spread his fingers and say ‘the enemy – distance’.
Of course in many ways he was correct. This simple answer encapsulated the fact that Asia is massive. It comprises some 40 countries ranging from China at one end of the scale with 1.3 billion people to East Timor (the most recent Asian country) with 700,000 inhabitants.
In fact Asia cannot really be treated as a single continent. It can be sub divided many times according to various criteria; geographical, ethnic, religious, economic or political (to name a few).
To try to make some sense of the continent in business terms one popular division is to think of Asia as five separate blocks; China, Japan, Australasia, South-East Asia and the sub-continent. Although compartmentalising Asia into these blocks may make it easier to understand and manage it is still an unsatisfactory and incomplete division – but it’s a start.
So for publishers – other than scale, size and distance – what are the other challenges?
Eyes bigger than the belly syndrome
Eyes bulge and lips are licked by many western companies when they look at Asia. A population estimated at 3.85 billion and growing fast surely must mean there will be demand for my product, they say.
But caution is needed. For the publisher it is well to note that it is estimated that only about half of the Asian population is literate. Suddenly then down to 1.92 billion – still a considerable number by any standards. And yet, unless your publication is multi-language, how many of these people use English? Accurate numbers are difficult to ascertain but belief is that only about 1.0 billion use or understand English even at a very basic level.
If we add a filter of fluent English language usage (ie an ability to read newspapers and magazines) the figure plummets leaving a core audience of around 40 million. Still not inconsiderable but widely dispersed and therefore difficult to reach.
An early decision to be made relates to whether you are going to publish in English or in local languages.
Here China poses a big issue. English language usage is definitely growing and growing fast particularly amongst the educated young. But these may not be your audience. Certainly they will be the business people and consumers of the future but your core audience may be the present business people and consumers and they are likely to be older and with less of a propensity to speak English.
Clearly your audience and the type of publication you are selling will partly dictate the language you publish in. Many titles, seduced perhaps by the size of Asia and the fact that English language usage is still limited, have gone down the local language route – particularly in China – but even this decision is not as easy as it appears. Do you print in Cantonese or Mandarin, or both?
You must also consider the translation. Consistency is essential and it is easy to lose meaning and nuance in translation. This may not matter with some products but if yours is technical or a scientific journal, the consequences of poor translation could be serious.
For some publications there is an even bigger consideration; brand. A translated publication will become a different product. If brand values are important you have to ensure that the ‘new’ product reflects the core values of the ‘mother’ product or else confusion could be caused and at worst if one of the products is seen to be inferior this could damage the status of your company.
Then again in some cases this may not be a major consideration but whichever ‘camp’ you are in you need to have a position on this.
Another barrier to selling magazines in Asia – perhaps more so than any other continent, is censorship.
The West – rather loosely – seems to base levels of acceptance upon the tenets of Legal, Honest, Decent and Truthful. In many parts of Asia the levels of sensitivity are far greater than in the West and it is very easy to transgress without realising offence may have been caused.
Censorship can take many forms
* Moral:- clearly images of a sexual nature can cause offence anywhere in the world. But as much of Asia is Muslim they are likely to result in censorship or banning more readily than in the West.
* Political:- as a rule Governments don't like criticism but many tolerate it. In Asia governmental or political criticism is likely to lead to censorship.
* Religious:- there are religious tensions throughout the continent and it is easy for these to flare up. It is safer to be non-confrontational in this area.
Censorship can manifest itself in different ways:
* Complete bannings – these can either be for a single issue or indefinitely.
* Gazetting – these are not uncommon and take the form of limiting production, supply and sale to a set number. For instance a title selling say 1000 copies a week may be limited to say 200. Highly irritating and costly!
* Delays – deliberate delaying of an issue by a week or two can be as devastating as a complete ban particularly for time sensitive publications.
* Removal of offending articles – often associated with criticism of authority.
* Removal of advertising – mainly images of nudity or alcohol in Muslim countries.
* Black ink – the liberal use of black ink covering offending articles or images can, depending upon paper absorbency, ruin a complete issue.
And then there is the ‘under the counter approach’. In this case your publication is available but simply not displayed. If requested it is produced, as if by magic from under the counter but the less inquisitive newsstand purchaser may well leave with a competitive product.
There is also, what could be described as Geographical Censorship. There are parts of Asia which are claimed by more than one state. An ignorance of geographical sensitivities can lead publishers into censorship issues.
A knowledge of political sensitivities can also be of value. A few years ago the undersigned discovered that the hammer and sickle symbol (of the ex-Soviet Union) was banned in Indonesia. The Economist happened to have it on its front cover and was consequently banned from supplying that issue. Damaging enough though not as damaging as the denim manufacturer which also used the same symbol and found its whole consignment of clothes confiscated!
