Bridging the Gap
International publishing poses obstacles for U.S. magazine publishers, but none that can't be handled with a little logistical planning.
IF YOU STOP and think about it, global publishing may seem like a massive undertaking. If that's truly the case, why do so many U.S. publishers venture overseas to explore business opportunities? Do the benefits justify the journey? The answer, according to several industry representatives, is a collective 'yes'.
To produce or not to produce …
El Hospital, a bi-monthly magazine published by Salud Publi-cations International, Cincinnati, has built an audience of 16,000 Latin American readers since 1944. El Hospital is produced in the United States and distributed throughout Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean.
"We have a production and design editor in Cincinnati," explains Greg Loomis, El Hospital editor and publisher. "We're connected to him electronically." Virtually all of the prepress work for the magazine is done by an outside service bureau near Cincinnati—Cobb Inc., based in Newport, KY.
Communication between the design editor and Cobb is facilitated by a private bulletin board system, where digital files are exchanged. Robin Imaging, Cincinnati, is brought in to handle the scanning of larger, high-resolution images. All of the files are then synthesized at Cobb, film is output, stripped into imposition forms and shipped to Davidson Printing in Duluth, MN, for printing, binding and distribution.
To tackle some of the Latin American distribution logistics, Salud Publications invested in a custom-designed fulfillment system based on a Microsoft Access platform. The software automates data-entry tasks, allows activation/
deactivation of subscribers at the push of a button and also feeds information into a parallel reader service database.
Most importantly, Loomis stresses, the database provides a warehouse of information on subscribers—something that has proven to be essential in dealing with countries where mailing lists are not readily available.
"Unlike the United States, where it seems that everyone and anyone has a list to sell, in many countries those are not so easy to come by," Loomis observes. "We have a representative in Latin America who works trade shows for us, and we've built our database from the contacts that she's made. We also do a lot of direct, personal contact with leaders of professional organizations."
Playboy's situation differs from El Hospital in that each of its 17 foreign editions—created in native languages—are produced by independent publishers.
David Walker, editorial director of international publishing for Playboy Enterprises, explains the arrangement: "Part of the licensing agreement with foreign publishing houses entitles them to access anything that U.S. Playboy owns, which includes a huge portion of our images, pictorials and quite a bit of the text."
How does digital data sharing happen? Walker explains that staffs in other countries order images and text—provided on optical disks, CD-ROMs or in film version—from the U.S. offices.
Playboy's file-sharing arrangement brings up a question about efficiency. Wouldn't it be easier to allow foreign publishers to access a central server to download images and text directly?
Walker says that the company has considered the option, but technology is something that is not universal. "We're currently in more than 16 countries, and they're all in different states of technological capability," he reports. "We've found that they aren't ready to receive files like that and we aren't ready to propose providing camera-ready images or color-corrected images over electronic lines. Fortunately, the way we do it now seems to work."
Market conditions and economic stability have a lot to do with whether or not publishers should choose to work with foreign vendors, Loomis contends.
"For El Hospital, we decided that we were more comfortable with keeping (production) local, because we needed that kind of control—especially on the prepress end," he says.
Loomis acknowledges that there are a lot of excellent printing companies in Latin America and that there are definite benefits to mailing from within a country. However, he warns, those advantages can disappear overnight. "There was a time when Colombia was the hottest thing going for good printing, good pricing and excellent mailing rates; but overnight, they had a huge postal increase, and the bottom fell out," he recalls.
Keeping everything under control
With its publishers dispersed throughout the world, it may seem like a difficult challenge for Playboy Enterprises to monitor the production of its foreign editions. It is, Walker confirms.
"The truth is," he adds, "that you can't do it on an issue-by-issue basis. … All of our editions, with the exception of our most recent launch, are monthly publications, and they are all under their production cycles and contingencies."
How does the home office keep tabs on international operations? "What we try to do is establish production standards at the beginning of the process, before the first issues of a new edition go out," Walker states. "One of the things that we look at very seriously before choosing a publisher is production sophistication. We need to know what its capacity is and whether it has on-site production managers and established relationships with color houses, binders and printers."
Like a mother letting her child go off to school alone for the first time, a parent company might find it difficult to maintain trust in a foreign publisher after relinquishing production control. Walker combats that by training foreign staffs in Playboy's editorial philosophy and production standards.
