Innovative Publishing Out of Italy’s Rizzoli

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Italy isn’t known as a hotbed of digital publishing innovation or activity. In fact, ebooks only account for somewhere around 4% of publisher revenue in the country, according to Marcello Vena, director of digital business at RCS Libri, which owns book publisher Rizzoli, among other companies. (He’s also a DBW blogger.)

Yet, despite this nascent state of the market, Vena has been quietly building an innovation powerhouse at Rizzoli. He has a digital team that is dedicated to coming out with one new innovation project a quarter, Vena told me last week at the London Book Fair.

He outlines some of the innovations in a recent blog post:

— Digital-first imprint (Rizzoli First, July 2012)

— Ebook-streaming service on Italy’s high-speed trains (December 2012)

— Ebook streaming on Pinterest (May 2013)

— “Co-publishing,” a third way between traditional publishing and self-publishing (July 2013)

— Ebook and print bundling (December 2013)

— Online literary award for unpublished novels in partnership with Amazon (January 2014)

The first immersive narrative ebook collection for kids in Italy (March 2014)

While some of these are more “innovative” than others by U.S. standards, for a market where ebooks are such a small percentage of the business, they’re downright revolutionary — and risky.

I want to talk about one innovation in particular that Vena described to me in more detail because of how novel I thought it was.

On high-speed trains in Italy, you can now stream a selection of Rizzoli ebooks through the train’s wifi — for free. The program gives a discovery boost to Rizzoli authors and titles and, besides, the longest of legs of these trains is three hours, not nearly enough time for most people to finish a book.

Rizzoli had to invent a way to get book content onto particular trains (using satellites, actually) and has developed a system so that different titles can be on different train lines, giving variety to the cross-country traveler.

While this experiment may not make sense for all publishers (what about ebooks on Bolt or Megabus lines, which offer customers wifi?), the spirit of dedicating time and effort to innovation and experimentation should.

8 thoughts on “Innovative Publishing Out of Italy’s Rizzoli

  1. Linton Robinson

    Hmm. Well, the trains thing is new… but all that means is they stream and the trains have wi-fi, right? “Co-publishing” is old news (and generally known as a trick name to avoid the more common term “vanity press”… kind of like using Kindle and CreateSpace, except they charge you money up front? There are lots of literary awards like that in the States and UK. This “immersive” thing sounds exactly like books/33 rpm record combinations I had as a child. And a weaning away from reading. So, I think calling them “innovative” because they’re behind the curve for acceptance of ebooks is a “tallest dwarf” honor, or something?

    1. Jeremy Greenfield

      While the train thing is the most innovative (and it involves a bit more than wifi), it’s not about the actual innovations it’s about having a dedicated staff toward working on innovative projects. It’s about an attitude and an outlook.

    2. Marcello VenaMarcello Vena

      Innovation is very hard to do, as it requires not only great idea generation but also great execution. In fact Innovation is very hard to replicate, to convey and to appreciate in the short term. It tends to be underestimated until it becomes mainstream, as followers realize its importance and are able to catchup. At this point Innovation becomes trivial.
      Innovation doesn’t just entail products or services. It’s also about processes, partnerships, organization, execution, market, economic viability, business opportunity and so on.

      Innovation doesn’t mean Invention or “new stuff”. Just a couple of examples (not exhaustive of all possible differences).
      The first manned Moonflight proved to be technically feasible in 1969. It isn’t economically feasible yet. Only when manned Moonflights will be profitable so as to give birth to recurrent businesses, they will constitute an Innovation for a specific consumer group at least. It will be 45 years after Neil Armstrong’s feat in the very best case. It might become a huge Innovation, despite being not really “new”.
      Furthermore, one doesn’t necessarily need to be the first to be the Innovator. Apple’s iPod is a case in point. It wasn’t among the first mp3 players on the market, but it was the Innovative one. The one that created the demand and the market. Where was then news in 2001? Just another mp3 player? No, the iPod a product category on its own. A massive Innovation at that time.

