A decade ago, most of the 8,000-plus magazines in China were monotonous -- both in content and appearance.
Most of these periodicals came out on a monthly basis, with the remaining publications appearing at three-month, or even longer intervals. There were almost no fortnightly or weekly publications.
However, things have changed dramatically over the past few years. In many cities, the number of readers hungry for information and leisure reading has been skyrocketing, and with Chinese readers accounting for one-fifth of the world's population in a quickly expanding economy, publishers and investors are growing more and more excited.
Over the past four or five years, hundreds of new periodicals have appeared and many more are being released at a quickening pace.
"We are frequently receiving new kinds of high-quality magazines with beautiful illustrations and photos," said Wang Fengqin, the owner of a newsstand at a street corner near the Third Ring Road, one of Beijing's major avenues.
Wang said about 80-120 copies of magazines are sold at her newsstand every day, and in Beijing, there are thousands of such outlets.
Most of the new publications cover auto sales, home furnishings, fashion, cultural and ethnic themes.
Most new domestic magazines are actually "old" magazines that have undergone facelifts to create a new look and catch up with current trends.
Over the last several years, competition has heated up, and a strong market for publications, which is expected to grow in proportion to China's huge population and fast-growing economy, has been taking shape, with more than a few forerunners experiencing marked growth.
Zhiyin (Bosom Friend), a monthly magazine published in Wuhan, the capital city of central China's Hubei Province, can be considered representative of the trend.
The periodical, which often carries real-life human interest stories, targets housewives in small towns.
Now because of the rising circulation, the monthly magazine has turned to biweekly and its circulation has been steady at 5 million copies. To attract good stories, the publication offers authors competitive pay -- 1,000 yuan (US$120) per 1,000 Chinese characters, plus opportunities to travel overseas, compared to the average pay of between 100 and 300 yuan (US$12 to 36) at other magazines.
Sanlian Life Weekly is another success story. The magazine covers the latest domestic and world news, carrying in-depth stories and claiming to be China's equivalent of Time. Although it has a circulation of only 200,000 copies, it has been the favorite of advertisers.
"The magazine publishing industry in China is going through a fundamental and profound change," said Chen Xiao, from the Media Department of K&L Industry Management Co Ltd, who has been tracking the development of China's media industry for years.
According to Chen, the magazine publishing industry in China has experienced three rounds of "atomic changes."
The first round happened in the early 1990s, when some women's titles, such as Jiating (Family) published in south China's Guangdong Province, Nuyou (Lady Friends) published in northwest China's Shaanxi Province, and Zhiyin (Bosom Friends), surprised Chinese readers with their novel binding and layouts and easy-going content.
Then in the late 1990s, many fashion magazines appeared on the market, some of which immediately became hits.
The current direction in the business is to publish magazines aimed at men, covering issues such as men's health, and fashion as well as cars and geography.
One of the important driving forces pushing the development of China's magazine publishing industry, according to Chen, is interest from international media giants who have come to seek opportunities in the burgeoning market.
As the current policies allow, foreign publishers have teamed up with local publishers to release "Chinese editions" of their periodicals.
The International Data Group, a US technology publisher, is the first, and so far the most successful foreign publisher to invest in Chinese publications. The company has been involved in half of China's IT publications, including the renowned China Computerworld.
Hearst Magazines, a US-based media group, is now teaming up with Chinese publisher Trends Publishing Co to launch the Chinese edition of Cosmopolitan, Esquire and a series of other publications.
Ringier, an international publishing and communications company with its headquarters in Switzerland, joined forces with a Chinese partner to participate in the advertising market through Beijing Ringier International Advertising Corp Ltd. The company claims that it operates as a full-service advertising agency for Chinese publications.
One of its latest ventures is Beitai Chufang, or Betty's Kitchen, a cooking magazine that is drawing a lot of attention from the younger generation of homemakers.
Still, many insiders point out that the market is still chaotic and far from fully developed.
According to Zhang Bohai, vice president of China Periodicals Association, the total circulation of Chinese periodicals was 2.89 billion in 1999, while the figures for 2001 and 2002 have not shown particularly strong growth. Considering the huge population of China, that is not a high figure -- only two copies per capita.
And magazines still account for a very small percentage of advertising spending. In 2001, total spending on TV advertisements in China amounted to 17.9 billion yuan (US$2.16 billion), for newspapers the figure was 15.8 billion yuan (US$1.9 billion), while magazines collected less than 1.2 billion yuan (US$145 million).
"Currently, the industry is lacking a full set of systems and standards," said Chen. For many magazines, advertisements are based on personal relationships and at huge discount rates. Companies frequently buy "soft space" in magazines, where corporate-generated articles appear.
Circulation is another problem. Many magazines exaggerate their circulation figures. And while post offices keep circulations lists, it is almost impossible for advertisers to check the accuracy of the figures.
However, the conditions are getting better. According to Chen, several international companies which verify magazines' circulation figures for advertisers have opened offices in Beijing. Local firms offering similar services have also appeared.
"The market potential is actually gigantic, but at present only 10 per cent has been developed," said Chen. "Most publishers are crowded into that small area of the market."
Chen suggested that publishers open up new fields, other than squeezing themselves into already saturated areas, such as fashion publications.
"For example," Chen said, "There are currently very few children's magazines, educational magazines, and rural readers-orientated magazines. It would be easier to gain a share in such areas," Chen said.
(China Daily March 18, 2003)