Turns out that global storyteller Paulo Coelho ("The Alchemist" and many other bestsellers) pirates his own books online.
"Publishers have a tendency to try to protect the content. It's a lost battle", he says. And tells of his own experiences. In 2000, he released on his website the full text of "Stories for parents, children and grandchildren", which he wrote specifically for the web. In five months, the book was downloaded over 1 million times. "But until today I've never got a comment on that book". Which he explains as follows: often "people download, but don't read. They download to have the impression to own something that one day they're going to read. But when people really want to read, they go buy the books".
Around the same time, "I found a pirated Russian translation of "The Alchemist", and we were selling 1000 copies a year in Russia, that's not very impressive, so I said OK, let's put the pirate edition online for people to download". In 2001 "it sold 10'000 copies, and everybody was puzzled, and the next year we went over 100'000". His publisher had not done any particular promotion. "It was, believe it or not, the free-for-download book. People downloaded it, started reading it, liked it, and bought it", Paulo says. "In the third year we had over 1 million copies, now we're over 10 million copies in Russia".
"I thought, this is fantastic. You give to the reader the possibility of reading your books and choosing whether to buy them or not." (Which, btw, happens offline too: you can spend hours at Barnes & Noble reading books and sipping coffee before deciding to buy, a practice that I would like to see in European bookstores, too). But he needed to find a way to get around copyright regulations and avoid having to require permissions from publishers and translators. So he pirated himself. "I went to BitTorrent and got all my pirate editions in various languages and created a site called PirateCoelho ". That's a blog where he posts links to free full-text and audiobook copies of most of his books in multiple languages available on file-sharing networks, FTP sites and elsewhere online. "I linked to it from my own blog, playing a bit naive, as if somebody else had set it up". Paulo claims that free ignites sales: "The sales increased a lot. There is no conflict between the fact that you have something for free, it stimulates people to read and to buy, because they have the possibility of trying".
(Footnote: this is probably less self-evident for authors who don't enjoy global name recognition and established large readerships).
At the DLD conference in Munich, where he told this story the other week, Paulo also underscored two other ways the Internet is affecting the book business.
One: By changing the language and "interfering with the way we express ourselves"; "in 20 years we will have new languages established, that either will make our life easier or more difficult".
Two: By changing the relation between writers and readers: "writing is such a lonely thing to do; the only reader I know a bit is me, so I write for me. But through the Internet and my blog for the first time I can interact with my readers. I spend at least three hours a day on e-mail and Facebook and on my blog and online projects". Last year, Paulo invited ten readers to his annual party in Spain, by posting a notice on his blog, and some flew in from the other end of the world just for those two hours. This year, he's inviting 30, in Paris on March 19, because "nothing is true without eye-contact". For your chance to be one of them, read this post on his blog.
I had a chat with Paulo and his assistant after the speech. He is all over the Internet, leveraging sites, blogs, social networks and other tools to spread his voice -- and promote his books -- and is running several interesting online experiments (beyond blogging very actively -- his blog also includes an ongoing interview, with him answering daily questions by Aart Hilal, a likely fictitious identity that functions as the writer's own online alter-ego). One is the monthly publication "Warrior of the Light".
Another is called "The Experimental Witch" and is a film competition/movie crowdsourcing project based on Paulo's novel "The witch of Portobello": "I’ve been visiting the pages of readers this last year and I’ve seen excellent works by actresses & actors, musicians, directors, etc. That’s why I thought: why not make a movie together?", he asks. How would that work? The book is divided into 15 narrators' perspectives. Paulo is inviting filmmakers to sign up, pick a narrator, and shoot a video including all the scenes in the book in which that narrator interacts with the main character, Athena. "Since there will be a myriad of projects, I am aware that Athena will always be a different person (Caucasian, African, Asian, etc). This plurality is welcomed since Athena’s character is supposed to be “fleeting”."
After the scenes are shot, and the videos uploaded to a private YouTube account, the best ones will be chosen to be edited into the final movie -- all the rights will go to Coelho, while the filmmakers will get 3000 euros each, plus a share of fame if the experiment works out. (Let's add that "musicians from MySpace" are also invited to create a theme for the feature film or for single characters, under similar conditions). Deadline to sign up and participate: 31 May 2008. "We would be doing a bit of cinematographic history together: a film directed by its narrators!", writes Paulo. Here is a trailer. Computer maker HP is sponsoring, and Paulo will be at the Cannes Film Festival in May talking about it.