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The Big Yellow Book

Seeing the World from Both Oculars-- a Bananaslug's Journal

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The Philosophy of Baen's Universe, or Whatinhell are we doing this for?

Baen’s UNIVERSE, 1st post: What’s at stake

Hi, all

With the four posts I’m putting up tonight – this being the first of them – we are now beginning the process of publicly launching Baen’s UNIVERSE magazine. I’ll be putting up these posts in most of the conferences in the Bar. We’re starting the campaign here, for the good and simple reason that we think – we certainly hope – that the Barflies will provide the initial bedrock for the magazine’s future success.

In this post, I will talk about the stakes involved, for science fiction and fantasy. In the second, I will describe the content of the magazine, and show you the very impressive list of authors we’ve already got for the first three issues. In the third post, I will explain the way we’re selling subscription packages. And, in the fourth and final post, I will explain the new Universe Club we plan to launch as a support base for the magazine.


I’m sure almost everyone here already knows that short form fiction has been declining steadily for decades, in the science fiction and fantasy genre. All four of the major paper magazines – Asimov’s, Analog, the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Realms of Fantasy – have been staggering under declining circulation figures for a long time, with no end in sight. And the one major online F&SF magazine that had been paying the best rates in the industry, the Sci-Fi channel’s SciFiction, just closed down.

The reasons are complex, and I’m not going to get into them here. What I want to talk about instead is the impact that the decline of short form fiction has on the field as a whole. That’s true, regardless of what causes it.

In a nutshell, it’s extremely damaging, and for two reasons – one which affects authors directly, the other which affects the readership base of the genre and therefore its future.

The absence of a large and vigorous market for short form fiction hammers authors directly. That’s because it makes all SF authors almost completely dependent on the novel market. And, while the novel market is and always will be intrinsically more lucrative than the short form market, it is also an extremely harsh environment for authors.

Why? Well, simplifying a lot, it’s because of the fundamental economics involved. Novels, unlike washing machines and toasters and automobiles, are unique, each and every one of them. Not “unique” in the sense that they don’t have generic similarities, but “unique” simply in the obvious fact that each and every story has to be different or nobody is going to want to read it.

When you walk onto the parking lot of an auto dealer, the _last_ thing you want to hear the car dealer tell you is that “this here car is unlike any other.” Translation: it’s a lemon. But when you walk into a bookstore, that’s _exactly_ what you want. A story that, at least in one way or another, is completely different from any other.

What that means, however, is that the book market is incredibly opaque. Even in the largest car dealership, there won’t be more than a relative handful of models available to choose from. A dozen, let’s say. Whereas any Barnes and Noble or Borders in the country is likely to have 100,000 _different_ “models” in stock.

How are you supposed to choose between them? Well, you can’t, that’s all. What happens in the real world is that almost all book-buyers, except a small percentage of unusually adventurous ones, will stick almost all of the time to buying only those authors they are familiar with.

What this creates, willy-nilly, is a hierarchy among authors in the marketplace that is...

“Extreme,” is the only word I can think of.

Everybody familiar with the publishing industry knows the basic facts of life:

All of a publisher’s profits and about half of the operating expenses are covered by the sales of a relatively small number of so-called “lead” writers. And it’s a very small number of authors. In the case of Baen, not usually more than half a dozen. And even a big publisher like TOR won’t have more than a dozen or so lead writers.

Midlist writers generally do well to make a small profit for the publisher, or at least break even. Sales of their books – all told – cover the other half of operating expenses.

New writers, and first novels, generally lose money for a publisher.

Those are the cold, hard facts, folks. What it means for authors is that developing a career is a very chancy business nowadays – and it was always chancy to begin with. Because what happens is that even _after_ you get a first novel published, you still have to overcome what Mike Resnick calls the “fourth book hurdle.”

The hurdle is this: A publisher will generally give a new author an average of three books to demonstrate if they can become lead writers. If they can’t, they’re out the door and the publisher will try a new writer to see if they might be able to do it.

Yes, it’s heartless – but there’s an underlying economic reality for that practice, it’s not because publishers are being nasty for the hell of it. It’s simply a fact that, as a purely mathematical exercise in calculating profits, it makes real sense to toss writers overboard – even good ones, selling fairly decently – if doing so might improve your chances of grabbing the “lead writer” lottery ticket that generates Ye Big Bucks in novel publishing.

Granted, not all publisher are the same, and they don’t all follow exactly the same practices. A midlist writer will usually find a smaller independent publisher like Baen a less unforgiving environment than most of the big corporate houses. Furthermore, in Baen’s case, Jim consciously looks for ways to ease midlist writers over the hump, if it’s possible. The most common method he uses, well-known to all Barflies, is to hook up a new writer with a well-established one and let them do some collaborative work for a while until they get better known to the public. (And their skills improve, in the process.)

