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

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Hannah Johnson is the Publisher of Publishing Perspectives. Before joining PP in 2009, she worked as Project Manager at the German Book Office New York.