In John B. Thompson’s Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing, forthcoming from Polity on May 7, the author of the highly accessible and comprehensive Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (Polity, 2010) returns with an in-depth account of the turbulent decade in which publishing was thrown into disarray by the digital revolution. Thompson relates how the industry was transformed as new opportunities opened up for individuals and organizations while tech giants like Google and Amazon moved in to capitalize in a new publishing environment. More than a study of the faltering rise of e-books, Book Wars explores the ways in which the digital revolution altered traditional publishing as well as self-publishing, audiobooks, bookselling, and the broader ways in which we communicate and share writing, information, and “content.”
Below is an excerpt from the book’s introduction, in which Thompson uses the meteoric success of Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian, which started out as a blog post and ended up a bestseller and a Hollywood blockbuster, to illustrate the new opportunities that have opened up during the early years of the digital revolution in publishing while, as Thompson writes, “beneath the surface the tectonic plates of the industry are shifting.”
Andy Weir couldn’t believe his luck. He always wanted to be a writer and he started writing fanfiction when he was nine. But, being a sensible young man, he doubted he could make a living as a writer, so he trained to be a software engineer and became a computer programmer instead. As a resident of Silicon Valley, this turned out to be a wise decision, and he had a successful career as a programmer for twenty-five years. But he never gave up his dream of being a writer and he continued to write stories in his spare time. He even had a go in the late 1980s at writing a book and trying to get it published, but no one was interested: “It was the standard struggling author’s story, couldn’t get any interest—publishers weren’t interested, no agent wanted to represent me, it just wasn’t meant to be.” Undeterred, Andy continued to write in his spare time—writing was his hobby. As the internet became more prevalent in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he set up a website and began posting his stories online. He had a mailing list that people could sign up to, and he sent them an e-mail whenever he posted a new story. Over a period of ten years, he gradually built up a list of some three thousand e-mail addresses. Then he started writing serial fiction, posting a chapter at a time on his website and letting his readers know. One of these stories was about a manned space mission to Mars. Being a software engineer, Andy was interested in problem-solving, and he began to think, “OK, what if something goes wrong, how do we make sure the crew survives? What if two things go wrong, what do we do then? And suddenly I realized I had a story.” He wrote in the evenings and at weekends, whenever he had spare time and felt the urge, and when he finished a chapter he posted it on his website. His readers became very engaged in the story and picked him up on some of the technical details about the physics or the chemistry or the maths of a manned mission to Mars, and he would go back and fix it. This active engagement with his readers spurred him on. Chapter by chapter, the story unfolded of an unfortunate astronaut, Mark Watney, who had been knocked unconscious by a violent dust storm shortly after arriving on Mars and woke up to discover that his crewmates had taken him for dead and made an emergency escape without him, leaving Mark alone to survive indefinitely on a remote planet with limited supplies of food and water and no way to communicate with Earth.
After the last chapter of The Martian had been posted on his website, Andy was ready to move on to another project, but he started getting e-mails from some of his readers saying, “Hey, I really love The Martian but I hate reading it in a web browser. Can you make an e-reader version?” So Andy figured out how to do that—it wasn’t too hard for a software engineer—and he posted an ePub and a Mobi file on his website so that people could download it for free. Then he started getting e-mails from people saying, “Thanks, I really appreciate that you put up e-reader formats, but I’m not very technically savvy and I don’t know how to download a file from the internet and put it on my e-reader. Can you just put it up as a Kindle?” So Andy did that too—filled in the form on Amazon, uploaded the file and, presto, there it was on the Amazon site, now available as a Kindle e-book. Andy wanted to give it away for free but Amazon require you to put a price on your e-book, so he chose the lowest price that Amazon allowed, 99 cents. He sent an e-mail out to his readers and said, “There you are everybody, you can read it for free on my website, you can download the free ePub or Mobi version from my website, or you can pay Amazon a buck to put it on your Kindle for you,” and to his surprise more people bought it from Amazon than downloaded it for free. The ebook swiftly moved up Amazon’s bestseller list, reaching number one in the sci-fi category and staying there for quite some time. Pretty soon the book was selling about three hundred copies a day, but, having never published a book before, Andy had no idea whether this was good, bad, or indifferent. He was just pleased that it was getting good customer reviews and lingering in the number one spot for sci-fi on Kindle.
Then something happened that he never expected. One day he got an e-mail from an agent who said, “I think we could get your book into print and if you don’t have an agent, I’d like to represent you.” Andy couldn’t believe it. Some years earlier, he had written to agents all over the country, begging them to represent him, and no one wanted to know. Now he gets an e-mail out of the blue from an agent who is offering to represent him, and he didn’t even have to ask. “I’m like, wow.”
