The story behind the The Martian should be thrilling for hopeful authors everywhere
Credit: ES/GLOBE PHOTOS;Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox;Universal Studios

Movie-goers love their outer-space adventure films. That’s the lesson we learned from Gravity, from Interstellar and again this month from The Martian, the Matt Damon science-fiction movie that has earned more than $300 million at the box office since opening in theaters on Oct. 2.

But behind news about the success of the film itself, there’s a second story about an under dog coming out on top. Before it was a big-budget studio release, The Martian was a book, and before that book received a proper released by Crown Publishing in 2014, it was a self-published novel. Author Andy Weir had been writing sci-fi novels for years, and while he’d found some success with previous works, none can compare to The Martian, with its impressive sales numbers in addition to the box office earnings of the movie version.

Weir’s success story is rare but not unique. Here are the stories about seven self-published books that ultimately found mainstream success and were adapted into films.

1. The Martian by Andy Weir (2011)

After failing to find interest in the literary world with The Martian, Weir began posting the book one chapter at a time on his website – for free. He ultimately put a 99-cent version of the book on Kindle, and by 2013, the book had become popular enough that Weir received an offer from Crown Publishing to buy the book for $100,000.

Speaking to NPR, Weir said the publishing deal happened around the same time that the film rights were purchased, and the strangeness of achieving so much success so quickly was not lost on him. “That was an eventful week for me,” he said. “By the way, at the time I was a computer programmer, so I was like in my cubicle fixing bugs, then I’d sneak off to take a phone call about my movie deal, then back to my cubicle to fix bugs. It was pretty surreal.”

2. Legally Blonde by Amanda Brown (2001)

Yep, the Reese Witherspoon movie that spawned not only a sequel but a Broadway musical adaptation began as a self-published book. Brown initially sold Legally Blonde as a print-on-demand book through the self-publishing service AuthorHouse. After the release of the film, Plume Publishing printed a new version of the book with an addendum detailing the fate of Elle Woods.

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3. Still Alice by Lisa Genova (2007)

The moving Julianne Moore drama about early-onset Alzheimer’s disease was based on the debut novel by Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist-turned-author. Two years after Still Alice was self-published, Simon & Schuster acquired the book, and Genova has subsequently published three more books.

In an interview with iUniverse, the company that published Still Alice, Genova explained why she chose to self-publish. “I tried going the traditional route. I spent a year querying literary agents. But no one wanted my book. I was sitting in a holding pattern with a completed book and no one reading it, waiting to find out if Still Alice was ‘good enough,’ waiting to find out if I was a ‘real writer,’ ” she said. “To the last agent that year who said, ‘No thanks,’ I said, ‘Okay, then. I’ve had enough of this. I’m self-publishing.’ ”

4. Eragon by Christopher Paolini (2002)

The first novel in a four-book fantasy series, Eragon was begun by Paolini when he was only 15 years old. It was Paolini’s parents who made the decision to self-publish it. Eventually, it made its way to author Carl Hiaasen, whose stepson had enjoyed the book, and Hiaasen brought it to the attention of the publisher Alfred A. Knopf, which published the book in 2003.

In a 2004 interview with The Guardian, Paolini explained how his hustle to sell Eragon ultimately paid off. “I would stand behind a table in my costume talking all day without a break – and would sell maybe 40 books in eight hours if I did really well,” he said. “It was a very stressful experience. I was fried. I couldn’t have gone on for very much longer.”

5. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James (2011)

Not only did the erotic romance novel originate as a self-published work, it was originally a piece of Twilight fan fiction that James published under the pseudonym “Snowqueens Icedragon.” James would eventually scrub the Twilight references and post the transformed novel, chapter by chapter, on her website for free. The book’s next incarnation was as a print-on-demand book published by an Australian publishing service. Four years later, Fifty Shades has yielded a major Hollywood movie, countless parodies and no shortage of opinions from those who have and those who have not read it.

Speaking to ABC News in 2012, James recalled the origins of her bestseller. “I just sat on my sofa and just read [the Twlight books] and read them and read them. I was inspired by Stephenie Meyer. She just kind of flipped this switch in my head.”

6. The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield (1992)

Redfield initially self-published his book about spiritual discovery, selling copies out of the trunk of his car. Warner Books bought the rights to the book in 1994, and shortly after its second publication it hit No. 1 on the New York Times Best Seller list. It’s sold 23 million copies since its initial publication and in 2006 was adapted into a movie starring Matthew Settle and Sarah Wayne Callies.

Speaking at the Southern California Writers Conference in 2009, Redfield explained his strategy for self-publishing for success: “We would go into a small bookshop, a more esoteric bookshop, and we’d go find the manager or owner of whoever was there, hand them the book and say ‘It’s something people seem to like. We’ll leave it with you.’ And then we’d go and give away a copy to whoever would be in the bookshop.” Redfield estimates he sold around 160,000 books before Warner picked up The Celestine Prophecy. “[The book publishers] had their spies out there. When they start seeing something take off, they try and make a deal as quickly as they can.”

7. Wool by Hugh Howley (2011)

There’s no trailer for this one yet, as the film is only in pre-production. But since this list kicked off with The Martian, it’s notable that that film’s director, Ridley Scott, is producing the filmic adaptation of Wool. A self-published book in a (so far) nine-installment series, Wool centers around a murder investigation on a post-apocalyptic Earth. In June, Guardians of the Galaxy writer Nicole Perlman was hired to write the screenplay.

Though Howley has since signed a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster, he maintains the digital rights to Wool. In an interview, he said self-publishing was ideal for him. “The biggest [advantage] for me is the freedom to write what I want when I want,” he said. “I can jump genres and write several novels a year. Traditional publishing is much too restrictive. I don’t want to pump out the same book over and over. I want to challenge myself and produce the work that I feel is missing from the marketplace.”