The modern publishing world has changed enormously since science fiction emerged as a literary genre, and continues to rapidly evolve. Within the science fiction world, there’s one publisher that bears looking closely at, for its ability to create a robust fanbase and become an early pioneer in the epublishing world: Baen Books.
Jim Baen was born October 22nd, 1943 in Pennsylvania, and as a child, became an early and avid reader of science fiction magazines. At the age of 17, he left home: his father had died when he was younger, and he and his stepfather never got along. He was homeless for several months before joining the Army, where he spent his time in Bavaria.
Following his service in Europe, he attended City College of New York, and ended up working at Ace Books, where he worked in the Complaints Department, where he excelled. “So good that management tried to promote him to running the department,” recounted David Drake in a remembrance. “He turned the offer down, however, because he really wanted to be an SF editor.” In 1972, became the assistant Gothics editor for Ace Books.
When Galaxy Science Fiction’s associate editor Judy-Lynn del Rey left to join Ballantine Books in 1973, Baen took up her post (following Albert Dytch, who lasted all of three months) in August, and took over as the lead editor for both Galaxy and If. While there, he was instrumental in raising the stature of the magazine, which had seen sales and quality flag. Baen introduced several new feature columns to the magazine, which included commentary on science and science fiction. “Within a couple of issues Baen had transformed both magazines,” Mike Ashley notes in Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science-fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980, “giving them a vibrancy and character which they had long been lacking.”
In October 1973, Baen ran into problems outside of his control at the magazine: OAPEC announced an oil embargo, which caused severe financial problems throughout the United States, as well as Galaxy and If’s parent company, Universal Publishing and Distribution Corporation. His budget was slashed, and he merged the two magazines. “The entrepreneurial Jim Baen used it to his advantage. He genuinely saw the merger as a benefit, because he could bring all the benefits of If to Galaxy, and focus the sparse resources on one magazine.” [Gateways]
While at Galaxy, Baen published stories for which he would be best known later in life, bringing on authors such as Jerry Pournelle and David Drake, publishing a number of military and hard science fiction stories. “Baen wanted to capture that feel-good factor and allow readers a means of escape from the daily frustrations of life, while still recognizing and exploring those problems,” according to Ashley. In many ways, he was a natural successor to the late John W. Campbell Jr. of Astounding Science Fiction, who had focused on many of the same themes and story types: energetic and escapist, all while focusing on rigorous and realistic fiction. He had a talent for discovering new authors, publishing the first stories by Craig Strete, Lisa Tuttle, Nancy Kress, and others.
Ultimately, he was able to raise the magazine’s circulation from just under 50,000 subscribers to more than 80,000 by the time he left in 1977, frustrated with corporate pressures.
Baen returned to Ace Books in 1977, where he began working with publisher Tom Doherty. Doherty had grown up reading Galaxy, and “I had kept reading both of those magazines,” He recalled, “I thought [Baen] was doing an exceptional job, and brought in him to head up our science fiction [program].”
At Ace, Baen continued his streak of discovering new and interesting authors. “He brought in a number of strong authors,” Doherty recalled. His time at Ace was short-lived, however: Doherty decided to venture out into the publishing world on his own, setting up Tor Books. Baen, along with Harriet McDougal, joined Tor Books, where he continued his work under Doherty editing science fiction
Baen followed “the same pattern that had revived Ace,” Drake wrote in his remembrance, “a focus on story and a mix of established authors with first-timers whom Jim thought just might have what it took. It worked again.”
In 1983, rival publisher Simon & Schuster began having some problems with their paperback division, Pocket Books. Their own SF imprint, Timescape Books, run by David G. Hartwell, wasn’t doing well, and was being closed down. They reached out to Baen, asking him if he’d like to run the imprint.
Doherty remembered that Baen wasn’t keen on joining Simon & Schuster: “Look, Jim doesn’t want to join a big corporation,” he told Ron Busch, Simon & Schuster’s president of mass-market publishing. “But he’s always dreamed of having his own company. How about we create a company which you will distribute. We’ll take the risk and make what we can as a small publisher, and you’ll make a full distribution profit on our books?” Busch agreed to the deal: he would get his science fiction line.
Baen formed his own publishing house, Baen Books, with Doherty as a partner, and began to publish his particular brand of science fiction. Over the coming years, they would pull in a number of familiar authors: C.J. Cherryh, Lois McMaster Bujold, David Drake, James P. Hogan, Mercedes Lackey, Andre Norton, Jerry Pournelle, and Timothy Zahn, who were producing the type of fiction that Baen was most interested in: adventurous, escapist, and fun. It worked, too: Baen steadily became one of the genre’s most prolific publishers, and along the way, acquired a dedicated and loyal group of fans.
In his book, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered The World, Thomas Disch noted that the Baen/Pournelle style of fiction that catered more towards conservative fans with a heavy focus on military science fiction and alternate history, exemplified by the publication of authors such as the Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in 1995. The publisher effectively tapped into the longer strains of science fiction promoted by authors such as Robert Heinlein and John W. Campbell Jr, and demonstrated that the popularity of these stories had not gone away with science fiction’s more liberal ‘New Wave’ movement.
Baen was also an incredibly innovative publishing house. Recognizing the importance of the internet, Baen set up a community forum called ‘Baen’s Bar’ on their website, which allowed for readers and authors to interact with one another: this innovation, while commonplace now, shows a keen level of understanding on the importance of community within the science fiction genre, something which Hugo Gernsback recognized when he began his science fiction league. The forum resources allowed Baen to coalesce its fanbase into a loyal collective that remains in place today.
Baen didn’t stop with a community forum, however: in 1999, he became one of the first publishers to promote their books on the internet, creating the Baen Free Library, where readers could download a wide selection of the publisher’s offerings, free of charge, and became a pioneering publisher when it came to producing and selling eBooks. The library was mainly an experiment to determine how viable online offerings were, and whether or not they would cannibalize paid sales. They did not, and the Baen Free Library remains in place today, where readers can download hundreds of books, free of charge, and remains an enduring experiment in online publishing.
Baen remained at his company until his death in 2006, working up to the end: Drake noted that “the week before his stroke, Jim bought a first novel from a writer whom Baen Books had been grooming through short stories over the past year.” Following his death on June 28th, he was succeeded by Toni Weisskopf, who had joined the company in 1987, and who had worked her way up from the position of Editorial Assistant, and eventually replaced Betsy Mitchell when she left in the early 1990s. Speaking to Locus following Baen’s death, she noted that the publisher would stay the course: “It has to continue to grow, to evolve, as it did when Jim was in charge. What I'm saying is that there aren't going to be any wild changes of direction. We're still going to publish military SF, urban fantasy, planet adventures, alternate history—the things that Jim enjoyed and that I enjoy.”
Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He can be found online at his site and on Twitter @andrewliptak.