15 Things You Might Not Know About The Alchemist

Valerie Hinojosa, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Valerie Hinojosa, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0 / Valerie Hinojosa, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Brazilian author Paulo Coelho’s allegorical novel of a Spanish shepherd has inspired millions of readers to set out searching for their own personal treasures. Here are a few things you may not know about the literary blockbuster.

1. Paulo Coelho only needed to weeks to write The Alchemist.

In 2009 the author explained to The Guardian’s Hannah Pool that he was able to write The Alchemist so quickly because, as he put it, “The book was already written in my soul.”

2. The Alchemist was not an instant success.

The writing may have been fast, but success came very slowly. The book’s journey to becoming a commercial juggernaut almost reads like its own Coelho story. When a small Brazilian publisher took a chance on The Alchemist in 1988, it hedged its bets by only printing 900 copies. Coelho later wrote that his publisher told him, “This title will never sell more than 900 copies.” After that tiny first run, the book went out of print, and Coelho got to keep the rights to the novel.

3. Paulo Coelho kept faith that The Alchemist would be successful.

In a new foreword written in 2014, Coelho explained his situation after his publisher dropped The Alchemist: “I was 41 and desperate. But I never lost faith in the book or ever wavered in my vision. Why? Because it was me in there, all of me, heart and soul. I was living my own metaphor.”

4. A second Brazilian publisher gave Paulo Coelho and The Alchemist another shot.

As Coelho would later write, the fate of the book proved the book’s recurring theme of “when you want something, the whole universe conspires to help you.” Another local publishing house agreed to back the book. The second publishing run fared better than the first, and eventually thousands of copies were being sold.

5. The English translation of The Alchemist provided the huge break it needed.

Coelho writes that eight months after the rerelease of The Alchemist, an American tourist found the book and wanted to help him find an American publisher for an English translation. HarperCollins took on the project, and Coelho would later credit the 1993 release of the English version with catapulting the novel to new heights. As he told The New York Times in 1999, “To have a book published in more than 119 countries, you need to have a language that can be read in Thailand or Lithuania. Translation into English made it possible for other editors to read me.”

6. Paulo Coelho took a local approach to The Alchemist's translations.

Even as The Alchemist became an international success, Coelho ensured that each new translation had local flavor. He worked with a local publisher in each new market and helped set cover prices that would make it possible for a wide audience to afford the book.

7. Paulo Coelho also hit the road to promote The Alchemist.

Coelho’s other secret weapon in boosting the worldwide popularity of his books: Relentless touring that often took him to unexpected locations. In his 1999 New York Times interview, Coelho explained, “Because I come from a country that is excluded, that doesn’t see authors of big best sellers come here, I’ve made a point of going to the places where no one else goes, like Bulgaria, Macedonia, Slovenia, Latvia, Slovakia, Iceland.”

The strategy paid off, and the crowds kept growing. In 2000, he had to cancel a book signing in Iran after the crowd of 5000 fans became too unruly. Coelho realizes this mobile, passionate fan base is unusual for a writer of spiritual fiction. “I am much more like a rock star than a writer,” he told the Financial Times in 2010.

8. The Alchemist's success was staggering.

If Coelho’s Personal Legend involved selling millions of books, he certainly followed it. The Alchemist spent over 300 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list. The 1994 French translation was a similar smash. The book gradually spread through the rest of Europe, finding great success in each new market. By 2002 a Portuguese literary journal determined it was the bestselling book in the history of the language.

9. Wide translation helped Paulo Coelho and The Alchemist set a new record.

The Alchemist has now sold over 65 million copies and has been translated into a record 80 languages. This wide success helped Coelho set a quirky Guinness record in 2003: “Most translations of a single title signed by the author in 1 sitting.” Coelho signed 53 different translations of The Alchemist at a book fair in Frankfurt, Germany.

10. The Alchemist won fans in high places.

The Alchemist has delighted millions of readers, including at least one resident of the White House. It received another bump in publicity when then-President Bill Clinton was photographed carrying a copy. In a 2000 interview with the Associated Press, Coelho recalled a meeting with Clinton: “He said Chelsea gave him a book of mine to read, and he loved it. I asked if I could quote him on that, and he said, ‘Sure.’”

11. You can download The Alchemist for free.

While many writers go to great lengths to protect their copyrights, Coelho takes a very different tack. Since 2000, he has been making his work available online for free download by potential readers. As Coelho explained to writer Bruno Giussani, “Publishers have a tendency to try to protect the content. It's a lost battle." The author launched a site called Pirate Coelho that collected pirated digital editions and audiobooks of his novels in a central location for easy downloading.

12. Giving away The Alchemist was a savvy business move.

Amazingly, Coelho reports that facilitating piracy has actually ignited sales. In 2008, he told an audience at the Digital Life, Design conference in Munich that the Russian translation of The Alchemist moved just 1000 copies in 1999. After making the digital edition available for free, he sold 10,000 Russian copies in 2001, before moving over 100,000 books in 2002. In his interview with Giussani, Coelho shared his theory about the origins of this boost: “There is no conflict between the fact that you have something for free, it stimulates people to read and to buy, because they have the possibility of trying.”

13. Paulo Coelho follows the omens in his writing life.

The author practices what he preaches when it comes to divining symbolism. Coelho must find a white feather before he starts a new book. Even if it takes a while, Coelho waits until he finds the sign. Once he has the feather in hand, he touches it to each page of the work when he prints out his manuscripts.

14. The film adaptation of The Alchemist is still on its own journey.

Coelho sold the film rights to The Alchemist to Warner Bros. for a reported $250,000 in 1994. The project never got off the ground, in part because producers insisted on adding epic battle scenes to juice the story’s action. At one point Coelho even supposedly offered $2 million to buy the rights back from the studio. In a 2008 Goodreads interview, the author admitted that while he was open to allowing an adaptation of The Alchemist, he was usually hesitant about movies because “seldom do I find that film adaptations of books work well.”

In 2008, Variety reported that Laurence Fishburne had signed on to direct and star in the film. Even Coelho sounded optimistic, releasing a statement that read, “I am very happy that my book will be filmed in the way I intended it to be, and I hope the spirit and simplicity of my work will be preserved." The project still hasn’t come together—perhaps Hollywood should start looking for omens.

15. Not even Paulo Coelho can fully explain The Alchemist's appeal.

Coelho has always been ready to share sage words on almost any topic, but in 2011 he admitted to The New York Times’s Julie Bosman that the runaway sales of The Alchemist surprised him. “It’s difficult to explain why. I think you can have 10,000 explanations for failure, but no good explanation for success,” Coelho said.

For more fascinating facts and stories about your favorite authors and their works, check out Mental Floss's new book, The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels and Novelists, out May 25!