ABD Vol.28. No.4

Reaching Out to Children in Rural Areas:
An Interview with Publishers of Children's Periodicals


Potential of Children's Magazines in Reading Promotion

ACCU's annual regional training course in Asia and the Pacific focussed on periodicals for children. We have asked three participants in the course to join us and talk over the problems and issues on children's periodical publishing with special emphasis on reading promotion and distribution. They are Mr. Hasnain Sabih Nayak, Executive Editor of Toitomboor, Bangladesh, Ms. Geeta Dharmarajan, Executive Director of "Katha", India and Ms. Natasha Vizcarra, Editor of Junior Inquirer, Philippines.

Q. First of all, please tell us briefly about magazines in general in your country and some information about children's magazines, as well.

Ms. Geeta Dharmarajan: In India, there are various kinds of general magazines published for adults in almost all languages. Even in Manipuri, which is more visible in recent years, there are one or two magazines, I believe. Most of the magazines are black and white and very few of them can afford full colour. With regard to children's magazines, they are not as general as adults' as the relative cost is high and most people are not able to buy magazines for their children. In some languages like Hindi, it is a little easier to sustain publication because the population is spread across the Hindi belt. But for children from non-literate families, we have almost no magazines at all.
We have reading supplements in magazines and newspapers and most newspapers have some kind of weekly supplements. Although some issues can attract readers, it is hard to get regular readers.

Ms. Natasha B. Vizcarra: The major group of magazines in the Philippines are women's fashion magazines. Next would be gossip magazines. These two are mostly sold at newsstands. Not many magazines in the Philippines are sold through subscription, except the foreign ones such as Time and Newsweek. The third group of magazines are supplements in a newspaper, usually on Sundays. The fourth are smaller magazines published by institutions or periodicals for a community or speciality magazines like magazines for parents, but there aren't many of these. There are not many magazines for children, magazines published by non-governmental organizations or academic ones.
There is one other thing we have to bear in mind. The magazines cater mostly to middle-class readers, and most of the people, what we call "masa" or the mass, only buy tabloids, which are very sensational and not accurate in reporting, sold mostly for profit. If we're talking about the mass reading materials that reach the most people in the Philippines, it's the tabloids. However, the interesting thing is that some of those tabloids support newspapers. The profit gained from them makes up for the loss in daily newspaper publishing.
Unfortunately there is no statistics available regarding children's magazines in our country. But from what I researched, there are about 38 children's periodicals published around Manila and they are thriving. There are educational magazines, mixed, and entertainment magazines for children. One thing that I noticed is that most people working for publishing children's magazines seemed to be doing business individually and not as a community. I think it would be a great benefit for all if they shared common problems and needs.

Mr. Hasnain Sabih Nayak: The size of the magazines published in Bangladesh is mostly A4 or half that size, except one women's magazine which is tabloid size, but stapled in the middle. In Bangladesh, almost all dailies, either in Bengali or English, keep a weekly section for the children or young readers.
Usually magazines have soft, glossy covers. The pages are usually printed in single colour, usually black, and in some pages we use two colours. Children's magazines are sold for around 14 to 15 taka with a circulation of around 15,000. When I came to Tokyo, I saw many beautiful magazines for children published in other countries with a circulation of 200,000 or even more and I somewhat felt pity for our children.
But we are trying in every way to make our magazine for children, Toitomboor, attractive. We have been publishing it for 6 years, and as we needed support, we approached multi-national companies for advertisements. But after we had their agreement, they insisted we print them on art paper in four colours, which is very costly. Of course they will pay for their advertisement, but in order to print one or half a page in four colours, 16 pages have to be printed in the same way, and I had to deal with the loss at first. However, once we got an advertisement from one of them, other multi-national companies became interested in our publication and ultimately it is paying us back.

Ms. Dharmarajan: It may have worked in your case, but getting advertisements was very difficult in the case of our magazines published for new literates. Initially we were not interested in putting advertisements in our magazines, but in order to have financial support, we changed our policy two years ago and looked for advertisers. But the multi-national companies you were referring to were not interested in magazines for rural children who would not be their consumers.

Mr. Nayak: Well, it is difficult to find advertisements targeted at children, even in urban areas. It's the parents who buy things. Our case was successful maybe because Toitomboor is read by all the members of the family, attracting advertisements of companies for adult consumer products.

