The Holy Grail of Self-publishing

How did I find the The Holy Grail of Self-publishing? A few month ago I read a tweet of Paolo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, and the king of the genre I write for. The tweet featured the picture of an Indian guy selling pirated copies of his books in the street. “Wow, Paolo doesn’t mind people getting a peace of him,” I awed, but then I thought: “Maybe it’s not a big deal, because he’s already rich.”

A few days later, I read a post about self-publishing, in which the blogger suggested to send out as many free pdf copies as possible. “Don’t worry about pirating – this is free advertising,” he argued. And then, he mentioned something that made my hair stand to end: “Paolo Coelho believes so much in pirating, that he set up his own pirate website for his books.”


Oh my God…


How if I would do that? No, that’s so scary. Wait … what was Warren Buffet’s most famous investing advice again? “When the masses get scared, the wise investor gets greedy.” I felt that there was something to ebook piracy that could work in my indie author favor, but it still took me another two weeks to pluck up my courage and have a closer look at it.

Is pirating the Holy Grail of self-publishing?

What Does Paolo Coelho Say?

In 1999, Paolo Coelho wasn’t doing well in Russia. He sold less than 1,000 books and his Russian publisher dropped him. After he signed up another publisher, Paolo posted a digital, Russian copy of The Alchemist on his own website. Soon after, print sales picked up. In the following year he sold 10,000 copies, the year after 100,000. By 2002 he had sold a total of a million books in Russia. Paolo commented in an interview: “I’m convinced it was putting it up for free on the Internet that made the difference.” He added that in 1999, Russia experienced a paper shortage and printed books were quite expensive. That’s why so many people downloaded e-books. However, when the price for paper dropped again, sales of his printed books picked up exponentially.

Since he stumbled upon the light, Paolo has been a frank advocate for piracy. He explains how it works: “It’s very difficult to read a book on your computer. People start printing out their own copies. But if they like the book, after reading 30-40 pages, they just go out and buy it … because there’s nothing more tiring than reading … on a computer screen.”

Paolo went all in, and used a bit torrent site to seek out and download online translations of his books as well as audio versions. He also hosted a sub-site, The Pirate Coelho, displaying links to his books.

How Do People React?

We copied two comments from Paolo’s blog for you:

“Ahoy Mr. Coelho, You sir are right, by downloading your books I was determined to buy the hard copy! If I wasn’t a pirate I never would read your books! I consider it a preview, if you like it, buy it!”

“Yes. I do it all the time with library books. If I like it, I buy it. If I can’t try it, I’m less likely to buy it. Same with music and movies. I rarely buy media I haven’t already read/seen/heard.”

Neil Gaiman has repeatedly stated on his blog that giving away his work for free has increased his sales. He read the entire Graveyard Book aloud on a reading tour, and recorded it chapter by chapter. The Graveyard Book spent a long time on the bestseller lists, and whenever he saw a dip in sales, Gaiman would repost the link to those performances and the book would go back up the bestseller lists.

We collected a few more relevant comments:

“Yes, I have purchased a book that I had read for free. Many of the books I’ve checked out from the library I have subsequently purchased. I started prescreening all my book purchases via the library because I got tired of buying books I didn’t like. I’m more willing to spend the money when I know I’ll like it.”

“I have bought a few books that I’ve already read, partly so I have them on my bookshelves but, more importantly, so that I can lend them out to people whom I think would enjoy them. A friend lent me SEX DRUGS AND COCOA PUFFS by Chuck Klosterman, and I bought it a few days later to be able to lend it out to my friends.”

“Generally, I don’t buy a book I’ve read for free unless it’s a book I decide I want someone else to read. Then I buy them a copy — whether it’s the dead-tree or digital version depends on their preferences. Note: even if I have access to a pirated version of the ebook, I’ll always buy the ebook I give.”

“If I like an author after reading a free version, and especially if I feel some connection with the author and/or the publisher, I’ll generally buy the next one I read if I can’t get a legal free version.”

It’s not just about you buying a book you’ve already read for free (which I’ve done). It’s also that the reader might recommend the book to other people who then might go buy it.”

Pirating Works!

Is self-inflicted piracy suicide or the Holy Grail of self-publishing?

Coelho has sold more than 175 million books in over 170 countries, and his works have been translated into 80 languages. “Once we did the Pirate Coelho there was a significant boost,” Paolo confirmed and added: “Publishing is in a kind of Jurassic age. Publishers see free downloads as threatening the sales of the book. But this should make them rethink their entire business model.”