Another way to ensure that the foreign editions don't become sub-par is to assist the foreign publisher during the initial stages. "We have gotten involved in the past in helping our licensees negotiate print contracts," Walker comments. "We'll also help them change vendors, especially when it comes to color reproduction."
Why do some publishers choose to produce in the U.S., while others prefer to set up shop outside of our borders?
For Playboy, it was a matter of appropriateness, according to Walker. "You can't keep up a really timely, committed editorial product that is live, vibrant and powerful if it's not being created specifically for the readers within a country," he points out. "For a magazine to actually work in a marketplace, it has to speak to the readers in that marketplace. … To do that, it has to be created in the country."
"Translation can be difficult," El Hospital's Loomis agrees, pointing out that translators might provide copy that is actually "provincial or unrecognizable in another country."
Deciding to establish production facilities in other countries was also a matter of timing, Walker notes. For Playboy, it didn't seem feasible to produce a foreign edition within the boundaries of the United States and still get issues to foreign newsstands in a timely fashion.
For business-to-business publishers, international distribution may be a little less chaotic than it is for magazine publishers. The reason stems from the amount of shipping resources available.
Woods Lithographics, Phoenix, produces high-quality sheetfed materials—brochures, hardware and software manuals and corporate communications products—for international businesses.
The company's clients are spread throughout the globe, according to Randy Shaw, shipping manager. All of the products are produced at the company's Phoenix site and shipped to companies abroad using a variety of methods.
"We use a myriad of different transportation resources and it depends on when the clients want it," Shaw explains. "The first question I ask is whether they need it right away. It also depends on the weight of what we're shipping."
International shipping, he contends, is complicated. "When you're going to a foreign country, there are people waiting there to check the goods," he reports. "Everybody seems to scrutinize freight very well, but in some countries, it's more difficult to get things through than others."
Shaw suggests using brokering agents to assist in customs' negotiations: "They can deal face-to-face with customs, and a lot of times, that's how you can push things through without any problem."
There's no doubt that mailing abroad can be risky business, Loomis declares. Venezuela, in particular, has been his nemesis.
"We use a company called PDS International, which is based out of Long Island, to handle Venezuela for us," Loomis explains. "Venezuela's postal system is notorious for being undependable. In that case, a remailer like PDS is sometimes better because the company has an arrangement whereby it can bypass the local postal system.
"It costs a little more, but it gets there at a much more efficient rate than what we got from the local postal service."
Crossing the border
Launching into an international marketplace that is foreign—in every sense of the word—is scary business for many publishers. How can a publisher determine if a market is ripe?
Economic stability is a big factor, says Walker. In Playboy's situation, publishers typically solicit Playboy Enterprises for a chance at becoming a partner. "It isn't atypical that we'll get two or three publishers at the same time, within a six- to eight-month period," Walker reports. "That's a litmus test for us that the market is right."
Sometimes, it's just a gamble that a publisher has to take. "An awful lot of marketplaces that would not seem to be good from a distance are actually terrific," Walker claims. "An example for us would be Croatia. We launched there about a year ago as a bi-monthly. Now, we're at a circulation of 50,000, have over 30 pages of ads each issue and went monthly four months before we'd originally scheduled it."
Stability can fluctuate, however. According to Walker, Playboy Enterprises, which had the same licensing agreement with a Mexican publisher for over 20 years, ran into trouble when the peso devalued about five years ago.
"Advertising disappeared and the country went into an economic tailspin in every way," he remembers. "All of a sudden, as you can imagine, the people had what was the equivalent of a 50 percent decrease in personal income.
"The same thing happened to companies, and the consumer marketplace changed rapidly. The people who were buying the magazine didn't have the money to splurge on it. What had once been a simple pleasure to them had now become an indulgent luxury."
The good news, he stresses, was "that our publisher hung in there and hunkered down." Now, the edition has recovered—and circulation has doubled—but Walker hasn't forgotten that very tough period.
"If our foreign partner had been less committed, the economics would have really had an impact," he asserts. "Thank goodness, as the economy comes back, advertising comes back, too."
It could have gone the other way, Walker speculates, particularly if
the economic downturn had lasted another two or three years. "The economics of the country matters a lot, as does the currency and the advertising situation," he notes. "Sometimes what matters most, though, is the feeling about the magazine."
-Gretchen A. Kirby