For a week before the launch of A Year in Lisbon I was nervous, and mostly dreading it. I make my living teaching languages, and so standing up in front of a group of people and speaking should not be anything to worry me, but this was a whole different kettle of fish. Here I had to talk about something important to me personally, and about how I came to spend years writing the book. It was all a little more personal than I was used to.
That said, I did everything I could to get a big crowd there. I had nightmares about turning up on the night and having only my immediate family and three other people show up, so I publicised it as much as possible. I was on two local radio stations, opened a Facebook event page and invited everyone I knew. I put up posters all over Sligo town and into surrounding towns and managed to get an article in each of the two local newspapers, one small, one substantial with a photo. I contacted practically everyone in my various address books by email and text, and even rang some people.
When the day itself came, I had to work that morning, which took my mind off it a little. And in the days previous to the launch I sat down and prepared exactly what I wanted to say about the book, why and how I published it, and about the process of writing and publishing. I revised it about five times until it was exactly how I wanted it. This calmed me down quite a lot, I knew that I had something to say, and I was happy with how it had come out.
Another calming element was that I held the launch in the Yeats Building, which is where I have taught many Spanish classes and a place that I know well. I arrived early, and set up a projector with a slide show of Lisbon as well as some Lisbon fado music on the speakers. Then people began to arrive. A tall man came in about fifteen minutes early and asked to buy the book before the launch actually started. Then he left, saying that he had to look after his cattle. It seemed that he was a book collector, and was building his collection of first editions, and had only come for a signed copy.
Eventually, people filtered in and had a glass of wine and a chat. There were many people there that I knew, some of whom I had not seen for months or longer. I began to enjoy myself a little, chatting to people, catching up. It began to feel like a friendly gathering rather than something to be frightened of. I had asked my brother Ronan to introduce me; I thought he was the perfect person, he is a good speaker and has read the book, and had just come back from Portugal. I think that his introduction was perfectly judged, and was a nice lead in to what I had to say.
In my talk about the book, I just tried to be honest. I talked about the fact that the world has changed, that publishers and record companies and other large institutions no longer control what we get to see and read and listen to. New technology has changed all that, and has allowed us to publish books and make music and art far more cheaply and efficiently than before. It has democratized the whole creative process.
I talked a little about the book itself and its themes: the coming of age of the central character, Cian O’Dwyer, who is fundamentally a big child at the start of the novel; the challenges and joys of living in a foreign country and the process of adaptation and change that it requires; and the eternal question for the ex-pat – to mix with the locals or stay with your own. The full text of what I said is here.
I then read some extracts: one to illustrate the life of a young English teacher in a foreign country; another to talk a little about the city itself – an element that is so central to the novel; and a final one that showed Cian as he went home to Ireland for Christmas, an extract that illustrated how his perspectives had changed.
After that there were questions. I knew practically everyone that asked a question, some were my good friends and family, so it soon took on the relaxed air of a kind of small gathering, even though there were about fifty people there at that stage. We finally reached the end, about an hour after we had begun. I sat and signed books, and, again with the help of my family taking money and sorting out change, I sold about 35 books.
The whole thing – speech, extracts, attendance, sales – was way more successful than I had hoped or expected. I felt an immense relief, and also gratitude to all of those people who showed up and showed support. And also a delight that so many people bought the book, which in the end is what it is about. The sales are of course important in attempting to simply break even (I am still less than half-way there) but more importantly they meant that the book would have more readers, which is what a book should have. There is nothing sadder than a book without someone to read it.
I was drained afterwards. I had poured so much nervous energy into the preparation and the execution of the launch that I felt quite overwhelmed when it was all over. I had been running on adrenaline for hours. I went for a drink with my family, and then went home and crashed.
That said, it has given me a taste for this. I felt more comfortable than I had expected, talking about myself and my writing. It is something you can get used to, and learn how to do, I suppose, like anything else. My plans are now for two more launches (yes, it sounds greedy, but it seems to be the only way to sell books), one in Dublin and another in Lisbon itself. I am curious to see how things go. If they work half as well as the Sligo launch I will be more than happy.