Daniel H. Wilson doesn't have the kind of pedigree you'd expect from a young writer. He doesn't have an M.F.A. He wasn't an undergraduate English major. In fact, for the most part, Wilson fell into writing almost by accident. Now he's one of the hottest tracked authors in Hollywood. Don't know who he is? That's largely because his most ambitious books haven't been published yet.
Wilson got onto many peoples' radar in October when news broke that Steven Spielberg had optioned (and planned to direct) Wilson's novel Robopocalypse, which had not yet been sold to a publisher. The book, which Doubleday acquired shortly after the Spielberg deal, is Wilson's first adult novel, and it's scheduled to be released in June 2011. The Spielberg acquisition sent Wilson's name—not well known in publishing circles—and the book jacket for Robopocalypse, which features a closeup of a white robot with pursed plastic lips and blood-red eyes, swirling around the Internet. As it happens, the Robopocalypse deal isn't the author's first flirtation with Hollywood; the 32-year-old Wilson has had four other books optioned, one of which (like Robopocalypse) is forthcoming.
An avid science fiction fan, Wilson started writing short stories in high school and submitted pieces to a number of SF zines. All the stories were rejected. Without much thought to a career as a writer, he enrolled at the University of Tulsa and got his degree in computer science. Next up was a Ph.D. in robotics at Carnegie Mellon. It was in Pittsburgh, during the last year of his Ph.D. program, that Wilson started a tongue-in-cheek book about what someone should do during an apocalyptic attack by robots. The effort turned into How to Survive a Robot Uprising, which Bloomsbury published in 2005.
The book was well reviewed—PW called it an "uncomfortably humorous survival guide"—and sold fairly well. Wilson's agent, Laurie Fox at the Linda Chester Agency, said the book sold about 65,000 copies. Wilson said the real turning point for the title—which he toured to promote and pushed at such unlikely venues as Google and Microsoft campuses—came when Wired named it Science Book of the Year for 2006.
While Wilson's had lukewarm success with his follow-ups to Uprising, Hollywood has remained interested. How to Survive a Robot Uprising was bought for film by Paramount, and options followed for the book's sequel, How to Build a Robot Army (which also went to Paramount) and his first children's book, published by Bloomsbury Children's, Bro-Jitsu: The Martial Art of Sibling Smackdown (which Nickelodeon bought).
Claire Lundberg, who was tracking for Tribeca Films when How to Survive a Robot Uprising was bought for film, said that sale took a number of people by surprise. The film option, which sold before the book was published, is, she thinks, one of the early examples of a trend of studios acquiring the dramatic rights to books with what she called "high concept comic ideas" before the titles have been tested in the marketplace. Lundberg cited Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, which was acquired by Grand Central in April 2009 after it was optioned for film and put on the production slate by 20th Century Fox, as another example of this kind of sale.
While it's uncertain if any of the options on Wilson's earlier books will turn into adaptations—the option on Bro-Jitsu has already lapsed—the splash the author made with the Spielberg buy was certainly noticed. After Spielberg bought Robopocalypse, Summit Entertainment (which produced the Twilight movies) bought the dramatic rights to Amp, a new book that Wilson is working on, which involves, as he put it, "people incorporating technology into their own bodies." (Jason Kaufman at Doubleday, who bought Robopocalypse, acquired Amp shortly before Summit optioned it, paying six figures for the novel, and the publisher is tentatively planning for a 2013 publication.)
So will Wilson's hot streak in Hollywood translate into bestsellerdom? Doubleday is hoping so. A spokesperson for the publisher said the summer publication of Robopocalypse will be a "major event" and that RH is getting behind the sci-fi thriller with a six-figure marketing and publicity campaign. Certainly if readers take to Wilson the way film scouts have, Doubleday won't have a problem. As Michelle Kroes, director of development at New Regency, put it: "He is just the kind of writer Hollywood likes. Dan has a strong foundation in science, but he thinks commercially, so his books tend to be fun yet thoughtful science fiction."