The Alchemy of the Alchemist: How Paulo Coelho became the most translated living author for the same book
In April 2008, Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian author of The Alchemist, published in more than 150 countries (Sant Jordi, 2005) acquired the 2009 Guinness World Record for being the Most Translated Living Author for the same book (Sant Jordi, 2008). He also holds the Guinness Record for The Most Translations (53) of a Single Title (The Alchemist) Signed in One Sitting in an international book-signing held at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2003(Sant Jordi, 2003).
The 2009 Guinness world record acknowledges The Alchemist as:
‘The most languages into which the same book has been translated, is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (Brazil), a global best-seller, which can be read in 67 languages, including Hindi, Farsi and isiXhosa.’
The Alchemist was written in 1988 by Paulo Coelho, an unknown writer at the time, living in Brazil, a country without a prominent history of its literature being translated into other languages, a fact that makes the book eligible to be considered as a publishing phenomenon. No international bestselling author has achieved such success; being translated into so many languages and becoming a bestseller in every single country where he has been published. Furthermore, Coelho celebrated the milestone of 100 million copies sold of his books around the world in a party held on October 15th 2008 in Frankfurt (Sant Jordi, 2008). One can imagine that in a few years he might as well receive another world record certificate of being the most read living author of all times.
In another article, Last Call for a New Blood, I have explained the difficulties of publishing literature in translation, especially in English-speaking countries, where the high costs of translation, difficulties of executing publicity campaigns in the absence of a domestic author and also the cultural issues, makes the publishers less interested in exploring literature in other languages to discover appropriate titles for translation. The Alchemist and its numerous publishers in several countries have certainly overcome these problems. According to the data retrieved from Nielsen BookScan at 28/04/09, it has sold more than 730,000 copies in bookstores in the UK since 1999 and the overall sales of all of Coelho’s books reach the admirable figure of more than 1,840,000 copies.
These noteworthy figures should be inspected carefully, as trying to uncover the underlying reasons of The Alchemist’s success as a publishing phenomenon which has succeeded to appeal to millions of readers, regardless of their nationalities and languages, may increase the understanding about the publishing industry in an international contexts.
The journey of The Alchemist
According to Paulo to Coelho’s biography by Fernando Morais (Morais, 2008), the author’s official website (Coelho, 2008) and my personal conversations and correspondence with the author (2000–2009), he was born in 1947 in a middle-class family nearRio de Janeiro, brought up in a Jesuit school where he decided to become a writer. However, his parents were not amazed by this passion and when he resisted to becoming an engineer like his father, they committed him in a psychiatric hospital for three times. This did not suffocate his love for literature and he tried several kinds of creative activities such as theatre, journalism and song-writing before he joined the hippie movement in the 60s; a series of actions which resulted in his arrest and torture by the military regime of Brazil. After his release, Paulo worked for two record companies and married Christina Oiticica. In 1982 and 1985 he published two books, Arquivos do Inferno and O Manual Prático do Vampirismo; none of which had much repercussion.In 1986 he completed a pilgrimage on the road to Santiago by the recommendation of his master, and a year later he described this experience in O Diáro de Um Mago (translated into English as The Pilgrimage), published by a small Brazilian publishing house which was completely ignored by the media. Nonetheless, it was a successful novel and could find its place on the Brazilian bestseller lists. A year later, in 1988, he published The Alchemist, a book destined to change his life forever.
This time Paulo did not rely on the publisher’s marketing and publicity plans and instead he and Christina started a personal publicity campaign, going to theatres, bars and cinemas, visiting bookstores and giving the salespeople signed books as presents, trying to convince radio shows to recommend the book and also giving speeches in every possible occasion on subjects related to his books. However, the first edition only sold 900 copies which made the publisher decide not to reprint and he returned the rights to Paulo. Paulo signed a contract with another publisher, on the condition that the publisher would publish the book by Christmas, a decision which happened to mark the book’s success. The first printing sold out in a few days and after two years, his two titles had sold 500,000 copies in Brazil, a record which no other book in the Brazilian market had achieved before (Morais, 2008 p. 491), despite the fact that the media had gone completely silent about the books.
At the same time, Monica Antunes, one of Paulo’s fans, told him that she wanted to move to Spain. Paulo asked her whether she was interested in trying to sell the rights of his books to international publishers. Monica accepted, moved to Spain, and started her journey of finding publishers for The Alchemist and The Pilgrimage. Now Paulo had an exclusive agent.
