Jim Minz

Interview with
Jim Minz

February 2008,
conducted by
Hank Davis

Jim Minz, passionate fan of football, science fiction and fantasy, and sometime Heisman Trophy impersonator, has come a long way from West Bend, Wisconsin to his new post as Baen Senior Editor, with stops along the way at Bluejay Books (sort of), Tor, and Del Rey. Since he admits to being a mutant, he might have ended up with the X-Men, but he chose instead to hang out with even more bizarre beings in the world of SF and fantasy publishing, even starting his own corner of the Baen.com website, Minz's Biergarten, which he will be operating with his own unique combination of talent and energy.

 

As to how all this came about, here's Jim's own account. "I was born in West Bend, WI, in March of 1968, a year which featured other such historic events as the Tet Offensive and the assassinations of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr."

 

But how about that mutation? "Well, some might say my birth was a harbinger of the upcoming turmoil, as I was born with an extra thumb. Yes, it's true, I was born a homo superior, as Eric Magnus Lehnsherr would say. But unfortunately I was denied my powers in later life when the extra digit was removed around the age of one—without my consent! And no, my parents did not keep it in a little vial of formaldehyde for me—they are both very boring, sensible types."

Armed with only the standard quota of thumbs, Jim grew up in West Bend, "a sleepy little town that was settled by both kinds of people: German Catholics and German Lutherans. I was shocked to later discover the rest of the world. When I was young, it was the kind of place where in the dead of winter you'd leave the car running, unlocked, when you ran into the store to pick up a few items. Its one claim to fame is the West Bend Company, which produced many a fine consolation prize (pots and pans, popcorn poppers, etc.) for TV gameshows in the '70s and '80s. Nowadays, West Bend has grown nearly tenfold from my date of birth, and is more of a commuter town, since it's only about 40 minutes north of Milwaukee."

 

Soon, Jim developed three different interests. "As it happened, my very first passion was books, followed closely by sports. As the youngest of six kids (four boys), we played whatever sport was in season, and more importantly, passionately followed our home teams growing up: the Milwaukee Bucks, Brewers and, most important of all, the Green Bay Packers. Later, when I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I became quite passionate about the sports teams there. My oldest daughter Rachel wasn't even two by the time she could sing 'On Wisconsin' and 'Varsity.'

"Those passions are with me today, as my home can attest, where the battle for wallspace is waged between two evergrowing piles: books and Packer and Badger paraphernalia--okay, for sheer volume, books win hands down. But I believe it's safe to claim I am the only SF pro to own a professional sports team. (I own one share of the nonprofit Green Bay Packer Corporation, along with a little over 112,000 other Packer shareholders.)

"My other dirty little secret passion, one that dates back to 1978, is roleplaying games. I attended every Gen Con from 1978 to 1996, though the last decade or so were mostly just cameo appearances, dropping by for a day to say hi to old friends. Gaming has taken a major backseat in my life ever since I got into publishing, since they sort of scratch similar itches."

 

A passion for books soon led to the fantasy field. "When I was in third grade, I had just finished reading Bulfinch's Mythology (The Age of Fable) when my oldest brother gave my second-oldest brother The Lord of the Rings trade paperback boxed set for Christmas. Of course I promptly swiped it and spent the latter half of third grade methodically working my way through it (skipping all those silly songs and poems until later readings). From there, I never looked back."

 

Does Jim prefer fantasy to SF? "While my school and public library had woeful SF/F sections, my oldest brother had just entered the workforce and loved genre fiction (and gaming). So I never made any distinction between fantasy and SF; I just read whatever books or magazines my brother bought.

"I really don't favor one genre over another. I do think SF is much better suited to the short form compared to fantasy, and I love anthologies of the good old stuff. But in novel form, either will do, depending upon my mood.

"The first SF novel I read that made me take note of the author name on the cover was The High Crusade by Poul Anderson, and I remember my sadly ignorant young self thinking 'I wonder if this Anderson guy has written anything else?' In addition to a heavy dose of Anderson, an intense passion for all things H. Beam Piper quickly followed. Then Heinlein, Asimov, etc, etc.

"I'm very catholic in my tastes, everything from light, humorous stuff to serious epics to crunchy hard sf to space opera to military sf to works that blend and blur genre lines, I enjoy it all (okay, there are some books and authors I don't care for, but why waste time worrying about them)."

 

How did Jim come to be an editor of SF and fantasy? "It never occurred to me that there were people out there that actually worked on books, and were paid to do so (however poor that pay might be). Books were these magical artifacts that appeared at my brother's apartment in order to take me to faraway places and times, to transport me into these other worlds and explore new ideas. I never once thought about the business of publishing.

"And then, I got lucky.

"I began my academic career at UW-Madison as an Electrical Engineer, but I ended up pursuing degrees in English and Philosophy. Which meant that at a campus of about 42,000 students, I had the exact same five classes as a fellow English/Philosophy student by the name of John Klima. After seeing each other at the first session of each of the five classes, we shared a laugh and started up an acquaintance. And then came a fateful day in our Ancient Philosophy course. We were both scheduled for the same two-on-one session with our professor, but he failed to show up. John had this fantasy novel with him that he was reading while he waited, and we started talking books. So he tells me about this guy by the name of Jim Frenkel for whom he was interning. And one thing led to another, and soon I was interning for Jim Frenkel as well. Upon graduation about nine months later, I became Jim's assistant.