Q. You all seem to have problems in sustaining publication of children's magazines. As publishers, what do you think of the advantages and potential of children's magazines?

Ms. Dharmarajan: I believe there is a growing demand for magazines in the new literate population, which is what my organization, Katha is interested in. We publish Tamasha! to answer to their needs. It assists children in learning languages, and another of our publications, Chakmack, is a science magazine targeting not exactly children, but rather teachers teaching children science subjects.
Of course books are good, but magazines have more potential because they are more affordable and easier to handle. Also there is a chance for a child to write back and have his/her name or photograph published in the magazine, which is very encouraging for a child. Also, because a magazine comes out regularly, contests and quizzes can be conducted in magazines which makes them interactive.

Ms. Vizcarra: Exactly. They are more responsive than books. If you like a story in a book, it is difficult to have contact with the writer, but in the case of a magazine it is much easier to talk back to the writer and express your feelings. They can act as a mirror and assure the child of its existence, at the same time having the same effect of books.

Ms. Dharmarajan: Another major thing that can happen with magazines is encouraging new talents. Publishing their works in magazines assists young people to develop their skills and test out their talents. I think it will eventually raise the quality of reading materials for children.

Mr. Nayak: In addition to that, the advantage of magazines is that they can always remain contemporary, which will attract readers. Also, if I want to send a message to my readers, I can repeat it to reinforce the direction. If one idea doesn't work for children, then I can try another. If there are a lot of ideas, there is always room to try.

Ms. Dharmarajan: In spite of various advantages, it seems that people are reluctant to give magazines to children as gifts. A book looks independent and complete in one copy, but in the case of magazines, one issue seems incomplete, and unsuitable as a gift. If a child receives a copy of a magazine from his/her parents, relatives, etc., as soon as he/she finds that it's part of a whole then the single volume seems to lose its preciousness. It's the mentality in adults that we have to change.

Mr. Nayak: The problem with selling children's books is that their average price of 44 taka is too costly for consumers. If the price of a book surpasses around 50 taka, which is about US$1.14, parents don't buy even if the children want to have it. So it sometimes takes more than a year to sell 1,000 copies of a children's book. In children's book publishing, there is always a conflict between the quality and the price.
Since I came here for the training course, I have started to think of the possibility of publishing some kind of periodical book in Bangladesh, which is neither a magazine nor a full-fledged book. It would be a mixture of the two, adding the advantages of magazines to books, such as cheaper prices, regular subscription or reliable distribution.

Ms. Vizcarra: At the workshop I learned a lot, too. But among other things, I realized that in the Philippines, people seemed to be making periodicals for children more for themselves. They were not really on the child's side, not responding to the psychology of the child. If we really look into our target readers and publish magazines that fit children's feelings, they should be much more attractive and they will have a great potential for reading in children. But today in our country the idea of a "good magazine" is something that reads like a textbook, and those are what parents buy for their children. It is really discouraging and it's hindering children's magazines to become creative and entertaining. We would have to cope with those ideas first.

Q. Even if you make attractive books and magazines, if they were not read, publication becomes meaningless. And I heard a lot about problems in distribution from many participants. How do you manage distribution of your publications?

Ms. Dharmarajan: As far as I know, the situation is very harsh in India as the number of outlets is very small, and secondly because with so many languages, the reading population gets fragmented, and thirdly, because of the wide area, it is very difficult to distribute magazines to small towns and villages as well as to collect the proceeds. I once made an agreement with a person at a bookstall in a small village to sell our magazines, but he never sent the money to us afterward. Since it was quite far away, I couldn't go back to that village to collect the money.
In addition, the distribution cost, which is 50 % of the price, is very expensive and it has to be borne by the publisher. I have a big problem here, because in order to sell Tamasha! at 6 rupees which I think is the maximum our readers can afford to buy, I have to make it for 3 rupees. This amount is too small for me to publish my magazine. So unfortunately, Tamasha! can only be distributed to limited areas.

