Sunday, March 16, 2008

OmegaCon - Lessons Learned

I have to give OmegaCon two ratings, one for my personal experience and one for my professional experience. I did, after all, attend with ulterior motives: I was looking for ways to reach SF fans in such a way that they'd become more interested/involved in space advocacy, which is different from fandom. Personally, I had fun. But then I don't mind talking SF with like-minded fans or dressing up like a damn fool as a means of joining the fun. Professionally, I have a lot of thinking to do. A comment from Ben Bova, who is both an eminent SF writer and space advocate, gave me pause. I explained my mission, more or less, saying, "There are more SF fans than space advocates. How do we get all these folks to be advocates?" He smiled and said, "I have no idea. I've been trying for 50 years. If you figure it out, let me know." How scary is that?

I wasn't nearly as pushy at this conference as I could have been. I'm probably more comfortable dealing with people my age or older, and maybe half the con was under 30, and as a lady in the elevator said, they were more interested in costuming and playing video games. I did talk to a couple of Xers and listen to a lot of people in and out of my panel sessions, and here are the "magic words" I heard in passing:
  • "It needs to be fun."
  • "NASA is too stodgy."
  • "A lot of people are more interested in the commercial aspect, even if it's from the self-interest angle. They're imagining themselves going up into space. You can't do that with NASA."
  • There was a lot of concern in the Moon, Mars, and Beyond track about the progress the Chinese were making and what, if anything, NASA was doing about it. (Answer, given the current administration's budget and priorities: zip.)
  • One gentleman was upset that there were no official Ares I or Ares V model rockets available. This same person felt the commercial space thing was "dangerous," as it could lead to a de-scoping of NASA if proven successful.
  • A couple of SF editors and writers expressed the opinion that commercial industry was better equipped to handle space transportation issues. I noted that those expressing such opinions were Xers like me. There is a strong libertarian streak in a lot of hard SF (begun by Heinlein), which probably feeds the libertarian ethos in some aspects of the space advocacy community today.
  • Nanotechnology was of much greater interest than the space program. What, if anything, is NASA doing with nanotechnology? Ah, the glories of Google. Ames Research Center is working on this stuff. Is there any way to incorporate nanotech into Constellation?
  • There were a couple of rooms full of kids playing video games. NASA is taking steps in this direction, but one hopes that those steps will be taken in the company of people who have actually played video games.
  • The discussions I had with the English professors was interesting, as one of them suggested that their students, despite getting a lot of PC miseducation, might still get behind space exploration if it was doing things that were relevant to them now, like global warming or energy production. Is Constellation set up to do that? No, not necessarily...

These answers shouldn't really come as a surprise. If SF fans are into exciting adventures that either offer hope for the future or expand their horizons, surely the space program can offer them both, right? Um...well, maybe. I mean, I think going to the Moon, Mars, and beyond is cool, but if you want to sell space to the more hard-headed pragmatists out there, even the SF fans are going to want to know that the space program is about more than just keeping the existing infrastructure employed.

The challenge, of course, is that NASA has such a limited range of control over its destiny. On the one hand, advocates are saying, "If you guys do something cool, we'll support you." Meanwhile, the reality is that NASA can only do something cool if the general public persuades the nation's elected officials that they want to see them done. Thus the chicken and the egg face off once again.


From a freelance writer point of view, I picked up some useful information in the event I ever find the time/inclination to write SF professionally. Some choice bits of intel include:

  • "If you have a manuscript [novel], expect that someone will hold onto it for two years."
  • "No simultaneous submissions."
  • "Writers must know the business end of writing."
  • "About half my money goes toward taxes." --David Drake
  • "Set up a post office box to force yourself out of the house." --Drake (again)
  • "I've written more books under pseudonyms than under my real name." --Mike Resnick
  • Most of the best paying professional magazines are now online.
  • SF is now taking over all forms of entertainment and is becoming part of the mainstream.
  • "Knowing what to steal is a lot of this business."
  • "The greatest threat to writers isn't piracy, it's obscurity." --Cory Doctorow (quoted, he wasn't at the con)
  • "Don't write according to trends. By the time it's a trend, it's already dead."
  • Gen Xers seem to have taken over the editorial chores in the SF world.
  • Listening to the science professionals talk in the Hard Science track made me realize why I'm an English major. Some of that stuff just zoomed over my head.
  • Cover art matters a great deal in the ability to sell a book. The writer often has little to no control over the cover art.
  • There are more than 2,000 new books every year in the fantasy and science fiction genre.
  • Books generally remain on the shelves 30-60 days.
  • Borders distributes books based on national sales numbers. What this means in practical terms is that they will buy the same number of a particular author's works for every location despite local or regional increases or decreases in interest.
  • "If you're going to get rejected, it'll happen immediately." --Eric Flint
  • Publisher consider a hardcover book doing well if it sells 70% of its print run; 55% for paperbacks.
  • Entry into the fiction world is determined by writing quality; entry to the non-fiction writing world is based more on credentials.
  • When dealing with agents, don't pay reading fees. "Money should flow to the writer."
  • Editors see agents as "bastions holding back the slush pile."
  • "Most of the bestselling authors at Baen came from the slush pile.
  • Editor Lou Anders on deadlines: "I have fake deadline one and fake deadline two."
  • American authors earn more from American customers buying books from American publishers than from American customers buying editions of their books from overseas.
  • There are mixed opinions about self-publishing. Aside from one writer, most of those who have sold through large or small presses believe that self-publishing works against you.
  • Agents are valuable because they know the market and have the contacts necessary to get stories into the hands of the right editors.
  • "Make sure you understand your temperament and get along with your agent."
  • It's okay to check back with an editor after a six-month gap if your manucript hasn't been rejected right away. If a story hasn't been rejected right away, it goes into a "guilt pile." Those are the stories that are good enough to survive the first cut ("Editors are looking for ways to eliminate you up front"), but not urgent enough to be read right away.
  • The top performers (Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, etc.) get the most attention because they bring in most of the money. First-time authors are an unknown quantity, so the system is not set up to support them until they become a known quantity.
  • Conventions are a good opportunity to meet fans and sell a few books, but they are not a cost-effective way of selling a lot of books.
  • "Opinions are like assholes: everybody's got one." Publishing industry corollary: "Editors are assholes, but everybody wants one."

Book/Story/Reference/Web Site Recommendations

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward
Murray Leinster, A Logic Named Joe
David Louis Edelman, Infoquake
Dean Koontz, Lightning
David Walton, Terminal Mind
Joy Ward, Haint
Baen Free Library
Jodee Blanco, The Complete Guide to Book Publicity
Miss Snark
L. Sprague DeCamp, The Incomplete Enchanter
Travis Taylor, Warp Speed, One Day on Mars, Von Neumann's War, and Quantum Connection
A.E. van Vogt, World of Null-A
Fred Hoyle, October the First is Too Late
Hal Duncan, Vellum: The Book of All Hours, Ink: The Book of All Hours
Steven Erickson, The Malazan Book of the Fallen

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