That method works... sometimes. It certainly worked with me. And, on very rare occasions, a new writer hits it big coming right out of the gate, as John Ringo did. But the fact is that, even at Baen, the underlying economics of novel publishing remain stark and unforgiving. “Make it big or die on the vine” is still the rule, even if an author can linger on the vine longer than they might be able to at another house.

Leaving aside issues of unfairness – and, yes, it ain’t fair, not even close – this reality has a negative impact on the field as a whole.

First, because it’s incredibly wasteful. Not all writers develop their talents at a rapid pace, just for starters, even leaving aside the fact that there’s always a certain amount of pure luck involved. For every Heinlein, there’s a Frank Herbert, who needed years to make it big. In today’s environment, I’m not at all sure Herbert would have had that time – and we’d be short DUNE as a result, which remains (I believe) the bestselling science fiction novel of all time.

But it’s also detrimental the other way around, because it places such pressure on lead writers that they very often react by becoming extremely conservative in what they write. Not all do, to be sure. I don’t, and neither does Dave Drake or Dave Weber or John Ringo. But even we stick most of the time to the tried and true approaches – and there are a lot of lead writers out there who are scared to death to vary at all from the type of story that enabled them to become lead writers in the first place.

In short, the situation sucks – and the steady collapse of the paperback market is making it even worse. I don’t have time here to go into that, although I’ve explained the reasons for it in long posts I’ve put up in the past. Just take my word for it. Paperback sales today are probably half what they were a few years ago, and there’s no sign I can see that that’s going to turn around any time in the foreseeable future.

Midlist writers working at novel length usually live and die on their ability to show they can do well in paperback, so a publisher will give them a shot at a hardcover. That was never easy at any time, and today it’s gotten a lot worse.


Enter – the short story magazine!

In decades past, it was the size and health of the magazines that cushioned all of these problems. They allowed midlist writers a place they could keep getting published, gain perhaps slow but steady public recognition, and improve their skills – without being under the “fourth book” guillotine. And, while it was always very hard even in the salad days of the magazines for an author to make a full-time living as a short fiction writer (at least, unless you could sell to the Saturday Evening Post), they could bring in enough of an income to take a day job that allowed them as much freedom to write as possible.

And, on the flip side, the magazines provided lead writers with a place they could stretch their skills if they wanted to, without running the risk of falling off that precious lead writer sales plateau.

Okay, so much for the writers. Now I want to explain how the decline of short form fiction has been hammering the field as a whole.

It’s not complicated. It’s what’s often called in the field the “graying of science fiction.” Put crudely and bluntly, the average age of science fiction and fantasy fans keeps rising. Once the quintessential genre of choice of teenagers, it’s now a genre that’s developed a great big middle-aged potbelly.

What do you expect? When the _entry_ level purchase, nowadays, is likely to be a $25 hardcover? And you have to drive an average of seven miles to get to a superstore that’ll even carry a science fiction title at all? (And that’s the national average. In some areas of the country, you have to drive a hundred miles or more.)

That’s not how I got introduced to science fiction, as a twelve-year-old, I can tell you that. I got introduced through magazines and cheap Ace Double books on the wire racks of my local drugstore, in a small town in rural California. Which...

Don’t exist any more. The books and magazines, I mean. The small town is still there – but it no longer carries any SF titles.

The problem isn’t even the price of a paperback, as such. That hasn’t actually risen any, over the past half a century, measured by the only price criterion that matters. To wit, today a paperback novel costs just about the same as a movie ticket. And, fifty years ago... it cost just about the same as a movie ticket did then.

No, the problem is _availability_. When I was a kid, SF magazines and paperbacks could be found all over the place. Today, with a few exceptions – and those, almost invariably, only a small number of topselling authors – you can only find F&SF titles in bookstores, especially the chain superstores.

There’s no magic in the real world, however much there may be in fantasy novels. The vanishing of SF paperbacks and magazines is due to profound changes in the economic and social structure of the Unites States. (And the rest of the world’s industrial countries, to one degree or another.) Put simply, it’s just the literary equivalent of the same dynamic that has seen McDonald’s and Burger King supplanting thousands of independent little diners and restaurants, and has seen Home Depot and Lowe’s replacing thousands of little hardware stores.

Whatever can be said of that phenomenon, when it comes to hamburgers and building supplies, it’s destructive to literature in general and science fiction in particular. That’s because, duh, stories are not hamburgers and screwdrivers. To go back to the point I made at the beginning of this little essay, it’s the essence of stories that each and every one of them is _different_. Whereas, no more than on a car dealer’s lot, do you want to hear a salesperson at McDonald’s tell you that “this individual hamburger is different from any other hamburger we have.” Translation: food poisoning.

You can think whatever you want about this fundamental transformation of modern society – ursus, as is well-known, shakes his furry fist at the cap’talist bastids – but facts are facts, and they are stubborn things. If you want to try to turn that situation around, with respect to our genre, you have to figure out a new approach.

