ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
Self-published authors often dream of snagging a big contract with a major publishing house. But after Andy Weir's self-published "The Martian" online, its next stop was not print. Instead, it got picked up by a small Canadian audiobook company. Of course, it was eventually made into a movie and nominated for multiple Oscars. We'll find out tomorrow night how many it wins. NPR's Lynn Neary has our story.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: When Podium Publishing discovered "The Martian," it was a new and very small audiobook company. Andy Weir was a complete unknown.
GREG LAWRENCE: When we talked to Andy Weir, when I talked to him on the phone, he'd never spoken with a publisher before.
NEARY: Greg Lawrence, a co-founder of Podium, was on the lookout for the company's first fiction title. A fan of science-fiction, he came upon "The Martian" online. He loved the characters, the writing, the humor.
LAWRENCE: It's a story that just grabs you right away - I mean, literally, the first line. And, you know, it's just one of those situations where I felt really engaged immediately, which is always a good sign.
NEARY: Lawrence was convinced the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars would have broad appeal. Lawrence's partner, James Tonn, was less impressed.
JAMES TONN: Greg sent me a link to his website. And I looked at it, and it was just a blue clickable link - it said "The Martian" on a white background. And I clicked it and my whole screen populated full of text. And that was the book that Greg was asking me to review.
NEARY: Tonn had to be persuaded to read the book. But once he did, he was on board. And Podium reached out to the author. Andy Weir says it had never occurred to him to pitch his book to a publishing company. And it didn't bother him at all that he was being approached by an audiobook publisher.
ANDY WEIR: I was surprised that anyone was interested. Remember, at this time, I didn't think that the book would have any mainstream appeal. So I thought it was just - oh, you know, it's just a book, you know, by a dork for dorks.
NEARY: As it turns out, people loved the story of the marooned astronaut who uses science and math to figure out how to survive. And the journal entries he kept from the moment he was left behind in the storm translated perfectly into audiobook form.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) After an hour and a half of sustained wind, NASA gave the order to abort. Nobody wanted to stop a month-long mission after only six days. But if the MAV took any more punishment, we'd all have gotten stranded down there. We had to go out in the storm to get from HAB to the MAV. That was going to be risky, but what choice did we have? Everyone made it but me.
NEARY: The growing popularity of Weir's self-published book also caught the attention of Random House, which wanted to make a deal for "The Martian." But, Weir says, there was one small problem. By then, he already had a contract with Podium.
WEIR: The contract basically said I couldn't make a print edition of the book. So when Random House started expressing an interest, thankfully, the guys at Podium were just, like, oh, sure, we'll let you buy that back.
NEARY: Podium Publishing, said Greg Lawrence, has never had any regrets about its decision to revert the rights back to Weir.
LAWRENCE: We weren't looking to grab some rights and then hold onto those at the expense of the author, especially - it's not just the author's livelihood; it's his dream. You know, it's what he wants to do with his life. We didn't have any interest in standing in the way of that.
NEARY: But it wasn't all altruistic. James Tonn says they figured the audiobook would likely benefit from the marketing clout of a major publishing house.
TONN: We only reverted them back if he got a huge deal, which he ended up getting. And we knew that if they can do it better than us, then let's, you know, make this author's dream come true, get much wider promotion for the book. And hopefully that comes back to help us at some point, which it did.
NEARY: One immediate benefit - both contracts required Andy Weir to take down the online version of the book. And that, says Weir, gave the audiobook a big sales boost.
WEIR: For about six or eight months or something like that, there was no version of "The Martian" available at all, other than the audiobook. So I think everybody won.
NEARY: There have been one more than 100,000 reviews of the audio version of "The Martian," on audible.com. And, Andy Weir says, he's made more money from the audiobook than he has from the movie. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.