“You cannot imagine the chaos and poverty of Romania now,” wrote the editor of an on-again, off-again Christian magazine. “The worst thing you can do is produce and sell a Christian magazine.” In e-mail correspondence last year he mourned in bitter and disappointed tones the approaching demise (for the third or fourth time) of his magazine. He could not imagine that any Christian magazine could survive in Romania, and complained that the magazine directory on our website was misleading “the naive people of the West” who might assume that there was a “wonderful and dynamic Christian magazine market.” His disappointment was understandable, but his viewpoint was skewed.
True, it has not been easy for any of the country’s new Christian publishers, few of whom have been publishing for more than 14 years. But today, at least 50 Christian magazines are being published in Romania, serving denominational and church members, women, children, teenagers, Sunday school teachers, professionals, and church leaders, among others.
Funding: From Issue to Issue
The challenges faced by Romanian publishers are similar to those encountered by Christian magazine publishers throughout East/Central Europe in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc.
Although start-up funding is essential to the success of any magazine in any country, most Christian magazines in the region have been launched with minimal upfront financing. In many cases this was due to an excess of enthusiasm and lack of knowledge on the part of the founders. Other times, pure desperation drove publishers to at least make the attempt to launch a magazine, despite the odds against them. As a result, many, if not most, Christian magazines struggle from issue to issue, depending on volunteer staff and using funds from the sale of the previous issue to pay for printing the following issue.
The catastrophic economic situation of many of the countries in the region also complicates efforts of Christian magazines to become financially stable. Many people simply do not have extra funds necessary to buy magazines. Some Christians fed on the free distribution of smuggled literature during the Communist years still believe that Christian literature should be free. However, that attitude is weakening as time passes and as a new generation of Christians enters the market.
Financially stable magazines, East and West, rely heavily on advertising income. Although most Christian magazines in the former Soviet Bloc would like to have advertising, there are still few Christian schools, book publishers, music companies, church suppliers, camps, and other ministries with the funds and vision to advertise. As a result, this source of revenue forms a negligible portion of overall magazine income.
Many Christian magazines in the West are subsidized by the denominations or organizations they represent, and often those magazines are distributed free. While some magazines in East/Central Europe receive partial subsidy from their denominations or organizations—sometimes in the form of free office space or part-time use of an already overworked staff member—they still must count on magazine sales for a significant portion of their financing.
In most cases this means single-copy sales, since the concept of magazine subscriptions is still relatively new in many countries. Who would be crazy enough to pay a year in advance for a magazine, goes the reasoning. And if it is a new magazine, will it still be around in a year—or even six months from now? Better to buy each copy as it is produced—if it can be found.
Overcoming the Hurdle of Distribution
Making sure potential buyers can find the magazine is one of the most difficult problems faced by Christian publishers. The region boasts few Christian bookstores, so the main avenue of distribution is the local church. This automatically limits distribution to Christians, and often Christians of a particular denomination, since church leaders serve as the gatekeepers of the literature sold in the church. If a pastor decides to permit the distribution of only the denomination’s magazines, publishers of other magazines will knock on the door in vain.
For magazines that want to reach the unchurched, the problem is especially severe. Twelve percent of the magazines about which the Magazine Training Institute has information declare their primary purpose as evangelization. Many more magazines consider non-Christians as a desired secondary market. But that audience will never enter a church in order to buy a magazine.
In most cases, kiosk sales are out of the question. Because of the small size of the potential market, many distributors refuse to take Christian magazines, which they feel would only take up valuable space while yielding few returns. Kiosk sales are so poor that most Christian magazines cannot afford to even consider this outlet, since unsold magazines are usually destroyed. Who can afford to print an extra 500 copies for distribution to newsstands that may sell only 10?
Some magazines have tried to sell on the street, using volunteers or paying representatives a commission to sell copies to passersby. This method has been singularly unsuccessful, even where it has been legal. In most countries, it is necessary to buy an expensive vendor’s license to sell on the street.
Distribution remains one of the thorniest unsolved problems of Christian publishing in East/Central Europe. With so few sales outlets, how do new publishers let potential readers know about their magazines? Mailing lists are not easy to come by and postage is expensive. With kiosk sales out of the question and subscription options limited, new publishers are forced to go from church to church and conference to conference, displaying magazines and talking about them.
Magazines launched by an ongoing organization have a slight edge because they can approach their constituents. However, even these magazines have to depend on word-of-mouth advertising for growth beyond their natural constituency. For most magazines growth is hard fought and measured from one issue to the next in tens or twenties, not hundreds or thousands.
