A local edition of the racy monthly launched in Hong Kong on April 1 through a licensing agreement between U.K.-based Dennis Publishing and South China Morning Post Publishers. But the Chinese territory is really a launchpad for a second edition aimed at 23-to-35-year-old affluent men in mainland China.
The Chinese edition of Maxim will feature scantily clad hotties alongside articles about sports, fashion, cars and other male-oriented fare-a cocktail that could stretch China's prudish sensibilities, and the tolerance of government censors. "It will be interesting to see how Maxim works out. There is a market for that genre, as long as they don't cross the boundaries with subject matter that's too provocative," said Tom Doctoroff, J. Walter Thompson Co.'s CEO-China, based in Shanghai. "It's not a question of content, but of photography. Local men's magazines already run very sexual pictures of women, but you'll never see a nipple, even through clothing,"
Although China is home to 9,000 magazines, many are dull, state-owned periodicals and scholarly journals, so media observers agree there is a market for niche lifestyle titles aimed at young Chinese urbanites hungry for snappy content.
The Hong Kong edition has an initial circulation of 40,000 copies and sells for $4.50. In China, Maxim will be priced at $2.40, and will be distributed in 32 cities nationwide with a projected circulation of 120,000. Maxim is already published in South Korea through a licensing agreement with DMZ Media, and two more editions are planned for Thailand and Singapore later this year.
"Men in China have more money, better jobs and different interests than their fathers' generation. China already has magazines about men's fashion, sports and girls, but we're everything combined," said Amanda Turnbull, SCMP director-marketing and communications, newspaper division.
Ms. Turnbull is not worried about the magazine's notorious hotties. "We'll have to tone down the content a bit, of course, but there's already very racy stuff published in China." A larger concern is combing through the red tape to get the mainland edition off the ground later this year.
The process is "very complicated," said Ms. Turnbull. Foreign publishers, even those based in Hong Kong like SCMP, cannot gain mass-market distribution in China without establishing a joint venture with a local publisher. But that means subjecting the magazine to local censors as well as sharing management control, and revenue, with a local firm.
At this stage, Dennis Publishing and SCMP will not identify their Chinese partner, give an exact launch date or say how the tripartite group will divide editorial, sales and marketing responsibilities.
Business publishers such as Fortune China, meanwhile, usually opt for a different entry strategy. They publish magazines in Hong Kong's liberal media environment then ship them over the border. Censors cannot edit content, but distribution is limited to controlled subscriptions and a handful of newsstands in five-star hotels and other foreign-dominated areas.
Despite the obstacles, foreign publishers have been edging their way into China since 1980, when International Data Group launched a Chinese edition of Computerworld. IDG has set up an empire of technology and business publications such as PC World, and, in recent years, also established local editions of titles such as Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Harper's Bazaar.