Jim Baen

Jim Baen called me on the afternoon of June 11. He generally phoned on weekends, and we’d usually talk a couple more times in the course of a week; but this was the last time.

In the course of the conversation he said, “You’ve got to write my obituary, you know.” I laughed (I’ll get to that) and said, “Sure, if I’m around–but remember, I’m the one who rides the motorcycle.”

So I’m writing this. Part of it’s adapted from the profile I did in 2000 for the program book of the Chicago Worldcon at which Jim was Editor Guest of Honor. They cut my original title, which Jim loved: The God of Baendom. I guess they thought it was undignified and whimsical.

The title was undignified and whimsical. So was Jim.

James Patrick Baen was born October 22, 1943, on the Pennsylvania – New York border, a long way by road or in culture from New York City . He was introduced to SF early through the magazines in a step-uncle’s attic, including the November, 1957, issue of Astounding with The Gentle Earth by Christopher Anvil.

The two books Jim most remembered as formative influences were Fire-Hunter by Jim Kjelgaard and Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C Clarke. The theme of both short novels is that a youth from a decaying culture escapes the trap of accepted wisdom and saves his people despite themselves. This is a fair description of Jim’s life in SF: he was always his own man, always a maverick, and very often brilliantly successful because he didn’t listen to what other people thought.

For example, the traditional model of electronic publishing required that the works be encrypted. Jim thought that just made it hard for people to read books, the worst mistake a publisher could make. His e-texts were clear and in a variety of common formats.

While e-publishing has been a costly waste of effort for others, Baen Books quickly began earning more from electronic sales than it did from Canada . By the time of Jim’s death, the figure had risen to ten times that.

Jim didn’t forget his friends. In later years he arranged for the expansion of Fire-Hunter so that he could republish it (as The Hunter Returns , originally the title of the Charles R Knight painting Jim put on the cover).

Though Clarke didn’t need help to keep his books in print the way Kjelgaard did, Jim didn’t forget him either. Jim called me for help a week before his stroke, because Amazon.com had asked him to list the ten SF novels that everyone needed to read to understand the field. Against the Fall of Night was one of the titles that we settled on.

Jim’s father died at age fifty; he and his stepfather didn’t warm to one another. Jim left home at 17 and lived on the streets for several months, losing weight that he couldn’t at the time afford. He enlisted in the army as the only available alternative to starving to death.

Jim spent his military career in Bavaria where he worked for the Army Security Agency as a Morse Code Intercept Operator, monitoring transmissions from a Soviet callsign that was probably a armored corps. One night he determined that ‘his’ Soviet formation was moving swiftly toward the border. This turned out to be an unannounced training exercise–but if World War III had broken out in 1960, Jim would’ve been the person who announced it.

Jim entered CCNY on the GI Bill and became a Hippie. Among other jobs he managed a Greenwich Village coffee house, sometimes acting as barker as well: ‘Come in and see tomorrow’s stars today!’ None of the entertainers became tomorrow’s stars, but that experience of unabashed huckstering is part of the reason that Jim himself did.

Jim’s first job in publishing was as an assistant in the Complaints Department of Ace Books. He was good at it–so good that management tried to promote him to running the department. He turned the offer down, however, because he really wanted to be an SF editor.

In 1973 Jim was hired at Galaxy and If magazines when Judy-Lynn Benjamin left. He became assistant to Ejler Jakobson, who with Bernie Williams taught Jim the elements of slash and burn editing.

Unfortunately, this was a necessary skill for an editor in Jim’s position. The publisher wasn’t in a hurry to pay authors, so established writers who could sell elsewhere preferred to do so. Galaxy and If published a lot of first stories and not a few rejects by major names. Material like that had to be edited for intelligibility and the printer’s deadline, not nuances of prose style.

Apart from basic technique Jim had very little to learn from his senior, who shortly thereafter left to pursue other opportunities. Jim’s first act as editor was to recall stories that his predecessor had rejected over Jim’s recommendation. When in later years I thanked him for retrieving the first two Hammer stories, Jim responded, ”Oh, David–Jake rejected much better stories than yours!” (Among them was Ursula K LeGuin’s Nebula winner, The Day Before the Revolution .)

