Big little publishers for big little readers

Would you be a publisher today? Evidently, there is still someone who answers yes to this question. And it’s hard to understand if in these people what prevails is stubborn intelligence or sheer foolhardiness.

Ferruccio Giromini

Are Italians becoming increasingly more analphabetic? This is the thesis sustained by many recent surveys, statistics at hand. It is a fact that the intrusive television, despite the low quality of its offer, forges ahead. And continuously more citizens of “The Boot” feel no shame in declaring loud and strong that they do not like reading “because it seems like a waste of time” or “because it reminds them of school”... all answers that testify to the dramatic reality regarding the diffusion of culture in the nation’s physical and mental territory. The unpleasant but inevitable conclusion is that nowadays the Italian educational system teaches a dislike for reading, making it seem a sad and useless activity. It will not be an easy task to dig ourselves out of this hole. Yet there still exist a handful of audacious and unconscious destroyers of such a depressing status quo. There is still someone who believes in the book, in the beautiful book, and specifically in the beautiful children’s book, for the readers of tomorrow.


WOULD YOU BE A PUBLISHER TODAY? Evidently, there is still someone who answers yes to this question. And it’s hard to understand if in these people what prevails is obstinate intelligence or sheer foolhardiness. We all admire them but deep down inside we do not envy them. Because theirs must be a very difficult life, despite, of course, some satisfactions that may come along every once in a while. We are not referring to the so-called “big” publishing houses, which are today very different from what they were in the past: entrepreneurial families with an intellectual formation (the Einaudi, the Mondadori, the Rizzoli, the Bompiani, the Feltrinelli, the Fabbri, the Laterza, the Rusconi…) who succeeded in cultivating the minds of several generations of Italians. Their growth became unsustainable for the family-run companies that they were, so they became forced to transform themselves and follow the rules of capitalist enterprises that do not have the diffusion of culture as their main priority. “Pure” publishing houses do not exist in today’s fierce market. Nowadays, being able to find a small niche on the shelves of any one of the several thousand bookstores between the region of Val d’Aosta and Sicily is an arduous task like never before, even for those who have the right alliances, with promoters that are more skilled then others, with distributors that are less bold than others...

And it is also for these reasons that new, good quality publishing houses do not sprout like mushrooms, but are rather found every now and then, by sheer stroke of luck, hidden like truffles.


EACH EXEMPLARY CASE IS ALSO AN EXCEPTIONAL CASE. Let us take for example one of the most extraordinary small publishing houses of the moment: “Topipittori”. Strange name? There is a reason: “I topi pittori” (the mice painters, in the literal translation from the Italian) is the title of a successful story for children with which the writer Giovanna Zoboli, co-founder of the publishing company together with Paolo Canton, won a literary contest some years ago. Its birth comes as a direct effect of the activity of both parents, career copywriters – owners of Studio Calamus in Milan, a corporate communications and editorial agency – who at a certain point decided not to limit themselves to supplying ready-made objects for others, but rather to produce these themselves. It is for this reason that many of the texts are signed by Giovanna Zoboli herself, who gives free rein to her creativity and freedom of expression. For the text illustrations, they call upon their artist friends or young future promises. And the results arrive immediately: books of great character, easy-to-read and innovative, very different from the wax museum dominated by the colossal national publishers of children’s books.

Of course, problems in imposing themselves on the market are not lacking, nor is market penetration immediate. But their constant collaboration with specialized bookstores and children’s libraries, and of course the unusual quality of the works, attention to content as well as to the images, have in just three years made Topipittori an elegant and essential reality in the stiff Italian panorama. Proof of this is in the awards and official acknowledgements which abound also from abroad. Canton & Zoboli continue their endeavor in a firm and decisive manner, but with carefully measured steps: a few (but very good) productions a year, and even the refusal of a purchase offer by a major publisher, actually more interested in exploiting the company’s name than in enhancing the pursuit of its brave editorial policy.


THE PUBLIC’S CURIOSITY IS STIMULATED BY THE NAME CHOSEN. Confirmation of this statement comes from another small successful company, born in Rome in 2001: “Orecchio Acerbo” (“immature or unripe ear”, in the literal translation from the Italian). That one of the founders is called Fausta Orecchio explains only half of the reason for the company’s name. The other half comes from a famous poem written by the genius of children’s literature, Gianni Rodari, author of the unforgettable Grammar of Fantasy, whose introductory verses speak about a man mature in all aspects except for one ear, which he used to listen to what children had to say (ndt). But in this case the audacious pioneers of children’s editing (the other parent, the one not mentioned in the company name, is Simone Tonucci) come from the world of graphic design, and clearly focus on the originality of the graphics. Their books are hence characterized by extremely unusual design techniques, starting with the choice of letterings and particularly “dynamic” pagination schemes, and ending with sophisticated paper choices, counter-tide solutions in the binding and final packaging. They, too, receive endless praise and awards for many of the titles present in the catalogue. But they also face – unfortunately – the objective difficulties of surviving in today’s paper jungle. Wishes collide with reality. If the figures of the Italian publishing industry are what they are (approximately 4,500 publishers, 60,000 titles a year, 160 per day), the same “immature ears” feel that, in theory, there is no need for a new publishing house. They honestly affirm that their purpose is not to fill a void in the market or to do something new. They condense their “project” in five fixed “points” around which pivots their work - “1: We like our work and we like books; 2: Attentive and conscious graphics; 3: The illustrations; 4: The stories; 5: We have not done market research”. But evidently, working in Italy, enthusiasm is not enough.


IS MARKET RESEARCH REALLY INDISPENSABLE? Not necessarily. We can well do without it, but we must be very careful, we must not dare too much. It seems that editing innovative children’s books is more sustainable as a hobby than as a veritable profession. The well established Edizioni Corraini, another national leader in this kind of production, is still standing because their main support is elsewhere: in this case, it lies in the contemporary art gallery bearing the same name, located in Mantua, where Marzia and Maurizio Corraini intersect their exhibition activities with the editorial ones, with a “workshop” method inspired directly by the teachings of the great designer Bruno Munari, who had worked with the publishing house for over twenty years. Munari’s editorial method was (and remains) essentially experimental, a total design process that involves all executive stages, up to the printing and bindery. A feast for the intellect, but precisely for this reason, difficult to diffuse among the general public of “the old country”.


GIVING UP IS ALMOST INEVITABLE. But we must admit that at times, unexpectedly, good proposals manage to yield good results. Marzia Corraini, who is among the eight founders of the spectacular “Festivaletteratura”, the Literature Festival of Mantua, knows this well. If the various Science, Mind, Philosophy and Etcetera Festivals always have huge successes, attracting a numerous, enthusiastic public, why must we continue to think that the battle of culture is lost right from the start? Italy has much need of valiant heroes like these, who take up the enormous and thankless task of educating the new generations in beauty. They must be supported and encouraged. Let us at least remember to buy and give their books as presents, even at the cost of searching for them with some effort in the library. And we will learn that in many cases they are not just books for children, or just beautiful books for children, but actually beautiful books for everyone. And why should the illustrated book remain confined in the hands of the little ones? Let us not give them this privilege.

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