From Kindle e-book to Acclaimed Hollywood Blockbuster: the Rise of Andy Weir, The Martian, and the Online Book Release
October 2, 2015 § 2 Comments
You’d be hard-pressed to turn your attention to any media right now without catching something about The Martian. Virtually every commercial break features a trailer for the film, and just about everyone affiliated with it has conducted interviews widely across various platforms.
Matt Damon, the star of the film, has garnered the most response to his interviews; however, much of that attention has been negative, as some of the comments he has made have been construed as racist and sexist. While the qualms some have expressed with Damon’s statements likely won’t have much of an impact on the opening weekend ticket sales, which are expected to be very strong – I suppose we’ll know for sure in only a few days – he has perhaps managed to draw some attention away a fascinating narrative related to the film that otherwise might have been the most talked-about subject: the unlikely journey and methods of Andy Weir, the author of the novel from which the film is adapted. However, as the film’s public moment reaches its apex, it seems that the negative buzz about Damon can no longer keep Weir from entering into what he calls the “seventh minute of his fifteen minutes” of fame.1
While 43-year-old author was not involved in the actual making of the film, Weir would likely agree that it was about time someone else did some work on the story he created. We are normally wrong when we imagine that an author produced a novel independent of anyone else – the process of authoring is almost always far more complicated than that, with editors playing an especially important role in the process. However, in the case of Weir and The Martian, the idea of the single creator holds true. Weir initially published the novel serially on his own website for free. He followed by self-publishing it on the Amazon Kindle web-store for the minimum $0.99. Only after the novel became a massive success on Amazon did the novel receive a large scale print release by a major publishing company, and, in 2014, it became a New York Times bestseller.
To make Weir’s rise even more improbable, Weir had, until recently, been working full-time as a software engineer, having abandoned hopes of becoming a financially-successful author years ago. However, he remained invested in the genre despite the improbability of financial success, and he published a number of stories on his website prior to The Martian’s success. However, bizarrely enough, Weir is arguably so successful because he was forced to work outside of the traditional publishing paradigm. He garnered a reputation and fanbase from his 2009 work of flash fiction “The Egg,” and this devoted community of fans helped get The Martian off the ground and into the realm of public opinion when the novel was rejected by numerous publishers.
While Weir’s success is certainly particular and cannot be expected for everyone who publishes a story online, it is interesting to view within a larger framework. The Martian’s trajectory bears an uncanny resemblance to that of E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey, even if the plots of these novels (and the fanbases who consume them) seem about as different as one could imagine. Both books achieved success through recognition within the online community and their existence outside of the traditional publishing framework. The accessibility of these texts cannot be understated – they were both available immediately and cheaply, an attractive option for consumers given the ever-increasing price of new books. Both novels were fundamentally of the people, deconstructing notions of hierarchy between the community and the writers. Therefore, you could imagine that they put forward a new paradigm for authors – particularly in genres with particularly devoted readerships, like science fiction.
Sure, both Weir and James accepted the traditional book rollout when given the opportunity to do so – they are individuals, not strict adherents to a new form of distribution, so they will understandably do what is most viable for them economically at the moment. And maybe that is the final evolution of the trajectory – one establishes an underground following online, and one then parlays that to signing with a major publication. However, it is also possible to imagine that the online-only method of distribution could become viable on its own, and authors like Weir would not require the support of a major book publisher. Conceivably, one day, the next huge blockbuster could make its way to a theater near you without a physical copy of the book every being available at a Wal-Mart check-out line or in a stand at the front of a Barnes &Noble.
Weir has claimed that his next novel is “a more traditional sci-fi novel. It has aliens, telepathy, faster-than-light travel, etc.” 2 Given the success The Martian has garnered and the colossal financial windfall he is likely experiencing, a deepening of the generic elements of science fiction is an interesting move on Weir’s part. It would be difficult for many in Weir’s place to depart from the type of fiction that finally skyrocketed them to fame. However, as I have suggested, perhaps Weir is after a new type of fame that doesn’t have to adhere to our traditional expectations.