Ace Books, in many ways the standard bearer of SF paperback publishing in the Fifties, had fallen on hard times in the Seventies. Charter Communications bought the company and installed Tom Doherty as publisher. Tom hired Jim to run the SF line. The first thing the new team did was to pay Ace’s back (and in some cases, way back) royalties. By the time the famous SFWA audit of Ace Books was complete, the money had already been paid to the authors; a matter of some embarrassment to the SFWA officers who were aware of the facts.

Ace regained its position as an SF line where readers could depend on getting a good story. (To Homer, that was the essence of art; not all writers and editors of more recent times would have agreed.) As well as pleasing readers, the Ace SF line made money for the company; unfortunately (due to decisions from far above the level of publisher) SF came to be the only part of the company that did make money. Tom left Ace in 1980, founded Tor Books, and hired Jim to set up the Tor SF line.

Which Jim did, following the same pattern that had revived Ace: 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 fact it worked so well that when Simon and Schuster went through a series of upheavals in its Pocket Books line in 1983, management decided to hire Jim as their new SF editor. Jim thought about the offer, then made a counter-offer: with the backing of two friends, he would form a separate company which would provide S&S with an SF line to distribute. S&S agreed and Baen Books was born.

Jim used the same formulas with his new line as he had at Ace and Tor, and again he succeeded. If that were easy, then past decades wouldn’t be littered with the detritus of so many other people’s attempts to do the same thing.

Even more than had been the case at Ace and Tor, Jim was his own art director at Baen Books–and he really directed rather than viewing his job as one of coddling artists. Baen Books gained a distinct look. Like the book contents, the covers weren’t to everyone’s taste–but they worked.

Jim had the advantage over some editors in that he knew what a story is. He had the advantage over most editors in being able to spot talent before somebody else had published it. (Lois Bujold, Eric Flint, John Ringo and Dave Weber were all Baen discoveries whom Jim promoted to stardom.)

Furthermore, he never stopped developing new writers. 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.

The most important thing of all which Jim brought to his company was a personal vision. Baen Books didn’t try to be for everybody, but it wa s always true to itself. In that as in so many other ways, the company mirrored Jim himself.

When Jim called me on June 11, he told me he was dying. I thought he was simply having a bad interaction among prescription drugs. Though the stroke that killed him occurred the next day in hospital, Jim was right and I was wrong–again.

After that opening, Jim said, “I’m just going to say it: we’ve known each other all these years and you seem to like me. Why?”

That’s a hell of a thing to be hit with out of the blue. Jim had always known that he was socially awkward and that he not infrequently rubbed people the wrong way, but it wasn’t something we discussed. (And it’s obviously not a subject on which I could be of much help.)

If I’d been a different person, I’d have started out by listing the things he did right: for example, that I’d never met a more loving father than Jim was to his children (Jessica Baen, 29, Jim’s daughter with Madeline Gleich, and Katherine Baen, 14, Jim’s daughter with Toni Weisskopf). Being me, I instead answered the question a number of us ask ourselves: “How can you like a person who’s behaved the way you know I have?”

I said that his flaws were childish ones, tantrums and sulking; not, never in my experience, studied cruelty. He agreed with that.

And then I thought further and said that when I was sure my career was tanking–

You thought that? When was that?”

In the mid ’90s, I explained, when Military SF was going down the tubes with the downsizing of the military. But when I was at my lowest point, which was very low, I thought, “I can write two books a year. And Jim will pay me $20K apiece for them–”

“I’d have paid a lot more than that!”

And I explained that this wasn’t about reality: this was me in the irrational depths of real depression. And even when I was most depressed and most irrational, I knew in my heart that Jim Baen would pay me enough to keep me alive, because he was that sort of person. He’d done that for Keith Laumer whom he disliked, because Laumer had been an author Jim looked for when he was starting to read SF.

I could not get so crazy and depressed that I didn’t trust Jim Baen to stand by me if I needed him. I don’t know a better statement than that to sum up what was important about Jim, as a man and as a friend.

–Dave Drake

Toni Weisskopf and Dave suggest that people who wish to make a memorial donation purchase copies of THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN and donate them to libraries or teenagers of their acquaintance.

 

Toni and Dave

The last resting place of my friend Jim Baen and his mother, in the grove beside my house.

Jim's stone