TWENTY-TWO - LISBON AGAIN, AND AN ENDING OF SORTS (03/11/2017)
I have been back to Lisbon this week for two more events in connection with the book. With the completion of these two public appearances, it feels like an end has been reached now, a kind of natural finish to this particular adventure. In a way, it is a relief.
I spent five days in Lisbon this week. The first event took place in Fabula Urbis, a bookshop on the edge of the Alfama area of the city. Cian, the protagonist of A Year in Lisbon, lives in Graça, about a ten minute walk from the bookshop, and spends a lot of time around Portas do Sol, which is just up the road from where I
did the talk.
So as I was reading a piece from the novel about Cian’s experience of living in that area of the city, and specifically reading about the famous number 28 tram that goes up and down from Graça to the centre of the city, the very same tram passed just below us, scraping and screeching its way down the hill, ringing its bell, rumbling and groaning. This little piece of serendipity made me, and those in attendance, smile, at least.
The only slight snag was that there were only ten or twelve people there. The event itself went quite well; I felt relaxed and confident, the people there were engaged and we had a good talk afterwards about Lisbon, how it has changed, the impact of tourism on the old parts of the city. I have put an enormous effort into promoting the book, the readings and the launches back in February, and each bookshop I have read in has also promoted the events, yet I have not managed to capture the imagination of either native lisboetas or of the many foreigners that live there. There are some exceptions, of course, and people have bought, read and liked the book, but the response has been disappointing, taking into account all of the Facebook ads, emails, blog posts, personal visits, messages, calls and networking that I have attempted to put into practice in the last year or so.
So I enjoyed the Sunday night, but I was quite dispirited afterwards too. One question I still cannot answer is where all of the ex-pat English teachers were. In the four launches and readings that I have organized in Lisbon, I think only two or three English teachers attended, in a city where there are hundreds working. I have contacted all of the English language schools on every occasion that I had a launch, have put up posters in schools, have used every means possible to try to interest them and it has mostly been a waste of time. The book is about them and their life in Lisbon, and it seems that I have failed to tempt them into even listening to me talk about it, never mind buy it.
On Tuesday evening, I spoke to students in the Universidade Nova, a new university on Avenida da Berna in the newer area of Lisbon. It is a more informal institution, in comparison to the traditional Universidade de Lisboa which is close by. I spoke to students on the Literature course, mostly first years – some of whom have only themselves been in the city for a month or two – and some Masters students.
I found out just before the event from Rogério, who is their teacher and the person responsible for inviting me to speak, that some of them were doing an assignment on a Year in Lisbon. It is one of the books among a number that they can choose from to write an essay on. One student, apparently, is writing a piece on public transport in the novel. There are a couple of others who chose it too.
This, I was not expecting. I had imagined a number of things for the book when I started into this whole adventure, but it being studied in a university was not one of them, and did make me smile when I heard. So that gave the event a different feel to it; what I had to say was not just me waffling about this personal project that I decided to embark on, it was now part of a syllabus that some of these students were being marked on. That single fact made up somewhat for the lack of response from other directions.
The talk itself went well. At this stage I have lost most of the nerves that almost paralyzed me during my first launch, back in July 2016, and I can now talk about the book and its origins with something close to fluency. The students also were happy to ask questions, make comments, start discussions afterwards. We talked about the view of the Portuguese that people in Northern Europe have (where unfortunately Portugal is largely anonymous), Portuguese literature, the change of Lisbon, the culture shock of coming to a large city, to a different country, Portuguese identity. The whole event helped dilute some of the disappointment that I had been feeling all week.
A Year in Lisbon and the whole adventure of publishing the book has given me a lot. I have learned how to promote and talk about a book, a little about marketing, the importance of personal contact to get people interested in a book. I have managed to reconnect with Portugal and the city of Lisbon once again, after a gap of a decade or more, and connected to this I have resurrected my Portuguese, which had been very rusty. I have met a lot of people, made a significant number of contacts, and been helped by bookshop owners (João in Fabula Urbis, Leena in Bookshop Bivar, Ana in Palavra de Viajante), friends, readers and teachers (Rogério in U.N.). It has been an experience.
But it also has to be said that, apart from a few notable exceptions, in general Lisbon is not very interested in A Year in Lisbon. I was expecting more interest from ex-pats, which did not come, and there may be more potential for this tight-knit market in the future, but for now at least I have been largely ignored by newspapers, radio stations, ex-pat groups, Facebook pages, tourists and locals in the Portuguese capital.
So that is that for now. I have done all I can. At least I can leave my Lisbon adventure behind with the knowledge that I have done my best to promote the book. It may not have worked fantastically well, but that was all I could do in the situation. I have to let the book go now to fend for itself, like a child that has grown up and leaves home. I have other fish to fry, other books to write, other projects to attend to. This one, for now, is at an end.
TWENTY-ONE - RETURN TO LISBON (15/10/2017)
I am delighted to be returning to Lisbon for two more events to promote A Year in Lisbon.
