The Advertiser, an Australian newspaper, published one of the first reviews of The Alchemist in 1993, saying, "of books that I can recommend with the unshakable confidence of having read them and been entranced, impressed, entertained or moved, the universal gift is perhaps a limpid little fable called The Alchemist... In hauntingly spare prose, translated from the Brazilian original in Portuguese, it follows a young Andalusian shepherd into the desert on his quest for a dream and the fulfillment of his destiny". Since then, the novel has received much praise, making it to the top spot on best-seller lists in 74 countries and winning prestigious awards in Germany and Italy. It has been called a "charming story", "a brilliant, simple narrative" and "a wonderful tale, a metaphor of life", from people in places as diverse as South Africa, Finland and Turkey. It has been praised by public figures like Will Smith and Jorge Garcia. Arash Hejazi, the Iranian publisher of Paulo Coelho, believes that The Alchemist is exceptional on several counts: he notes that the book has had a "longer than expected life-cycle… It was not supported by high marketing budgets in the first few years after its publication. It was not written in French or Spanish. It did not enjoy a film tie-in and was not recommended by positive reviews and the media, but it is still selling, only relying on the word of mouth as its main marketing tool".
One of the chief complaints lodged against the book is that the story, praised for its fable-like simplicity, actually is a fable — a retelling of "The Ruined Man who Became Rich Again through a Dream" (Tale 14 from the collection One Thousand and One Nights). Coelho, however, does not credit this source text anywhere in the book or in the preface, passing the story as an original work of fiction. Also the life story of Takkeci Ibrahim Aga who is believed to have lived in Istanbul during the 1500s, has the same plot. So too does the English folk tale, the "Pedlar of Swaffham".
The novel was not an instant bestseller. Published by a small publishing house, The Alchemist, like its predecessor, The Pilgrimage, sold "slowly" in Brazil. Its commercial success took off in France when it became an "unexpected" bestseller early in the 1990s.
The Alchemist has sold 65 million copies worldwide. As of the week ending May 25, 2014, the novel reached its 303rd consecutive week on The New York Times ' bestseller list. Its paperback edition remains a fixture on bookstore shelves.