At about the same time, an American hotel owner named Alan Clarke who was fluent in Portuguese, accidentally read and liked the book O Diario…. He called Paulo and offered to translate the book and try to find a publisher for the book in the US and by Paulo’s approval he started a campaign to find a publisher, which ended in HarperCollins’ editor to agree upon publishing it. Despite the disappointing initial sales of the book in the US, Clarke went back with the translation of The Alchemist. Surprisingly, the editors were excited with the new story and published it in an initial print run of 50,000 copies in hardback in 1993 which sold so well that the editors reprinted it in paperback only two months later. At the same time, Monica sent the manuscript to Edition Robert Lafont in France who rejected it, but his daughter Anne Carrier who wanted to found her own publishing house loved the book and published it in 1994. France was the gateway of the book to Europe and from then on the success of The Alchemist and Coelho’s other books started and has never stopped since. According to the French magazine Lire (March 1999), Paulo Coelho was the second bestselling author worldwide in 1998 (SantJordi, 1999) and The Times in London has called him ‘the world’s second-biggest-selling author after John Grisham’ (USA Today, 2007).
Do the rules of success apply to the Alchemist?
There are no rules to guarantee the international success of a book, but there are a few widely-accepted influencing factors. In the following section, the eligibility of The Alchemist to become a successful book according to these rules will be studied.
One general assumption is that if a book by a foreigner is written in English, it has more potential to be published in the UK and the US. English is an important criterion for the international success of a novel as most of the international editors mainly read in English and availability of a book in this language increases the chances of it being translated into other languages. As discussed in an earlier article, English-language publishers are not keen to publish books in translation (Hejazi, 2009), therefore, it takes a Nobel, an equivalent major prize or high sales figures in several countries before it attracts the attention of an English-speaking publisher. The Alchemist was published originally in Portuguese, a language not very well-spoken in English-language countries, in Brazil, a country not closely monitored by international publishers and scouts. So what made the book be published in English, in the US, by a publisher as strong as HarperCollins? One might say that the book was lucky to have found a passionate translator who believed in the book and translated it on his own initiative. The book’s availability in English made it eligible to be submitted to an American publisher and perhaps the editor liked the book and championed it. However, one can argue that hundreds of thousands of titles are submitted to publishers’ slush piles every year, more than 200,000 titles are published p.a. in the US and only 1% of them reach the bestseller status (Maryles, 2006). What is so special in The Alchemist that creates a compulsive drive in a hotel owner to translate it, a publisher to accept it and the readership to love it? We will try to answer this question later on.
The second factor, on which most resources on marketing books place emphasis, is the influence of media coverage and good reviews in the success of a book. However, neither the Brazilian nor the American media supported The Alchemist and it was never recommended by major TV shows such as Oprah. Furthermore, contrary to millions of devoted readers, the critics have always frowned upon and denounced it as being charlatan or too simplistic (Economist, 1995) and (Wark, 2007). This paradox, alongside the fact that The Alchemist has never lost appeal amongst readers in the past 20 years, can be the subject of another essay; here it is sufficient to claim that reviews were not an assisting factor in the success of The Alchemist.
Another factor considered to be influential in the sales figures of a book is the cinema effect which cannot be denied: a large number of high selling books have been supported by a film tie-in. However, The Alchemist has never enjoyed a film adaptation to boost its sales. If all the rumours about the film adaptation of it ends in a blockbuster cinematographic production (Sant Jordi, 2008), an even more considerable growth in its sales can be expected.
The fourth factor that is usually acknowledged as an important underlying reason for the visibility of a book is the marketing efforts. However, in the case of The Alchemist, neither the Brazilian nor the American publisher executed a high-budgeted campaign when the book was originally published. The publicity efforts of the author himself, skilfully exploiting every opportunity for visibility, has perhaps helped the success of the book in Brazil, but he had no access to the media in the US initially and the book could not have had a campaign more sophisticated than any other title published by HarperCollins.
The fourth factor for the international success of fiction-writers is considered to be a professional literary agent: Coelho declined the offer of Carmen Balcells, a well-respected literary agent in the publishing world and instead, relied on an inexperienced young woman who had absolutely no contacts; a simple woman who had just fallen in love with the book and believed in it. Her efforts were going to have a huge positive impact on the book’s travelling across the world later; but choosing her in the first place was not the most guaranteed choice for the success of a book.
