What is it about Wisconsin that seems to breed science fiction and fantasy authors and editors? Whatever it is, West Bend native Jim Minz is a carrier. He began his career in publishing as an intern for editor/agent James Frenkel but soon moved to New York as assistant to legendary SF editor David Hartwell. After building an impressive list of his own at Tor he jumped ship to Del Rey, but didn’t stay long, choosing the more independently minded Baen Books over Random House’s “corporate überstructure.”
Philip Athans: Define “fantasy” in 25 words or less.
Jim Minz: Fantasy is a narrative form that contains elements of the “Other” for which there is no underlying scientific explanation.
Athans: Define “science fiction” in 25 words or less.
Minz: Science fiction is a narrative form that contains elements of the “Other” for which there is a possible—preferably plausible—underlying scientific explanation.
Athans: Baen has long been known as the premiere imprint for military SF, and it still is, but you seem to be publishing more urban fantasy, like Hard Magic by Larry Correia. At the risk of sounding as though I’m accusing you of chasing trends, how trend-driven are the fantasy and SF genres? Do you even spend much time at all suffering over the vagaries of sub-genres?
Minz: While there are definitely trends, it really isn’t a case of chasing a trend as opposed to a trend bringing attention to an area that has been there all along—after all, there’s nothing new under the sun. Urban Fantasy goes back at least as far as Gilgamesh, and in terms of more modern times, folks like Charles de Lint, Terri Windling, Emma Bull, Will Shetterly, Caroline Stevermer, etc., were writing Urban Fantasy for decades before it exploded in terms of sales. In fact, this isn’t even the first time this type of story has enjoyed a huge spike in popularity on our lifetimes: back in the ’80s, while it was called “Horror,” much of the best-selling popular fiction of that time was scratching similar itches, and definitely mining similar source material in terms of mythology, legend, and folktale. There’re some obvious differences (the most obvious being much heavier romance elements in the most recent go around), but it’s a cyclical trend that stretches back literally for millennia (unlike such new wave fads like realist fiction, which has been around for only a few centuries . . .)
As for Baen, folks are noticing our fantasy thanks to Larry Correia making the New York Times list, but we’ve been publishing urban fantasy anthologies by Esther Friesner for more than fifteen years, we’ve been publishing fantasy novels–urban and otherwise–by Mercedes Lackey (and various co-authors) for a couple decades (squeezed in around her best-selling Valdemar novels from another publisher), and many of our authors have written fantasy novels, including David Weber’s Bahzell novels, and John Ringo’s The Princess Wand. And then there’s Elizabeth Moon, who is best known for her SF, but her first novels were fantasy published by Baen (beginning with Sheepfarmer’s Daughter back in 1988).
Undoubtedly, Larry Correia has benefitted from the popularity of urban fantasy. But in the end, he’s a terrific storyteller with a fondness for creative violence and mayhem, which means he’s a natural for the Baen list, no matter the genre. The rest is just good timing.
Athans: What is it about urban fantasy, or horror-fantasy crossovers, that have such wide appeal? Do you feel that there’s a bigger readership for “more accessible” fantasy, and in your opinion, what is “more accessible?”
Minz: Urban fantasy does have a distinct advantage when it comes to establishing what Tolkien called “Secondary Belief” in his seminal essay, “On Fairy-Stories.” In other words, with Urban Fantasy the readers do not need to make as much of a leap of faith to get them to suspend their disbelief and enter this other secondary world in the novel, since it’s basically their own world that’s the initial launching point. Authors writing invented-world fantasy and science fiction have a lot more work in that department, having to do worldbuilding, etc., and make the readers actually believe it exists, or at least feel like it exists while they’re reading the stories.
And then there’s the deeper truth, that stories about what goes bump in the night, stories that take the world around us and make it into something sinister and suspenseful have been with us not just since we were little children being frightened by campfire stories, but have been at the cultural core of storytelling itself since the very beginning of story. They strike a deep resonating chord with most of us both personally and culturally in a way that virtually no other storytelling can.
Athans: There’s an awful lot of talk now about the post-recession changes in the publishing business, and the relative ease of self-publishing in the e-book era. Are self-published novels, or their authors, being taken more seriously by the mainstream publishing industry? Does having a self-published e-book in circulation help or hurt when it comes to publishing with Baen? Have you published anything that started out as a self-published book?
Minz: For a very long time, I’ve loathed the term “self-published,” because in most cases, the works in question weren’t published at all. Printing a book and stuffing it in your garage is not publishing. Publishing is marketing, distribution and sales—simply printing a book is not publishing a book. With the advent of ebook self-publishing, it’s become easier for a writer to do marketing and promotion for a work, and obviously the overhead is greatly reduced, so the line has become more blurred, and it’s easier for a writer to truly “publish” by themselves.
But when we reach the point where literally everyone in the world can self-publish a novel, I think the role of a publisher/editor becomes even more important. Spend one day of your life with a slush pile (the submissions that come in that are unedited, unagented), and you’ll understand: you want us standing on the ramparts, holding back the unbelievably huge ocean of really bad fiction, sifting through it and finding you the good stuff to read. Take blogs: when they first started coming on to the scene, the good ones were quick and easy to recognize. But then millions of people started blogging, and it gets lost in the great fog, and you fall back to only following blogs of people you know and trust have something interesting to say. For investing the time to read an entire novel, most readers will appreciate having someone act as the filter to steer them to novels worth reading. Does that have to be an editor/publisher? No. But for those publishers with a very recognizable brand and a loyal following, they’ll be able to continue to fulfill that trust.
