Hot Italian Readers: The Feltrinelli Era

In Global Trade Talk by Hannah Johnson

By Boris Kachka

Superstores and publishers have had some run-ins of late—decades after the heyday of one-stop publisher-printer-bookshops working on several floors of the same building. Tech-savvy startup OR Books cited that golden age at the fair, explaining their plan to sell print and e-books directly to consumers. But there’s one independent house, a ripe 55 years old, that manages a medium-sized quality house and a growing chain of Barnes & Noble-style emporia all at the same time. The provenance of Milan-based Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore and Librerie Feltrinelli—100 stores and 220 annual books between them—is as rare as its modern niche.

“Booksellers didn’t sell [our titles] because we were very left wing and they were very Catholic,” explains Inge Feltrinelli, the president of the publishing house and the widow of its co-founder Giangiacomo, “so we started in ’57 in Pisa, and remodeled the Italian distribution market. Feltrinelli, a fabulous dresser whose paisley-patterned pocket square matches her scarf, interrupts herself occasionally to air-kiss a procession of European publishers.

Giangiacomo was a die-hard member of the Italian Communist Party, and Feltrinelli’s books included the writings of acquaintances like Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Ho Chi Minh (alongside such coups as Doctor Zhivago, Tropic of Cancer, and Lampedusa’s Italian classic The Leopard). In 1970 he founded the militant group known as GAP; two years later, he was apparently killed by his own explosives at a high-power pylon near Milan. (Many had their suspicions over the cause of death.) His wife took over the publishing house, and his son took over the bookstore chain.

The rest was pure capitalism. The stores were built into large open spaces, some of them in former cinemas, and their internal cafes and music offerings predated—and anticipated—the superstore era. It proved a powerful hedge against the precarious business of mid-size indie publishing. “Publishing is always bad, never flourishing,” says Feltrinelli. “Fifty percent of Italians never read a book, but a very important part is ‘hot readers’—11% of Italians buy 20 books a year.” Feltrinelli, like many Europeans at the fair, says business stabilized this year; among the books she hopes to sell are Paolo Sorrentino’s Everyone is Right (Hanno tutti ragione), and Don Vito, about a notorious Palermo mayor in cahoots with the mob and the Italian secret service. Giangiacomo would have approved.

(This story originally appeared in the Publishing Perspectives show daily at the Frankfurt Book Fair on 7 October 2010. Download the complete show daily here or click on the image to view the online version.)

About the Author

Hannah Johnson


Hannah Johnson is the publisher of international book industry magazine Publishing Perspectives, which provides daily information and news about book markets around the world. In addition to building partnerships with international cultural and trade organizations, she works with the Frankfurt Book Fair to organize and support a number of its overseas initiatives. Hannah has also worked as the managing editor for an online media company, The Hooch Life, focused on craft distillers and cocktail experts. Prior to that, she worked as a project manager for the Frankfurt Book Fair’s New York office, managing various business and marketing activities.