Censorship is a tricky issue and the goalposts continually move. Whilst there is no sure answer – unless one chooses to be so bland to be uninteresting, local knowledge is invaluable.
One of the early decisions a publisher needs to make is whether to export or print locally. Such decisions are usually dictated by cost and timeliness of delivery. A time-sensitive publication needs to print and distribute locally rather than ship from the UK. Most monthlies can afford to ship from outside the region. Even if printing locally there are large distances to be covered and there will be delays.
There are also issues of quality – whilst some print plants in Asia offer unparalleled quality others would not meet the standards expected. Although that said, a lot of printing investment is currently taking place. Japan and Australia have high quality printers although in Australia for instance the costs are high and the market relatively small.
The principles of choosing a distributor are the same as elsewhere –
* Who do other titles use?
* Do they have countrywide or regional coverage?
* What are their language skills – not just at top level?
* What are their marketing skills like?
* How quickly do they pay?
By this stage you know the approximate size of the total audience and have decided which language to print in, but you must have more details on the target audience.
If you are moving into an already well established market you can glean much from the titles already there – if not, finding out about your target audience can be tricky.
* Many Asians are reticent to divulge personal information.
* Many will tell you what they think you want to hear.
* Many do not like to answer direct questions.
* Getting accurate lists is very difficult.
* Reaching people in tower blocks can be difficult.
In short obtaining accurate, meaningful audience research data is difficult, time consuming and costly. But it is essential!
A subscription driven company needs an internationally minded fulfillment bureau. As an example, in the UK a name and a postcode (or even just a postcode at times) is sufficient for a postal delivery. In parts of Asia this is not the case. On occasion as many as eight or nine lines of an address are required just to make a successful postal delivery. By no means all fulfillment systems can provide this service and yet without it your publication is not going to arrive on time or maybe at all. This is just another example of how different doing business in Asia can be and how without adequate planning success can be elusive.
If you are a subscription driven title one of your major considerations will be customer service.
Time differences are crucial. A reader with a customer service issue in Hong Kong for instance will be loath to phone the UK. He will expect a local option to be available. He may well also expect to be able to conduct his business in a local language.
Providing such services could be costly and indeed may be beyond the budget of all but the largest publishers. Not many publications can afford multiple local customer service operations with multi-language skills. However those that can will have advantages over their competition.
If your title is a pan- Asian one, rather than concentrating upon a selected market, it would be ideal to have a cosmopolitan staff. The differences between the various parts of Asia is such that it would be beneficial to have someone of Chinese origin, for instance, working in that market and similarly for Japan.
Once again cost may preclude such ideals. Similarly differences in skill levels in some markets may be a deciding factor whether in relation to direct marketing, selling or distribution. The availability of staff with particular business knowledge or training, together with English language usage, may ultimately dictate your employment decisions.
Advertising and Promotion
Any launch into a new market needs to be accompanied by a promotional campaign. Easier and certainly less costly in small markets but extremely complex and costly across the whole continent.
In fact it could be argued that cultural and language difficulties combined with expense make a pan-Asian advertising and promotional campaign an impossibility. For this reason even the largest publishers need a targeted approach.
The principles are similar to those that apply elsewhere. Identify your audience, know where they are and their purchasing habits and target your resources to those people and those places.
Local knowledge here is invaluable and in this your local agents or distributors should be able to point you in the right direction. If you can, use a local advertising agent. Do spend something – a launch in a promotional vacuum will probably fail.
What cover price?
One of the great truisms on price is that you never really know if you have got your pricing right but you find out quite quickly if you have got it wrong!
Pricing in Asia is complex. Different currencies, different economies, differing purchasing habits and lifestyles make the pricing issue complex. If your title sells across Asia you are likely to have many different prices ranging from high prices in places like Japan and Hong Kong to lower prices say in India, Mongolia, Burma etc. This should not be a concern.
The title you choose is crucial in any market. In Asia however getting the title right is essential for success and in many ways more difficult than in other markets. Language, culture and history all have a role to play in ensuring that the title you choose actually properly promotes the product.
It should also be remembered that the relatively prosperous Asia we recognise now is a modern phenomenon – based largely on the ‘Asia Tigers’ of Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia etc. Although times have been hard recently, the region has seen amazing growth in the last forty years.
This has led to an aspirational and growing young audience who want success and wealth. Many of them look towards Western publications to help, encourage and guide them and the title you choose can project an image to convince readers that it has a role to play in their ultimate business and lifestyle goals. Remember some people like to be seen reading certain titles to impress friends, family, business associates and even bosses!
Asia is different. It’s big, diverse and complex and for the publisher poses special challenges. Yet they are not insurmountable. With proper research, a realistic business plan and long term thinking, Asia for publishers can be extremely rewarding. Remember to treat Asia differently, be patient, and try to think like a local. Good luck!