Some of Hollywood’s most epic films have budgets that rival the GDPs of small countries, so it’s easy to forget that that many of these blockbusters germinate from an individual with a fresh idea. Of the countless people that it takes to bring a major film together, we mustn’t forget to acknowledge the role of the book author, often times the source of many films. There would be no Cloud Atlas without David Mitchell, no Remains of the Day without Kazuo Ishiguro. Only Cormac McCarthy could give us The Road, only the brain of Chuck Palahniuk could envision Fight Club, and only Annie Proulx could create the beautiful heartbreak of Brokeback Mountain.
One of the most buzzed about films right now is The Martian, Ridley Scott’s newest sci-fi extravaganza. Likely to be one of this year’s biggest and most successful blockbusters, The Martian focuses on the resilient Mark Watney, an astronaut played by Matt Damon who faces a barrage of challenges after being marooned on Mars. Presented with otherworldly panoramas, taut suspense, and masterful acting, and names like Ridley Scott, Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, and Jeff Daniels — who cares about the author of the novel that inspired it?
We should care, for Andy Weir, author of the 2011 novel The Martian, is the owner of an inspiring and extraordinary success story. Let’s take a look.
Preparing to Launch
Weir’s tale is not exactly one of rags to riches, as he wasn’t born into destitution or oppression, but it’s a success story like no other. Born in 1972 to a particle physicist and an electronics engineer, Weir was immediately immersed in science and technology and grew up ingesting the sci-fi classics of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, and Robert Heinlein, along with a hefty dose of Dr. Who. In his 20s, Weir went into computer programming and flourished, writing code for the insanely popular game Warcraft II and working for AOL. In 1999, though, the path of Weir’s life took a sharp bend when AOL merged with Netscape. Weir lost his job but gained a sizable severance package that allowed him to do, full-time, what he had always wanted to do: write fiction.
It didn’t go so well, even though he already dabbled in it. While studying programming at UC San Diego, he had written his first novel, a book that, according to Weir, had a weak plot, lame characters, and bad writing. Only a single copy remains with Weir’s mother, who refuses to destroy it and keeps it hidden from her son. After his layoff from AOL, Weir thought he’d try his hand at a novel again, and although he claims the next book was better, agents and publishers roundly declined it. Rejection after rejection poured in, and, in 2002, Weir went back to work in the software industry.
Even after such repeated failure, Weir remained devoted to writing. He continued to write as a hobby, publishing his work to his website for anyone to read. In 2009, he drew upon his fascination with space and began to imagine what a manned mission to Mars would actually be like, what technical hurdles would arise, and what a person might need to do to survive on the forbidding red planet. This person would become his novel’s snide protagonist, Mark Watney, whose persistence on the hostile planet depends on his creativity and resourcefulness.
Weir posted cliffhanging chapters of The Martian in serial form on his website and soon found that he had a few thousand followers, many of whom were scientists and would provide feedback on the technical accuracy of the story’s details. In no time, Weir had managed to not only amass scores of loyal fans but to also crowd source the editing and fact checking of his work, all without the help of an agent, a publisher, or a marketing team. The Martian soon had an ending, and Weir turned the serial into a novel and provided it as a free e-book on his website. But he learned that his fans wanted more.
Many devotees asked Weir to provide a Kindle-compatible version of the book, so in September of 2012 Weir made The Martian available on Amazon for 99 cents—the minimum price allowed—even though he wanted to give it away for free. In three months, he sold 35,000 copies and The Martian had ascended Amazon’s science fiction bestseller list (although Weir doesn’t consider it science fiction since all the technology described in the book currently exists).
While self-publishing may be lucrative for a select few, the practice is regularly disparaged by publishers (obviously) and writers alike. For many professional and amateur writers, the persistent rejection of one’s work from major publishing houses is a required struggle, a form of paying one’s dues. And it should come as no surprise that nearly all writers struggle; most never have an agent or a book deal, and, for most of the few who do, the compensation they receive is negligible. Self-publishing is a contentious practice, as it removes these obstacles entirely and allows anyone to see their work in the print or digital marketplace. Naturally, the vast majority of self-published writers don’t extend their reach very far.
That is, unless they are Andy Weir (or E.L. James, but that’s another story). Not long after he topped the Amazon bestseller list, an agent contacted him (an exceptionally rare occurrence) to ask if he wanted representation. Soon Weir was in negotiations with Random House, the largest trade book publisher in the world. In another baffling turn of events, his agent informed him that Fox wanted to option the film rights of his novel. Weir was still working during this time and frequently needed to leave his cubicle so that he could take calls on not only his book deal, and not only his movie deal, but both. And even though he is a self-admitted space nerd, Weir has an intense fear of flying, so not once throughout this process did he physically meet his agent, his publisher, or anyone else associated with his deals.
In the end, both deals closed four days apart, and in a flash Weir had gone from computer programmer to self-published author to published author (the print version of The Martian has now sold nearly a million copies) to the mastermind of one of 2015’s biggest blockbusters. In this way Weir was not unlike his novel’s protagonist: that is, he was persistent and lucky, a formidable combination against the nearly unbeatable odds stacked against him.