Modest Circulation Figures
The average circulation of Christian magazines in East/Central Europe about which the Magazine Training Institute has detailed information is less than 2,000. If it were not for the distribution problems outlined above, some of them would be much larger. However, because of the size of their market, some will never be able to grow much beyond their current size. After all, how many Hungarian-speaking Baptist youth are there in Romania? Mustarmag, founded in 1990 and with a circulation of 1,100, is probably reaching a larger proportion of its market than many Western magazines. Croatia, with a Protestant population of some 40,000, supports at least 14 Evangelical (including Pentecostal) magazines. In Bulgaria, at least 20 Evangelical (including Pentecostal) magazines serve a Protestant population of some 90,000. With such small markets, most magazines will not grow to the size necessary to make them profitable.
Motivation from Vision More than Profit
However, while virtually every Christian magazine in the region would like to be able to cover expenses, dreams of profit are not what sustain the publishers who founded the magazines and labor to keep them alive. It is a vision for harnessing the power of the press in the service of the Kingdom that drives most of the publishers, editors, and staff members of Christian magazines in the region. Few staff members receive a salary. They work for the magazine because they believe in the vision of the editor or publisher. For this reason, a key task of the editor is keeping volunteers motivated. Most have another job as well as family and church responsibilities. The magazine is another activity and responsibility on top of many others. Many of those who begin with enthusiasm wear down with late nights and busy weekends, month after month.
The editor of a Polish magazine for Baptist women wrote recently to ask for prayer for co-workers. “Of course, we have an editorial team, and we stay in contact by e-mail,” she wrote. “But punctuality is a problem and I am the one who has to ask, call, write, remind. I understand, because we do this whole work as volunteers and I know that all the women have the same problem as I, ‘How can I find the time to do this?’ I am tired with many responsibilities, as a wife, mother, teacher, and church member. ‘”
Another problem, she said, is that when she took over the magazine three years ago she had no previous editing experience. In that regard, she is typical of most magazine staff members, who generally are not professionally trained journalists. Nor do they come to the magazines with rich experience in publishing. Under Communism, Christians were not allowed to study journalism, and in most countries Christian publishing was severely restricted or even prohibited. In the years since Communist governments fell, Christians have entered university journalism programs. Some have complained that many of the university programs do not offer practical courses on writing, editing, and journalism, but continue to focus on social studies and politics, much as they did under Communism, when political correctness was as important as journalistic skill.
Strong Motivation to Excel
Regardless of their level of education or experience, Christian publishers in the former Soviet Bloc are strongly motivated to learn and improve their skills. Over the last 14 years, hundreds of staff members of about 150 Christian magazines from the region have attended conferences and courses organized by the Magazine Training Institute (MTI). Two-thirds of the magazines have sent staff to more than one conference. Nearly 50 Romanian magazines have sent staff members to MTI courses, with 10 magazines sending staff to five or more conferences, and one magazine sending staff to 12 conferences. More than 25 Polish magazines have sent staff to MTI conferences, with six sending staff to five or more. Because most staff members of Christian magazines work at other jobs, attending an MTI course means taking vacation time or unpaid leave from work, paying their own travel expenses and a small tuition fee, and covering part of their conference accommodation expenses. Clearly, the motivation to learn their craft is strong.
By and large, the people who work on Christian magazines in East/Central Europe are intelligent, highly-motivated, dedicated Christians who desire to grow professionally and who want their publications to be an effective means of teaching, inspiration, and evangelism. They face daunting obstacles and, like the Romanian publisher mentioned earlier, they may become tired and discouraged. But remarkably few magazines are ever given up completely. A publisher may have to reduce the number of issues published in a given year or even take a year off before gathering new resources and starting again.
“I have hoped that God will give me what I need,” wrote one Polish editor. Like many Christian publishers, she had too many responsibilities and too few resources. But she had hope. Despite distribution difficulties, inadequate funding, catastrophic economies, lack of trained staff, and just about every other resource a publisher needs, what keeps Christian magazines going is hope.
Over the last 14 years, hundreds of staff members of about 150 Christian magazines from the region have attended conferences and courses organized by the Magazine Training Institute.
Sharon Mumper is director of the Magazine Training Institute, Baden, Austria, which has been providing training and resources to Christian magazine publishers in East/Central Europe and the former Soviet Union since 1989.
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© 2004 East-West Church and Ministry Report