In the case of this book, the title – which, according to some resources, is 70% responsible for a book to become a bestseller (Ezard, 2005) – was not helpful either. Ezrad claims that the title should be ‘metaphorical or figurative’ instead of ‘literal’; the first word should be ‘a pronoun, a verb, an adjective or a greeting’; and their grammar patterns should take the form ‘either of a possessive case with a noun, or of an adjective and noun or of the words The … of …’ (ibid.) The Alchemist had none of these qualities.
To sum up before studying the main influential elements in this book which guaranteed its trans-cultural success, a passionate author wrote a book, a non-passionate publisher published it for the first time, it failed; then a passionate publisher published it, the author and his passionate wife started a personal campaign to publicise the book, it became a bestseller in its homeland, then a passionate American translator translated the book and marketed it to the publishers, a passionate editor decided to take the risk of publishing it, a passionate young woman fell in love with the book and decided to market it to international publishers, among which a French independent publisher became passionate about it and decided to publish it…
The story can be summarised even more in one single word: passion. All the individuals who coined the domestic and international success of The Alchemist first fell in love with it and then decided to share this passion with the others; a concept seemingly forgotten now, but once one of the main founding principles in the publishing industry: sharing with others. The passion created the most powerful marketing communication tool, stronger and more effective than any breath-taking advertising campaign: Word of Mouth, as the most important and definitive factor resulting in the outstanding sales of the book and also preventing it from being forgotten or being sent to the cemetery of once-bestsellers-but-now-out-of-prints. The WOM works closely with the last and most determining factor: the story, or more precisely, the content – it is very unlikely for someone to recommend a novel to her friend, just because it has a good cover, she only does so, because she has enjoyed the story. Therefore, regardless of the critics’ opinion in easily discarding The Alchemist as being commercial, the content of the book has been the magician who has helped a small book to be translated into almost every single living language.
The story and its roots
The Alchemist is simply the story of a boy who dreams twice of a treasure hiding near the Pyramids. He leaves the world he knows behind and starts a quest to find his treasure. He reaches the Pyramids, only to realise that the treasure is waiting for him at home, at the very place where he dreamt of the treasure in the first place.
It may sound simplistic, but the concept of travelling the world and finding the objective of the quest at home has very deep roots in world’s lore.
The plot first appears, almost simultaneously, in a fable in the book VI of The Mathanawi by Rumi, the Iranian poet of 13th century, and a tale in One Thousand and One Nights. It also appears in the English folktale The Pedlar of Swaffham (Pryme, 1870) and several other tales (Ashliman, 1999-2008). Later, it found its way in a novel named Night under the Stone Bridge (1952) by the Austrian writer Leo Perutz. Jorge Luis Borges too adopted the story from One Thousand and One Nights, in his short story ‘Historia de los dos que soñaron’ in Historia universal de la infamia(Borges, 1974 ). The latter was the source that inspired Coelho to write The Alchemist(Morais, 2008).
The recurring nature of the theme dictates the fact that the story appeals to people with a universal message addressing one of the most important sources of anxiety, regardless of nationality, language or cultural differences.Every human being has a dream. However, in order to adapt to the society demanding conformity, they often have to abandon their dreams and live with the regret. The story asks people to trust their dreams, be brave and follow their individual paths. In order to do that, they don’t have to be elite, intellectual, rich and flawless or have an extraordinary strength. This is a path for ordinary people.
Nonetheless, even the story does not answer the question of why the adapted stories of Perutz or Borges could not reach the same international popularity of The Alchemist. How could an editor identify the hidden potential of The Alchemist for turning into a bestseller, when the same story by an Austrian author could not find wide international appeal?
One answer to the above questions can be the timing. By the end of the 20th century, at the height of the cold war, when there seemed to be no hope left for individuality, the 60s were over and people had lost hope that one day the world could live in ‘peace and free love’ (Coelho, 2008), The Alchemist told everybody that they could separate their personal destinies from the society’s standards and that the conspiracy theory was an illusion. This new hope was what people needed at the time. The subsequent drastic changes in the next few years, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the human rights movements in the 90s proved Coelho to be right and gained him the readers’ trust which increased his popularity even more, providing a strong foundation for the success of his next books.
