TOPICS: Perfect print-digital alchemy for Coelho

Jeff Jarvis

Paulo Coelho certainly has nothing against selling books. He has sold an astounding 100m copies of his novels. But he also believes in giving them away. He is a pirate. Coelho discovered the power of free when a fan posted a Russian translation of one of his novels online and book sales there climbed from 3,000 to 100,000 to 1m in three years. “This happened in English, in Norwegian, in Japanese and Serbian,” he said. “Now when the book is released in hard copy, the sales are spectacular.”

So Coelho started linking to pirated versions of his books from his own website. But when he bragged about this at the Burda Digital Lifestyle Design conference in Munich last January, he got in trouble with his US publisher, HarperCollins, whose then head, Jane Friedman, called him.Friedman had caught Coelho red-handed — one of the supposedly unauthorised versions he linked to had the author’s own notes in it. “She said, ‘Paulo, come on, don’t shit me’.” He was pirating himself. So they reached a compromise: each month, a different Coelho novel can be read for free in the publisher’s online reader, which prevents making pirated copies. Meanwhile Coelho is off to new digital frontiers. He blogs and enjoys exploring a different kind of writing online.

“I think your language for your blog is totally different from your language in the Guardian, right? So we have to adapt ourselves. I have a lot of fun doing this.” When I saw him in his Paris apartment, he had a small Flip video camera ready so he could join in online video conversations at His digitally savvy assistant, Paula Bracconot, suggested having his readers take pictures of themselves reading his books, which they would put on Flickr; hundreds responded immediately. He webcasts his events and 10,000 show up online.

For his next novel, The Winner is Alone, Coelho asked his readers to help explain the pull of fashion brands. And for his last novel, The Witch of Portobello, he asked readers to film parts of the story from any character’s perspective. If the results are any good, he’ll have an editor turn it into a movie, The Experimental Witch. Coelho is the thoroughly modern author. But he still believes in print. For him, this isn’t a matter of print v digital. It’s a question of what comes when you add digital to print. “It gives me a lot of joy,” he said, “because writing is something you do alone.” He recalled the night in 2006 when he read that he had become the second best-selling author in the world. He was bursting. “My God, my wife is sleeping. How can I share this news with anybody?” Now he can shout it from the mountaintop of his blog.

“What should I do next?” he asked me in Paris. I was flummoxed because he’s doing so much. Then I suggested that the next time he’s in a cafe and bored, he should send a message to his fans via Twitter and his blog and I’ll just bet a few will be in the neighbourhood and will drop by to share a cup of coffee. For Coelho is not just an author to them now. He’s a friend.