Move over, Mitch Albom, there's another short, inspirational novel moving up the charts this Christmas season—and it's one Harper San Francisco has been publishing since 1994.
Paulo Coelho's parable, The Alchemist—a little book about a boy, a burro and the meaning of life—rests comfortably at #11 on PW's bestselling paperback trade list this week, its 22nd week on the list this year. On other lists that do not separate trade from mass market—meaning that trade books have a harder time cracking them—it has suddenly reappeared.
Major marketing or divine intervention? Actually, it's neither, or maybe a little bit of both. In the first place, The Alchemisthas been selling well, if quietly, for years—Nielsen BookScan puts the sales of just one edition (of many) at over a million since it began tracking book sales in 2001. Secondly, even Jane Friedman, known to be a bit on the cheerleady side, demurs about her contribution. "What happened, in reality, is that the time was right, and everything just came together," said the Harper CEO. And Coelho himself, a former songwriter, is a master at marketing; you need only to visit his Web site or catch a video of him speaking at an International BookSpan conference to see how he can work a crowd; he tells me, over tea at Paris's Bristol Hotel (a hotel that just happens to sell a particularly rich hot chocolate named after him), that even in depressed Ukrainian villages, people turn out by the thousands to see him. And then he adds, with charming immodesty, that one out of every five households in such disparate places as Iran and Israel boasts a copy of his book. Apparently, his book helps people, an effect for which he seems honestly and everlastingly grateful.
Coelho says that his complete oeuvre—nine titles in standard English-language release, one novel and several boxed sets in book-club only versions—has sold over 100 million copies worldwide (with a new book, The Witch of Portobello, coming here in the spring). Still, it is only recently that he's become known in the States, where, he says, he wants to become "the Coca Cola of writers." What was the tipping point? That such celebrities as Julia Roberts and Bill Clinton have publicly acclaimed The Alchemist surely hasn't hurt. Nor does the fact that, as Friedman says she told Rupert Murdoch, "spirituality is on the rise." And maybe the Coelho quotes on coffee-cup sleeves that Starbucks has recently begun using have made a difference, too. And while HarperMorrow president and group publisher Michael Morrison says that there hasn't been specific outreach to YA and college-age readers, he acknowledges that the book appeals to "kids searching for themselves," in much the way that, say, Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet or Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance entranced earlier generations. It was, after all, Chelsea Clinton who turned her father on to The Alchemist in the first place.
Not bad for an author whose little book, when first published in his native Portuguese, sold 900 copies.
Happy holidays, indeed.
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