Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 9.1)

They say hindsight is 20/20. When I was a younger man, my vision was actually 20/15. Sadly, my eyes are no longer anywhere near that good, but my retrospective acuity has only improved with age.

In hindsight, Jim Baen clearly saw something he thought was worth developing in me, because otherwise he wouldn't have wasted his time and energy trying to develop it. In hindsight, he didn't need to make all those phone calls to try to coach me and teach me how to be a Baen contract editor, by telling me exactly what to do and how and when to do it. In hindsight, by his standards, he was being incredibly patient with me.

In hindsight, too old was I to Baen Jedi training begin.

If he'd caught me when I was, say, 25 years old, single, and floundering for direction, his efforts probably would have paid off for both of us. But he caught me when I was 35 years old, married, with three kids, and working as a very well-paid technical professional. Worse, while I was not currently in a managerial position, I'd already had several years of management experience in previous jobs, and I'd already planned, budgeted, staffed, and run development projects that, frankly, had far larger budgets, much tighter schedules, and a whole lot more at stake than the Bolo books.

So when Baen called me — and he could call at any time between 6 a.m. and midnight — to tell me what I was doing wrong and how to change it, in hindsight, this was intended to be friendly and educational. And not, as I interpreted it at the time, common garden-variety browbeating, meddling, and micromanagement.
"Once a chieftain has delegated responsibilities, he should never interfere, lest his subordinates come to believe that the duties are not truly theirs. Such superficial delegation yields fury in the hearts of subordinates."

Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, Chapter 11

As regards the Bolo books, we started to clash as soon as I turned in the first batch of writer's pitches, along with my recommendations. For example, the knock-out proposal from the experienced writer of battlemech and armored cav books?

You can't use him. He's not a Baen author.

The pitch from the Hugo- and Nebula-award winning writer?

You can't use him. He's a pacifist!

But he's an award-winning pacifist with a great story idea.


The pitch written in crayon, from someone I'd never heard of before?

You have to use that one. I just signed [author] to a three-book contract.

But it's a dumb idea, badly written.

That's your job as editor. To keep working with [author] until it is a good story.

Baen took a particular liking to one of the soggy-bar-napkin pitches from one of the Big Name old pros. I want you to be his co-author on that one.

But it's so trite, it's beyond cliché.

You're a pro. Fix it.

Besides, I wanted to co-write a story with Phil Jennings.

(skip a beat) You know Phil Jennings?

Sure. I've known him for years, and we've worked together before. In fact, I helped him write the pitch for Tower to the Sky and wrote the rough drafts of the prologue and first chapter.

[SFX: stony silence. Sound of crickets, chirping...]

Sometimes Baen would reject a pitch with the simple comment, Keith didn't like it. Per the contract, Laumer had final executive approval over everything that went into the books, and so sometimes I'd wind up waiting while Baen took it to Laumer. In hindsight, I realize now that I never once had actual direct contact with Laumer, and given how sick people say he was then, I have to wonder now whether those occasional indirect communiques were actually from Laumer or merely Baen channeling for Laumer. But in any case, Keith didn't like it was always the final and non-negotiable stake in the heart for a story.

In the meantime, I kept soliciting pitches and forwarding them with my recommendations. I got one that was really solid, from a Baen author who was able to present credible evidence to support his claim that he was the ghost who was brought in to finish writing Rogue Bolo.

No! Why do you think his name isn't on the cover? I'll never work with him again.

[Shrug.] Okay, here's the next one. It's from [author] and it's not great, but it's pretty good.


But you just published a novel by him last month.

Right. And now he's done, and I'll never work with him again.

Baen had a long list of people he would never work with again.

People have asked me if Jim Baen played favorites. I don't think so. Rather, I tend to think of him now as being the Bobby Knight of sci-fi publishing. He knew the game inside and out, and he knew not merely how to win, but how to stomp your opponents into a wet greasy smear in the process. Moreover, he knew one of those truths that all writers secretly suspect, but don't want to admit to knowing: that writers are fungible.

I think he honestly believed that everyone deserved a first chance, and that those with unusual promise sometimes even deserved a second chance. I believe that if he liked what he saw, and you were willing to commit yourself completely to his program and do just exactly what he told you to do when he told you to do it, he could work wonders.

But if you didn't hit the hoop by the second shot, and you were not 110-percent committed to his program — well then, sayonara, charlie, because there are hundreds more where you came from, and they're all just itching for a crack at the opportunity that you just blew. In hindsight, then, he was pretty much just like every other publisher out there, except perhaps a bit more honest.

Honesty is often uncomfortable.

In the end, like a bad marriage, we finally broke up over money — and it wasn't even my money, it was how I wanted to spend the money he'd budgeted to buy content. Baen insisted that I tell my prospective authors that the advance would be divvied up on a pro rata basis and leave it at that. I argued that this wasn't fair to the younger authors who were actually writing most of the content and that I wanted to pay out based on a word rate. Further, I argued that his definition of pro rata, while grammatically accurate, was not one that had been in common use since the 16th century, and bordered on being deceptive.

For those of you keeping track of my major self-inflicted CLMs (Career-Limiting Moves), this was Number 2: arguing with Jim Baen about his business practices.

For what it's worth, the SFWA Grievance Committee did eventually go after Baen for his usage of pro rata, although I had nothing to do with that and have no knowledge of how that case was or was not resolved. But given that I was on the SFWA Board for two terms, it must have looked like a connection in his eyes.

Ergo, one day he called me up out of the blue and said, "This isn't working, so I'm going to offer you the take the money and run option. I want you to keep your on-signing advance, as payment for your work so far, and just walk away from this project."

(Shrug) Okay.

"Good, that's settled. Now, let's talk about Cyberpunk."

To be continued...