What Andy didn’t know at the time is that, three thousand miles away in New York, a science-fiction editor at Crown, an imprint of Random House, had been browsing around some of his favorite internet sci-fi sites, as he did from time to time when things were a little slow, and he had come across several mentions of The Martian, so he decided to check it out. He noticed it was number one on the Kindle sci-fi bestseller list and it had lots of good customer reviews, so he bought a copy, dipped into it, and liked what he read, though he wasn’t sure what to make of all the hard science. He had a phone call lined up with an agent friend of his and, in the course of the conversation, he mentioned the book to him, told him he’d been tracking it on Amazon, and suggested he take a look and let him know what he thought. He did, loved it (“I was just blown away by it”—the hard science appealed to his geeky nature), got in touch with Andy, and signed him up. This was an agent who was accustomed to finding new authors online, sometimes by reading an interesting article on the internet and getting in touch with the author, sometimes by coming across a self-published book on Amazon that looked interesting, so he knew how to navigate this terrain. Out of courtesy to the editor who had called this book to his attention, the agent got back in touch with him and gave him a little time to consider it as an exclusive. The editor sent it around to a few of his colleagues at Crown and asked them to look at it over the weekend; they liked it too, and on Monday they made a generous offer to pre-empt the book and take it off the table. Andy was thrilled and the deal was done. “It was a no-brainer,” said Andy; “it was more money than I make in a year in my current job, and that was just the advance.”
At around the same time, a small film production company had also spotted The Martian on the Kindle bestseller list and got in touch with Andy, who put them in touch with his new agent. The agent contacted his film co-agent and they used the interest of the small production company to pique the interest of Fox, who snapped up the film rights and announced that the movie would be directed by Ridley Scott with Matt Damon in the lead. With publishing rights now sold to Random House and a Hollywood blockbuster in the works, the scouts began to work their magic with foreign publishers. The buzz machine was spinning and it ramped up quickly. Before long, rights were sold in thirty-one international territories and Andy’s substantial advance was earned out before the book was even published.
To Andy, who was oblivious to these distant conversations, the sudden interest in his book seemed somewhat unreal. He was at work the week that the deals with Random House and Fox were done, in his programming cubicle as usual, and he had to go to a conference room to take a call about the movie deal. “It’s like, hey, out of nowhere, all of your dreams are going to come true. It was so unbelievable that I literally didn’t believe it. I hadn’t actually met any of these people, it was all just e-mails and phone calls, and in the back of my mind I kept thinking, ‘This might just be a scam.’” It only hit home when the contract finally arrived and the return address was Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY, and then the check for the advance arrived. “I thought, ‘If this is a scam, they’re very bad at it.’”
Once the deal with Random House was done, Andy was asked to take down the Kindle edition, which he did. The text was lightly edited and then sent out to various prominent authors for pre-publication blurbs—the responses were amazing. An array of well-known sci-fi authors raved about this new addition to their genre. All of this helped the editor to get people talking about the book, generate excitement inside the house, and encourage the sales reps to get behind the book and push it when they met with the buyers at the major retail outlets—critical factors in the attempt to make a book stand out from the thousands of new titles that are published every week. The Random House edition of The Martian was eventually published as a hardcover and ebook in February 2014 and went straight onto the New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for six weeks. A glowing review in the Wall Street Journal described it as “utterly compelling…. This is techno sci-fi at a level even Arthur Clarke never achieved.” The paperback edition was released in October 2014 and again went quickly onto the New York Times bestseller list, reaching the number one spot and remaining on the list well into 2015.
There was something remarkable and unprecedented about Andy’s success: Through a series of metamorphoses, a text that started life as a blog on someone’s personal website ended up as an international bestseller and a blockbuster film and, with it, a life and a career were transformed. A generation earlier, none of this would have been possible and a talent like Andy’s might well have gone undiscovered. That was one of the many upsides of the digital revolution in publishing: Thanks to the internet, talent could be discovered in new ways and a writer who had been beavering away in relative obscurity could suddenly be catapulted into international stardom. Everyone gains—writer, publisher, millions of readers all over the world. But, remarkable though Andy’s success was, this was only one side of the story. The very changes that had enabled Andy to realize his childhood dream were wreaking havoc in an industry that had operated in pretty much the same way for as long as anyone could remember. The industry by which Andy was so pleased to be embraced had, largely unbeknown to Andy, become a battleground where powerful new players were disrupting traditional practices and challenging accepted ways of doing things, all facilitated by a technological revolution that was as profound as anything the industry had experienced in the five centuries since Gutenberg. The astonishing success of The Martian—from blog to bestseller—epitomizes the paradox of the digital revolution in publishing: Unprecedented new opportunities are opened up, both for individuals and for organizations, while beneath the surface the tectonic plates of the industry are shifting. Understanding how these two movements can happen simultaneously, and why they take the form that they do, is the key to understanding the digital revolution in publishing.
John B. Thompson is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge and Emeritus Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. His previous books include Merchants of Culture.