Marcello Baraghini's 'Millelire' Radical Publishing Alternative
|By Roderick Conway Morris|
ROME 26 March 1993
'They still don't really understand what we're about,' said Marcello Baraghini of his fellow publishers. 'They're in a state of shock.'
A tall, gaunt 50-year-old with a grizzled beard, Baraghini has been shaking Italian book publishing to its foundations with a new series of books called 'Millelire,' which is what they cost - 1,000 lire (about 65 cents), less than a cup of coffee or a daily newspaper.
'In 1991,' said Baraghini, 'I was about to close down because I believed it was no longer possible in Italy to publish good, original books at reasonable prices.'
Baraghini was speaking in his tiny office-cum-home in the basement of an old-style Roman apartment block by a windswept traffic intersection on the banks of the Tiber. With a bed jammed up against his trestle-table and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, there was just space to squeeze in to talk to this radical enfant terrible, who founded Stampa Alternative in 1971, to issue counterculture booklets on topics like growing your own marijuana, macrobiotic cooking, contraception, abortion and children's rights. At that time deeply unpopular with the authorities, he eventually had to take to the hills, and spent three years working as a shepherd in Tuscany. Returning to publishing in the 1980s, he built up an impressive list of beautifully designed, but remarkably modestly priced books on art, illustration, calligraphy and jazz.
To mark his imminent closure two years ago, Barahgini did a farewell booklet of photos of bizarre prototypes of cars, with accompanying surreal interpretative texts, as a gift to booksellers. It provoked so much interest that Baraghini resolved to issue other titles in the same format - and charge a token 1,000 lire for them, 'a symbolic, nonprice price, that broke every barrier of accessibility.'
The eccentric enterprise received an appropriately unpredictable boost from the runaway success of one title: 'Letter on Happiness,' a parallel text version of a disquisition on the Good Life by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B. C). Last year 800,000 were sold. 'And I'm printing 200,000 more,' said Baraghini, 'all already ordered.One bookshop alone, here in Rome, has asked for 5,000 copies.'
There are currently more than 50 'Millelire' titles, including works by Kerouac, Stevenson, Stendhal, Villon, Seneca, Heraclitus, Martialand Mishima (translated for the first time directly into Italian from Japanese, rather than via English), original fiction and travel writing by new Italian authors, and practical handbooks, such as a guide to Italy's proposed electoral reforms and a young people's European rail travel manual.Last year sales topped four million, and this year Baraghini hopes to increase the list to 100 titles, and sell 10 million books.
Nor has Baraghini's zero-lire publicity budget prevented him from securing nationwide advertisements. 'Panorama,' Italy's leading news weekly, took 700,000 copies of 'Millelire's' electoral reform guide to give away free with the magazine, and provided a free full-page ad for Stampa Alternativa. And when a commercial publishing conglomerate announced a promotional campaign offering a 25 percent discount on all its far more costly books, Baraghini countered with a 'spoiling' event, where 'Millelire' books were to be sold for 2,000 lire -twice the normal price.
'Millelire's' founder draws no salary from the publishing company and makes a living from selling the books, often directly at open-air markets, in discotheques, to lines outside concerts, in schools and universities. Around 70 percent of buyers are young people, and going out to meet them, said Baraghini, 'keeps your finger on the pulse, and makes you understand what they want.'
'At first I was sent packing by many booksellers,' said Baraghini cheerfully, 'because they complained that the profit margin was so small there was no point in stocking the books. But then so many readers kept coming in and asking for this book or that, they gave in and took them - out of desperation.'
Ironically, 'Millelire's' meteoric rise is now threatening Baraghini with financial ruin: 'It's quite simple, the more we sell, the closer we come to bankruptcy. An average book makes a profit of about 100 lire - but we never had any capital, so everything we make at the moment goes straight to the bank in interest payments.' And with print runs of 100,000 and more, Baraghini has been forced to borrow ever larger sums to pay the printers, while having to wait six months to see any return on bookstore sales.
Despite his parlous position, he seems confident that the press will survive: 'I need 200 million lire. I've already had several offers to help raise it. I'm considering, for example, selling the inside back cover as an advertising space to a suitable sponsor for a limited period of one year.'
His ultimate ambition, Baraghini declared, was to be the architect of his own extinction as a publisher. 'My dream is that 'Millelire' should be taken over by the readers, who would chose, edit, publish and sell the books themselves.'
'Then I can go off and do something completely different,' he added, with a broad, disarmingly subversive smile.
First published: International Herald Tribune
© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023