However, this is only one answer, the main reason for the success of The Alchemist in comparison to its peers, lies in the two parallel stories moving alongside the main plot: Paulo’s personal life story and the parallel journey of the shepherd for self re-discovery.
A Metaphorical Biography
The Alchemist is mostly a metaphorical autobiography of the author, the first part of it resembling the lives of millions of other individuals. Below, the counterparts of the main moves in the story and the author’s life have been compared:
The Shepherd (in The Alchemist)…
wants to become a writer
wants to see the world
has to give up his dream and go to college
goes to a seminary
turns to theatre as an alternative to writing
becomes a shepherd and travels
remembers his dream and starts song-writing
sees the treasure in his repeated dream in the chapel and decides to have it interpreted
leaves everything behind and tries to create an alternative society, publishes two unsuccessful books
sells his sheep and crosses the water
is arrested and tortured for believing in his honest, but misinterpreted dream
is rubbed of all his belongings
starts working hard to learn from the world of ordinary people while he is working in a music company
works for the crystal merchant
abandons his dream
decides to go back to Spain
is fired from his job
is reminded of his treasure by the two sacred stones
meets with the love of his life, Christina
meets J., his guru
meets the Alchemist
is encouraged by J. to take a pilgrimage on the road to Santiago of Compostella
is encouraged by The Alchemist to leave everything behind and restart his journey towards the pyramids
decides to return to his typewriter and start writing, after the pilgrimage
finds out that his treasure is back at home
The parallel story and the style
The elements added to the main plot of The Alchemist are as important in the success of the book. The book is full of archetypal symbols which appear in an apparently simple and straightforward style, nevertheless deep and fundamental, which can address the universal language of people regardless of their mother language, which provides for the high translatability of the book: The alchemist (the title), the wise old man (self), the female counterpart (Anima), the quest, the acquired identity (Persona), the thieves and warriors who try to postpone his mission (Trickster), the four elements (Sea, Wind, Sun and the Desert), and several other symbols already established in the collective unconscious of the readers. These are the symbols that people know by heart through fairy tales, fables and myths and can identify with them, which is the main reason for the magic power of folklore. Coelho uses the known plot, the familiar characters and elements, the archetypal references and even the well-known style of fairytales – with short sentences, without trying to look smart or pretend that he is addressing an elite audience who are initiated into a secret language – to resurrect an ancient but forgotten message: Be brave, the real power lies within you, not outside. This is most likely why The Alchemist has been read and admired by millions of people. It is a universal novel, written in a universal language, easily understandable and translatable by any nation.
Another aspect of the novel which seems to help its translatability is the lack of prolific usage of proper names. Although more than 30 characters appear in the course of the story, the names of only three of them are mentioned: Santiago, Melchizedeq and Fatima; the rest are referred to as their attributes: ‘The Alchemist’, ‘the merchant’, ‘the thief’, etc. Even the three proper names belong to three different cultures and religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the use of which strips the story from any kind of religious or cultural bias. This explains the unparalleled success of the book among different cultures and religions. Furthermore, the lack of proper names in the story and the geographical span of two continents help the readers from different backgrounds to easily identify with the characters without trying to become familiar with specific cultural references.
The record of being the most translated book of a living author, being translated into 68 languages and published in more than 150 countries, makes The Alchemist a definite publishing phenomenon. However, the book does not fit into the prevalent perception of a typical bestseller. The book’s longer than expected life-cycle (it has been a high selling book for 20 years) cannot be compared with several other bestsellers that shine for a while and then are replaced by other competing stars. It was not supported by high marketing budgets in the first few years after its publication. It was not written in English, French or Spanish. It did not enjoy a film tie-in and was not recommended by positive reviews and the media, but it is still selling, only relying on the word of mouth as its main marketing tool, rooted in the passion it creates in its readers who mostly recommend the book not as a good or entertaining read, but a must-read, which has converted the book a modern classic.
The Alchemist is certainly worthy of further research, as it has undermined the current and prevalent perception in publishing which relies on safe and tested grounds, not eager to venture into the unknown, the very concept of The Alchemist, and the very thing that might restore the important role of editors as the authorities who perhaps should pay more attention to the content of the books and their own intuition rather than relying only on marketing researches and popular trends which could have never found The Alchemist eligible for publishing.
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