Paulo Coelho is not the literary world's most active Web aficionado, but he's certainly its most prominent. The Brazilian author has sold more than 100 million books, which include 14 short story collections and the novel "The Alchemist." He has been a fan of the Internet since the early 1990s. He spends at least three hours a day online, writing e-mails back and forth with his readers and posting photos on Flickr, MySpace and a blog.
Coelho's online activities also include a somewhat nefarious one: he likes to promote pirated copies of his own books. At the recent Digital, Life, Design Conference in Munich, Coelho told a gathering of tech company CEOs, artists and designers that since 2005 he's been directing his readers to an online site where they can download his books, in languages from German to Japanese, for free. "I always thought that when, at the beginning of your career, you strive to be read, you can't change your mind later and become greedy about it," he said.
Tell that to his publisher, HarperCollins. When reached by NEWSWEEK, a HarperCollins spokeswoman, Patricia Rose, said the publisher knew nothing about Coelho's online activities.
With his announcement Coelho is turning up the heat on an issue that's been simmering in the book publishing industry for years. In supplementing traditional promotional strategies, such as book signings and reviews, with free downloads, Coelho is championing a model that's gaining momentum among his fellow, albeit lesser-known, authors. Writers of technical manuals, academic books and fiction authors, like science fiction writer Cory Doctorow, have been putting their entire books online for free, with the consent of their publishers. Some authors claim that online publishing increases book sales by stimulating word of mouth. Publishers, for the most part, have been reluctant to endorse the practice for fear that it will undermine their sales and contracts for foreign rights and distribution. The trouble is, nobody really knows what effect free online publishing has on book sales, because there's almost no data to go on. "I think the Internet, for [publishers], is a very strange world, still," says Coelho's agent, Monica Antunes, from her office in Barcelona. "They can't make up their minds whether it's good or not good."
Whereas most authors who have embraced online publishing have done so openly, Coelho had been deftly hiding behind the anonymity provided in the digital world. His site, Piratecoelho, culls pirated versions of his books on sites like BitTorrent and eMule. He pays 10 fans scattered across France, Spain, Brazil, Russia and Turkey to find new pipelines for him to gather versions of his books onto the site. Visitors to his blog can click on an image of Coelho, resplendent in a neatly trimmed white beard, scarf and eye patch (he resembles an affable buccaneer in real life as well), and continue on to the site.
Coelho believes his online activities have only increased his already healthy sales. When he first came across a pirated edition of one of his books, in Russian, on the Internet in 1999, he put the link on his site, and the impact was immediate. Bookstore sales in Russia, a market in which Coelho was having distribution problems and where he had sold only 1,000 books, rocketed to 10,000 in 2001. He has since sold 10 million copies of his books, his agent says. His fans have downloaded complete editions of his books, in languages ranging from Spanish to Swedish, more than 20 million times in the past seven years. By publishing online, he says, "you give the reader the possibility of reading books and choosing whether to buy it or not."
Rather than publishing the books himself, Coelho is harnessing his sizable community of Net-savvy fans, who scan copies of his books and put them up for download. Although the copyright for the translations belongs to the various publishing houses he works with, Coelho owns all of the digital rights to his work, except for his contract for English editions with HarperCollins. Since his surprise at the conference on Jan. 20, Coelho has yet to hear from the publisher. "So far no reaction," Coelho says.
What happens next may be up to the publishers. They could act to limit the free distribution of copyrighted work online by offering only certain chapters for free, or by affixing online copies with digital rights management software that keeps people who have purchased a book for a mobile device from sharing it with friends. Amazon affixed DRM to its digital books for download after introducing its eBook reader, Kindle, in the fall. "There could be an attempt to achieve greater control over readers than publishers or authors have ever attempted before," says James Boyle, an intellectual property law professor at Duke University and an author.
Some publishers have already chosen to jump on the bandwagon of free downloads. Yale University Press has agreed to put Boyle's upcoming book "The Public Doman" online for free. Yale agreed to the move following the success of another one of its authors, Yochai Benkler, whose book "The Wealth of Networks" became a top academic seller even though it has always been available for free online, says Boyle. The science fiction publisher Baen has a free library online that offers its older titles for free download. "I see there's an element of hesitation, of fear, and often it takes just dipping your foot into the water," he says.
Whether or not digital delivery cannibalizes print is an open question, but Coelho doesn't think publishers should worry. For all the hype, there are limits to readers' appetites for online books. A collection of short stories Coelho wrote specifically for the Internet in 2000 was downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, but not a single reader took up his invitation to comment on it. Readers only began writing in when some of the stories appeared, six years later, in the book "Like a Flowing River," which sold 180,000 copies in the United Kingdom and other English-speaking territories. "It was a book I didn't expect to sell," he says. "But the people were waiting for it to appear as an official book." Books, he insists, are "a technology that has been developed over 500 and 600 years," he said. "And it's working very well."