Actually, the benefit of free copies is old news. For example, how do Publisher’s advertise music? They send free samples to radio stations. People will listen to them for free on the radio and, if they like it, they’ll buy a copy. That strategy has been working for decades. ”The more often we hear a song on the radio, the keener we are to buy the CD,” Paolo Coelho agrees.

Mind that publishers do the same thing with books: they send free copies all over the market place.

Low Marketing Costs?

Paolo estimated that 60 Million pirated copies of his books have been floating through cyberspace – that’s something like 34% of his sold books, meaning 34% potentially lost revenue. Looks bad? Maybe, maybe not. Which one would you prefer: lose 34% (potential) revenue or spend 10% hard cash advertising your books?

Every Business or Product Needs a Catalyst

Apparently, word of mouth doesn’t work for books anymore. Maybe it did back in the days when not so many books were around and publishers functioned as a thick filter for new books. These days up to a million books are self-published every year. Pedro Barrento explained the crux of the matter in this post. He reasons: “A writer must create the initial wave, but the ratios involved are far too low (in most genres) for a self-sustained chain of events. At some crucial point, external help is required. Without it, I don’t believe self-publishing success is possible.” His point: word of mouth works for music, since it takes only a couple of minutes to listen to a song and songs can be easily broadcasted or given away. But it takes weeks to read a book and months for recommendations to settle in.

Pedro’s suggested to try the following catalysts:

  • Offer free downloads
  • Find a celebrity or other influential person to promote your books
  • Use Amazon’s recommendation algorithm – the iBooks’ carousel
  • Have a lot of luck 😉

What’s the Catch or Isn’t There?

So, is piracy the catalyst for indie publishers? And if yes, what’s the catch?

After reading all this and thinking about it a few days, I was sold. I had seen the Holy Grail.

In my case it wasn’t even piracy since I’m an indie – I could play a sheep in the wolf-skin game. 😉

Excited, I uploaded my book on a pirate site and waited for millions of downloads to happen and … nothing happened.

Ups, what went wrong? Of course nothing happened because in order for people wanting to pirate my books, I gotta be famous first!

I was back to square one. 🙁

Shall We Sell Ebooks or Paperbacks?

I checked how Paolo’s ebooks and paperback sales compare on Amazon and found this:


Printed bestseller list


Literature&Fiction/Fiction/Metaphysical bestseller list


Religion&Spirituality/Spirituality bestseller list


Literature&Fiction/world Literature bestseller list



Paid ebooks bestseller list #221
Religion & Spirituality > Spirituality > Personal Growth bestseller list #2
Literature & Fiction > Contemporary Fiction > Literary bestseller list #6

Paolo seems to sell significantly more paperbacks than ebooks, but he’s still selling a lot of ebooks despite his promotion of piracy.

Now, how could this strategy work for authors who only sell ebooks? Your guess is as good as mine. I have read about a few authors though who made the first book of their series perma-free and that strategy seems to work for some.

On a side note: You gotta consider that piracy promotes paperbacks, which worsens our planet’s carbon footprint.

What Now?

These are the main indie publishing strategies:

  • Socialize: build a blog and an author page, rumble on twitter and facebook, drive traffic to your blog and homepage and get people to subscribe to your newsletter
  • Promote giveaways on Goodreads and other sites to boost sales
  • Free book or discount promotions on KDP Select
  • Make one or two of your books perma-free (seems to work well for series).
  • Write a life-changing blog

Does this work? If you’re lucky (remember: you need a catalyst). In average it takes at least three years to make oneself a name and reach a critical mass of followers by blogging and scavenging social networks.

But what about piracy – can’t indies take advantage of it? Maybe. I’m still trying. I have uploaded quite a few book chapters onto this blog and promoted these on social networking sites. I’m pretty sure that if someone liked a couple of chapters he would purchase the book. Also, I write inspirational and spiritual books, therefore, each book chapter is a little inspirational or spiritual blog post on its own and improves my blog’s SEO. Mind that these days you gotta have high quality content to be ranked on Google.

What are the results? I admit, results are still meekly. I haven’t reached the critical mass yet. But I feel that it’s going into the right direction. I continue to bet on an ageless wisdom: in order to receive, one must give first.

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