The Portuguese Book Trade

by Richard C. Ramer, Old & Rare Books

WESS Newsletter

Spring 2001, Vol. 24, no. 2

Association of College & Research Libraries
© American Library Association

The Portuguese publishing industry turns out an extremely large quantity of high quality books for a relatively tiny market. Portugal has a population of only slightly over 11 million. Lack of any economy of scale, combined with small editions, results in rather chaotic distribution patterns. The export market is likewise small. Brazil, the largest potential market for Portuguese books, for the most part does not buy books published in Portugal, but rather is supplied by its own very complex and dynamic publishing industry. There are exceptions: some extremely important current writers of fiction, the most notable being José Saramago, the recent Nobel laureate, are capable of generating significant sales in Brazil. A very few of the larger Portuguese publishers maintain offices in Brazil, and make a greater effort to supply this market. Other than Brazil, Portuguese-speaking countries to which Portugal might export books simply do not have the financial resources or readership to justify significant exports; the largest exports to Lusofone Africa are in the form of subsidized book fairs, undertaken by official entities, to promote Portuguese language, literature and culture in these countries.

Editions are small, between 1000 and 2000 copies constitutes a normal printing of a novel by a commercial publisher; these often stay in-print for several years, even decades. Three thousand copies would be a fairly large printing; 10,000 copies a blockbuster best-seller; anything in the 40,000 to 50,000 range is most unusual. Many less commercial books, such as avant-garde poetry, bibliographies, literary criticism, important historical works, and genealogies are produced in editions of 1,000 or less; sometimes as few as 500 or even 200 copies. Important exhibition catalogues, or other major works of art history or photography sometimes have editions of 2,000 or 3,000; but the editions can be smaller, and in the cases of very specialized monographs on the fine arts, the editions can be very small indeed.

A distinguished US librarian told me that the acquisition of Portuguese books is an afterthought of an afterthought in University and Academic libraries of the USA. This is true as well for Canada, Northwestern Europe, Japan and Australia.  It is interesting to examine a few statistics gleaned from the website of APEL (Associação Portuguesa de Editores e Livreiros,  This site is excellent in many respects, but not 100% up to date. For example it still lists Livros de Portugal, despite the fact that this bulletin, which formerly included the Portuguese trade list, has not been published for about two years. While the trade list was far from complete, it did carry the major publishers' output. APEL does still publish Livros disponiveis, the Portuguese equivalent of Books in Print on a bi-annual basis, with a supplementary volume published every alternate year.

Here are some of the statistical highlights, with a few modest interpretations added:

For 1998, the latest year for which statistics are available, there were 1,171 different publishers.  This includes authors who self-published, as well as a significant number of other entities which published a single title. Only 166 of these publishers were members of APEL, but they accounted for slightly over 75% of the total publishing output for the year.

The average printing in 1994 was 4130 copies; by 1998 it had dropped to 2708. This significant drop bears out my conclusion, based on anecdotal evidence, that more books are being published for scholars and research libraries than for the general reading public.

During the five year period 1994 through 1998, while the total number of volumes published actually fell from just under 27,000,000 to just under 25,000,000, gross sales almost doubled. This is partly a testament to the health of the market, but it is also a function of rising book prices.

Of the 6338 new titles published in 1998, 729 were school textbooks, 470 were technical or scientific works, 681 were in the "human sciences" 1924 were considered "general literature", 62 were encyclopedias or dictionaries, 129 were in the arts, 1320 were children's books or juvenile literature (most of these are translations or reprints), 94 were comic books, 330 were self-help and other practical books, 599 were not classified. It is something of a mystery which category includes books on the law.

The largest editions were in textbooks (the average was 7229), encyclopedias and dictionaries (5982 average), and practical books (3451 average); books about the fine arts had the lowest average edition (848), while the other categories were all in the 1200 to 1800 range. The great majority of Portuguese books are published in paperback editions.

Of the 6338 new titles which appeared in 1998, 1821 were translations. Portuguese authors accounted for 4015 titles, Brazilian authors for 302 titles, and other authors who wrote originally in Portuguese accounted for 200 titles. The vast majority of these last two hundred are undoubtedly from Lusofone Africa.

Total exports accounted for roughly $1,500,000 in sales during 1998 (less than 1% of the total Portuguese book sales that year). Slightly more than half the 1.5 million went to Brazil. A little over $300,000 was exported to countries of the Common Market; somewhat less than $300,000 went to other PALOP countries, a little over $100,000 to European countries outside the Common Market, about $40,000 worth of books were sent to Macau, and all the rest of the world accounted for very little indeed. By far the largest portion of this "very little indeed" went to "other countries of the American continent"-presumably this includes the United States-a grand total of slightly less than $20,000. As our firm exported close to $100,000 in new books from Portugal to the USA in 1998, one can see that these statistics are not 100% free of error, and should be interpreted cautiously.

