(Editor's note: This article continues a year-long partnership between LWP and Media Associates International to present a series of articles focused on global Christian publishing.)
“Christian publishing is foolish!” “You know, you're kind of stupid.” “Why did you join that publishing house? You are wasting your time!” These brutal words from friends rang in the ears of the newly-installed managing director of a start-up Christian publishing house in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
“People here don't like to read. You are young, educated, and can speak English well. You are better off landing an important and high-paying position in one of the many multinational, non-profit organizations in Cambodia!” This director is one of many publishers in Asia whom I have met in my ministry as a publishing trainer.
Challenges of Publishing in Asia
These comments capture the world's assessment of young Christian publishers in Asia and the difficulties they face in choosing that career. Local leaders who pursue Christian ministry through the written word are confronted with significant challenges as well as opportunities. They work in largely Muslim, Buddhist, Animist, and Hindu nations with small markets for their publications.
- Financial priorities. Many Asian people have little interest in reading and wages are low in countries of the Majority World. Families may budget income for food, housing, and the education of five or more children. Buying Christian books and magazines lies near the bottom, if at all, in the list of family priorities.
- Free literature. Furthermore, for decades different denominations and Christian groups have distributed free literature as tools for evangelism and church planting. Evangelistic tracts of all kinds flood the continent. We thank the Lord that thousands of genuine conversions have resulted from this strategy, but people have become so used to receiving complimentary Christian reading materials that they consider purchasing Christian books and magazines absurd. A struggling Christian publishing house that wants to wean away from dependence on donations and become “self-sustaining” will find it difficult to obtain steady and growing revenues from book sales to attain its mission and vision.
- Printing costs. Printing costs also pose an obstacle to effective Christian publishing in Asia. Going back to the example of the publishing house in Cambodia, they can sell a maximum of five hundred copies of a new title in its first year. A 500-copy print run means a high printing cost, necessitating a retail price that is far above the affordability level.
More often than not, publishing houses, not only in Cambodia but also in countries such as Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Myanmar, Thailand, and others, opt to print one to two thousand copies to keep the printing cost low. Then, excess inventory builds, destined to gather dust in the warehouse for at least two to four years. In such a scenario it is very difficult for publishers to maintain a healthy cash flow.
Of course, the challenges facing Christian publishers within Asia differ greatly with this vast and diverse region, including westernized nations of Singapore, Japan, and South Korea; Muslim countries like Indonesia and Pakistan; emerging superpowers China and India; “closed” countries such as Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam; and impoverished Bangladesh and Nepal (see sidebar on China).
The Written Word at Work
But publishers in all these places have stories to tell of how God is using the written word to draw men and women to himself.
In a closed Southeast Asian country, a quarterly Christian magazine for women (with underground distribution) became so popular that print runs ballooned from two thousand on the first issue, to three thousand on the second, four thousand on the third, and eight thousand on the fourth. The magazine is run by a team of local women writers and editors who are mentored by a Singaporean editor—one of the highly-skilled volunteer trainers linked with Media Associates International (MAI). The magazine features dramatic true stories of conversions and testimonies that often illicit tears from readers.
Another success story is Miknia's Doll, the first children's book written and illustrated by a Cambodian, Lina Pao. The book, released in 2008, marked a milestone of the startup publishing house mentioned above, now in its sixth year.
Local Filipino writers like Dr. Melba Maggay, Evelyn Miranda Feliciano, Rev. William Girao, Dr. Isabelo Magalit, Dr. Luis Gatmaitan, and Grace Chong have significantly contributed to the growth of the Philippine Church over the years. Through their insights and wisdom, the evangelical voice has gained respect in the country, and their views on current issues are sought by the general public. We hope to see the same exciting development spread to other countries like Singapore, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia.
Heeding the Clamor for Asian Writers
Admittedly, translations of books from the West will continue to play a role in helping evangelize and disciple believers in the East. In fact, the translation route offers a faster and less costly way of making Christian materials available.
- Utilizing local writers and editors. Developing and nurturing local authors requires more work. But there is a growing clamor from Asian readers for materials written by fellow nationals who speak their language and know their history and culture. So much is lost in translation, and the impression that Christianity is a Western religion is exacerbated by the huge amount of translated Christian materials in the Majority World. As a nation’s Church matures, their appreciation and preference for locally-written Christian books increases.
In order to effectively pursue this goal, Christian publishers must tackle the task of raising the quality of locally-produced Christian books to par or even higher levels than their secular counterparts. This requires the training of local editors who play a major role in cultivating writers to produce excellent manuscripts.
According to Australian editor and trainer, Owen Salter, many Christian editors in Asia operate based on self-training. They learn by experience; this is not intrinsically bad, but they consequently face significant limitations.
“Many aspiring editors make unfortunate mistakes, lack skills, end up reinventing wheels, waste time (and money) working by trial and error, and operate in a vacuum, with little or no interaction with competent editorial mentors and peers,” Salter said. He affirmed both the need for technical training and cultivating constructive community among editors.
- Encouraging reading. Encouraging reading in the general population is also vital. Many Asian governments now acknowledge the role of developing reading habits as a way to compete in the global economy. Publishing houses have the opportunity to partner with these state-initiated reading campaigns, working to produce attractive books that meet readers’ needs.
- Incorporating new technologies. The onset of new technologies augurs well to keep costs down. Publishers hope that print-on-demand services will become available in emerging Asian economies soon. They would no longer need to keep a thousand copies of each title. A few hundred would do, or they could even print solely based on orders. Also, more electronic delivery of content will give readers instant accessibility as well as cutting costs. Cheaper versions of iPads and Kindles are just around the corner.
Although it will take time, attaining self-sufficiency in Christian publishing in Asian countries is not impossible. Heightened professionalism in operations, a highly trained and motivated staff, and excellence in product development are the essential areas of growth. Progress will contribute to the goal of meeting the needs of readers through a spiritually-mature pool of local authors.
To strengthen emerging Christian publishers in hard countries of Asia, MAI and other groups are providing training and encouragement. Many Asian Christian publishers seek help in two key areas:
- Marketing. What good does it do to publish excellent books and magazines if nobody knows they exist or how to get them?
- Editorial. How can we develop local authors if we lack skilled editors who will find and nurture talented writers?
In response, MAI will provide marketing and editorial training with up to eighty Asian Christian publishing staff at the MAI-Asia Publishing Forum 7-11 November 2011 in Hong Kong.
The main goal of Christian publishing is to proclaim Christ and God's word in this darkened and sinful generation. The printed page (paper or electronic) will continue to impact peoples and nations in the region where sixty percent of the world's population resides. Asian Christian writers, editors, and publishers must remain faithful. The results are in the hands of God.