Shooting for the Stars and Falling Short (Temporarily)
Years ago, after being let go of from AOL, Andy used the money he earned from selling off his AOL stock options to take 3 years off to write. He wrote two books, the second of which he attempted to get published but was unsuccessful. Normally seen as a devastating blow for many aspiring writers, his response was remarkable: “So I said, well, I gave it a try. I don’t have to wonder what would have happened and now I can go back to being a computer programmer.”
But he did not give up writing. Instead he continued on with it as a hobby and started a website, where he posted short stories and comics. He set up a mailing list to notify his readers of updates. One of his short stories, The Egg, did significantly well and ended up increasing his mailing list.
Writing Process for The Martian
- By the time he started The Martian, his mailing list was up to about 3,000 people (a number that took 10 years to build up to). The story’s popularity then grew through word-of-mouth.
- At the time of the writing, he was also concurrently working on two other serials. One was about aliens invading the earth and the other one was about mermaids. His tastes were self-proclaimed eclectic.
- He communicated to his readers from the start that he reserved the right to edit the work. That meant if he thought of a great plot point and needed to lay the groundwork for it in earlier chapters, he would have the right to go back and make those changes.
- His update schedule was one chapter every 2 months.
- He was more inclined to researching the science behind it.
- After he posted, he would receive feedback from readers on scientific accuracy, story pacing (i.e., what readers liked, where the story was dragging), etc.
- It took a total of 3 years to finish the work
I’ve consolidated the information I’ve found so far, but if you’re curious about the sources, please click here to expand.
I decided to do a transcript of a portion of the conversation above (link here since I’m having issues embedding the video) because I usually refer back to it to remind myself what Andy had done before he became well known. Please note that the transcript below is from 18:14 onwards and is not completely word-for-word.
Andy: Then the internet started to get more and more popular. And I’m like well, I can now write. I can write and have an audience. It’s not gonna be my profession, but I can write short stories and…
Adam: Get feedback.
Andy: Exactly. And so I did that for 10 years. Just writing things, posting it up there and slowly accumulating an audience. And so I had thousands of regular readers by the time I started writing, “The Martian”. Which helps a lot because that started this word-of-mouth thing.
Adam: And these readers would come back to your site and see updates. You were serializing your writing process?
Andy: Yeah, so when anybody liked my stuff, they could sign up for my mailing list.
Adam: I don’t think many people realize it has a long and illustrious history. Mark Twain serialized several of his books and so did Dickens.
Andy: Dickens was all about the serial. And the Sherlock Holmes stories. Conan Doyle. Um…so…a few years back I wrote a short story called, “The Egg”, which was really popular. Like millions and millions of page views. And people post the entire content—it’s a 1,000 words long, it’s like a page and a half—but people really liked it. It’s a good digestible story for the internet era. It’s something you can read in 5 minutes and be done with it and people liked it. So that brought a lot of readers to my site. Anyway, “The Martian” was just one of the things I wrote. It was just like, “Ok, I’m gonna write a serial about a guy trapped on Mars.” If you think about it, it is kind of like a 1950s serial.
Adam: Oh and it’s relentless. With each thing you’re like, “Ughhh. Oh my God, this poor guy.” So did you put up a chapter at a time?
Andy: A chapter at a time. So I’d post a chapter and then when I was done with the next one, I’d do a brief editing pass, post the next one.
Adam: Would fans actually come up with corrections that would make it into the manuscript?
Andy: Absolutely. Especially the scientific accuracy was great. People were like, “Oops, you got the chemistry wrong on this.” I’d be like, “Of course I did, I suck at chemistry.” And I’m like, “Tell me what I did wrong.” And now all of a sudden I have a subject matter expert to talk to. So I posted it chapter by chapter and I told the fans, I’m like, “I want to be clear, this isn’t exactly a serial. I reserve the right to go back and make changes to earlier chapters. So this stuff isn’t like set in stone cannon. If I come up with like, oh I have a cool plot here, but I need to set up for it in these previous chapters, I reserve the right to make those changes.” I eventually finished and I’m like, ok, I’m done. Now on to my next project. And I started getting emails saying, “Oh hey, I really liked, ‘The Martian’, but I really hate reading it in a bunch of webpages. Can you make an e-reader version?” And I’m like, sure. So I figured out how to do that and I made an e-pub and a .mobi version and I posted it on the site and I’m like, ok you can read it on the webpages or you can read it on the e-reader. Knock yourself out. Then I got other emails from people saying, “Hey, I really liked ‘The Martian’ and I’m glad that you made it into an e-reader format, but I’m not very technically savvy and I don’t know how to download a random file from the internet and put it on my e-reader. Can you just post it to Amazon Kindle so that I can just push a button on my Kindle and get it?” I’m like, “Ok.” And so I worked out how to do that. Turns out it’s really simple. They have this thing called, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), where you just post it up there, you set what you want the price to be, set what you want your royalty to be, and then, that’s it. So I’m like, oh, no problem. I want the price to be zero. And I want my royalty to be zero. But it’s like no, you can’t do that.
Adam: Really? They don’t allow you to make it free?
Andy: No they’re not a free cloud service, right? They want to make money. So they make their money off their content. So you must charge at least $0.99. Basically the lowest you can set your share to is 30% and the lowest price you can set is $0.99. So I’m like, ok, $0.99, my royalty is 30….30 big pennies per copy, there you go. So I say, alright everybody. Now you can read it on my website, or you can download it for free for your e-reader here, or you can pay a buck to have Amazon put it on your e-reader for you. Basically think of it that way. And within a month or two, more people had bought it from Amazon than had downloaded for free.
Adam: [Laughs] That’s hilarious.
Andy: Because that’s just the reach…
Adam: The cost of convenience.
Andy: Yes and I guess a buck is not a big barrier to entry for a lot of people.
Adam: But I assume it started getting very quickly getting reviews on Amazon?
Andy: Yes, started getting reviews, it started doing really well, word-of-mouth. And then it finally made it into the top sellers.
Adam: Wow, that’s significant. There’s a lot.
Andy: Well I didn’t even realize at the time how well it was selling. I was like, it’s selling. But I don’t…you know, they have the daily reports and it’s like, oh here’s how many copies you’ve sold and I’m like, but I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what good sales are or bad sales are. It’s like oh I’m selling about 300 copies a day, I don’t know what that means. And so I go, there’s this forum that they had for all the KDP authors where you’re automatically a member and you can chat about it. And people are like, oh today was a great day, I sold like 5 copies of my book. And I’m like ok I think then mine must be selling abnormally well. And then it made it into the sci-fi top 10 and technical top 10 and stuff like that. Once it gets there, then it really spikes because are like oh I don’t know what I want, what are the top 10 sci-fis, ok I’ll take it. From there, that got the attention of Random House. Well Crown Publishing which is part of Random House. And they said they wanted to make a print edition. So there’s an editor at Crown named Julian Pavia and he was like hmm, I want to make a print version of this book, I like it. But I want an opinion from someone outside the company and so he talked to a colleague of his named David Fugate and David is a literary agent and he said, “David I want you to take a look at this and tell me whether you think this is something that’s publishable. I want external opinion.” David read it and said, “Yes, I think it’s publishable.” Then he came to me and said, “Do you need an agent?” I’m like, “Yes.” And he’s like, “Ok,” and he turns around to Julian, “Let’s talk about how much you’re gonna pay for this.” But part of the reason Julian talked to David was because he knew this guy’s gonna need an agent.
Or link here in case video does not appear.
Direct link can be found here in case video does not appear.
Note: This entry is subject to future edits as I come across more information related to Andy’s writing process.