I went back to Lisbon last week for the first time in six years. And this was only the second time I had been there since I moved away from Portugal, almost 19 years ago now.
The city began to feel very familiar, very quickly. I spent three years there, back when there was no Euro, back before the financial crises that both Ireland and Portugal went through, back in the twentieth century. So the streets that I walked, the smells that emanated from the shops and restaurants, the grand, old buildings, the bizarre tram rides that move through tiny alleys: all of this was part of a muscle memory that I wasn’t conscious of having but which was there, all the time.
I went there to work on my Portuguese and to try to see if there was any interest among the lisboetas in a book called A Year in Lisbon; a book that was set in their city. I concentrated at first on bookshops, more to look for somewhere to hold a launch than to sell the book. The first place I visited was this small-ish bookshop called Fabula Urbis, just on the edge of the historic area of Alfama and Graça that is so prominent in the book. It is a shop that specialises in books about the city of Lisbon itself. The owner there, João, had a quick look at the book and said that he would buy three, with a possibility of more if they sold.
That was it, there was no great debate or inquisition. He told me that August was the month that most foreign language books were sold, as that was peak tourist season, so it was a good time to be selling an English language book about Lisbon. I had the same experience when I went to a large book and music store in the very centre, Fnac. I spoke to a manager there, and after a short debate with colleagues, said she would take 20 copies. I had to ask her to repeat, thinking that my ability to understand Portuguese had temporarily collapsed. It was true, they wanted 20. Though this time they weren’t actually buying the book, it was on sale or return. Still, I was a little stunned.
I visited another few shops (including the amazing Ler Devagar, a bookshop based in a building that used to be a factory, with wall to wall books (pictured above)) and there seemed to be the same interest. It began to dawn on me that a book is a product like anything else (though maybe I should have realized this before then). I was talking to Pedro, a Portuguese friend of mine later, and he was astonished that a bookshop would take a book to sell from an unknown guy who has only written one book, without even reading it. But the fact is that it has “Lisbon” in the title and is written in English, and these two facts alone mean that tourists will probably buy it as a souvenir of their time in Portugal. And in August, Lisbon is full of tourists, and apparently they tend to buy books.
It made me think that this is a definite marketing opportunity for literature in general. My next book is going to be “A Week in Madrid”, followed by “Six Months in Paris,” “Ten days in Berlin,” and maybe even “A Decade in Moscow”! The advantage I have with my book is that there aren’t many novels written that have been set in Lisbon, so it seems to be a selling point.
There is also the fact that the Portuguese are aware that for most of the rest of the world, they are that anonymous country over by Spain. No-one really knows or cares much about Portugal, and the Portuguese know this. So when someone pays them some attention, and writes a book about their capital city, it is something. The book may be rubbish (mine is not), but at least it is about them. I think Irish people can identify with this a little, any little bit of attention we get from the outside world is noteworthy, and feeds into our semi-image. The Portuguese are the same.
I came away thinking that if I can only get a bit of publicity for this novel, I could sell a few copies in Portugal. I have since set the date of the Portuguese launch for September 15th, and am planning to hold it in the British Council there: the British cultural centre that is mainly involved in running English classes, though it is tied to the promotion of British culture and the English language. It is close to the perfect place to have a launch, with its connection to EFL teaching, and to the city itself. Most English teachers in the city know where it is too, which is an added bonus. If I cannot sell a book about an English teacher in Lisbon, to English teachers in Lisbon, then I am in trouble.
That said, there is a certain amount of bureaucracy in bookshops in Portugal that is not present here. For them to even take a few copies on sale or return they have to go through a whole process, with forms and tax numbers and paperwork. One shop actually wanted a few copies but the manager didn’t actually know how to organize buying from me. He had to write to their accounting department to find out. Here, if a bookshop owner wants to take a few books, they will take them and I usually give them a handwritten receipt that both they and I sign. And that’s it. Maybe officially they are supposed to go through more official procedures, but no-one does. In Portugal, it is all red-tape.
Still, there is potential there. I did well sticking “Lisbon” in the title, though I didn’t know it at the time. It has made the book into a saleable commodity, at least there in the city. It also gives me an excuse to go back now and then, to revisit my past, and maybe build something for the future.