I am among Baen’s newest authors. My first Baen novel, The Chaplain’s War, was contracted in July of last year and will see print in October of this year. It’s got a cover from Dave Seeley and it’s got a release date listed on Amazon.com, so I think I can safely say a few things about the decision-making process that went into my choosing to work with Baen:
1) Industry expectations.
2) Word of mouth.
3) Company culture.
4) Face time.
5) Business model.
6) Author fit.
One of the things I found most unsettling about the novel publishing landscape were the numerous first-person accounts I was getting, from authors not too much further down the tracks from myself, about how it was a feast or famine business. You either hit home runs immediately, or you got dumped. It didn’t seem to matter who you published with, if you couldn’t show a substantial profit for the publisher, and do it very quickly, you were done. Likewise, if you were on the midlist and you weren’t showing bottom-line numbers indicating you were trending towards bestseller status, you were done. And not always explicitly either. Often people knew they were dumped simply because responsiveness from editors dropped to little or nothing, and contracts which had been previously promised, never showed up. There was no door being slammed, rather the dumping was done quietly. Sort of like having your utilities turned off at the street.
Word of mouth.
There was one publisher, however, who was getting consistently good marks: Baen. Authors — even new authors — were reporting that this publisher didn’t expect immediate grand slams. Instead, this publisher would work with new authors over time to grow and develop an audience. Not having landslide sales your first time out of the gate was not going to ruin you. Likewise, this publisher had a very respectable and healthy midlist, while also having very good brand label loyalty among readers. The latter being rare in an era when almost all readers are either loyal to a specific author, or loyal to a specific series and/or franchise. Thus it would be easier (for me as a new guy) to develop an audience, and I wouldn’t necessarily be doomed if I wasn’t cracking the top ten on the New York Times list with each subsequent book. There was the promise of breathing room!
Having met and befriended a few Baen authors, I really got to see (from a keyhole perspective) what it might be like if I were to become a Baen author. If other publishers operated very much according to corporate sensibilities with a corporate mindset, Baen still retained something of the personal touch. A smaller, almost family affair. Editors were congenial and approachable. You could converse with the editor-in-chief on a personal basis. The contracts were straightforward and possessed minimal legalistic jargon. Thus you could work successfully with Baen without relying on an agent or an IP lawyer to run interference for you. The company had absolutely no political or ideological litmus tests. And once you had been accepted into the fold, as an author, the company would really work with you to help you become successful. Not just because it was good for the company, but because the company really did care (as a company ethic) about what it was putting out into the world. Ergo, the company wanted to do right by the fans who had given the company their loyalty for many years.
And so I got to meet Ms. Weisskopf at the 2011 Worldcon in Reno, Nevada. Larry Correia introduced us; Larry being my roommate for the con, and a friend from the Utah science fiction scene, where we’d become acquainted. Toni was likable from the first moment I shook her hand. We took an hour-long stroll around the immediate area close to the convention hotel. We talked about everything but business. Which suited me fine, as there were several other authors, aspiring authors, and other editors following the same route. And we all sort of mingled in and out of different discussions about different things, while logging some solid exercise for the day. If it was a job interview, it was the most informal job interview I’ve ever experienced. And it was also a two-way window, in that not only was Toni getting a feel for me, I was also getting a feel for Toni. Her extant authors had always spoken highly of her, but getting some face-to-face time sold me on the idea that Toni was not just a good businessperson, but a good person in general. Meanwhile, Toni herself (I am told) had some face-to-face time with my then editor at Analog magazine, Stanley Schmidt. Who gave Toni a glowing estimation of my abilities, based on my work he’d bought and published; including one piece that had gotten a readers’ choice award, and another piece that went on to be nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula award.
Having returned home from Worldcon in 2011, what remained for me then was to put a book together that would display my craft at its best. I started working on several different ideas, scratched a few of them, and ultimately settled on developing a project built from the bones of two short fiction pieces that were connected: a short story that had previously been published in Analog and a sequel novella that would, I was sure, also be published in Analog. (And I was right about the latter, too.) Meanwhile I began doing more research on Baen’s precise business model, to see what I’d be getting into in the eventuality that Baen picked me up. The runway lights were certainly lit, and I had my plane in the air. I just had to land the plane. After that, what would happen next? The answer was that I’d be seeing modest initial advances for my first books, but with greatly increased potential for sell-through. Sell-through being that percentage of books which actually goes to print and which are eventually purchased. In the industry as a whole, 50% sell-through is considered good. Baen, meanwhile, tended to report a much higher sell-through rate. Even for authors who were not lead authors. The key dividend being that it wouldn’t be impossible for a new or relatively fledgling novelist to make good on his first few contracts. Indeed, Baen’s whole approach seems predicated on the idea that the easier it is for an advance to be earned out, the better it is for author and publisher alike, because then it’s a question of raw royalties; and royalties are where the publisher and author both make money. I liked this very much, because it explained — in business terms — why Baen had such good word of mouth from new authors and also from Baen’s midlist. You didn’t have to be an instant rock star to be making money; either for the company, or for yourself.
Ultimately, I was offered a contract. And as expected, the advance was modest. Which was not a problem for me, because I’d already become acquainted with the Baen business model, and I agreed with its logic. Saddling new novelists with disproportionately large advances is a bit like putting elephants on our backs: it’s going to take a miracle for us to earn back that money, even if our first (and second and third) books do well. Thus our editors aren’t going to want to keep investing, because the bean-counters — especially in corporate publishing — have the final say. Rare is the author who can survive one or more significant red ink baths, even if (s)he’s got a significant reputation. Baen, on the other hand, takes what I call the “slow burn” approach: modest initial advances, with an eye to growing audience and developing an author into a commodity. Tortoise, to the corporate hare. Set the author up for success, not for failure; as so often happens with other companies. This jives completely with my own personal approach, which has been to focus on publishers which match my taste and sensibilities (in extant editorial output) then get my foot in the door, and produce work that doesn’t just meet expectation, but grows above and beyond expectation. For both editors, and readers. Having done it previously with Analog, I plan to do it again with Baen. I believe I have the chops. All I have to do now is keep writing the books.
Which might, of course, sound like I am counting my chickens before they hatch. But I don’t believe in hoping against failure as much as I believe in planning for success. I know I can write, and that my writing has touched the lives and minds of worthwhile readers. I know also that the kinds of stories I enjoy telling, are the kinds of stories Baen likes to publish; and Baen readers like to read. As with Analog magazine, I believe firmly that Baen Books and I can do right by each other. I think Toni Weisskopf believes this as well, and my intention is to not let her — or myself — down.
Getting back to company philosophy, Jim Baen’s spirit remains in the publisher he founded. David Drake penned this very thoughtful coda after Jim Baen died. I think it says a lot about what kind of company Baen remains, despite the ever-shifting sands of the publishing world. I never met Jim, but I remember the first Baen book I ever bought. It was in 1993, from a bookstore in Park City, Utah. A paperback edition of the first Man-Kzin Wars book, featuring Larry Niven’s Known Space universe. I was barely 19 years old at the time. But I’d already determined that I wanted to be a professional writer. And as I read The Man-Kzin Wars and other, subsequent purchases from Baen, it became very apparent to me that I was on Baen’s wavelength, and vice versa. This was a publisher that could speak to me, as a fan. I’d like to think I can keep the Baen flag up, in this regard. Speaking to still more fans.
As Toni herself said so well:
In a time when the cultural divide in our country seems only to be growing, it gives me great pleasure to publish Baen Books, where readers and writers are united behind one idea: that science fiction is, and ought to be, fun.
Amen to that, Toni! And thank you for inviting me aboard the ship!