Which, we think we have. Enter:

(roll of drums)

Jim Baen’s
A Three-Ring Circus of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Fact.

We’re not sure this is going to work, mind you. A lot of what we’ll be doing is taking us into uncharted territory, and we have and will be doing a lot of experimenting. But we think we’ve got a good crack at it, and the stakes are worth making the effort.

In essence, as a business model, our strategy is to use the free entry and accessibility of the internet to substitute for the ready availability of paper editions of SF magazines in times past. This will be a big challenge, of course, because the electronic fiction market is still small. But, by combining a very aggressive promotional campaign with Baen’s longstanding policies with regard to electronic publishing – which you can summarize as WE SELL CHEAP AND UNENCRYPTED STUFF, AND THAZZIT – we think we’ve got a good shot at pulling it off.

As an editorial model, we’re doing two things, neither of which are “new” so much as returning to the tried and true practices of the magazines in their salad days.

First, we’re paying top rates for stories. The best in the industry, even coming out of the gate. These rates are still not really “pro” rates, to be sure. To start crossing that threshold, and bring pay rates for short fiction back to where they were half a century ago, we’d need to be paying (my estimate, anyway) about twice what we’re paying now – which would be a top rate of 50 cents a word instead of the top rate of 25 cents that we’re starting with.

That is our goal, however, and if the magazine is successful we intend to roll as much income as we can into raising the rates. In the meantime, by starting with these rates we’re signaling to all F&SF authors that we’re dead serious about trying to turn the situation around—and many of them have already responded very enthusiastically.

Secondly, we’re orienting the magazine from the beginning toward a popular audience. That means doing things like soliciting stories from top-selling authors including writers who usually produce novels, welcoming stories that are set in existing popular universes of their creation – like the Dune story by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson that will appear in the first issue of the magazine – and emphasizing stories that center on adventure and generally have a positive outlook on the future. Which is to say, pretty much exactly the same emphasis that characterized magazines like Astounding/Analog and Galaxy many years ago.

(I should add that we’re going to be publishing more new authors in each issue than any magazine has done in a long time, if ever. That’s _also_ a way to generate interest and excitement.)

There’ll be some differences, of course, which simply reflect changes in popular taste over the years. ASF, for instance, very rarely if ever carried any fantasy stories, while we will be carrying a lot. In that sense, Baen’s UNIVERSE is a very big tent –plenty big enough for three main rings and lots of sideshows – and we’re not fussy at all about the content of the stories we buy. All we ask is that they be stories, of whatever of F&SF’s many sub-genres, that at least most readers find fun to read.

And that’s the nexus: “fun.” That’s why we’re calling it a circus in the first place. Circuses are not dignified, they are not entirely respectable, they are not fussy—in fact, they’re a little on the uncouth side. Low-brow, if you will.

So be it. I have nothing against so-called “literary” magazines, and my own tastes in reading include a lifelong devotion to authors like James Joyce, William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Herman Melville. But the fact remains that the existence of a sizeable enough market for more challenging types of fiction depends – and always has, for millennia – on the existence of a huge audience for popular fiction. That’s just the way it is, and always will be. Most readers read simply to relax and have fun. And even that (fairly sizeable) percentage of readers who like more challenging fiction rarely make it a steady and exclusive diet.

I’ve read James Joyce’s ULYSSES three times, over the past forty years, and Melville’s MOBY DICK as many times. But, on any given day, I’m far more likely to read an author like L. Sprague de Camp than William Faulkner. For the good and simple reason that most of the time I just want to relax and enjoy a good story.

That’s the audience – more accurately, that’s the _taste_, since the audience varies a lot – that UNIVERSE is oriented toward.

To conclude.

The fate of fantasy and science fiction is now IN YOUR HANDS.

I won’t go so far as to say that it is every Barfly’s Sacred Duty to buy a subscription to UNIVERSE. Or – better still! – buy a membership in the soon-to-be-hallowed Universe Club.

No, I won’t (choke, choke) come right out and say it. Not even the ursus is that shameless.


But I will say that, if there is an afterlife, you will surely burn if you don’t. The Almighty dotes on F&SF, obviously, or why would He have made all those weird astronomical phenomena if He didn’t? Or, if there is no afterlife, scholars of the future will gravely conclude that fantasy and science fiction began its death spiral when the Barflies flopped. And urchins of their time, who read nothing but mysteries, will cheerfully scribble graffiti on your headstones. Really sarcastic stuff, too.

And now, having milked Shame and Guilt and Anxiety for all they’re worth, the unscrupulous furball will move on to show the Upcoming Goodies under the big top. In my next post.


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Damn...I'm sold. I already bought a subscription, but now I'm gonna start poking other people to do so as well. And thanks for the primer on the publishing industry. It sure sounds bleak.

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