I went to DragonCon pretty much all day Friday through Sunday and spent most of the time at writing panels. Last night, on the way back to the MARTA station where I'd parked after church, I turned around and headed back for the "In The Beginning: What You Need to Know" panel.
The most memorable author present was John Ringo, a military science fiction author who writes for Baen Books, and to a lesser extent Deidre Knight.
Ringo described how he had a 47,000-word first novel that was truly, horrifically bad and will never see the light of day. He described it as a hybrid of fantasy and cyberpunk and how it did not have consistent tenses, among other problems.
(Apparently his bad first novel was not the infamous Ghost, first in the series The Paladin of Shadows and the origin of the "Oh John Ringo No" Internet meme. I thought that one was the bad first novel that someone persuaded him to sell, but it turns out Ringo didn't want it published under his own name but Baen himself insisted on taking a look at it first.)
He then described how he wrote A Hymn Before Battle on a yellow notepad while pulling all-nighters as a security guard. He'd submitted it to Baen, where he was a regular member of the company's internet forum, and made a reference to being in the company's slush pile while debating the "aquatic ape hypothesis" with the late Jim Baen, the founder of the company.
(If you want to know more about that, just google it or check out this well-reviewed book: Aquatic Ape Hypothesis.)
Ringo received a rejection letter and then an e-mail from Baen saying that the manuscript had been lost. Ringo sent the manuscript back and mentioned that it had already been rejected. Baen read and line-edited the entire manuscript in 24 hours, fired the reader who'd rejected it, and told Ringo he'd buy it if Ringo made the edits he wanted. He also wanted the manuscript for the sequel Gust Front, which Ringo had already begun writing. Ringo sent in the manuscript as it was, which ended in the middle of a battle in the middle of a prepositional phrase.
At this point in the discussion, Knight took over. She described several "false starts" over the years before writing fan-fiction for the TV program Roswell got her back into writing permanently. She said it was good practice with plotting and other disciplines and reader feeback encouraged her to write more. Her later fan-fiction diverged greatly from the original series, to the point that although her protagonists were named "Max" and "Liz," they were radically different from the show's characters (living in Los Angeles, among other things).
I think I've got a bit in common with her. My first two finished novels are actually alternate-universe Harry Potter fan-fics, The Wrath of the Half-Blood Prince and Lord of the Werewolves, which I co-wrote.
One reason I was able to finish those while my original novels languished is because I had a horde of readers wanting updates soon. Thanks to my writing group and the need to produce chapters for each meeting, I might be able to finish my post-apocalyptic steampunk Western Escape from the Wastelands in a similar manner.
But back to the panel...
"What what you like and try to find the market," Ringo advised as the discussion took a different turn.
He said not to dismiss the eBook and small and medium presses. He said he knows people who make more money with those than with the larger presses because although they sell fewer copies, they make more per book. He said the iPad will hurt traditional publishing, especially on the distribution side.
Knight described how her first book was sold via a small press and released in digital form before being printed. She cautioned the writers against self-publishing via Kindle to get 80% of the revenues, since traditional publishers provide line-editing and other services.
Ringo agreed, citing both professional line-editors and cover artists. He said good eBooks are also hard to find--it's like reading a slush pile. He predicted that the future of writing will be via "web-scription" services like those provided by Baen.
He also described how distributing content for free can be, in the long run, financially beneficial. Apparently the first Wheel of Time novel, The Eye of the World, was given away at WaldenBooks (then the biggest bookseller) for free. The sequel, The Great Hunt, sold massively, as did the many successors. He said the free distribution of the first book ultimately made the entire series more financially successful than the series would have been ordinarily.
Overall, that was a fun and useful panel to attend. I guess the fact that my church friends were out of town and thus not available for dinner afterward had a silver lining.