From Mille lire to Mille et Une Nuits : inventing ‘disposable’ books
A case study prepared by Benôit Heilbrunn Assistant Professor of Marketing, E.M. Lyon
1. ‘A book for the price of an espresso’ is Marcello Baraghini’s idea. In the 1970s, he created a small publishing company called Stampa Alternativa, close to the left wing antiestablishment movements. In 1990, he cameup with the idea of launching a series of books with very low production costs which would allow them to be sold at a very low price. The idea of Mille lire books was born: paperbacks with no more than 100 pages of text, printed on recycled paper, with no pictures. Fifty thousand copies of each title were printed. The authors published included Freud, Shakespeare, Garcia Lorca, Stendahl and Poe.The books were sold for the price of an espresso: 1,000 lire (51 cents), at the time cheaper than a packet of cigarettes. 2. What an amazing phenomenon and a very innovative move in a country where the average selling price of a book ranges from 5€ for a paperback to 17€ for a hardback. The success of the Mille lire books was inevitable. For example the Lettera sulla felicita translated fromEpicurus sold 5,000 copies and was among the Italian best sellers of the year. In 1992 over 2 million Mille lire books were sold in Italy. This new concept of books was successful because it created a new category of readers by overcoming the psychological hindrance of high prices. People would thus buy a Mille lire as they buy an espresso or a pack of cigarettes depending on their consumption situation.The publisher was required to adapt his choice of retail outlets according to these situation factors. It was therefore decided to sell the Mille lire in the traditional newsagents on every main street. People waiting for a date, an appointment or a train would be tempted to buy on impulse such books just as they would buy any ‘disposable product such as newspapers, cigarettes or chewing gum.'You use them once and throw them away. 3. The democratization of books also meant that the natural place of books gradually shifted from libraries to family homes. Also the evolution of the size of books – and mainly the appearance of paperbacks in the 1960s – allowed books to be carried about in a pocket. The concept of Mille lire books is very representative of this change in society. Depending onhis/her situation, mood, available time, the consumer would buy a Mille lire, read it and get rid of it. It means that Mille lire books may be considered more or less disposable as such items as pens, razors, lighters or even cameras. The main criticism targeted at the Mille lire operation was that this would depreciate the concept of the book, making it just another disposable product among somany others. Many people in Italy were shocked at the idea that a book could become consumable merchandise that could be used and then thrown away like any plain object. 4. The effect of these books was quite paradoxical because on the one hand they depreciated the idea of culture, being cheap and easily consumed cultural products, and on the other hand, they helped to rediscover Ancient authorswho were not read any more and also encouraged new people towards reading. Due to an enormous success in Italy, the idea rapidly spread and crossed the French border. In July 1993, a new collection of similar books was launched by Mille et Une Nuits in France, a small and newly born publisher. The concept was slightly adapted and the books were sold for 10 francs. 5. In France the situation of themarket was quiet. The 'livres de poche' were celebrating their 30th birthday. The concept of 'pocket book' first appeared there in 1963, with two major characteristics: the books were sold at a very low price and their size enabled them to be
ECG 1 March 2007
carried in a pocket, hence the name given to them. This market grew rapidly in France with a great number of collections being...