The first one will take place in Fabula Urbis bookshop, just behind the Sé, close to Alfama in Lisbon's old city. Fabula Urbis was the first bookshop to sell the book in Lisbon, and it is also in the heart of the part of Lisbon where the book is set, just down the road from Portas do Sol, Graça and the St. George Castle, all central locations in the book.
The event will take place at 6.30pm on Sunday, October 29th and all are welcome. As always, it is a free event. Link here.
I have also been invited to speak at the Universidade Nova, in São Sebastião. This will take place at 6pm on Tuesday, October the 31st. The talk is mainly for students and staff, but is an open event, so anyone can attend. Link here.
TWENTY - LAUNCHED IN DUBLIN (22/07/2017)
I had originally arranged a Dublin launch of A Year in Lisbon last September, but in the end I was so focused on organizing a series of launches in Portugal that I had to cancel the Dublin one. This July was the first opportunity that I had to properly arrange an event in Dublin. So finally, almost a year later than first anticipated, I managed to have a Dublin launch for the novel.
It took place in The Winding Stair, a cosy bookshop with a lot of character, just by the Ha’penny Bridge. The location is historic and attracts a lot of tourists, and the setting itself was perfect for the launch of a novel that is so concerned with the experience of being
a foreigner in a strange city.
I am lucky enough to have a large, extended family on both sides, and a lot of them live in Dublin, so aunts, uncles, cousins and friends helped to fill out the crowd. The worst nightmare for anyone doing a reading or a book launch is that no-one shows up, so an audience of thirty or so people was a relief to see as I stepped up on to the slightly raised area near the window.
My brother introduced me, as he had done in Sligo during my first launch in 2016. This is my fourth event connected to the novel, and at this stage I hope that I am learning a little about how to conduct them.
One mistake that I believe I made when launching the book in Lisbon was sticking too closely to the script that I had prepared, and not engaging enough with the people who had come to the event. For that reason, this time I had prepared a few notes, but in general attempted to speak without notes and to talk naturally and freely about the book and its inspiration. There is a danger with this approach of forgetting something important, but I felt that it was a better way of doing it, especially in the informal setting of a bookshop where most people were standing.
I talked about the genesis of the book, my time in Lisbon and also about the self-publishing process, and in between I read extracts from the book that I thought represented what the novel is about. There were a few questions afterwards, which I always find interesting but challenging, and then, as usual, I signed a few books and chatted to people.
Only afterwards, a Latin American woman who had been at the front of the audience told me that she had Facebook Lived the reading and so I was able to track the recording down and put it on the book’s Facebook page. It can be found here.
It was an enjoyable, if stressful, event and went about as well as I could have hoped. I sold 11 books and covered the cost of the launch (the bookshop charges €100 plus VAT), so that in itself was a success. I also got some pretty good publicity: in promoting the launch I contacted all of the local papers in Dublin, and one of them – The Dublin People – made A Year in Lisbon its Book of the Week.
I had my doubts before I set about organizing the launch, but in the end it was worth doing. And again, it was proven to me that people will buy a book if they have a personal connection to the author. If they can see him or her speaking and hear something of the inspiration behind a book, then they are more likely to purchase it. I have done it myself after hearing authors speak, and it has always given a new perspective to actually reading the book when you have met who wrote it.
Hopefully I will be back in the Winding Stair next year to launch the next one!
NINETEEN - DUBLIN LAUNCH (24/06/2017)
I am delighted to be launching A Year in Lisbon in Dublin, on Wednesday July 12th, at 7pm in the Winding Stair Bookshop. The bookshop is on Ormond Quay, just by the Ha'penny Bridge.
EIGHTEEN - ELEVATOR PITCH (24/05/2017)
I was reminded recently of why I decided to self-publish A Year in Lisbon.
I was at a conference at the weekend whose focus was on getting a book published. It had nothing to do with self-publishing; this was about trying to get your book published with a mainstream, corporate publisher.
The focus of the conference was on getting an agent. Very few publishing houses now accept manuscripts from authors, and so they rely on literary agents to find and vet writers for them. So the first thing a budding writer needs to do is find an agent.
I was involved in a workshop with twelve other hopefuls and a literary agent from London called Simon Tremin. He had some useful advice about how to approach an agent, and about what to put in a synopsis and how to write an email to best get your point across.
There was also an agent panel which took place later, with five other literary agents who answered questions from the hundred or so assembled authors hoping to get published.
One of the aspects mentioned was the concept of an “elevator pitch”. This comes from the world of Hollywood movies and the idea is this: if you are stuck in a lift (or “elevator”) with a movie producer and you have an idea for a movie, you need to be quick and to the point in explaining your project. In fact, you need to be able to do it in two sentences.
We were given some examples of two-sentence summaries of various books. This was put forward as an important thing to think about when you are promoting a book, or trying for an agent or a publisher. The Elevator Pitch – 100,000 words of a novel boiled down to twenty.
I felt like asking – what if James Joyce had had to give an elevator pitch for Ulysses? How would that have worked? Two guys travel round Dublin separately over the space of one day, going to a funeral, doing a bit of shopping, going to the beach. What the fuck does that have to do with the masterful, complex world that Joyce created in his novel?
