“It’s been awesome,” says Andy Weir. “It’s like every writer’s dream come true.”
The Washington Post describes Weir’s novel The Martian, originally self published, as “Robinson Crusoe in a space suit.” The unlikely New York Times bestseller is now a blockbuster Hollywood movie starring Matt Damon.
It’s always a thrill for me to hear about an amazing self-publishing success story, since many of the authors I work with these days are choosing to publish their own books.
Weir, 43, describes himself as a “life-long space nerd and science fanatic” who dreamed of giving up his day job and becoming a full-time writer. But for years he couldn’t get a literary agent or publisher interested in his work, so he concluded that his childhood ambition was unrealistic and went back to computer programming.
Still, he kept writing on the side and began to post some of his short stories, comics and other narrative fiction on his website. His readers were “geeks like me”, he says and after a while he had a few thousand regulars. Weir made everything available for free, didn’t advertise or even have a Facebook page at the time, he told the San Jose Mercury News.
Weir says he was always interested in disaster scenarios and about six years ago hatched the idea of an astronaut trying to survive after being accidentally left behind on Mars.
“Early on,” Weir writes on his website, “I decided that I would be as scientifically accurate as possible. To a nerd like me, working out all the math and physics for Mark’s problems and solutions was fun. I even calculated the various orbital paths involved in the story, which required me to write my own software to track constant-thrust trajectories.”
Up the Amazon
Weir serialized chapters of The Martian on his website. As the novel earned more readers, some began asking him to assemble the chapters as a single file. When they had trouble downloading it, he put it up as a Kindle Direct eBook on Amazon. And that’s when things started happening, big time.
“I set the price at 99 cents, the minimum Amazon would allow. When it made it to the Kindle Bestsellers list, I just watched in awe. Amazon has an amazing reach,” says Weir. “A lot more people bought it than read it on my site for free.” Reader reviews on Amazon created so much buzz that sales ballooned and the book climbed to #1 on Amazon’s bestselling science fiction list.
An agent comes calling
Oh, the power of Amazon. Traditional book publishers now scour Amazon’s self-published bestsellers. Next thing Weir knew, a smart California-based literary agent jumped on board, offering the writer the representation that had always eluded him. The agent, David Fugate, founder of LaunchBooks, says Weir first told him he didn’t need an agent. But he agreed to allow Fugate to test the waters and was thrilled with the six-figure offer that came back from Crown, an imprint of Random House.
Within a week, Weir signed a movie deal for another six-figures with 20th Century Fox.
“I was honestly worried it was a scam,” Weir told Entertainment Weekly. “Out of nowhere someone offers to make all my dreams and lifelong ambitions come true and pay me a big pile of money? It seemed too good to be true.”
It’s ironic that Weir has a profound fear of flying and hasn’t been on a plane since 2007. That’s why he couldn’t get to the Jordanian desert or film studio in Budapest to watch the filming of The Martian.
In fact, when the San Jose Mercury News asked Weir if he had anything in common with his wise-cracking hero Mark Watney, he said “He has all of my strong points and none of my flaws. He’s kind of what I wish I were — smart, cool-headed in stressful situations and really good at handling anxiety.”
Nevertheless, he’s been busy working on his next novel, with the working title Zhek.
“It’s a more traditional sci-fi novel,” he says. “It has aliens, telepathy, faster-than-light travel etc.”
Weir says he has a lot to learn about the craft and mechanics of writing.
“I’m improving,” he said. “I think I’m pretty good at coming up with stories and plots. I think my characters tend to be thin. I need more depth. And I think the prose, the actual wordsmithing, is often clumsy. Hopefully, someday I will be actually good at it.”
Here’s what writers can learn from this great success story.
• Don’t give up!
Despite years of being ignored and rejected by agents and publisher, Weir kept writing. Now he’s finally been able to give up his day job.
• Follow your gut
Weir wrote about what he loved. He imagined what it would be like to be left behind for dead on Mars, made every detail of his hero’s struggle for survival scientifically accurate, and never compromised on the math or physics.
• Be Patient
It took years for Weir to build a following. When he posted chapters of the novel on his website he got critical feedback that helped him revise scientific details. He gave away 6,000 copies of the book for free before one of his readers asked him to put it up on Amazon so it would be easier to download to his Kindle.
• Use Amazon
Selling the book as a 99 cent Amazon ebook was the turning point. There’s no better way to get quick exposure.
• Keep improving
Weir still wants to write better.