Mr. Nayak: In our country also, the situation is as harsh as in India. Distributors?we call them hawkers?who distribute to newsstands, take 40% in the urban areas, and in case of Chittagong, which is 150 km away from the capital, the distributor takes 40% plus the carrying charge. We also have to pay for the carrying charge of unsold copies. The proceeds of our magazines will be handed to us 2 or 3 months later, after repetitive reminders. So using hawkers is not paying us that much.
So now our major method of distribution is through subscription, which enables us to plan ahead as well as provide financial stability. Another advantage is that the readers will remain committed to that publication and publishers can have direct contact with the readers.
Fortunately, the postal system is stable in Bangladesh. We have only a few losses and in case of lapses, we give them a time frame telling them to write to us if they don't receive the issue by a certain date. We print that in every issue as a reminder. If we receive claims, we immediately send a letter of apology with another copy. And this system seems to have been working well. Now the copies are sent to inside and outside Bangladesh by registered mail, which takes about 7-10 days.

Ms. Vizcarra: Most publishers in the Philippines have given up using the postal system because it is so unreliable. If a copy doesn't reach the child and the publisher sends an apology with a new copy, the child still usually doesn't get it. There was even a case when a child who had a year's subscription did not even receive a single issue.
So, instead, they developed a direct delivery system, which works better than the postal system in our country. All publishers such as National Book Store or Diwa Scholastics, have their own networks, and other smaller publishers form groups.
Who pays the postage fee in your case, Mr. Nayak?

Mr. Nayak: The cost of the delivery is covered by subscription. Although it will cost 168 taka to buy copies for one year at newsstands, we take 200 taka for subscription. The two prices may seem inconsistent, but we give gifts to those who subscribe which are not inserted in the copies sold at newsstands. It makes a great difference and people are happy to subscribe even if they have to pay more.
We made contact with some courier service in Bangladesh recently and succeeded in persuading them to distribute our magazine in Dhaka and adjoining areas. It reduced the time taken to reach our readers, to 1-2 days in those areas. We maintained the same price as to other subscribers and paid the extra .5 taka to the courier service, but what we got from it was much more than what we paid.

Ms. Viscarra: Recently in the Philippines there is a new kind of publication, which is a mixture betweeen a magazine and a tabloid targeted at specific areas. This may be a hint for distribution to remote areas.
Sun Star Daily, which publishes a mixture of magazine and newspaper, established three regional desks which are in charge of the content and distribution in each area. The three editions just adopt the format of the Sun Star Daily and probably publish some core articles. Also, National Inquirer publishes an edition each for Visaya and Mindanao, and is now developing one for Northern Luzon, with independent contents. They respond to people's feelings in the provinces who feel that they are being ignored, because the articles used to be mostly Manila-oriented. The new scheme gives them the chance to drop their own line-up of articles carrying the objectives of the main supporting organizations. The approach whereby people in a certain area take care of distribution as well as the contents by themselves works.

Ms. Dharmarajan: The most significant problem that I am facing at present is not only distribution. Because we are a non-profit organization, people expect to receive our publications free of cost. Initially we kept covering such charges and sent all the copies free, but of course it was impossible to keep it going.
Another system that we tried is that, because we believe that urban residents should subsidize the rural people, we set up two prices, for rural and urban. But this didn't work as expected, because we gradually received much more letters for subscription with their addresses in rural areas. It is obvious that many subscribers are putting down addresses in villages so that they can get the subscription at the lower rate.
This is perhaps the greatest problem in our country. People are not willing to pay for reading. They have the notion that reading materials, especially those for literacy purposes, should be free. I think this goes back to literacy encouragement activities by the government which encouraged people to read giving out materials without charge. Eventually they got used to the habit of receiving free copies and they expected the same from magazines and private organizations like us.

Mr. Nayak: I too believe that readers must have some participation in the purchase, so that they can attach themselves to that publication. If they get something free, they may keep it aside and after some time, they might throw it away. But in the case of rural children who cannot afford reading materials on their own, some kind of support should be necessary.

Ms. Dharmarajan: For distribution to the urban metropolitan area, there are fewer problems. But the commercial distributors are not interested in reaching out to the villages, as I have mentioned before. I think governmental support should be given more to distribution than publishing itself, because private publishers and non-governmental organizations have made a great progress in publishing nowadays. But of course support means not only subsidy, because the most important point is hunger for reading that you have to develop in people. We have to reach out to people who have not yet realized that reading is important, and make them want to spend a part of their income on books.

Thank you very much for joining in this discussion and sharing your thoughts and opinions frankly. I hope the fruits of this course will help you to develop the quality of reading materials in your countries and the network nurtured here will be a precious asset for you all in exchanging information.