Post title image: The best startup you've never heard of: Fitzcarraldo editions

The best startup you've never heard of: Fitzcarraldo editions

Five lessons from the rise of Britain's best indie publisher.

Desk Notes

You might not know who they are. But you’ll have seen one of their distinctive blue covered books - whether on a shelf in a book shop, or sneakily peeking out of a pocket of someone walking down a street in East London.

Fitzcarraldo Editions - an independent publishing house run out of a small, one-room office in Deptford - have been around for less than a decade, but their impact on the world of publishing has been huge.

Since 2017, a dozen of their books have been nominated for the International Booker. In 2022, the Netanyahus won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. And most strikingly, of the last ten winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, five are Fitzcarraldo authors.

When we talk about great UK startups we often focus on the largest tech companies, but I’d like to nominate Fitzcarraldo Editions for the title - and share five lessons anyone can learn from their success.

Lesson 1: constraints breed creativity

The story behind Fitzcarraldo’s rise begins in 2014, when founder, Jacques Testard, bought the rights to a book by a Belarusian Svetlana Alexievich at the Frankfurt Book Fair, for the princely sum of £3,500.

At this time, all they had to go on was £70,000 Testard had borrowed from a family friend. This meant that most of the popular English language authors were out of reach, and that Fitzcarraldo had to get creative.

The book, called Second-Hand Time, had already sold well in other countries, but no other publishers saw how they’d be able to sell a 700 page series of monologues about the decline and fall of the Soviet Union. Fitzcarraldo was the only bidder.

A year later, Alexievich won the Novel Prize for Literature, and Fitzcarraldo sold the US rights for a six figure sum.

That constraint - a lack of deep pockets like other publishers - forced the team to look in places no other publisher would go.

The team. The team.

When they signed Olga Tokarczuk (now another Nobel Prize winner), she’d been turned down by about 15 US publishers first. As one author they publish put it: “Fitzcarraldo published me when no one else would.”

Even now, they only have a total of seven employees.

Constraints breed creativity.

Lesson 2: start niche, and go from there

Their constraints led them to a niche: translated foreign works.

They grabbed it with both hands, tracking down the best international works going, and bringing them to the English language market.

As a result they’ve been able to - as the Chief Executive of the Booker Prize foundation put it - “own that space” entirely.

In doing so, they’ve both grown what was once niche (according to the Telegraph, they sold 110,000 copies of books by Annie Ernaux in 2022), but also developed the reputation and credibility to expand beyond it.

They’re now able to bring some of the best English language writers on board, as well as nurture a growing crop of UK-based emerging writers.

Start small, do it really well, and go from there. 

Lesson 3: design as a differentiator

Fitzcarraldo’s books are already a design classic. They have a uniform cover - title and author in white type on a blue background for fiction books, vice versa if the book is non-fiction.

Here’s Testard on the story behind how the books look:

“The design for Fitzcarraldo is very important. We have a very distinctive, minimalist aesthetic. The designer Ray O’Meara came up with that from the beginning. [...] So our books immediately stood out in the bookshops and continue to do so because it’s unusual to have that series look in a British context.”

Though this style is popular with European publishers (e.g. Éditions Gallimard), in the UK variety has been the name of the game, since Raymond Hawkey revolutionised cover design in the 1960s.

The cover that started it all.The cover that started it all.

What is so powerful about Fitzcarraldo’s design is that in a bookshop, or on a shelf, or in a pocket, they stand out against everything else.

Legendary copywriter Dave Trott talks a lot about the power of breaking the gestalt in advertising - doing something one way, when everyone else does it another.

This is the best example I can think of.

They’re unusual, instantly recognisable, and stand out. Perfect for both drawing a potential buyer's attention to the product, but also for letting a buyer draw attention to the fact that they themselves have bought a Fitzcarraldo product.

That they are a Fitzcarraldo reader.

The quality of the work matters, definitely, but I think it’s this - the distinctive cover - that has maybe even done the most for Fitzcarraldo’s success.

Lesson 4: sell a mission, not a product

A combination of quality, design, and the story behind Fitzcarraldo has attracted a pretty heavy duty following - what Testard calls “loyalty to the imprint” - which is something that the team have done a lot to nurture.

One key principle they adhere to is publishing authors, not books: committing to the writers they publish over a period of time. This means a commitment to younger and emerging writers, bolstered by the two prizes - one for novels, and the other for essays, as well as their pre-existing relationship with a variety of literary magazines.

Alongside that they have a very clear mission. Testard, again “we strive to be a home for cutting-edge writing whatever language it's written in.

There’s also a subscription service - where their biggest fans are able to get every book they publish delivered to their door upon launch.

They find their biggest fans and buy them into the mission.

Lesson 5: have a point of view

Finally, let’s talk about the books themselves. The style of books they publish are pretty tightly drawn, and also - very clearly - not for everyone.

Whether it’s a single sentence novel told from the point of view of a DGSE agent, or a Norwegian artist musing on God whilst his doppelganger gets drunk in a bar down the road, or a Tarantino-esque massacre in a gated community, very few are what one could describe as an easy read.

Fosse posse, assembleFosse posse, assemble

Instead of diluting the brand, or apologising for this, Fitzcarraldo leans into the fact that the books they publish can be challenging.

As Testard puts it: “I was interested in putting things out in a straight-up serious intellectual way. I’ve just been lucky the books have resonated with readers.

Instead of trying to guess what is the most marketable, or what will sell most well, they have a point of view about what they’re doing, who they’re for, and who they’re not.

Take a point of view, and you’ll be rewarded.

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