Of late, a Civil War of sorts is being waged within the Portuguese publishing industry. A rival organization has arisen to APEL, namely the União dos Editores Portugueses. More than 30 publishers are now members, including some of the "major" publishers-"major" at least by Portuguese standards-such as Europa-América, ASA, Dom Quixote, Afrontamento, DIFEL, and Civilização.

The demise of Livros de Portugal may have some relationship to the rupture. There were major changes in the administration of APEL, which coincided with the cessation of publication of Livros de Portugal and the founding of the rival organization. Some publishers who belong to the União dos Editores Portugueses say that there was a need for an organization devoted solely to the interests of publishers. APEL has members who are distributors, bookshops, and even some antiquarian dealers in addition to publishers. The antiquarians have also established their own organization, the Associação Portuguesa de Livreiros Alfarrabistas, although a few maintain duel membership in APEL and in APLA. Defenders of APEL insist there was no need for the União dos Editores Portugueses. Friction could be observed at the annual Lisbon Book Fair held in late May and early June, where both APEL and the União dos Editores Portugueses had a presence. Formerly this event was organized exclusively by APEL.

Let me take a few minutes to tell about what we are trying to do. Our main business is in rare books and manuscripts. This is far more lucrative, and frankly, more fun than the business in new books. Richard C. Ramer, Old & Rare Books was founded in 1969. From the beginning we have concentrated on Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Latin America, and all other parts of the world where there was a Spanish or Portuguese presence. We have handled incunabula printed in Spain and once owned a Hebrew book printed in Lisbon in 1492 for a few hours; we have significant holding in sixteenth century books, and own an eleventh century manuscript document signed by Ermesinda of Carcassone, Countess of Barcelona. In the field of rare Brasiliana I think it is safe to say we are preeminent.

Fascination with Brazilian History, which predated my commercial interests, led to an interest in Portuguese history and literature, without which one cannot understand Brazil. Soon after starting out in the rare book business I began to make regular buying trips to Portugal. Not only did I make many friends and fall in love with the country, but I fell in love with and married a Portuguese woman, which, naturally, further strengthened my ties to Portugal.

From time to time back in the 1970s and early 1980s I would buy a few extra copies of a fundamental Portuguese in-print bibliography or other reference work. The first copy was for our reference library (in New York we maintain a reference collection to support the rare book business which now contains nearly 4,000 volumes). Occasionally, when visiting a library on rare book business, I would plunk down one of these to show what was being published. It amazed me that some of the most important research libraries in the world were not obtaining these fundamental research tools. Eventually, around 1985, one of my best institutional customers at that time, which has since downsized considerably, convinced me to begin a rather ambitious blanket order plan.

Presently the new book business occupies roughly half my time, but the new books bring in a pittance financially in comparison to the rare book business. While it has some potential to grow, especially using the internet, I maintain no illusions that this can ever be a real business in the sense that book export firms can be in France, Germany, or even Spain (the original afterthought), which, despite being an afterthought, has so much more of a potential market than does Portugal. If there existed the more lucrative market that exists for these larger countries, there would surely be someone taking advantage of it more dynamic and a better business man than I am.

Nevertheless, given the constraints mentioned, I am trying to do this to the best of my ability. We handle blanket order and approval plans, which are tailored to meet the exact needs of the customer. The books are shipped directly to the customer out of our Lisbon office. We also do searches for out-of-print items published in Portugal, as well as for old and rare items dealing with Portugal, Brazil, Spain, and all other areas of the world where Spain and Portugal have had a presence. Some of you may be familiar with our website,, which has now been up for about 18 months. We have over 3,300 in-print Portuguese titles listed. Every book listed is one of potential interest to scholars and research libraries and/or of use in support of university programs in Portuguese literature, history, art history, etc. These 3,300+ titles are listed in seven on-line bulletins, as well as in a searchable database at I hope and believe it is not unduly immodest to say that nobody else is describing Portuguese books with such rigor as they are described in our Bulletins and in our website database. (Incidentally, the website also has another database for rare materials, with about 350 items described, even more rigorously, which presently represents less than 10% of our old and rare stock).

We are issuing regular notices via e-mail of updates to our website. Anyone not receiving these notices who would like to receive them is urged to send a request to us at We also maintain a private database for in-print Portuguese books which contains over 8000 records. One interesting statistic recently gleaned from that database concerns titles we have catalogued over the past few years: there are 658 records with 1997 imprints, 694 with 1998 imprints, 682 with 1999 imprints, and 346 with 2000 imprints. The reason there are far fewer year 2000 imprints catalogued is that many of these are yet to be discovered. Indeed, I am constantly encountering "new" imprints of interest to our customers from years past.  One of the main reasons I wanted to be here was the opportunity to get feedback, and to learn from you. Any suggestions will be received with attention and gratitude. Therefore, I now open the floor for questions and comments.

Richard C. Ramer
Old & Rare Books
225 East 70th Street
New York, NY 10021
fax: (212) 288-4169 telephones: (212) 737-0222 and 737-0223

Lisbon Office:
Rua do Século, 107
Apartamento 4
1200 Lisboa
fax: (351) 21 346 7441
Telephones (351) 21 346 0938 and 21 346 0947

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