“How did you find us?” It was the second day of a conference for Christian magazine publishers and two of the participants had approached me. “We didn’t even know one another,” the editor from Siberia said, looking around at participants who had come to Moscow from cities thousands of miles apart: representatives of a Christian newspaper from the Arctic Circle, of a newsletter from the semi-tropical south of Russia, and of magazines from the farthest reaches of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.
How did we find them? One contact had led to another, then another, then another. It was our first conference for Christian publishers in Russia, but our third for Russian-language publishers from the former Soviet Union. As we prepared for our first conference for Russian-language publishers in Ukraine in 1996, we found that very few church leaders knew of more than one or two Christian magazines.
There can’t be more than 50 Christian magazines in the entire former Soviet Union, one director of a ministry to Russia told us in 1995. I was convinced he was wrong. Already, publishers of more than 100 Christian magazines in Eastern Europe had attended one or more of our conferences over the previous five years. To this day, no one knows how many there really are. However, since 1996, staff members of nearly 100 Christian magazines from countries of the former Soviet Union have attended conferences organized by the Magazine Training Institute (MTI). At every conference, participants are astounded and delighted to meet fellow journalists working with magazines they didn’t know existed. It is not surprising that in a region spanning 11 time zones and thousands of miles, journalists know only a small percentage of their colleagues. Publishing in a region that large presents tremendous potential as well as enormous challenge.
Marketing Across 11 Time Zones
The greatest potential lies in the size of the Russian-language Christian market—over 5 million Evangelicals, Charismatics, and Pentecostals in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus alone. Even the East European countries with the largest Christian populations can’t boast a market half that size. However, size—or rather, distance—is also the greatest challenge to Christian magazine publishers. It doesn’t help to have an enormous market if there is no way to distribute magazines in a cost-effective way. Also, publishers in one country cannot easily market their product in another country, even if the language is basically the same. Export/import regulations, costs, and paperwork are a major factor, as is the problem of moving funds between countries. The banking system does not allow for convenient or inexpensive transfer of funds from one country to another.
Some magazines have tried to establish informal relationships with Christians in other countries who agree to act as distributors. However, informal systems are awkward and rarely work well. Marketing and distribution are problems even for publishers operating within a single country. In most cases, because of the relatively small market for a Christian magazine and the miniscule (or nonexistent) profit margin, newsstand distribution is out of the question. And Christian bookstores are few and far between. How will prospective subscribers find out about the magazine? If Christian journalists know of only a small percentage of the Christian magazines in the region, how will prospective subscribers find out about them?
Russian publishers who met at an MTI conference in 2003 brainstormed one possible solution. Each agreed to pay a small amount of money to one of the publishers who had access to several mailing lists of Christians. He produced a flier describing each magazine and providing access information. The plan was a modest success, with publishers gaining subscribers who otherwise never would have known about their magazines. One magazine editor in Magadan, in Russia’s Far East, was thrilled to gain subscribers from towns thousands of miles away. Her region has few Christians but her magazine’s potential is enormous—if she can reach the market across a thousand miles of tundra and forest.
Distribution Across 11 Time Zones
After marketing, the greatest challenge is distribution. Many publishers still don’t trust the Russian postal system, which has been known to solve the problem of a backlog of unsorted mail by unloading it straight into a dumpster. The cost of distribution is also a challenge for publishers who need to keep subscriptions affordable in a region with high unemployment and low salaries. And the enormous distances involved in transporting magazines mean they may arrive weeks or even months after they are mailed. Some publishers have resorted to a sort of hitchhiking magazine distribution system, handing off packets of magazines to strangers in train stations and giving them the name of the person at the other end who will meet the train and receive the packet in return for a modest “transport” fee.
Another challenge is selling magazines in countries where the average annual income per person is $2,500 or less, and in some countries much less. Some Christian magazines have outside sponsors who provide regular funding, but most must look to a wide variety of sources to cover expenses. The most common base of support is the staff themselves, many of whom work for the magazine on a volunteer basis. Occasional donations from foreign and local organizations and individuals are also a vital source of funding. But for nearly half of Christian magazines recently surveyed by MTI, subscriptions and single-copy sales are a primary source of income.
Despite the economic challenges and the constant concern about funding, many Christian publishers are amazingly tenacious. Maria, a Russian-language magazine for women, is published in Moldova, which, with an average annual per person income of $460, is the poorest country in Europe. Nevertheless, editor Olga Mocan and her staff celebrated ten years of continuous publishing in 2004. The attractive, 36-page Russian-language magazine has a circulation of 7,000 and is distributed throughout the region.
Maria was one of the first Christian magazines to begin publishing after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most Christian magazines in the region are considerably younger. Perhaps because Christian publishing in the region is so new, there appear to be proportionately far fewer Christian magazines there than in Eastern Europe. According to the 2001 edition of Operation World by Patrick Johnstone and Jason Mandryk, Bulgaria and Belarus have nearly the same number of Evangelical, charismatic, and Pentecostal Christians. Nevertheless, while MTI knows of only 10 Christian magazines in Belarus, we have had contact with 30 in Bulgaria.
Russia, with a population five times that of Romania, has fewer Protestant magazines. Admittedly, the percentage of believers in Romania is much higher than that of Russia, so for those aiming at just the Evangelical, Charismatic, and Pentecostal market, the number of prospective subscribers would be similar. It is also probable that because of Russia’s enormous size, a large number of small publishers have escaped our lenses.
New Christian magazines are continually surfacing throughout the countries of the former Soviet Union. Christians see the potential impact of the printed page and are eager to embrace the opportunities it presents. Few anticipate the very real challenges of publishing. But many with grit seize the opportunities and endure the challenges. And when they can possibly afford the cost of travel and time away from work, they come to professional conferences where they meet colleagues from Christian magazines they never knew existed.
Sharon Mumper is director of the Magazine Training Institute, Baden-Leesdorf, Austria.
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© 2004 East-West Church and Ministry Report