Barbarians at the gatesDecisions, decisions. Lee Jin-hee and scores of other women are agonizing over which fashion magazines to buy at Kyobo Bookstore in downtown Seoul.
Vogue? The Style? Ms. Lee’s hands dart back and forth before she plucks The Style, one of the few Korean fashion magazines catering to professional women.
“I wouldn’t be buying it if it didn’t have the gift pack,” she says, pointing to the sample of Green Tea, a new perfume by Elizabeth Arden packed with the February issue.
Most of the time, Ms. Lee buys Vogue or Cosmopolitan, American fashion magazines that are licensed and printed in Korea. “I only buy Korean fashion magazines before I go shopping or if I want to know which hair styles are ‘in’ this season,” says the 25-year-old graduate student.
Ms. Lee’s sentiment, which is shared by many young Koreans, worries some media critics and local magazine publishers.
Media Oneul, a weekly newspaper that covers the media industry, believes that Korean magazine publishers are too busy pursuing licensing rights for popular foreign titles to develop good story ideas.
Critics argue that Western mags ― with their heavy emphasis on sex and outrageous fashion ― are often out of step with local sentiment. They’re concerned about the erosion of Korean values as Western magazines increasingly dominate segments of the publishing industry.
Other editors aren’t concerned about the growing number of foreign publications being published here. They say Koreans naturally gravitate toward Korean titles.
“Not every piece of clothing you find in stores is going to suit your style, and it’s the same with magazines,” says Lee Gang-hee, editor of Ceci, a popular Korean teen magazine that has held its own against the foreign competition. “We try to come up with content that fits the sentiment of Korean girls and focus on issues that pertain to their lives.”
While Ceci is popular, and stuffed with so many ads that it’s as thick as a phone book, Western magazines are making huge inroads here.
More than half the fashion magazines on Kyobo’s racks are Korean editions of leading American, French and British magazines. They include Vogue Girl, Seventeen and Maxim, all of which debuted here last year. In Style, Cosmopolitan Girl, La Sposa and Elle Girl launched here in January. In addition, Forbes, the business news magazine, hit newsstands last month.
The licensed magazines generally run translated stories along with some local content.
“There’s no mystery in Korean magazines,” gripes Ms. Lee, the Yonsei University graduate student. “They’re full of information, but the stories and clothing are so practical that I don’t get any pleasure flipping through them.”
She admits that much of the clothing and accessories featured in Western magazines is impractical, prohibitively expensive or unavailable (except through the Internet). But the features have flash.
Despite her preference for preppy clothing and conservative men, Ms. Lee loves reading about cutting-edge fashion and taking the provocative sex quizzes that are staples in Cosmopolitan and Vogue. Cosmo entered the Korean market in 2000 and now sells 80,000 copies a month; Vogue arrived in 1996 and sells 90,000 copies each month.
Foreign publishers have been clamoring to get into Korea for years. Korea, with a population of just over 48 million, is among the world’s 10 largest magazine markets based on circulation, according to the Korea Magazine Association. Koreans spend roughly 1 trillion won ($833 billion) on the country’s 2,550 magazines annually, according to the trade group.
Roughly 50 of the magazines in that group are Korean editions of foreign magazines. Most are selling more copies than their homegrown competition. Cosmopolitan Girl sold 80,000 copies in January, its first month on the stands. That compares with 70,000 for Ceci, which has a well-established reputation.
Some foreign mags are breaking new ground. There were no men’s fashion magazines in Korea until Esquire came along in 1998. Gentleman’s Quarterly and Maxim, arrived in 2001 and 2002 respectively and have had tremendous success. Maxim sells 50,000 copies a month; GQ won’t release its circulation figures. They’re attracting Korean men aged 20 to 40 with their provocative mix of what Maxim bills on its cover as: “Sex, Ladies, Sports, Gear, Style, Stars, Humor.”
But Lee Choong-geol, the editor of GQ’s Korean edition, says, “It’s a myth that all licensed magazines succeed in Korea. Not many Koreans were familiar with the concept of men’s fashion magazines when GQ arrived. I think we succeeded by localizing the global product.”
Western magazines and their Korean editions are ahead in terms of creativity and style, says Jung Ji-hyeon, a 30-year-old secretary at a Korean company, who regularly buys the Korean editions of foreign periodicals.
“I admit there’s an underlying fascination with the Western lifestyle,” says Ms. Jung, who wants to keep up on clothing by European designers. “The only times I read Korean magazines are when I’m at the beauty shop, if I’m thirsty for gossip or if the local magazines have a gift pack that I want to try.”
Young, trendy Koreans have long been titillated by foreign magazines, says Gyeong Gyu-min, the magazine association’s administrative director. He notes that in the 1980s pirated editions of Japanese fashion magazines, such as Non-no, were sold illegally in the alleyways of Myeongdong.
Many domestic magazines began establishing affiliations with overseas publications before Elle became the first foreign-licensed magazine to publish in Korea in 1992. The local magazines would reprint selected articles that had been published overseas.
Most foreign magazines began publishing in Korea after 1996. Their arrival and success “may just mean that our society is prospering, and that the magazine industry is reflecting Korea’s greater interest in diverse cultures,” Mr. Gyeong says.
He says that the local magazine industry is so susceptible to economic downturns that high-quality magazines often fold while their Western counterparts are able to struggle through with the help of their deep-pocketed parent companies overseas. “It isn’t unusual to see Korean magazines ― with stable readership and fresh content ― gone within six months because the market is so competitive,” he says.
Magazines, in recent months, have been showing signs of strain. Subscriptions and street sales are dropping in all sectors of the business, according to a marketing consultant for a major Korean women’s magazine. As a result, magazines are increasingly relying on gift and sample packs to sell copies at convenience and book stores.
Sales of women’s magazines “almost entirely depends on what kind of gift packs the magazines are offering in any given month,” says Yun Young-ji of Kyobo Bookstore. When the perfume gift packs offered by The Style ran out, customers switched to other magazines, she noted.
And when it comes to freebies, the foreign magazines again have the locals beat.
“The local publishers of licensed magazines have an easier time finding advertisers than local magazines,” says Yun Gyeong-hae, the chief editor of Cosmopolitan Korea. She adds the overseas publishers of foreign magazines often share their advertising from major brands. Cosmo is owned by Hearst International, which produces 107 editions of Cosmopolitan.
Media Oneul, the weekly media paper, bitterly notes that competition to print popular foreign magazines among local publishers is so great that the royalties paid to the foreign publishers may soon rise to as much as 10 percent of the sales price, from the current average of 4 percent. Media Onul says local publishers are vying for brand-name publications rather than focusing on developing better content.
Nonetheless, some industry observers say the difference in content between imported and local magazines is shrinking. “There shouldn’t be a drastic difference between local magazines and licensed imports unless readers are trying to look for one,” says Kim Su-young, the chief editor of Maison, the Korean edition of the French lifestyle magazine Marie Claire Maison.
She notes that local monthlies are increasingly covering overseas trends through their networks of foreign correspondents and affiliations with foreign publications.
“Anymore, it’s becoming a matter of preference, whether the reader likes the brand name or not,” Ms. Kim contends.
But don’t tell that to Ms. Lee, the Yonsei graduate student. “The European magazines I read don’t beat around the bush when it comes to giving advice on men or situational tips,” says Ms. Lee, “even though I feel their interviews and surveys sometimes have been exaggerated.”
by Park Soo-mee
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