It’s a beautiful day, and—through the intercession of my dear friend Drenka Willen, Umberto Eco’s U.S. editor and my go-to for all things European—I’ve been invited to the Milan offices of La Nave di Teseo. The boutique publishing house was formed in reaction to the 2015 acquisition of book publisher RCS Libri (which includes Rizzoli and Bompiani) by publishing house Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, owned by the family of Silvio Berlusconi (yes, that Silvio Berlusconi).
Steps from Sempione Park and the impressive Castello Sforzesco, the building at 6 Via Stefano Jacini is magnificent, with a lobby of colored and leaded glass windows and, in the corner, a sensuous marble statue. I’m here to meet with managing director Elisabetta Sgarbi, the powerhouse of La Nave. I’m ushered into the office of president Mario Andreose and am immediately impressed with the inlaid marble desk and the painting behind it, of a horse suspended in midair. However, I’m more impressed by Mario, who arrives to tell me that Elisabetta is in a meeting and that he will fill in until she becomes available.
If that much Italian is tough to process, let me give you an easy one: Umberto Eco. The bestselling author of The Name of the Rose (which has sold more than 50 million copies in 40 languages since it was published in 1980) was concerned that the acquisition of RCS by Mondadori would create a publishing monopoly in Italy. The key here is that the combination of RCS Libri and Mondadori gave the latter a 35%–38% share of the entire Italian publishing market, Mario tells me. The acquisition, he says, “meant a monster” and “was unacceptable.” In Italy, each publishing house has its own paperback line, and after the acquisition, Mondadori controlled 78% of the paperback market—all of the Mondadori imprints plus Rizzoli.
“Eco said it was important to save the identity and diversity of writers,” Mario says. “With only one publisher, it would be impossible for independents to capture the Strega, for example.” Italy’s biggest literary prize, the Strega, is chosen by a jury of 400 of Italy’s cultural elite—writers, journalists, publishers, and professors—as well as some booksellers and students, who are included to balance the influence of the main editorial groups. Authors published by Mondadori and Rizzoli are typically the main competitors for the Strega. Having them under the same umbrella, Mario says, “would create conflicts of interest.”
And so the idea of forming a new publishing house to add diversity to the market became a reality. Eco contributed €2 million to get the new venture off the ground, and enthusiastic investors followed, among them Jean-Claude and Nicky Fasquelle (Eco’s French publishers), with €1.5 million, and Fulio Colombo, a writer, journalist, and former president of Fiat USA.
Encouraged by the sound financial basis for the new publishing house, other Bompiani authors joined Eco (who, sadly, died in February 2016; 2,000 people attended the funeral at Castello Sforzesco, and Eco’s French publisher said that only Sartre had as many mourners). Authors who jumped ship to La Nave and have books forthcoming this fall include Paul Coelho, with La Spia (The Spy); Michael Cunningham, with Il Cigno Selvatico (A Wild Swan); and Patrick McGrath, with La Guardarobiera (The Wardrobe Mistress).
In addition, La Nave bought Coelho’s whole backlist starting with The Alchemist, a new edition of which is due out this July. And for the U.S. market, Judith Gurewich of Other Press bought Tutto è in Frantumi e Danza (Everything Is Broken Up and Dances: The Crushing of the Middle Class) by Guido Maria Brera and Edoardo Nesi, to be published in March 2018. “I bought this book because it dives right into what I love about Italy—its incredible aesthetic,” Gurewich says. “Elisabetta breaks new ground but never loses her sense of the historical and cultural parameters that make her country so satisfying to the senses.” Gurewich calls the publisher “a fierce independent lover of beauty.”
I’m invited into Elisabetta’s office; black bookshelves cover the wall behind her desk. With Elisabetta is La Nave editor-in-chief, Eugenio Lio. Elisabetta is the head of La Nave, but she emphasizes the importance of her colleagues. “We had a success from the very beginning,” she says. “We took a risk when we decided to leave Bompiani. We had spent a life there.” Mario was at Bompiani for 35 years, Elisabetta for 25. “Eco’s interest was most important,” she adds. “He gave us his last book, Pape Satàn Aleppe. It was very exciting for us.”
Pape Satàn Aleppe, a collection of essays whose title comes from Dante’s Inferno, was published in February, right after the author’s death. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Eco’s U.S. publisher, is bringing out the collection in November under the title Chronicles of a Liquid Society.
“And a small house can be more nimble,” Elisabetta continues. “There’s definitely an advantage to being small.” She cites La Nave’s publication of Emmanuel Macron’s book, Rivoluzione (Revolution).“We were able to take a gamble on it. We published it before he became president. We sent 2,000 copies to booksellers and waited for the election. And of course, he won. We sold the rights for 20,000 copies to Corriere della Sera for a special edition that was distributed with the newspaper on newsstands on April 24. There’s a tradition of special editions of books with newspapers; all of Eco’s books have been sold in Argentina for newspaper distribution.”
And the company’s name? It was suggested by Eco during a brainstorming session with Jean-Claude, Elisabetta, Mario, and Eugenio. The ship of Theseus is a paradox about change and staying the same—if, over time, each part of a ship has been replaced, is it still the same ship it was originally? “Eco had also suggested Alamo, as a symbol of resistance against the powerful editorial lobbies,” Elisabetta says. “But Jean-Claude pointed out that at the end of that battle, everyone was dead!”
La Nave is no Alamo. The company is thriving: the staff of 10 produced 60 titles in 2016, 20 of them backlist. For 2017, the numbers increased to 80, with 30 backlist titles. In June, Elisabetta announced the acquisition of 95% of Baldini & Castoldi, the historic Milanese brand that publishes Linus of Peanuts fame. And, aware of the growing importance of comics, La Nave recently bought a 67% share in Oblamov, a small graphic novel company. Mario laughs, saying, “We prefer to invest in the company rather than give the money to the investors.”
Elisabetta recently told Corriere della Sera: “The energy of our publishing house is contagious. By the end of the year, we should have 1% of the market.”
With Elisabetta on her way to more meetings, Mario graciously escorts me to lunch. We drink wine and eat rigatoni, and he shares his risotto recipe. “I’m not a cook, but this I’ve perfected,” he says. The secret seems to be the capon broth. And on the way out of the building, he points to the erotic sculpture I noticed on the way in. “It’s a nymph and satyr from the 19th century,” he tells me. “Originally, it was in a brothel.” Publishing is alive and well in Milan, as is la bella figura.
This article has been corrected to reflect that Eco's The Name of the Rose has sold 50 million copies, according to the publisher, not 10 million copies, and has been translated in 40 languages, not 30.