"From there, I spent a few years doing a wide variety of things, since my boss was packaging anthologies (including The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror), working as a consulting editor for Tor, and even representing authors as an agent—not to mention settling some old business for defunct Bluejay Books. So it was a terrific training ground. But after a few years, I realized that if I was going to get serious about publishing, I'd need to move to New York City. So when a job opened up at Tor as David Hartwell's assistant, I took the leap, going from a boss who'd been editing sf for 25 years to someone who'd been editing for 30 years.

"I spent the next eight years slowly building my own list at Tor. Elizabeth Haydon was my first solo acquisition in the late '90s. I was Catherine Asaro's editor when she won the Nebula Award for The Quantum Rose, and Nancy Kress's editor when she won her first award for a novel (the John W. Campbell award for Probability Sun). And I worked with a whole bunch of wonderful, talented authors. But after working on Tor Books for nearly 12 years, that still left me pretty far down the totem pole at Tor in terms of editorial seniority (must've been around number 8 or 9), so when Del Rey made me an offer, I took the leap.

"I enjoyed my time with Del Rey, and have some good friends over there, but it wasn't a very good fit. Luckily, right about the time Random House and I were parting company, Toni was beginning her search for an experienced editor. So that basically meant that I managed to exchange the corporate überstructure of Bertelsmann, the biggest trade publisher in the US if not the entire world, for Toni Weisskopf. Why yes, I still am sporting the same shit-eating grin I had on my face when I accepted the job last year."

 

As for where the SF field is heading, "Of course, SF is going to continue to take over the world! From movies to videogames to the pervasive growth of technology itself, we are living in an SF world. Geeks are actually cool and hip in the mainstream culture. Talk about science fiction!

"In terms of the written form, I'm firmly in the camp that the future is bright. There are real issues to deal with, from loss of distribution in some of the traditional avenues, to fighting all the other forms of popular entertainment for the consumer's attention, to competing for shelf space in the bookstore. But those are just part of the process of living in the modern world.

"To borrow from WIRED's Chris Anderson, The Long Tail is here to stay. It's a natural progression that as information flows more freely from producers to consumers, and more importantly, from consumers back to producers, the market has the ability to reach an ever-more specific specialized audience.

"But that's what SF has been doing for decades—the world's just getting a heckuva lot better at it now. And that's something that Jim Baen and his crew understood from day one. The key is to embrace the tools of the modern world and make them work for you. Like Baen's Bar. Like Webscriptions. There are new opportunities to have contact with your audience, and actually get feedback from them, in order to provide them what they want. There are new ways for us to distribute our books to a whole new set of readers, whether they are disabled, geographically challenged, or simply technophiles—people who might never have tried a Baen book without modernization. It's a brave new world, and there are always those who predict doom and gloom, and there are those who seek out the new opportunities. And I am thrilled to have joined an independent publisher who embraces the future."

 

Which SF and fantasy writers make the Jim Minz Hall of Fame? "Obviously, JRR Tolkien had a profound influence upon me; I would not be here today if it weren't for The Lord of the Rings. I'd definitely add Poul Anderson and H. Beam Piper to that list. Also Frank Herbert for Dune, Isaac Asimov for his seminal short fiction (especially Foundation and Robot stories) and of course, Heinlein, though actually I put him here for his short fiction, because that's how I first came to know his works.

"Those are the big influences. A step down from those biggies, there are a ton of other authors, but if I start naming them, we'll be here all day, and may run out of electrons . . ."

SF fandom was a relatively late discovery for Jim. "I never actually attended an SF convention until I was in the business, though I started going to gaming conventions when I was ten. But since I began working in publishing back in '93, I've attended dozens of cons, and even helped run the World Fantasy Convention in Madison a few years ago (all because I was dumb enough to tell the con chair I thought it was a great idea to bid for Madison, which is a really fun town).

"I volunteered at a few of the early conventions I attended, before my pro duties got too heavy to make that practical. And I am constantly in awe at the strength of the commitment of our Fans, to put in the time and effort to host these conventions, all on a volunteer basis.

"And don't even get me started on our own Barflies. It's more than a little intimidating to encounter folks who care so deeply about what you do (even for someone who's a bit of a fanatic in his own right. Why yes, I have dressed up as the Heisman Trophy and run around in public, but that had nothing to do with an SF convention)."

 

As for what innovation he'd like to see in his lifetime, Jim says "Cheap, clean energy, whether it's perfecting fusion, solar energy, wind power, or whatever. Get us off these friggin' fossil fuels. For us. For our environment. And if it would happen to impoverish some nations that have nothing more to offer the world than oil and sectarian violence, works for me."

 

And if Jim were given a chance to travel back in time? "With the obvious caveats of perfect cloaking and translating tech, it's such a tough choice.

"There are so many big events that'd be awe-inspiring to witness, and also so many small moments that have been so important. While I'm very tempted to choose Philadelphia in the 1770s in order to bear witness to the birth of our nation, in the end I think I'd choose traveling back to the time of Jesus. There is no other single historical figure who's had a greater impact on the modern world. I just couldn't pass up a chance to see him in action with my own eyes."