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Toni Weisskopf
conducted by SF Canada
 
August 2005

Q. To get us started, tell me a little about yourself and your work in the publishing industry.

A. I can't say I've been an SF reader all my life, because I started out interested in mysteries, adventures, mythology and history and can remember consciously making a decision to try this science fiction stuff my dad was bringing home. It's wonderful to be raised in a household full of books, all of them accessible to you at the lift of a finger.

Cosmic Tales: Adventures in Far Futures, edited by Toni Weisskopf

Once I did try science fiction, I was hooked and can remember one family holiday where I checked out every gas station we stopped at for DAW's garish yellow-spined edition of Jack Vance's Demon Princes series. Book distribution sure has changed since then!

I went to college (Oberlin) and got a degree in anthropology, but spent far more time on the science fiction club than anything else. As soon as I got out of school, I started work in New York at Baen and worked my way up to my current position, executive editor. Baen has always been on the cutting edge of technology use, and back when I started Baen was the only company to give computers to its editorial staff. Everybody else seemed to think they were for accounting only!

I've had the chance to work with some of my idols in the field, including Robert       A. Heinlein before he died, Fred Pohl, Spider Robinson, Lois Bujold, David Weber, Charles Sheffield, Anne McCaffrey - a bunch of others. My latest solo project has been a series (two so far) of original anthologies titled Cosmic Tales. I get to commission the kind of fun, adventurous, mind-expanding SF stories I like to read. Hopefully, others will like them, too!

Q. Baen is rather unique in the publishing industry today, because it is independently owned. Considered a "small press" by some, it manages to publish some of the most well-known authors in the genre. Tell me more about Baen. What makes it special? How has it succeeded while other independent small presses fail?

A. While very definitely independent, Baen is by no means a "small press." From its inception, Baen was intended to serve as Pocket Books' SF line, and Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster has distributed us since the beginning (1984). We've always had the market penetration of a large house, but without all of the maneuvering and politicking one has to do within a large house. Really the best of both worlds.

One reason Baen has managed to thrive these past 20 plus years while a host of other SF lines and companies have failed during that time is the love and knowledge of the field the publisher and editors bring to the party. Jim Baen is focused on publishing what he likes and his staff is dedicated to supporting that vision of SF. We aren't just book people at Baen, we're SF book people. Readers recognize what the Baen brand stands for.

Q. I believe I read in an old bio that you'd been in the business for nearly 20 years, and all at Baen. What changes have you seen in the industry, as a whole in this time, and at Baen itself?

A. I've seen the publishing industry go through some interesting expansion and contractions. We've gone from small publishing houses specializing in one format to massive vertical consolidation, the rise of the mall store, the decline of the mall store and rise of the book superstore, the rise of Internet marketing, the decline of the mass market paperback. Nothing stays the same except the insatiable audience for science fiction. The readers are out there no matter how the delivery system changes.

At Baen we have, if anything, gotten leaner and more focused on our core audience, like going from the Swiss army knife of SF to a well polished sword.

Q. Baen is one of the few publishers still taking unsolicited manuscripts, can you explain how a manuscript is processed once you receive it? And, if you buy it, how long, and what is the process, till it is on a bookstore's shelves?

A. While we still accept hard-copy submissions, we strongly encourage electronic submissions via our website. Manuscript guidelines can be found under FAQs there. As with every other publisher, it can take a loooong time for a manuscript to be evaluated and either returned or an offer made. However, once that happens things usually move pretty quickly. Once we have a contract in hand, a manuscript can be published within a year.

Q. Baen has a reputation for publishing hard SF. What type of manuscripts are you looking for? Has this changed over the years?

A. We do like to publish hard SF, what Jim Baen calls "real SF." Of course that's not all we publish. We are known for our military SF (Jim essentially invented the subgenre), urban fantasy, space opera and alternate history, too.

To paraphrase our manuscript guidelines: We publish only science fiction and fantasy. Powerful plots with solid scientific and philosophical underpinnings are the sine qua non for consideration for science fiction submissions. As for fantasy, any magical system must be both rigorously coherent and integral to the plot, and overall the work must at least strive for originality. Manuscripts that meet those criteria are then judged on plot and characterization. As for style, in our opinion good style, like good breeding, never calls attention to itself.

