November 2000

How I wrote a
(almost) bestseller
at 70

I can still remember a time when books were easy
to acquire and prices were low. Publishing was
bareboned and pocket books were still available.
Today poorly translated foreign best sellers
and books written about esoterics are given priority.

Iosif Landau

A recent study reported by Rio's daily Jornal do Brasil about the Brazilian publishing industry reveals unhealthy trends due to the fact that there are more publishers than librarians. According to UNESCO, for a country of 170 million people the ideal number of bookstores should be 17,000. Brazil has an estimated 1,200 bookstores nationwide. Rio de Janeiro, for example, has only 154 bookstores for 5.5 million people and most of those are in inaccessible areas of the city for the majority of the population.

Studies available through BNDES (Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Econômico e Social—National Bank for Economic and Social Development), a state bank which provides financial support to various industries in Brazil, show that of books sold per capita to Italian, Spanish and Portuguese readers, Brazil sells the least per capita. Consequences of these trends are poor distribution of books, a limited number of bookstores, high prices and control of the industry by the publishers.

The four main bookstore chains: Siciliano, Saraiva, Sodiler and Nobel are against increasing availability of books in places other than their stores. The threat of these chains acquiring fewer books keeps books out of supermarkets, drugstores, many of the available newsstands and over the internet. Especially when internet bookstores can offer discounts up to 30% off.

Instead of creating a reader-friendly environment of less expensive books to increase readers buying power, bookstore owners prefer to promote government protectionary measures, which prohibit internet stores from offering discounts. This common practice in Brazil is also used by powerful corporations in efforts to fix selling prices.

For obvious reasons, readers are against fixed prices and are in favor of competitive pricing for all merchandise. It is a fact that low prices increase sales. However, selling price varies from ten dollars to thirty dollars, with a majority of books in hard cover because publishing companies know that the Brazilian consumer prefers hard cover over paperback copies of the latest novels.

In Brazil, publishers are editors, unlike in the U.S. market, which can make it difficult for new Brazilian authors to become popular since many publishers accept few writing styles. Esoteric and foreign best sellers are top sellers and therefore widely accepted. One of Brazil's most powerful publishers, Paulo Rocco, became successful by publishing books by famous authors such as Paulo Coelho and translated works by Richard Carlson, Stephen Hawking and John Grisham all of which increased Rocco's revenues substantially.

Rocco has also been involved in republishing works by such Brazilian writers such as Lygia Fagundes Telles, Autran Dourado and Clarice Lispector for educational purposes. Well known authors like Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Jô Soares and local editorial or biographical novels have a better chance of being successful as so few publishers are willing to take a chance on an unknown author. The media is grossly responsible for the difficulties that non-mainstream authors have in creating a name for themselves. Since big name publishers support the various veins of national communication, reviews in print are also controlled.

Books are not a luxury, they are for ware. The war between physical bookstores and virtual ones further stresses this point. Bookstores are beginning to look more like a maison de haute couture, selling CDs and coffee, which inhibit people from entering. Appearing more often in areas in Southern and Southeastern Brazil where people spend money rather than in neighborhoods where people live, bookstores are increasingly inaccessible.

Such is the trend that there are very few bookstores in northern parts of Brazil. Interestingly, the article in Jornal do Brasil reports that throughout history Brazilians have generally been poor readers. To further emphasize that point, the author of A Formação da Leitura no Brasil (The Formation of Reading in Brazil), Regina Zilberman, simply states that "Brazil was one of the last countries to have a press; we grew without the custom of reading. The present situation will only change when reading becomes a national trend, like soccer, Carnaval and soap operas." Although I do not believe this to be true as my experience as a reader began early in childhood and later I became a writer.

I was born in 1924 and published my first book in 1995. When I was a child, television and computers did not exist. Our only pastimes were reading and sports. It is quite impossible to become a writer without having been a diligent reader. We read novels, magazines, newspapers and comics allowing our imaginations to take us beyond our reality. Pretending to be kings and knights was our entertainment.

I still remember with joy the stories of Jules Verne, Karl May and Alexandre Dumas. Later, as a pre-pubescent teen, we turned to Pitigrilli, DH Lawrence and Henry Miller whose works completed our sexual fantasies. Detective stories also became increasingly popular and I met Agatha Christie, Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, Sax Rhomer and of course Conan Doyle and Edgar Wallace. Although, I discovered that Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were the greatest, the authors I cherished most were Hemingway, Camus, Machado de Assis, Ruben Fonseca, Dalton Trevisan and Érico Veríssimo. I never stopped reading.

I can still remember a time when books were easy to acquire and prices were low. Publishing was bareboned and pocket books were still available. The publishing industry grew with its focus on elegant and expensive books rather than on low prices and poorly translated foreign best sellers and books written about esoterics were given priority. Detective stories written by Brazilian writers disappeared as detective novels were looked upon as bad literature until documentaries about Dame Agatha, Chandler and Hammett appeared on screen. It became obvious at that time that books were published only for those who had money to spend.

I started writing in 1990 after I retired. By 1995, I had written three novels and many short stories. Copies were mailed to more than 15 publishers from Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo to Porto Alegre. After at least two months all copies were rejected by over-worked publishers although eventually a friend introduced me to another publisher that read my book and liked it. To get my book published, I agreed to assume the publishing costs and they took care of marketing and distribution.

My total expense was $3,000 for 1,000 books. The publisher took 60% of the gross sale and the remaining profits were mine. They did a good job marketing and promoting my book and I made appearances on television and in newspapers. I managed to sell 700 books, which is a good start for an author in Brazil considering that authors who sell 1,000 copies are considered a success.

Although the publicity was done well and I was recognized for my work in newspapers throughout Brazil, distribution was lacking. The 700 copies that were sold were a result of distribution mainly in Rio de Janeiro. In hopes of a better return on my investment, I decided that I would choose a less famous publisher for my second novel. The second publisher assumed all expenses and I received 10% of the selling price per book. Their marketing tactics were not very effective, however, and I only sold 400 books.

Frustrated by the fact that publishers demanded payment upfront, I decided that my third novel would be published through an on-line publisher. I also did not want to spend the $6,000 that it would have cost at today's rates to publish a third book. The internet publisher lacked the knowledge required to successfully sell a book over the internet. I later learned that Brazilian readers fear using their credit cards to purchase products that way in the first place. Overall, my experience as a published author was a success. In many ways even famous, award-winning authors sell a maximum of 2,000 copies of their work. 

Iosif Landau, 76, was born in Bucharest, Romania, in 1924. He moved to Brazil in 1941 and four years later became a Brazilian citizen. Landau is married and has three children and eight grandchildren. Graduated in engineering in 1949 he has worked throughout the country building roads, railroads and hydroelectrics. He is now settled in Rio. After retiring in 1992 he started to write, publishing several novels and poetry. He loves movies, jazz and violin concerts. You can contact him at

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