A Writer's Life

I'm Rebecca Mahoney, a freelance journalist, fiction writer & manuscript editor who likes to chat about books & writing, share editing tips, and muse about the freelance life. Visit my full website at rebeccamahoney.com.

What aspiring authors can learn from the self-publishing success of “The Martian”

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If you follow book chatter, chances are you’ve heard about a sci-fi novel called “The Martian” in the last few months. Indie booksellers have been buzzing for a while about this story of an astronaut accidentally left behind to survive on his own on the planet Mars. Then it made the NYT Bestsellers list, and then the trailer for the movie adaption starring Matt Damon came out, and it seemed like everywhere I went, it was all Martian, Martian, Martian.

Then my cousin James sent it to my dad. When someone digs a book so much they feel compelled to put it in someone else’s hands and urge them to read it – well, that’s a book worth reading. So a few weekends ago, I picked it up, flipped to the first page… and then basically didn’t put it down until the next afternoon.

I burned through this book. It’s so not the type of genre I usually read – sci-fi, space-y, lots of engineering jabber. And yet—it was fabulous. Smart, really funny, perfectly paced, and so chock-full of narrative tension that it almost hurt to put it down and sleep that first night. It’s Apollo 13 plus Cast Away times five kinds of awesome. (You can read a synopsis of the novel here). When I was done reading it, I actually said, “Oh no!” because I was so sorry it was over. I wanted more. So I turned to les Google.

And that’s when I discovered a truly inspiring self-publishing saga—one any aspiring author can learn from.

The Martian was a story Andy Weir wrote in installments and published for free, chapter by chapter, on his own website. Rebuffed by agents and publishers but encouraged by his readers (friends, family, colleagues at the space laboratory where he worked) who wanted to be able to read the whole thing at once on their e-readers, he decided to self-publish it, eventually selling it for just $.99 on Amazon. It reportedly went on to sell more than 35,000 copies in three months and landed among the top downloaded books on Amazon. From there, it caught the attention of Crown Publishing, the Random House imprint, reportedly earning Weir a six-figure deal and a movie deal with Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, according to articles you can read here and here.

What I love about this story is not just that a great book found a well-deserved audience, or that an aspiring author achieved his dream. It’s that the success of this book proves some very real truths about the publishing industry—and imparts some excellent lessons for writers:

You don’t have to write 50 Shades to be a self-publishing success. Until now, that knotty little trilogy has been the biggest self-publishing success story, but it’s hardly a literary success story. Let’s face it; how many people are buying those books for the story, the characters, the suspense—and how many of them are buying it for the bondage scenes? I think we know the answer. While 50 Shades relies on titillation and there’s little going on between sex scenes, The Martian requires true intellectual investment. This book puts the science in sci-fi, people. There are engineering dilemmas, math calculations, discussions and dissections of biology, physics, chemistry, aeronautics, in detail, right down to every kelvin and joule. And Weir doesn’t distil or dumb anything down. I’m not saying that brains are automatically better than brawn, but it just goes to show that you don’t have to rely on the default “sex sells” approach to break into the bestsellers lists.

Know your audience… Weir appears to have been very aware that he was writing for true hard science guys, so he didn’t cut corners on the science. He could have; the genre is called science fiction for a reason—but he seems to have wanted the challenges faced and solved by his protagonist to be authentic, and for the science to feel plausible. And he knew his particular audience would as well. So many writers try to write a book without ever considering who might actually read it. It’s a big question: Who are you writing for? What will that audience recognize and relate to? You don’t have to pigeonhole your book (or your readers) but picturing that ideal reader in your mind can have a powerful and positive influence on your writing—as it did here for The Martian.

…and listen to their feedback. Weir published the book serially on his website, and used feedback from those readers to shape the forthcoming chapters. You don’t necessarily have to follow the same serial approach—but listening to feedback and taking that criticism seriously is essential. Get feedback. From readers, from editors through beta reads, from book groups. I’ve said it before: writing is a performance art. Get that feedback to improve your performance and make your book the best it can be.

Build a platform. Weir built a following for his book through the simplest of means—his website, his friends, and his colleagues. When that circle grew, he published it, helping to cultivate a larger circle of readers and eventually reaching more than 35,000 readers. That’s what’s known as a platform—a writer’s public visibility and reputation. The platform is hugely important to self-published authors; without the credibility of a brick-and-mortar traditional publisher and a marketing team behind your book, you have to be able to prove that you have writing expertise, readership and insight to entice readers—and prospective traditional publishers, if that’s your ultimate goal. Which book are you more likely to read, that random book with no reviews by the author that you’ve never heard of, or the #1 book in the sci-fi category with dozens of five-star ratings?

It’s a sad truth for writers who just want to focus on craft and language and story, but publishing is about marketing, and marketing is about making you and your book visible. Yes, your book also has to be awesome—even a great platform can’t rescue a fallen soufflé of a  memoir. But it cannot find success unless people know about it. Build a website. Get on Twitter, Linked In, Facebook, Instagram, Goodreads. Blog. Network. Connect with other authors. Promote the heck out of your book. The more readers you have, the more visibility you have, the stronger your platform—and the more likely that you, too, could be approached with a six-figure deal from a Big Six publisher.

Trust your book. Weir tried the traditional route at first, but agents and publishers were just not down with it. And that’s the way it will be for most writers. The publishing world is hard. It’s slow and cumbersome and takes buckets of perseverance and the whole thing is so subjective anyway that it’s all entirely possible for a fabulous book to not find that agent or that publisher. Rather than get discouraged and let his book languish on a shelf, however, Weir went ahead and published it anyway on his own.

That’s the beauty of self-publishing; you have that option now, to get your book out there in front of people, to let it find an audience, to let readers, not publishers, determine the success of your book. That doesn’t mean you should just finish that draft and hit the send button; any author, self-published or traditional, should go through that crucial editing process of listening for feedback, asking for beta reads, working with a professional editor (like me!), and revising, revising, revising. Writing is rewriting, y’all.

But if, at the end of the day, your dream is to be published, and you know in your heart of hearts that your book is the very best it can be, and it is just not finding a home among traditional publishers –then publish it yourself. Trust yourself, and trust your book. If your novel is meant to find an audience—like Weir’s did—it will.

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One comment on “What aspiring authors can learn from the self-publishing success of “The Martian”

  1. L. M. Webb
    06/04/2015

    Great article. Thanks.

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