We actually have published a couple of recent works that were originally self-published, including Larry Correia! I am not suggesting this is the route to getting published. What happened in both cases is that we became aware of the self-published work because of a third party in the business letting us know this was the good stuff (in Larry’s case, we were made aware of Monster Hunter International by the wonderful folks at the indie SF bookstore Uncle Hugo’s)—if it hadn’t been for that stamp of approval from an industry pro, we probably would’ve never even noticed these works.
Athans: What about all those changes to the publishing industry? Borders is on the ropes, independent booksellers are thin on the ground, e-readers seem to be selling like hotcakes . . . what does all this mean? Are we witnessing a tempest in a teacup, or a global paradigm shift?
Minz: This is a shift that has been a long time coming. Folks were predicting this back in the ’90s (of course, they were saying it would happen by the year 2000). Obviously, with the rapidly growing popularity of e-reader devices, we’re finally seeing the transition take place.
At Baen, we’ve been an ebook retailer for more than a decade, and have been preparing for this transition perhaps longer than any other traditional publisher out there. And even now, with the big dogs like Amazon, Google, and Apple throwing their hats in the ring, I’ll take our sales model over theirs any day of the week. When you buy an ebook from us, you can come back and download it as often as you like, in whatever format you like. So if you change your e-reader brand, you still own all your Baen ebooks in a readable format. Heck, you can have it on your work computer, your Nook, your Kindle, and your Sony E-Reader all at the same time, and that’s fine with us. We want to make it as easy as we can for our readers. That’s why there’s no DRM or encryption of any kind, and why we were using the “cloud” model years before the term existed.
Athans: A lot of genre authors, editors, agents, critics, etc. have been bemoaning the death of the midlist. Is the midlist book (and author) a thing of the past, or are these new trends in publishing offering a ray of hope to guys who used to be able to make a living writing books?
Minz: While the advent of cheap, easy self-publishing that can actually achieve some minor positive cash flow for the writer, it’ll probably mean a lot more people getting much smaller slices of the overall pie of what folks spend on books each year. We will see the growth of the Long Tail, and the hump of major sales by major publishers will flatten somewhat.
But that being said, at Baen we’ve found the current market an opportunity rather than a problem. As the big houses bemoan the fact that they can’t sell a hundred thousand copies of a particular title in mass market paperback, and therefore cut back on the number of titles they publish, and consolidate and get rid of publishing imprints, we have managed to increase our market share. As they pull back, we’re pushing to get our books out there, with aggressive backlist promotions as well as more paperback originals, like Larry Correia. And in a rather bleak market overall, we’ve done very well.
Athans: This is primarily a blog for aspiring authors. What is the most common mistake that inexperienced authors make in their professional lives?
Minz: Not writing enough. You need to write and write and write some more. And then, write some more. If you’re not writing thousands of words every day, you’re kidding yourself.
Oh, and read a lot. Read a wide range of fiction and nonfiction. Learn to dissect its parts and borrow liberally from others’ writing techniques.
There’s no magic formula, no special piece of advice, no words of wisdom from any single source. Read widely and write and write and write some more. You do that, and stick to it for years, you will be published.
Athans: What’s the most common mistake that inexperienced authors make in their writing?
Minz: Not writing short fiction. It’s foolish not to write short fiction. It allows you to experiment and explore the craft so much more than with novels, and if you make a really bad mistake in short fiction–write yourself into a corner you can’t get out of, or whatever–at least you didn’t spend the three months writing a novel with the same end result and have to chuck out all that work.
And there are still plenty of viable markets to sell short fiction in genre. You probably can’t make a living at it, but think of it as a way of marketing your name, and getting paid while doing it. Editors at the major publishers pay attention to who gets published in magazines. Heck, I subscribe to several fiction zines (with a special shout out to Electric Velocipede!!!), much less keeping an eye on the bigger mags.
Of course, in all of this, YMMV—there are plenty of published novelists who’ve never written any short fiction. But they are more the exception than the rule—if you’re serious about writing, you should seriously consider writing short fiction.
Athans: Besides a decent dictionary, and The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction of course, is there one book you think every author should keep close at hand?
Minz: There aren’t a lot of “one book” solutions: each writer has their own strengths and weaknesses, and depending upon those, I’d recommend fiction that does a very good job with their weakest areas, so they can study writing techniques to help them address their weaknesses. But it’s more important to read widely and write a lot, then to spend too much time looking for the one magic book. (From a pure technical standpoint, probably the best work out there is the long-out-of-print-but-not-too-tough-to-find Revising Fiction by David Madden, but it’s just one tool among many that a writer should consider using.)
Athans: Do you read reviews of novels you’ve published? Have you found any review to be particularly helpful or destructive? Do you encourage the authors you work with to read reviews?
Minz: Of course I read reviews . . . usually for the sake of trying to find a good quote to use on the next book, but there’s a level of egoboo as well—you want to see a great review for something you’ve edited. But a smart, negative review can also be quite useful and helpful. As for encouraging authors to read reviews, it depends upon the author.