The point that was made seemingly over and over again was that agents are busy people and they have to be grabbed by your elevator pitch, by your 150 word summary in your email, by your first couple of pages. There was no real sense that books or writers deserved a bit of time and attention; you could spend a year and a half writing a novel, and it could be rejected in two minutes based on a short summary that doesn’t grab.
Earlier in the day, Simon Tremin had told a story about an unpublished writer that was on a well-known creative writing course. Apparently she was the next big thing, and so every agent in London was trying to get her to sign with them. Simon tracked her down, and managed to convince her to sign with his agency. She then told him that she had actually submitted a novel to him the year before, but that he had not been interested then. He seemed to think that this story was proof that you should keep trying, even if you get rejected.
To me, this did not illustrate what he though it did. To me, this was evidence of a certain amount of group-think in the world of agents. This unnamed writer actually submitted work to Simon in the past and he wasn’t interested, and it was only when he knew that every other agent wanted her, that he began to try to track her down.
The whole conference more or less convinced me that looking for an agent and a publisher is – at least for the novels that I have written and will write – basically a waste of time. So few writers actually get agents, and of them only 70% actually get published, and so the default setting of any agent is to simply reject your work, unless it is revolutionary, extraordinary or a sure-fire bestseller. And if it so happens that what you write does not fit into the typical genres of YA, fantasy, sci-fi, romance, crime, chick-lit or historical fiction, then your chances of success are miniscule.
Luckily, there is another possibility. Self-publishing is increasingly accessible, and is now a real option. Writers are no longer at the mercy of an agent somewhere in Haymarket or Whitehall, sitting in their office and rejecting your work when your 150 word summary is not mind-blowing enough. We no longer have to beg and plead to get past the gatekeepers of culture, who used to decide who could and could not publish their book to the world.
I appreciate that agents and publishers are busy people, and that they receive a huge number of submissions every week, but it is clear to me that the system is set up so that they will miss a lot of really good writing.
Bookshops are full of books that have been rejected over and over and over again by publishers and agents, until they finally found someone that saw something great in them. J.K. Rowling is the classic example. It was only because she was persistent that she has become the massive success that she has. But I don't know if I could be bothered to go on begging and pleading to be let in to the magic inner circle of published authors, when the chances are that it is never really going to happen.
I would rather just put books out myself. It will be on a small scale, and I won't make any money, but at least someone will read them, and I will have some control over the process. And I won't have to prepare a fucking elevator pitch for anyone.
SEVENTEEN - FINALLY LAUNCHED IN LISBON (11/02/2017)
I finally launched A Year in Lisbon in Lisbon itself last weekend. There were two events, one on the Saturday in Palavra de Viajante, and one on Sunday in Bookshop Bivar.
I had been a little worried about the Saturday event, as I had been attempting to promote it from Ireland and without any real connections. I had been having nightmares of speaking in front of 8 people. In the end the turnout was adequate, fifteen people showed up. It was always my intention to talk about the book in
Portuguese in this bookshop, and so that is what I did for about fifteen minutes. Before I started, my Spanish friend Luis Gorrochategui introduced me in Gallego, the language from the north-west of Spain that is similar in many ways to Portuguese and which the Portuguese can understand quite easily.
Most of the rest of the event was in English though, and it turned out that the majority of people were English speakers there anyway. We had quite an interesting and relaxed discussion afterwards, generally centred around how Lisbon has changed, and how the city changed me personally, and Cian, the main character in the novel. One person asked me why I hadn't just written a biography or memoir of my three years in Lisbon, and I told him that I didn't think I had a very interesting life, and that fictionalising it was much more fun.
On the Sunday, I was in Bookshop Bivar, near to Arroios. The crowd here was better; about 24 people turned up, which was gratifying. Both the bookshop owner and I had done a lot of promotion of the event, so it was pleasing to see it come off. Twenty-four may not sound like a lot of people, but it filled the shop.
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Unfortunately, at that stage a flu, which I had first started experiencing on the flight over, was really kicking in, and I was feeling shivery and weak and ill. So I did my best, but was unable to put any real energy into the event or the reading, or into talking to people afterwards. I survived it, nothing more. There was an ok response, but not many people were interested in asking questions or knowing much more about the book. I think my lack of energy added to the dearth of engagement. Some people were kind and interested though, but in the end I just wanted to be out of there and back in bed.
So after a lot of build-up, the weekend was a bit of an anti-climax, mainly because I felt so ill during the three days I was there. I rented a small apartment in Lisbon on Airbnb, and basically didn't leave it for three days, except to go to the two launches and have dinner on Saturday night.
Right now, I think it is time to concentrate on my work here, which really should be taking up all my time and attention, and to just leave the book out there to fend for itself. I have spent a lot of the last eight months, on and off, promoting the book, and it has been, in many ways, exhausting. Launching it in Lisbon was just something that I had to get out of my system, after the cancellations last year, so now I have done that, it is time to just let it go.
SIXTEEN - LISBON LAUNCHES (11/01/2017)
I will be launching my novel, A Year in Lisbon, in Lisbon itself on the 4th and 5th of February, 2017. Last year's planned launches had to be cancelled, but they have been rearranged for this Spring.
