Why Hollywood Keeps Turning to Self-Publishing

Or, what The Martian and Fifty Shades of Grey have in common

XKCD.com

It might not be all that professional, but here’s the first question I want to ask, whenever I hear about a successful writer who’s created something new and fresh: “How the fuck did you get away with this?”

Complaining about superhero blockbusters and mega-franchises and the way they’ve destroyed the opportunity for original ideas to flourish in Hollywood is tired as hell, but also has the ring of truth. As just one comparison point, look at Robin Williams’s filmography, which in the 1980s and 1990s was loaded with original adult dramas made within the studio system. Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam, The Fisher King — all of them working from original scripts, and produced by Touchstone, Touchstone and Columbia respectively.

Those movies don’t get made anymore; instead, anything with a real budget tends to demand either Christopher Nolan’s involvement or a connection to pre-existing material of any sort, especially books. It’s hard not to look at a bestsellers list — or any flat surface at Barnes and Noble — and see the inspiration for basically every upcoming film. What’s interesting, though, is that while studios remain reliant on books as a source of inspiration, the sort of books that producers are looking towards has changed dramatically.

Coming up, here’s The Martian, the book behind the upcoming Ridley Scott drama featuring Matt Damon and an all-star cast. The Martian is a New York Times best-seller, a fun read and the fodder for what could be this year’s biggest sci-fi film (not called Star Wars). It was also published, originally, as installments on author Andy Weir’s website. And not your typical sort of website. For one thing, Weir made it himself.

Weir is 43 years old, lives in Northern California and always wanted to be a writer. But, he told me via phone, he also “wanted to eat regular meals and not sleep on a bench.” So he studied software engineering in college and went onto become a computer programmer — until he got laid off from AOL, and decided to take advantage of a generous severance package to really try his hand at writing.

Nothing ever sold, so eventually, Weir went back to engineering, but he still had the writing bug. So in the late 1990s, he launched his website, where he’d post one-off shorts as well as serialized tales. “It was just my hobby — a labor of love. I never had any advertising, no paywalls, not even a donation button. I’m a computer programmer — we make good money,” he laughed.

Weir now has a nice slick professional website to promote his work, but his original site is still online, a simple, text-based layout that features individual chapters of an original mermaid tale, a series of stories about the classic Doctor Who character Romana and over a dozen other bits of fiction. The Martian is humbly listed directly below the mermaid story and above some “Holmesian fanfiction focusing on Professor Moriarty” — it’s no longer online, though. Instead, “The Martian is has been published in print by Random House,” the site says, along with links to buy the book in all its forms.

Screenshot of Weir’s current website.

Largely written in the form of first-person diary entries, The Martian tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney, who turns to science to survive after being stranded on Mars. Rich with both Mark’s snarky, self-deprecating voice and some very nitty-gritty details about the reality of growing food and conserving resources on a foreign planet, it’s a fun read, the kind of story you just want to devour.

However, the first readers of The Martian weren’t so lucky — because instead of making the story available all at once, Weir posted it in installments. There wasn’t any real strategy to Weir’s decision to serialize The Martian — he was just posting the story as he wrote it. And he reserved the right to go back and change things in earlier chapters, something he made clear to his readers from the beginning — some of whom proved instrumental in refining the underlying biology and chemistry behind Mark Watney’s quest for survival.

It’s a tradition that stretches back to the era of Charles Dickens, who published many of his best-known works in chapbook installments, leaving readers frantic for the next installments. It’s also a tactic that another best-selling author used when first self-publishing her fiction online; though E.L. James, of course, wasn’t writing original fiction. Instead, she was writing chapters of a Twilight fan fiction tale that (once scrubbed of any mention of Edward or Bella) would go on to set panties afire as Fifty Shades of Grey.

James also published the original version of Fifty Shades of Grey chapter-by-chapter, back when it was about the erotic quote-unquote-BDSM adventures of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen on fanfiction.net. And thanks to frequent postings and plentiful reviews, Master of the Universe (tragically unrelated to He-Man) was always at the top of the Recently Updated and Most Reviewed listings on that site, which helped it become so popular amongst Twilight fanfic readers that James was able to build a loyal audience for her specific work.

Then, James basically exploited that audience to help build Fifty Shades of Grey’s early success; there are two sides to every story, but according to Reddit commenter hurricangst, who was attempting to explain exactly how the hell 50 Shades of Grey happened:

She then leveraged the community’s sense of nostalgia and loyalty, urging everyone to buy the book and give it good ratings, so as to see ‘one of their own succeed in the publishing world.’ There were multiple campaigns from her friends (tens of thousands of what she only saw herself as ‘fans’) to blast her Amazon page and send the book up the ranks. It of course worked… Once a (genre fiction) book gets to #1 on Amazon’s bestseller list, you’re done. Mission accomplished. Book and movie deals to follow. Enjoy your money. Erika never looked back. She actually has blocked every single person I still know from fandom on her twitter account. She used the community to get her book (most ideas created by the community itself) to #1 then essentially shut the door on them all.

And it worked: James is now a millionaire, and Universal hired her husband (an established writer for British television) to write the screenplay for Fifty Shades Darker. Meanwhile, Guardians of the Galaxy writer Nicole Perlman is currently working on the script for Hugh Howey’s Wool, which features a similar backstory and is also being produced by Scott for Fox. And Weir, a year and a half ago, quit his job.

The decision to adapt The Martian feels much less inevitable/desperate than 50 Shades — despite being a New York Times best-seller under the guidance of Random House, The Martian has not been a controversial and cultural phenomenon on that level. But what matters is the fact that its ascension to adaptation began before it was acquired by a mainstream publisher, and because it’d proven, on its own, that there was an audience.

See, for Weir, the goal was never to make money, but when some of Weir’s readers asked him to use Amazon’s self-publishing service to collect the full story as a complete novel — so that they could read it on their eReader devices — he did so. Because, in his words, “Amazon won’t let you give it away for free,” he priced it for $0.99. From there, it took off, rising to the top of the Amazon charts and attracting the attention of 20th Century Fox. In fact, Weir sold the option for a film adaptation of The Martian four days before he closed his publishing deal.

Weir liked his job, but a year and a half ago stopped working as a software engineer to focus on his new novel Zhek, which also began as self-published installments on his website in 2011 — he’d published seven chapters before having to take it down. While he works on Zhek, he also still occasionally posts new fiction to his website, most recently last fall, when he posted the short story Meeting Sarah. “It’s a creative dumping ground — a place to vent creativity,” he said.

If studios aren’t going to take chances on truly original ideas, at least their thirstiness for bankable ideas has them looking to unconventional sources for inspiration. Because there’s something to the fact that all three of these authors, originally, weren’t thinking about making money or conforming to mainstream ideas about what a sellable novel should look like. Weir and his fellow self-publishers started off doing what they loved, on their terms, and never asked for permission; they were just writing stories that they wanted to tell. And that turns out to be the secret sauce that made them feel fresh to readers in search of something new, and Hollywood producers in search of something they felt confident would sell.

According to Weir, the mailing list he amassed to send out new chapters of The Martian as they were completed had about 3,000 subscribers. This weekend, the film based on that story is predicted to earn about $45 million at the box office. More importantly, it looks great. Surely this will not be the last such success story. Self-publishing, like the tantalizing trickles of water on Mars, is just the fertile resource Hollywood moguls have been searching for.

While, meanwhile, people like Andy Weir keep on keeping on. Because what was amazing about talking to Weir is that I knew exactly how the fuck he got away with The Martian: He just did what he loved, on his terms, and never asked for permission.