What is the highest circulation magazine in the world?

Yep, that’s right!

The Watchtower: Public Edition, which has been produced and distributed by Jehovah’s Witnesses since 1879, now has an average monthly print run of 53m copies. That’s about 1 for every 142 people on Earth.

The only verification I could find for the 53m number is from the publishers themselves. But I suspect that it really is the biggest because when I checked the monthly circulation figures for other big magazines, they’re much much smaller. Here’s the top five in the US:

Rank Name Circulation Founded Publisher
1 AARP The Magazine 22,274,096 1958 AARP
2 AARP Bulletin 22,244,820 1960 AARP
3 Costco Connection 8,654,464  ? Costco Wholesale
4 Game Informer 7,629,995 1991 GameStop
5 Better Homes And Gardens 7,615,581 1922 Meredith

The Watchtower: Public Edition also appears to be much larger than anything outside the US. The biggest magazine in India (Mathrubhoomi) records a circulation of 800k. I couldn’t find any data for China – perhaps there is a huge magazine there of which I’m not aware (please let me know if so).

But top magazine circulation does not correspond to population size. For example: the Netherlands’ top magazine is AutoPrimeurs with 6m among a population of 16.8, whereas Cosmopolitan in Russia circulates 980k copies among a population of 144m.

Curiously, different magazine topics top the list in different countries:

  • Cooking – Canada
  • TV – France
  • Cars – Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand
  • Celebrities – Russia, Spain

In other countries, there are either more general, or organisation-specific magazines topping the list:

  • Australian Women’s Weekly – well, Australia
  • The National Trust Magazine – UK
  • AARP The Magazine – US

So, how did The Watchtower’s circulation get so big?

For sure there is a sense of mission – the subtitle of the magazine is ‘Announcing God’s Kingdom’.

Second, it’s free. Until 1990, The Watchtower carried a fee of $0.25 in the US. After a question was raised over the whether religious literature should be subject to taxation, the decision was made to make the magazine free, and now it is funded by voluntary donations from Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of the public.

Third, it’s efficient. Production of so many copies must be very expensive. But distribution is relatively cheap, since at local level it is carried out by unpaid volunteers.

I’m no Jehovah’s Witness, but I was struck by the scale and the reach of the magazine and the operation behind it. So next time you see someone offering a copy of The Watchtower, give a nod to that at least.

Author: toddmgreen

I really like making internet projects. I work on apps, games and websites at a TV company. I write stuff, make stuff, and accidentally break stuff. You should probably follow me on Twitter - @toddmgreen.

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