This hasn't changed for years.

Q. How many books does Baen currently publish in a year? How many of them are by new authors?

A. We publish three to four new titles a month, the rest are reprints (usually mass market from our hardcovers). Of those, I'd say we publish two to three new authors a year, some years more, some years fewer.

Q. Do you have any Canadian authors among Baen's current authors? If not why? Would you feel that Canadian content in a book would be a problem for publishing in the States?

A. Off the top of my head I can think of two Canadian residents who currently publish with Baen: Spider Robinson and Paul Chafe. Paul's been publishing stories in Larry Niven's Man-Kzin Wars series, and had stories in each of my Cosmic Tales anthologies. We just bought his first novel (a Man-Kzin Wars novel) this year.

I'm not sure what "Canadian content" is regarding a science fiction story - so long as its SF and believable, that's what we care about.

Q. When I've spoken to other editors, they seem worried about the future of book publishing in general. They claim people aren't reading like they used to. Would you agree? Or, is it that the bigger firms aren't publishing what he public wants to read? Is Baen feeling the crunch, too? What do you see for the future of Baen and the industry in general?

A. If I've learned one thing in 20 years, it's that the status quo of book publishing is always changing. We are running into a new generation of people who don't automatically turn to books for entertainment. Partly this is because the publishing establishment hasn't been giving people entertaining books to read on a regular basis. And for me, entertainment has to include intellectual stimulation. Baen hasn't lost track of that, so I don't think we'll lose readership but instead only will grow to fill the vacuum created by others falling down on the job. (Sorry if I sound a little cocky, but that's the way I see it!) And, of course, what the new generation lacks in sophistication about books is made up for by their comfortable navigation of the Web, and Baen has long had one of the best Web sites in the business, which can only help.

Q. There seems to be a controversy today about publishing books, or portions of books, on the Web. Unlike most others, Baen often has large sections of some of their author's books on line. Would you comment on this? Has this practice affected Baen's sales?

A. It sure has affected sales: it'a boosted them tremendously! We have over 50 books available at the Baen Free Library and more get posted all the time. Our Webscriptions e-book program has from the start refused to play silly encryption games, but instead Jim chose to make the books as widely and easily accessible as possible. And, what a shock, what a surprise, ease of use is exactly what people are looking for. That and a quality reading experience.

How do you know if you like an author until you've tried his or her works? You don't, which is one of the wonderful things about the Baen Free Library and our free sample chapters on-line. It's exactly like standing in a bookstore and reading a chapter, except you don't get swollen feet at the end of it.

If you are proud of your books and certain of your wares, why not give a free sample? It's also not coincidence that many of the books available at the Baen Free Library are the first in a series. Once you've found an author you like, don't you have a tendency to try to read everything available by them? We make that process a lot easier and readers like that. We cater to book addicts and are proud of it. And our authors like it, too, because they see the boost in sales.

The e-books industry does seem poised to take off. Jim Baen tells me that e-books billing throughout the industry took a 50-percent rise from last year. The numbers would indicate Baen Webscriptions is responsible for something like 10 percent of e-books' gross business. And Webscriptions is not that big. But we are at the crest of the wave, and I can only see more and more people utilizing e-books. The rest of the industry is having a hard time shifting its paradigm, but Baen has seen from the beginning it's all about the content.

Which is not to say that e-books will replace bound books. E-books are just another way to plug into readers. We've found that many people will read a book on-line, then buy a hard copy for re-reading, to share with friends, and so on. Or read the first in a series and then buy hard copies of the rest of the books. Books are a handy way of dispensing words, just no longer the only way.

Q. Travel costs in Canada are often quite a bit higher than in the States. This of course means that it's difficult to get to many cons to meet editors and agents. Can you suggest any ways that Canadian authors can get more exposure, and publishing contracts in the States?

A. I can suggest checking out Baen's Bar at www.baen.com, free for the price of your Internet connection. Any number of our newer authors got their start there: John Ringo, Tom Kratman, Mike Williamson, Dave Freer, to name four, and I'm sure there will be more.

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