The 25 Most Influential Books of the Past 25 Years: The Alchemist

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The latest issue of mental_floss just hit newsstands. Rosemary Ahern's cover story chronicles 'The 25 Most Influential Books of the Past 25 Years.' This week, we'll be revealing five of those influential books here on the blog. And if this puts you in a subscribing mood, here are the details.

The Alchemist

by Paulo Coelho (1988)

The Book That Found Treasure on the Internet

In the 1970s, Paulo Coelho was a famous lyricist in Brazil. But after the government found some of his words offensive, he ended up jailed and tortured on three separate occasions. Coelho fled to Europe, where he joined a small Catholic sect and rediscovered himself spiritually. In 1986, he made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, which inspired him to write The Alchemist, a tale of another man on a spiritual journey. In the story, a young Spanish shepherd named Santiago dreams of treasure buried near pyramids, then sets off to find it. He soon encounters an alchemist who gives him two stones with the power to decipher omens. On his travels, Santiago gets robbed, falls in love, participates in tribal warfare, and learns that the treasure he's been seeking has been within him the entire time. Although critics often dismiss the book as New Age tripe, fans call it life changing.

The most intriguing thing about The Alchemist may not be the author's background or the book's plotline, but how Coelho invented a new way to sell books.

Since its original release in Brazil, The Alchemist has sold more than 65 million copies, making it one of the most popular books of all time. This is partially due to Coelho's ingenious skill for marketing. In Russia, for example, the book had sold less than 1,000 copies. So, in 1999, Coelho's Russian publisher dropped him. The author quickly found another publisher and took the radical step of posting a free, digital, Russian-language version of The Alchemist on his Web site. Immediately, sales of the print edition picked up. In the first year, 10,000 copies sold. The next year, sales multiplied to 100,000, and by 2008, Coelho had sold 10 million books in Russia. The author believes that offering his work for free on the Internet was key to stimulating sales of hard-copy editions, and he has vehemently urged publishers to adopt this counterintuitive marketing strategy to keep print books alive and flourishing. In 2007, Suze Orman followed in Coehlo's footsteps and offered an online version of Women & Money for free on Oprah's Web site for 24 hours. After readers downloaded more than 1 million copies, sales of the print edition soared.

More Influential Books

Thinking in Pictures (The Book That Explained Autism from the Inside Out)
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And the Band Played On (The Book That Forced Us to Acknowledge AIDS)
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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (The Book That Lost Nothing in Translation)
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Middlesex (The Book That Showed Us That Mars and Venus Aren't the Only Planets)

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February 28, 2009 - 2:30am
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