The details are as follows.....
February 4th, 4.30pm (16.30): Palavra de Viajante bookshop, Rua de São Bento no.34, (opposite end of the street to Rato) Lisbon - a talk in Portuguese, and a reading of the book in English.
February 5th, 6pm (18.00): Bookshop Bivar, Rua de Ponta Delgada 34A, Estefânia, Lisbon, Portugal - the whole event in English.
FIFTEEN - POSTPONEMENT OF LISBON EVENTS (09/09/2016)
Unfortunately, I have had to postpone all events planned for the launch of the book in Lisbon next week. Because of a health issue, I am unable to travel at the moment.
However, some of the events have been provisionally rearranged for the first weekend in February of 2017, so the idea is this is simply a postponement, and not a cancellation. More info to follow.
FOURTEEN - A WEEK OF EVENTS IN LISBON (06/09/2016)
I am returning to Lisbon next week for a whole week of events to launch the book there.
I will be in the British Council on Thursday the 15th at 8pm, and then there will be two events in bookshops: in Palavra de Viajante on Saturday the 17th at 6pm; and at the same time the next day (the 18th) in Bookshop Bivar.
To be honest, I am stretching the idea of a “launch”. My original idea of a launch was that you do it once, and your book is then launched, like a ship sailing for the first time. You cannot officially launch a ship more than once, but it seems that a book is different; it appears that it can be launched multiple times!
Saying that, the three events that I have planned are all different. The first one is in the British Council, which is the British government’s official cultural body in Lisbon. I chose it as it was always the Holy Grail for English Language teachers when I lived in the city; they run high quality courses there, and were always reputed to pay teachers well. They also have connections with English speaking communities and organizations in Lisbon, which will be useful in promoting the event.
The second event will be in a bookshop specialising in travel books and literature; Palavra de Viajante (Word of the Traveller), in Rua de São Bento. This will be a lot more informal, in a room at the back of the bookshop where events and readings are held. The space is small enough, and so people will be standing for the duration of the talk. The key difference here is that I will be talking about the book in Portuguese. I have been working on my language for the last couple of months, with this in mind, and have prepared an explanation of the book in Portuguese. This is very important to me; obviously it will be addressed to the locals in their own language, and I would like the book to appeal to the Portuguese as much as to ex-pats.
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My final night there (the 18th), I will be in Bookshop Bivar, (near Arroios). This is a cool little English language bookshop that sells mainly second-hand books, run by a Finnish woman called Leena. It seems to be a lively place, with regular cultural events and readings and talks by writers.
There is actually an Irish writer called Peter Murphy living in Lisbon at the moment, and he did a reading in Bookshop Bivar recently. I met him on my last visit to the city – he had been living in Canada, and was published there. He hasn’t lived in Ireland for while, (said it was too cold and too expensive!) though he is involved in an Irish ex-pat group there in Portugal and gave me some useful ideas for promotion and selling the book.
It is a fairly hectic week, to be honest, though I don’t really have a choice, I have to start back to work properly on the 20th of September, after which time I won’t have a second to be going over to Lisbon and launching books. So if I want to get the book out into the Portuguese consciousness, it has to all be done in this short space of time. It is my Portuguese launch window, and I have to take advantage.
One thing I am going to try and do above all else, is to enjoy the experience. I semi-enjoyed the Irish launch, but I was so wracked with nerves, and so afraid that no-one would show up, that I really didn’t have the opportunity to do so properly. And my previous two visits to Lisbon were all work really, promoting and trying to sell the book, so I haven’t really had a chance to enjoy the wonderful city of Lisbon yet.
Well, I have a week, starting next Monday. Most of the work and promotion is done; I can do no more. I have spent most of the last week in Ireland sending emails and messages: to newspapers, language schools, ex-pat organizations, libraries, Facebook pages, publishers, literary agents, and bloggers. I now just have to hope that someone shows up.
THIRTEEN - A YEAR IN LISBON, IN LISBON (09/08/2016)
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.
TWELVE - LAUNCHED! (27/07/16)
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.
ELEVEN - BOOK LAUNCH (12/07/2016)
The date of the book launch is now set. It will be on Thursday July 21st at 8pm in the Yeats Building, an iconic building in the centre of Sligo.
I haven't done this before, so I have been looking for advice from various people who have more experience than me in this area. My Spanish friend Luis, who was one of the driving forces behind my deciding to publish this in the first place, gave me some good advice regarding marketing and the organization of the launch. Apparently it is customary to have someone introduce the author, as well as glasses of wine and refreshments available for the attendees. The author then talks a little about the inspiration for the book, reads some extracts and answers some questions. And then hopefully sells some books.
It all sounds so simple. I think it will be important to try and enjoy the evening, even though the nerves will certainly be effected. I now have nine days to try and make sure that there is actually someone there to listen to me!
TEN - THE HARD SELL (06/07/2016)
So now the hard part begins, I have to actually sell the thing.
