L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

29 June 2006 Blog Home : June 2006 : Permalink

RIP Jim Baen - The God of Baendom

David Drake's obituary, as befits that from such a great author and friend of the deceased, cannot be beat. Go and read it then come back for my thoughts.
[whistling... ah OK you're back]
My own contact with Jim Baen was almost exclusively as addict devoted reader so I cannot really add more to the details of his life, heck I didn't even know half of what David wrote, but I'll comment on what I think his main legacy will be.

Firstly he rescued "speculative fiction" as a genre. Not single handedly by any means, his sorta mentor Tom Doherty has been nearly as influential and he has had plenty of other assistants, but in the notable words (IIRC of David Drake) "he put SF back were it belongs - in the gutter". Jim Baen was very clear what his target audience was - stereotypically the 16 year old male - but in practise anyone who wanted to be transported from bland or depressing reality to somewhere else. All of the books he published where stories and most were page turners. Even the ones that I have read and ended up disliking I nearly always read keenly first. The question with a Baen book was not would you finish it but would you reread it? and if so how many times? There is no pretentious twaddle about "litrachuer" or pretensions to a higher plane in a Baen book, just a cracking good yarn. Having said that though many Baen books do seem to have a message but, like the parables of Jesus or the writings of Shakespeare, the message tends to be hidden behind an attention getting tale. If there are a common theme or message to Baen books they are, I think, ones that would seem distinctly old fashioned: firstly there is something that many "progressives" seem to hate - the idea that honour, patriotism and trustworthyness are positive virtues; secondly there is an optimistic world view and an unabashed belief that humanity can, will and should survive, thrive and expand.

The second part of his legacy is like unto the first namely this: he probably rescued the eBook from death by cowardly avarice. As David Drake notes in his obituary:

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 ($6,000/month). By the time of Jim's death, the figure had risen to ten times that.

I have no real idea of the finances of Baen Books - I made some estimates in a series of  posts around the new year - but if, as Daiv wrote, Baen Books was pulling down around US$750,000/year in eBook sales that is probably the most revenue of any publisher. It is also worth noting that the US$750,000/year does not seem to have been either at the expense of other sales outlets and that it is massively profitable with a gross profit margin probably above 50% even including the roughly $1/copy royalty paid. There is no doubt that some authors and publishers disagree vehemently with the Baen model but Jim appears to have been crying all the way to the bank. Eventually enough authors (and maybe some publishers) are going to pay attention and do the same thing a decade or so after Jim Baen first figured out why the internet made everything different.

The key to Jim Baen's life seems to have been a willingness to take a risk, and a clear understanding of his market and of the dynamics of it. The rest of us are richer by far for the fact that he took risks and they paid off, even, perhaps especially, those of us who have paid hundreds of dollars to buy the output of Jim Baen's publishing empire. We miss him, even though many of us didn't know him except through his works, and we can only hope (and pray if religious) that he managed to set up enough of a system that Baen Books will prosper without him. I'll toast his life tonight and I'm sure I shall be far, far from alone.

Other tributes - justbarkingmad, bananaslug, Accidental Verbosity, oscagne, and probably many more via technorati and its tag for .

Update: I see from David Drake's website that a suggested memorial to Jim Baen is to buy The World Turned Upside Down which is IMHO a truly excellent idea(link goes to my review of the book in January 2005)

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin