Monday, July 14, 2008
In India, Magazines That Translate Well
By HEATHER TIMMONS NEW DELHI
- Hairstyles to crave and hints on how to get over heartbreak. This month's must-have lip gloss and a new nine-iron that will make your golfing buddies jealous.
An explosion of Western magazines has hit newsstands in India in the past 12 months, pitching a familiar mix of consumption and gossip, relationship advice and expensive goodies.
Indian versions of Vogue, Rolling Stone, OK!, Hello, Maxim, FHM, Golf Digest, People and Marie Claire have all sprung up this year, and GQ and Fortune are soon to follow. They join familiar names like Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Reader's Digest.
Despite rising inflation and a slowing economy, India remains one of the world's bright spots for magazine publishing. Magazine advertising in India is expected to grow by 20 percent to $302 million in 2008, according to the International Federation of the Periodical Press. A whole new class of nouveau riche Indians has been created in recent years as the economy and real estate prices soared and two-income families became the norm in some upper-income urban areas.
"There are one million homes earning more than $100,000 each" in India, said Alex Kuruvilla, the chief executive of Condé Nast India, the only major foreign-owned publisher that has set up a fully staffed India division to write and print a fully owned title. In October Vogue magazine will have been in India for a year, and Condé Nast is introducing the men's fashion magazine GQ in September.
Most of the new Western magazines being published in India are not really Western at all - they are written, photographed, edited and designed almost completely in India. Many are published under licensing agreements with the media company that owns the name. Even though they are all published in English, their content may be completely different from their American or British counterparts.
While the name may be familiar to an American reader, the flavor is distinctly Indian. Instead of Heloise's syndicated household hints column, for example, Good Housekeeping runs "Ask Mrs. Singh." This month, Mrs. Singh tackles how to keep your home fresh during the monsoons that sweep through India during the summer (rubber mats and fresh flowers help).
Some, like Maxim, seem to pride themselves on pushing the envelope of good taste even further than they do in their home markets. The magazine's July issue includes the feature "48 Ways to Get a Gori" (gori is Hindi for fair-skinned woman, and is used in this context to mean a foreign white one). Some ideas the article offers: keep in mind most American women are extremely angry at Indians for stealing their jobs; don't ask an Italian woman if her family is part of the mob; to approach an Israeli woman, try a suicide bomber joke.
The July issue of Vogue carries the Annie Leibovitz photo shoot of the honeymoon of the "Sex and the City" characters Carrie and Mr. Big that appeared in the June Vogue in the United States; an underwater fashion shoot off the Indian islands of Lakshadweep; a cover story on the Bollywood debutante Asin Thottumkal; and a mix of international and local ads.
"We like to talk about 100 percent Indian content, where every piece would be relevant to an Indian audience," said Mr. Kuruvilla, though that means the magazine may pick up the occasional piece from another Condé Nast publication.
Most of the women's magazines, including Vogue, also carry pages of ads for an Asian cosmetic staple, whitening cream intended to lighten the skin. Many of these advertisements are from global companies like Estée Lauder and L'Oréal.
Even with a cover price of 100 rupees, or about $2.50, and a steady demand for imported paper, the 50,000-circulation Vogue India is close to break-even in its first year, Mr. Kuruvilla said, thanks to a steady flow of luxury advertising. "That is something we hadn't even planned for," he said. "We expected it in Year 4 or 5."
People magazine made its debut this month. While there are plenty of outlets for Bollywood gossip, from newspapers to blogs, "I was searching for a magazine with a lot of soul along with good packaging," said Maheshwer Peri, the president and publisher of Outlook Group.
Unlike Vogue India, People in India does not employ a single person from Time Inc., or Time Warner, he said, and the media giant has no stake in the Indian edition of the magazine. For its first issue, People India published 150,000 copies, and sold 70 percent of that number, he estimates.
The Outlook Group also markets and distributes BusinessWeek and Newsweek in India and has signed up two more news magazines that Mr. Peri said he could not yet disclose. The advantage with global news magazine are the "brands are known and the content is almost free," Mr. Peri said.
New opportunities are coming all the time. "The biggest challenge I have is to downplay the expectations about India," Mr. Peri said. He never gives a presentation that starts with India's one billion-plus population, he said, because then people's projections about the number of readers "go haywire."
India relies on an unorthodox street-side distribution system for more than half of all of its magazine sales. In major cities, packs of young boys stand in traffic islands in the middle of highways, holding up the latest copy of a glossy, and yelling "Vogue, madam? Indian Vogue! Golf Digest?" into the windows of stopped cars.
While many of these new magazines may cost 100 rupees an issue, these boys usually earn much less than that a day; they receive a commission from their boss, usually a middleman who gets a commission from what he sells from a magazine distributor, who in turn buys the magazines from the publisher for a fraction of the cover price.
Publishers in India say the system is something they have little control over, and liken street-side magazine distribution to the American paper route, a way for children to earn a little extra money. But the children selling the magazines tell a different tale.
"If on a particular day my sales are poor, then I am abused by my employer, at times beaten as well," said Sonu Kunar, a 12-year-old boy selling a variety of local and Western titles at the intersection of two busy New Delhi roads. Sonu says he works from 9 in the morning until 8 in the evening, and earns about 1,000 rupees, or $23.15, a month. He lives with 13 other children in a small room, and sends all the money he earns back to his family in the eastern state of Bihar.
Despite India's reputation for conservative attitudes toward sex, Cosmopolitan was one of the first titles to come to India nearly 12 years ago. Mala Sekhri, now Cosmopolitan India's publishing director, was approached by Hearst, which was looking for new markets at the time.
When she first brought copies of international editions of Cosmo to India, she could not even bring herself to show them to potential advertisers. "The few people who saw it turned the covers over" so they did not have to look at the explicit copy on the front, she said. "People said 'Are you sure? This is not what India is all about,' " Ms. Sekhri said.
They struggled for the first few years to create the right balance between Cosmo's international image and what would work in India, she said. Although Cosmopolitan's publisher, Hearst, wanted to be sure the brand was intact, executives there understood there were a lot of things that were not relevant in India at the time, she said. "For example, premarital sex - we had to skirt around that issue to begin with," she said.
Now "some of the features run in India have been racier" than those in the United States, she said.
Hari Kumar contributed reporting to this article.