I got a delivery of one hundred books last week. They came in two boxes, were all wrapped up like little valuable objects, like eggs in a nest. It was exciting and daunting at once to receive them, it seemed like so many all at once. My first thought was, what the f**k am I going to do with these things?
The big drawback about self-publishing, as I see it, is that you have to do all of the publicity and marketing yourself. It is a lot of work. At the weekend I am going to drive to various small towns in Connacht to try and get my book into a few bookshops. I have spoken to a number of owners of shops already by phone, and so most will take five copies or so to begin with. And today I dropped my consignment of five to Liber bookshop here in Sligo, who kindly accepted them without too much fuss.
The situation with bookshops is this. You give them a certain number of your books, five seems to be a typical number, and they put them on their shelves. If they sell you get 66% of the cover price, the shop keeps 33%. So that means I get €8.58 for every copy that sells, from a retail price of €13. The books are there on a sale or return basis, the shops don’t buy them from you, you only get paid if they sell some. Eason offers a 60/40 split, though I am not sure if things will work out with them yet.
I have in fact sold ten copies already, to various people I know, friends, family, to some members of a book group I went to talk to about the book. I even went to a Farmers’ Market in Sligo IT last Saturday, where the man who runs the market let me set up on the edge of his stall. I put up a sign and a pile of books on the table, talked to a few people about the book and even sold two copies. It is a matter of pushing the boat out and trying to find some innovative ways to market the thing.
The next stage is the launch, planned for Thursday the 21st of July. I have already spoken to the local papers, and hope to get some pub on the local radio station. And there is a literary event on tomorrow in Sligo I am going to go to, where people gather and read some things they have written. The idea is to get out there and make a few waves, though this is way outside my comfort zone, I am really not that comfortable asking people to take notice of me in this way, to pay attention to something so personal, something I have put so much work into.
It is also important to strike the balance. It is necessary to publicize the book, and to let people know about it, and let them know how to buy it if they want to. But it is also important not to be a pain, and to avoid the hard sell, to not turn into a marketing machine whose only goal is to move some merchandise. I have had a pretty good start, but there is a long way to go.
NINE - E-PUBLISHING (21/06/2016)
When I was first investigating whether and how to publish my novel I was given the advice on a few online writing forums to only do an e-book. This was from experienced self-publishers who had seen a lot of self-publishers get hundreds of books printed and ended up with a garage full of boxes of their unsold books.
All along though, my intention was to get a physical printed version of the book done. Most people still prefer to have the physical object, and I myself have grown up holding, carrying and flipping through the actual paper pages of books. For a lot of people there is still something special about a book you can hold in your hand, that you can put on a bookshelf, that you can lend to someone. And the majority of books sold, even in developed countries, is still in the printed format.
Yet e-books are increasingly popular. And the increase in quality of e-readers makes them far more attractive. I have an old Kindle from about four or five years ago, and recently I bought a tablet with a Kindle app that allows you to read books on it, and there is no comparison in the clarity, range of things you can do (increase or decrease text size, ease of use of dictionaries) and sheer look of the two. In five years e-books have become something much more user friendly.
It will be a few weeks yet before I have the 100 copies of the printed book I am initially getting printed, but the e-book has been on Kindle for two weeks now (I already have 11 sales and a review!) and on iBooks for the last week. There is a debate about whether it is worth branching out and putting your book on digital platforms other than Amazon (Kindle), and that is one I am still trying to work out the answer to. There is an interesting discussion here about that very topic. Amazon is so dominant in the market that the suggestion is that really other sites for downloading e-books (Kobo, Nook, which is the American store Barnes and Noble, there are others) will only provide a tiny number of sales.
In general, Kindle is incredibly user friendly, and iBooks, in my experience, is exactly the opposite. For Kindle you just need a Word file, the more basic the better. There is a useful guide here , but generally you just need to take out page numbers, headers and all extraneous details, make sure that you have page breaks between each chapter, and then send it off to Amazon. I had a cover already designed, but they even give you a cover generator if you wanted to make your own. The whole process is child’s play. You can write a book in Word, upload it for free to Kindle Direct (the Amazon digital platform) and begin selling it straight away. Practically anyone can do it.
iBooks and Apple is a different proposition altogether. I got my book designer to format the book for iBooks, he did it for me cheaply as he wanted to practice doing it, he hadn’t done many before. You can pay companies on the Net to convert a file to the required format, or if you have some technical knowledge you may be able to do it yourself. But my impression is that that would be beyond most people.
Then when it was ready I went to upload it to iBooks, and found that you can only do this from a Mac. There is a particular program you have to use to upload a book, and this can only be downloaded on an Apple computer. I don’t have one, so I had to email the files to my brother who does have a Mac, and he had to use my account to put the book on iBooks. There was an issue with the image size on the cover, and some other issues that my designer had to address, so we were going back and forth with emails for days, before we managed to successfully put A Year in Lisbon on iBooks. It is there now, but it has not been an easy process. Apple seem to want to make it as difficult as possible for authors to use its service.
