Media and Advertising

Dying magazines and dead editors

Read, October issue.
It's that time of year again: time to check the pulse of the nation's cultural magazines to see which are still breathing.

It was around time last year that Danwei had to apologize for prematurely announcing the death of Read magazine (书城), a New Yorker aspirant. Read had stopped printing at the end of 2004, and though its editor and publishers swore that they were preparing to continue with a retooled design after the Spring Festival, no one much believed them. It came back, however, and continued throughout last year.

But we're struck with a strange sense of deja-vu: Read's last issue on newsstands was December, 2005, and though the editor and publishers swear that the next issue is just around the corner, there's quite a bit of suspicion that the magazine can't keep it up much longer.

Last week, the Shanghai Joint Publishing Company revealed that its publishing partner, the 21st Century Business Herald had pulled out of the magazine at the end of 2005, leading to the hiatus that was announced in the December issue. The Jiefang Daily Group, which took control of Joint Publishing last year, will take over, bringing its considerable resources to a publication that by all accounts is hemorrhaging money. Hangzhou Daily has these calculations by editor-in-chief Wu Shiyu:

Read usually pays authors 100-150 yuan per thousand characters, with a small number of special pieces getting up to 300 yuan per 1000. Each issue is roughly 150,000 to 160,000 characters long, so author fees are between 20,000 and 30,000 yuan. The editing department has five editors who represent monthly labor fees of more than 10,000 yuan. Add in printing costs and circulation costs, and Read ends up spending 100,000 yuan on every issue. Retail sales can only make up a portion of this, and 40% of the income from the several thousand subscription sales has to go to service fees according to postal regulations.

Panorama December issue.
Read originally started as a publication of the Shanghai Publishers Association and drew financial support from the Shanghai government. When that support was halted shortly after Joint Publishing came on board, the magazine started losing 200,000 to 300,000 yuan annually, and burned through 3 million yuan in the four years after the partnership with 21st Century began in 2001.

This year's delay is shaping up to be longer and more transforming than those in the past. On Wednesday, Read said that it expects to resume publication by mid-year. It is currently in talks with online bookstore 99Read to bring out an online edition of Read.

Publication on the 99 Read website is also being considered by Panorama (万象), another culture magazine that has yet to put out an issue in 2006. Panorama has stressed that it is not halting publication, and promises that readers will be able to get a copy of the magazine by April at the latest.

Continuing to edit after his death, Ba Jin (1904-2005) gets Harvest sued.
Harvest (收获), a national fiction magazine, though not in financial straits, has problems of its own. Late last year it ran an advertisement in its pages soliciting subscriptions for 2006, using the familiar line, "Harvest, Ba Jin, editor-in-chief." Problem was, Ba Jin had passed away two months before.

This was pointed out by the writer Zhu Jianguo in a post on his blog in which he criticized the magazine for false advertising (that issue listed the deceased Ba Jin as editor-in-chief on its cover, but Zhu magnanimously proposed that Ba Jin perhaps was still alive when the editing was performed). So he did what any concerned reader would and sued the publishers, who argued that the page in question was printed while Ba Jin was still alive. They have since changed their tune, arguing in a court brief that keeping Ba Jin's name on the advertisement was intended to honor and commemorate him.

On the other hand, many people are of the opinion that it really makes no difference. Ba Jin was rumored to be essentially comatose for several years before his death, so he still is as able to perform his duties as editor-in-chief as he was last year. In fact, Zhu has been after the magazine for a while to get it to stop trading on Ba Jin's name; the ad just gives him legal footing to sue.

It's also interesting that Zhu claims to be suing to restore Ba Jin's good name - he feels that the false advertising goes against Ba Jin's famous plea to "speak the truth." But Zhu has a well-known chip on his shoulder when it comes to Ba Jin, and he has not pulled his punches in the past when writing about his lack of quality as a writer. In an article titled "A look at Harvest's feudal nature," Zhu writes:

Compared to Lu Xun's Ah-Q, his characters lack a genuine humanness and individuality. Compared to Shen Congwen's writing, his narrative lacks a genuine Chinese sentiment. Compared to Lao She's novels, his works don't speak a genuine Chinese language. Compared to Mao Dun's Chance Jottings of Nighttime Reading, his essays don't have the academic detail of Chinese and Western culture. Compared to Ke Ling's prose, Ba Jin's essays are only "boiling water." Compared to Xia Yan's Lazily searching for old dreams, Ba Jin has absolutely no reflection on the old system. His whole life, Ba Jin was nothing more than a second-rate writer who followed the latest trend. Lu Xun late in life praised him, first because he was ill, and second because Ba Jin at that age could still be moulded.

The case goes before the court on the 21st, so we should find out later this year whether Ba Jin's good name will be restored.

Update: The court rejected Zhu's claim on 28 April, deciding that Harvest's advertisement did not cheat readers (link).

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