How to market culture, Italian style

When all else fails, offer a discount:

The cover of the current issue of Poesia, an Italian poetry magazine, shows a caricature of Eugenio Montale, a Nobel laureate in literature, standing on a cloud next to a tall stack of books. The headline reads, “One million volumes.”

It is a reference to the special edition of Montale’s poetry distributed during February with some copies of the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera, which has a daily circulation of 686,000. Though the book reached that number in part because it was a giveaway, experts were nonetheless impressed, as well as by the book offered as an option along with the newspaper the following Monday: poems by Pablo Neruda. That book cost readers 5.90 euros, or about $7.20, and it sold more than 250,000 copies. There’s more poetry where that came from. Corriere della Sera plans a series of 30 books featuring the works of great poets, one each Monday, and at a relatively low price…

The strategy has been so successful that today nearly every Italian paper on the newsstand sells at least one discounted product – a book, DVD, CD or videotape – at least one day a week. The sales have helped raise circulation modestly and have given an unexpected infusion of cash to newspapers.

In other words, give newspapers a high prestige gloss, to mobilize eyeballs for advertisers. Note that cheap advertising than subsidizes quality poetry. Here is some more on the economics:

Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso, which publishes La Repubblica and the weekly L’Espresso, last month cited the editorial initiatives as a reason that its net profit rose 47 percent last year, to 67.8 million euros, or about $82.9 million. In 2003, the two newspapers sold 34 million books, 2 million DVD’s and 1.6 million compact disks at prices ranging from 4.90 to 12.90 euros. La Repubblica itself costs 1.20 euros at the newsstand; L’Espresso costs 2.80 euros. Cost-cutting and improvements in online operations also helped raise profit, the company said.

“We thought we were going to appeal to a niche market because Italians aren’t known as being great readers,” said a spokesman for Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso, who said company policy required anonymity.

He said the publisher expected to break even by selling 50,000 copies in the first series, but that around 500,000 copies of each of 50 volumes of 20th-century masterpieces were sold.

“It was instead an incredible success,” he said, “and created a new phenomenon for the Italian market.”

La Repubblica is now selling a six-volume set of Italian poetry from the 13th century to the present. The paper has sold about 120,000 copies of each volume at 7.90 euros a book.

If the numbers are good for newspapers’ bottom lines, they have book publishers worried. Almost half of the 100 million books sold in Italy in both 2002 and 2003 were sold with newspapers and magazines at newspaper kiosks, according to the Italian Publishers Association.

“Newspapers are no longer just vehicles for information – they’ve become a distribution system,” said Federico Motta, president of the publishers association.

Newspapers have several advantages over traditional book publishers, he said, starting with a distribution network of around 40,000 newsstands throughout Italy.

Click here for the full story. Americans, in contrast, sell books at discount superstores, such as Wal-Mart. Or now you can buy digital music at Starbucks. Not to mention those Picassos

The bottom line: The sale of culture is increasingly about the best way to mobilize notice and attention. Over the next century, expect traditional cultural intermediaries to disappear or be radically transformed. When you buy art from a traditional gallery, sales and certification are bundled together in the same institution. As the division of labor increases, we should expect sales and certification to become separate functions, performed by separate groups of people. The reality is that coffee shops, newspaper stands, Wal-Marts, or whatever are now the institutions that hold our attention. They will become our new cultural suppliers.


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