Anyhow, A Year in Lisbon is now available for Kindle and iPad. I have set the price at €2.99 on Kindle and $2.99 on iBooks, it is now out in the world. I think that the price is standard, and in fact the Kindle price is the minimum allowed. There is also the option with Kindle of joining Kindle Select, which is where you can offer your book for free for a limited time to promote it, as well as other benefits, but it also requires you to only have your e-book available on Kindle for a period of ninety days, and to take it down from every other e-book retailer. That may be an option for the future, depending on how iBooks sales go.
It has been a long process, but I am almost there. The files are with the printers, I should have 100 brand new novels in ten days to two weeks. Next stop, book launch.
EIGHT - A REAL BOOK! (08/06/16)
So I have a real book.
I got the proof copy of the novel from the printers last week. In general I am very pleased with it, it is compact, well designed, and looks good, professional, like a real book. It is a physical object that I, in part, have created. To hold it in my hand and flick through the pages, seeing words that I wrote, definitely made an impact.
There is just one problem with it, the inside margins are too narrow. I gave it to a couple of people to look at, and they didn’t really comment on this, but I noticed it. The margins were set at 15mm on the inside and outside, but when the book was printed and bound the binding took up about 2mm of that space on the inside, and so it looks a little cramped. It is still readable, but it might not be as comfortable a read as it should be.
So I had to go back to my book designer, Martin, and ask him to adjust things a little. What he has done is just move the text over about 2mm. In other words it is exactly the same organization, but the inside margins are now 17mm and the outside are 13mm. The text is going to be closer to the edge of the page, but that is fine, there is enough room. I think it will make a big difference to readability.
It is curious to think that such a tiny change can make such a significant difference, but it will. For book design you need to think in such small measurements as millimetres, and one or two each way can effect how you experience a book. There is some research to suggest that the design of a book and its layout can have a greater influence on how someone enjoys that book than you might think, so it is important to get it right. This, I think, is one lesson I have learned from this whole process.
Right now I am trying to sort out the e-book. In fact it is already on Kindle, and I have had six sales there, though there are still things to be worked out with the file and layout. The iBook should be up this week. But more of that later…….
SEVEN - ISBN (21/05/2016)
My book now has an ISBN, and it is beginning to feel real.
ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It is the universally accepted number that is used by the book industry worldwide to identify any individual book. If you want to sell a physical book in bookshops the chances are that a shop will not agree to sell your book if it does not have an ISBN.
In Britain and Ireland it seems that the only source of ISBNs is the Nielsen agency. You can buy individual numbers from some companies that help authors with self-publishing, but if you want your own number you have to go directly to Nielsen.
And it is important to realize that these numbers are not free. In fact they are not cheap at all. You can buy one number, but that costs £99 (Nielsen are a British company and so charge in Sterling). They also sell a pack of ten numbers for £149.
I had been considering getting the single ISBN, as I wasn’t sure if I was going to publish anything else in the future and was trying to save money. But then I found out that an ISBN is only for a particular edition of a book and that if you want to publish an e-book, as I intend to do, you need a separate ISBN. In fact, I will need at least three in total, one for the printed version, one for an e-book for iBooks, and one for my Amazon e-book.
So I got the ten. It is quite a simple process, you fill out a form, email it to Nielsen, pay them and they give you your numbers. They got back to me within about three days, though they say it can take up to ten working days. So A Year in Lisbon now has a unique identifying number, one that will distinguish it from every other book published throughout history. It is 978-0-9954832-0-0. It is an unremarkable collection of digits, but it is my unremarkable collection of digits, and that is something.
Now all I have to do is print the thing.
SIX - BACK! (08/05/2015)
It’s been five months since I wrote a blog post here. I had not been intending to take such a break, but work got in the way, and I haven’t had a second really to think about publishing.
I reckon that I am going to need a little bit of time to publish, launch and promote the novel, so I have put off the whole process until now. We are in sight of the summer, four weeks until June, when I anticipate having more time to devote to this project. You only publish your first novel once, and I want to do it properly.
This fact has probably informed my decision to get the novel professionally typeset. I was debating this very question the last time that I posted, and was inclined to just run with what I had, which was a manuscript laid out in Word. Yet the truth is that most printers require a book to have been laid out in a professional desktop publishing programme like Indesign, and it does look a little better to have it done properly.
My graphic designer said that he would do this, as well as designing the e-book for iPad, for a reasonable fee, so I went with it. He completed the typesetting recently and sent me the completed file, it looks good, cleaner and clearer than the file was in Word, though not hugely different. I imagine that the benefit will be seen when the book is finally printed.
So all that is left to do is get an ISBN number and then send the files to the printers. An ISBN number is essential if you want to sell your book in bookshelves or even online. This number identifies a book, each published book has a unique number that gives some information about the publication, and it is also used by booksellers to order and list books. No bookshop will take a self-published book without an ISBN.
I think I have found a printer that will do the job for a reasonable amount, as little as €4 per copy. My plan is to print 100 copies initially, try and sell them privately in bookshops and during a book launch, and hopefully pay for the whole escapade with these sales and with sales of the e-book. Right now my only goal as far as sales go, is to make enough to pay for the whole cost of publishing, which right now looks to be about €1300. This is where the real work begins.