      Co-Publishing doesn’t mean vanity-press, nor money charged upfront. It’s the first time that a large publishing group, not a retailer, goes this way in Italy. It’s a brand-new concept with many subtle facets: How many large Publishers are experimenting with this concept in US, in UK or in other countries? Very few, at most.

      BigJump, it’s an first online literary contest for KDP self-published authors, where the readers and a big publisher pick the winners in Italy. It’s organized by Rizzoli and Amazon. The first ever contest that involves the largest e-retailer of the world and large national publishing group. Innovation is also about specific partnerships and the value to readers and writers. To them brand, reach, visibility matter a lot. How often does Amazon online literary contests with big publishers in US or UK?

      Immersive narrative for kid is a vanguard project, given the today’s very limited technologies for eBooks. In the future it will be way easier and less expensive. Now it isn’t easy at all. Even the simplest ePub3 ebooks don’t work on leading ereading devices. This publishing experiment aims to push the curve of technical and economic feasibility. To get a feeling of how hard it is, it’s enough to count how many large series of ebook for kids, such as this one, are available on iBooks, Kobo and Google Play at the same time. 30 ebooks originally played by human actors, with original music, sound and motion effects, original drawings, synchronized texts aren’t a trivial feat, given today’s technologies and if business viability is a must too.

      In order to crack all these very different challenges (and many others), organization and human capital are key. Without them there isn’t any hope for innovation. This was the core message: .

  2. Jim Lichtenberg

    What I like about the Rizzoli approach is that they are experimenting to see how customers might like to consume digital content. Italians, at least when I lived there, were not readers except for an elite. In this maybe they are closer to Americans than I would have thought at that time. There is such a huge upside of non-reading Americans that anything we could learn from anywhere about ways to penetrate and engage that group( on a train, in a bus, wherever) is worth it. I say, bravo Rizzoli.

    1. Jeremy Greenfield

      Thanks for the comment. Here’s an email reply from Marcello Vena:

      “For your info the service is dated December 2012.

      “The mentioned Spanish initiative in April 2012 was a one-off adv activity by RH-Mondadori based on ebook samples (first chapters, not full books) that users could also read at home.
      Only at regional level in Catalonia, not in the entire Spain.

      “Indeed the train is almost irrelevant. It’s about scanning a qr-code and surf online on a RH-Mondadori owned site. It works the same on a newspaper, outdoor furniture, tram, buses, and so on…

      “It works only in case of internet connection. If the train goes through a tunnel or at too high speed for cellular phones it doesn’t work.

      “Our innovation is a full-time on-train service for passengers. Full books only available while you are on the train. (the books are locally stored on the train and not on the internet).

      “With QR codes it wouldn’t have worked. It works also while the train travel through long tunnels, as the file storage is local while the distribution is through satellite.”

    2. Jeremy Greenfield

      Also, on a more personal note, the article wasn’t really about the specific innovations. It’s about a publisher making specific investments in the concept of innovation within a market that isn’t mature or certain. It’s about an attitude.

  3. Ebook Bargains UK

    Sorry if my original comment came across as antagonistic. Should have spent more time on it. The point was simply that the idea of ebooks on trains had been reported as happening back in April, so predating the Italian move by several months.

    Marcello, thanks for the extra details, which clarify the big differences between the two ventures.

    Agree totally about attitude, Jeremy. Its no coincidence Europe has led the way with initiatives like ebook subscription services, for example, leaving the US to belatedly jump on the bandwagon.

    It’s fascinating to see the proliferation of small and micro ebook stores across Europe right now, notably in Italy and Germany,again in stark contrast to the US where the only micro-sites appear to be from indie bookstores via Kobo.

    Here in the UK supermarket ebook stores are leading the challenge to Amazon’s dominance, and also showing great innovations, like ebooks on the back of cereal packets.

    Globally American ebook retailers (perhaps Google Play the exception) seem far too myopic to take advantage of the burgeoning international ebook markets, including much of Europe, leaving rich pickings for innovative publishers and retailers.



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *