Four days later, a bidding war ensued among seven of the largest publishing houses over a manuscript Alten had written the previous year. His novel, Meg, is a thriller about a mammoth prehistoric shark, a megalodon, that manages to survive the Ice Age and terrorizes the beaches of modern-day Hawaii and California.
As the publishing world was scuffling over the manuscript, Disney Studios had already snapped up the movie rights.
"We bought the film rights the day after we entered into negotiations," says Jeff Bynum, Disney Studios' director of production. "We're on the fast track to production."
Thirty-six hours after the novel was put up for auction, Alten got a phone call from his agent, informing him that the publishing rights to Meg and his second novel, The Sire, were purchased by Bantam-Doubleday-Dell for $2.1 million. The book has also been sold in more than a dozen foreign countries for $1.6 million.
Meg was launched nationwide July 1 with a first press run of 175,000 books.
"It was amazing," says Alten, "Four days after I was laid off, I'm calling my wife at her job giving her hourly updates on the bidding war. It was like a dream."
Ken Atchity, Alten's agent and manager, whose office receives about 500 submissions a month, says the book's success came partially from its timing. The publishing industry was scrambling to duplicate the phenomenal success of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park and The Lost World.
The oldest of four children, Alten grew up in northeast Philadelphia. He graduated from Penn State and earned a master's degree in sports medicine from the University of Delaware, before receiving his doctorate in sports administration from Temple University in 1988.
Alten's career plan was to coach basketball, which he pursued while working as second assistant coach at Delaware from 1982-84. But, he couldn't live on a coach's salary so he took a sales position selling water purification systems.
After a business failure in Delaware, Alten moved to South Florida and started another water purification company. Eighteen months later, he was working solo out of his house.
"Talk about depressing, there I was with a doctorate, selling $4,000 water systems door-to-door," Alten vividly recalls. "Some months, I wouldn't make a sale."
In the summer of 1995, he came across an article in Time magazine about the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean when the revelation hit him. In every story he had read about the great white sharks, there was some reference to the species, Carcharodan megalodon, a 20-ton, 60-foot prehistoric shark killed off by climatic changes in the ocean millions of years ago.
Meg became the villain of Alten's debut novel. For it, he embarked on a month of research on the Great White's prehistoric ancestor, who existed through the age of dinosaurs and up until the Ice Age.
What intrigued Alten were the deep-sea trenches where the megalodon dwelled. These trenches (seven miles deep) act as vents, spewing 700 degree, mineral-rich steam into the sea. A tropical current of water that ran along the very bottom potentially could have supported the megalodons.
In Alten's plot, the largest and most ferocious killer in the history of the animal kingdom, Meg, haunts one man, Jonas Taylor. A paleontologist and pilot of a deep-sea submersible, Taylor has spent years lecturing about Meg, trying to forget a mission where he came face-to-face with the colossal creature.
Alten completed the first draft of his 400-page manuscript in January 1996, found a reference book, Insider's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents, and mailed his book synopsis to 50 agents across the country. He received 27 rejections and one glimmer of hope from AEI Editorial International in Los Angeles.
The bad news was they wanted $5,000 for extensive editing. Alten borrowed some money from his father and sold a prized 1971 Malibu. For six months, he worked with Atchity and his staff, reworking the novel.
Atchity submitted the first 100 pages minus the subplots and background to Disney before the novel was finished. Given a weekend sneak preview in June 1996, Disney made a preemptive purchase of the film rights in a far-reaching deal that could bring the author another $1.1 million, depending on best-seller and bonus clauses. There also will be dollars from Disney's merchandising once the film opens.
Atchity will serve as executive producer on the film while Jeff Baum, who's worked on Naked Gun and Lethal Weapon, has been named the screenwriter. Disney Studios anticipates a summer 1999 release.
"It's our aim to be faithful to the novel," says Disney's Bynum. "Steve's is a fantastic story. Steve really believed in himself and was very determined. It's very gratifying to see it happen."
The Altens recall mainly a sense of relief when Atchity phoned with the news that the book had been sold to Doubleday and Bantam, who joined forces to outbid other publishers at the auction. Initially, Alten received an $80,000 advance.
"We don't have the pressure of all those bills, and I don't have to worry what I'm buying at the grocery store," says Kim Alten. "The kids were able to go to camp for the first time."
"I went from no tax bracket to the highest," jokes Alten, who couldn't get a credit card for six years. "It gives me the opportunity to write, something I really love, and not be doing it in the middle of the night."
Alten has finished the manuscript for his second novel, The Sire, a scientific adventure based on the Mayan calendar that predicts the Earth will end on Dec. 23, 2012.
He has ditched his LeBaron with the duct-tape patches on its convertible top and replaced it with a late-model Corvette and a Ford Expedition for Kim. The Altens are building their 5,000-square-foot dream home a short drive from the tiny townhouse they still occupy.
So, what's the moral to the story?
"If I hadn't had the business failures, I would never have made it to Florida, met Kim and started writing," Alten says. "The failures helped me set my goals. That's what I tell other people now. Set them big!"