FIVE - TINY CHANGE, BIG DIFFERENCE (06/12/2015)
I am nearly there. I have mostly edited the novel at this stage, and reading it for the umpteenth time I have gone through the usual crises of confidence, swinging between seriously rethinking my decision to publish and believing that it is destined for the Booker. Right now I am somewhere in the middle.
The truth is that I am really not in a position to judge. It is impossible for me to have an objective view of something that I have been writing and editing for about four years now. What I probably need is an editor, but I cannot afford one, and anyway, I don’t think I would trust anyone else with the book. Whatever, this is the path I have chosen, and I have to run with it.
After editing, the main task recently has been laying out the book, or “typesetting”, as it would be called if a professional did it. I am laying the book out in Word, even though I have been told by a number of people that the word-processing programme is really not suited to typesetting a book. The pros would use Indesign, or another such desktop publishing software.
I had a basic knowledge of Word before I started all of this, and have had to learn about things like mirror margins and footnotes and page breaks that I haven’t really used before. Again, if nothing else this is all a learning experience. I had trouble with basic things like page size and page numbers, but it seems that I have now got it looking the way I want it to look.
I will know when I see the finished product, but it seems that it is actually possible to typeset a book in Word. Each chapter is a different section, and so I have a header with the book’s title – A Year in Lisbon – on the even numbered pages, and one with the title of each chapter – “September” or “March” etc.. – on the odd numbers. The page numbers I have placed at the top of the pages, on the left on even numbered pages, and on the right on odd so that they always appear on the outside of each page.
The typeface is Garamond, a few people recommended this to me on a writing and publishing forum, and I have put it in 11 point type. It looks pretty good. I went with 11 point as obviously the smaller the type, the more words I can get on each page. And as the printer is charging per page, obviously this saves me a little money.
The novel is long, about 120,000 words. It was 130,000 before I started editing it. And so to avoid having a 500 page blockbuster I have to try certain things to get more words on a page. One thing is the 11 point decision, which is probably smaller than the standard 12 point size you will see in most books, but it is not unheard of.
The other thing is that I have made it single space line spacing. Again, this is probably a little less than the average, but you will see this in printed books. With this I have a 327 page novel. The other option is to go to 1.15 spacing, which is one of the standard line-spacings offered by Word. In truth this possibly looks a little better, though whether it makes that much difference is debatable.
In any case, this apparently tiny line-spacing change would add an extra 50 pages to the novel, and so would add to my costs. I really wanted to avoid having an almost 400 page book, so this is the last fundamental decision I will have to make. I am going to print out the first chapter with a local printing firm, in single-space and then in 1.15 spacing, and decide while looking at the printed word.
These are the compromises that have to be made, especially with a substantial novel, like the one I have written. It is not easy to make 120,000 words into something that is not just a doorstop, while retaining a good level of readability. Still, I am almost there, next stop is getting an ISBN number, and from there sending my PDF to the printer. It seems like it is really happening.
FOUR - OVERWRITING (14/11/2015)
I am editing my novel at the moment, and it is a revealing process.
It is one thing writing in the safety of your bedroom or study, putting words on to a page that perhaps no-one else is going to read. It is quite another to get a book ready for publication, and realize that in a month or two you hope that lots of people are reading it.
This is it now, after this there is no chance at revision, the book is largely set in stone once you send it off to the printers. What it is after this process is what it will be forever. There is no fixing problems later.
So it has changed the way I read what I have written. I am a lot less tolerant of redundancies, clichés, slack passages. I should probably be more intolerant, and maybe I need an editor with an objective viewpoint, but at the moment I am concentrating on cutting. For one thing it is about 350 pages, and I will be charged by the page by the printers, so the shorter the book the cheaper the printing costs.
For another, I have noticed that I had a tendency to over-write. What I mean by that is that I have been over-explaining what characters mean and feel, over-describing scenes, places, people, using four adjectives where I only needed two. One of the key pieces of advice given to those who want to write is “show don’t tell.” I have been doing too much telling and not enough showing.
So I have been cutting. Deleting excess explanations, trimming the overgrowth of adjectives, cutting back on explaining, explaining, explaining. It is important to let the readers discover things for themselves and make their own minds up, without having to tell them everything.
So if nothing else, I think this whole process is improving my writing. Editing is good discipline, and useful practice, it forces you to concentrate on what works and what doesn’t, and to try to be objective in looking at your own writing. No doubt I will miss some things that could be shorn, but for now it is almost an enjoyable process to cut, cut, cut.
THREE - WHY AM I DOING THIS? (10/11/2015)
It’s a question I have asked myself a number of times already, and I am only a couple of weeks into the process. So why am I self publishing this novel that took me three or four years to write?
The first reason, of course, is that I think it is something worth reading. I have been writing novels for about ten years now, or more accurately, parts of novels. I always had trouble finishing them. Maybe it was a lack of discipline, or confidence, or commitment. Whatever, I joined a writing group about four years ago, aired out parts of A Year in Lisbon, and found that people liked elements of it. I slowly discovered that this was something that I could actually do.
So I was determined to finish the novel this time. And I did, some time about a year and a half ago. And it's pretty good. I made some small attempts to find a literary agent, got nowhere, and left it at that.
Then, as I mentioned in blog two, I talked to Luis, and realised that this was something I wanted to do. I could have tried harder to get it published the traditional route. I only wrote to eight or nine agents, I could have kept going.
But the truth was, in researching the publishing industry, I quickly learned of the tiny chance that a book has of actually being successful. As I mentioned in blog one, about one in every five thousand submissions to an agent results in that author being represented by the agency. And then the agent has to get you a publishing deal, which is not automatic.
And even if you do get a deal, the proportion of books that make money is very small, and the number who could be said to gain success, (a wide readership, publicity, a place on the bestsellers list) is tinier still. I was looking at the websites of these literary agents, and checking out the list of authors that they represented. I had only heard of about 10% of them! These were all published writers.
The truth is that the majority of even published writers fade into obscurity. Especially in non-genre fiction, people publish a book with a major publisher, sell a couple of hundred books and are never heard from again. It happens all the time. We only hear about the successes, but the failures are much more common.
So why not just publish myself, have a bit of control over the process, and maybe sell a couple of hundred copies that way. At least this way I am not begging agents and publishers to deign to take me on, knowing that the chances of this happening are miniscule. Wasting time sending out manuscripts when I could be spending that time and money writing another book, or promoting the current one.
And it is an adventure. I am learning all the time about publishing, and actually about writing too. I am re-editing my novel at the moment, aware now that in a month or two people will actually be reading it between the covers of my printed novel. That changes the way I read what I have written, and forces me to make some small but important changes, to make it more readable.
It is worth doing, I think. I don’t expect to make any money from it, but if I could just break even, that would be a success. And I hope to gain a lot more in the process.
TWO - I CAN DO THAT
My Spanish friend, Luis Gorrochategui Santos, wrote quite a successful book in Spanish called “Contraarmada”. It is based on the aftermath of the Spanish Armada, when the English sent an armada of their own to attack Spain and Portugal (http://www.contraarmada.com/). This he published through the traditional route.
His next book was called La Rebelión de los Pigs, and was about the financial crisis. Not finding a traditional publisher for this book, he decided to self-publish. He used a printer in Seville that gave him a good price, had the cover designed, and sent it out into the world.
I was talking to him recently, he is in Ireland for a few months to learn English. I mentioned that I had written a novel, and that I hadn’t tried very hard to get it published. He just said to me, “you have to publish it.” I repeated that I had tried, but it wasn’t easy. And then he told me about his self-publishing experience, and how cheap and easy it was.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but when I came back to Sligo (where I live, I met Luis in Dublin), the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. Luis had something along the lines of (I’m paraphrasing, we were talking in Spanish): “writing a book and not publishing is bad for the head. You need to get it out there so you can move on to the next one.”
I wouldn’t have expressed it like this, and I think he was talking more specifically about his own experience, but I know what he means. Writing a book that you have put a lot of work into, thinking that you have produced something that is worth reading and then leaving it in the metaphorical drawer, I think I agree that it is not good for the head.
So within days I had got quotes from self-publishing companies in Ireland and Spain. The Irish one, based in Cork, said they could do 200 copies for €1000, including shipping. This would include an ISBN number. The Spanish company, Publidisa, gave me a price of around €500 for 200 copies, with about €150 extra on top for transport. €650 for 200 copies. I was sceptical at first, but at this price it began to seem pretty doable.
All I needed was a PDF of my novel, and a cover design. That’s it? I thought. Well I can do that.
ONE - SO I WROTE A BOOK
So I wrote a book.
I’ve written a number, actually, but this is the first that I have actually finished, and the first one I would not be embarrassed for people to read. I began around 2010, and joined a writing group soon after. This gave me the discipline and motivation to actually knuckle down and finish the thing, my previous efforts have either been experiments or have been abandoned somewhere half-way through.
When a writer finishes a book and wants to get it published, there is a traditional route. It used to be that you would send the first few chapters, along with a cover letter and a synopsis of the book, to a publisher. Now though, the advice that I read was that you need literary agent. So I got my thirty pages, my synopsis and my letter and sent them out to about nine or ten agents, all in the UK (I am in Ireland, but was told that the agents you want are in Britain).
I got a reply from perhaps half of them, mostly polite, encouraging, telling me how much they liked my writing but that it wasn’t quite right for their lists. I wasn’t really discouraged, as I didn’t really expect anything. I had read a blog post from a reader for a literary agency, he said that approximately one book in every five thousand he reads from new writer results in that writer being taken on by the agency. One in five thousand.
And there I left it. To be honest, I wasn’t that bothered about being published, I initially wanted to do this just to see if I could. I have been reading books most of my life, and finding out whether I was a person who could actually write one was something that was important to me. More than that, I wanted to know if I could write something decent, something readable, something that – as I mentioned already – I would not be embarrassed by. And it turns out that I am a person who could do this. And that was enough, for a while.
And then I talked to Luis.
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