Baen Books publisher Toni Weisskopf enlightened writers about the mysteries of publishing at Jody Lynn Nye’s Dragon Con Writers’ Workshop. According to Nye, these include incantations, spells, secret handshakes, tattoos, and, Weisskopf added, a prized chili recipe.
Weisskopf, now the publisher at Baen Books, began work at Baen in 1987. Before her start in publishing, she moved from the Northeast and New York City to Huntsville, Alabama. Her dad is a rocket scientist and, as a reader who majored in anthropology while in college, she was the odd person out from the budding engineers that she went to high school with.
Weisskopf answered questions from workshop students and alumni, paraphrased by the best efforts of this reporter to thumb the keyboard on her phone as banter flew about the room like bats on speed.
Question [Q]: If you’re writing for genre, should you care about whether the story fits? What about marketability?
Toni Weisskopf [TW]: Genre is a useful categorization. This is where the anthropology comes in. Readers have expectations based on genre. If you like this kind of thing, following genre is not a bad strategy for a new author.
Write what you want. It’s okay if genres are chopped up.
Later, you may choose to do what makes more money.
Q: If you write a mashup, how do you get someone to look at it?
TW: Make it your second book. No one may be interested in your unicorn superhero. Try something else first and get readers. Keep writing what your hot hand wants.
Q: Will a stand-alone novel sell versus a series?
TW: Mysteriously, they do. If you write one great standalone, try to present it. You don’t have to do a series if you write one great novel, like A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller.
Elizabeth Moon is a natural novelist, but she buckled down and wrote short stories and was published in Analog as hard science fiction. Then she wrote epic fantasies, but got published.
There is no magic formula. Novels are like marathons. A lot of writers start, but finishing is hard.
Q: What about John Campbell’s red line of death?
TW: The red line of doom is different for different books. In some, it’s in the first line. One big stopping point is a stupid naming convention.
Q: What is the biggest obstacle you face in acquiring new authors?
TW: Being jaded. Those 32 years have developed commercial tastes. She gives subs a lot of leeway to win her over. But she admitted, “I am very picky.”
She added that there are lots of things that Baen does: urban fantasy, space opera, military science fiction, and hard science fiction. But not all submissions work. As an example, you may need to read more Irish myth to hold your Irish mythic story together. If she hears a story concept and it’s really powerful, she gets a tingle.
Q: Would most publishers rather work through agents? Do agents provide a filter to present better quality work?
TW: They can, but not every agent has the taste that the publisher does. An agent may not be a good filter for Baen, although they might be good for some other publisher. It’s ambiguous. There is not a universal opinion that agents are good or evil. At the beginning of your career, you may not need an agent.
Q: What is the best way to get an agent that you work well with?
TW: You can find the agents of authors you like mentioned in the acknowledgements of their books. You can also find favorite authors in agent announcements. It’s a crapshoot. Be sure to look at your contract; be sure there’s a way out.
Jody Lynn Nye (“JLN”): You need to be sure which agent you are getting from a group. You may get a new recruit who is hungry for sales but inexperienced.
TW: It might take years to find out if an agent is effective, years that can delay career.
Q: If I’m a brand-new author, how do I get my manuscript to you?
TW: Post to our sub slush pile, for novels. Every publisher is different. Some take agented-only submissions. Others take slush or solicited manuscripts only.
Go to conventions, enter contests. There are lots of ways to make your name known, like magazine subs. Self-publication is not the only way; it’s new, but it’s not the only way. Do your promotion your way. Apply recommendations to what you do.
Q: Do you want the whole manuscript?
TW: Yes, there’s no postage hardship. This just skips a step [the query] where the editor wants to read more.
Q: You are very high on military sci-fi. Are you seeing more of a mix with military science fiction and romance, or mystery?
TW: Military science fiction has a military theme. You can explore romance or mystery in the plot. There are certain recurring themes in military science fiction, like why we fight. That’s not necessarily a mix of genres.
Can it serve another theme exclusively and be military science fiction? Here to Eternity is a romance [despite the military setting]. It is not serving readers if a book is labeled military science fiction and it’s not.
Q: If you use a first reader, how can you be sure you have the right filter? Are you concerned that they don’t have the same taste?
TW: No. I’m a broad reader and come from a classic science fiction background. Gray Rinehart and I have worked together for a long time. Baen has live-action slush pile readings on video on its website. Tastes are not always in sync. On the other hand, Jim Baen was 95% in sync with my tastes. He was an interesting man, a good editor and publisher.
Baen has volunteer slush readers who give very helpful input as they are also target readers. I find the slush pile general reader’s job to be very hard.
JLN: I act as a judge for Writers of the Future. David Farland has been the slush reader and lasted a long time without an assistant. He now has one.
TW: If you’re not turning the page or feeling that tingle, you may not read too much longer.
Q: Carrie defies genre labels.
TW: That happens all the time but it is still not as a musical. Dracula is a great stage show, but not Carrie. Genre is a writer’s tool and the reader’s expectation of story. You have to know genre expectations to play with them. Then, there’s that certain special something you bring to it.
JLN: Good stuff will find a readership.
TW: What you write may not be commercial, but good writers don’t stop. They keep going.
Q: Everyone has bits of self, reading, values, what you aspire to. Do you think of those things as important when you review a manuscript or if the book is a good read?
TW: An interesting story will find readers. All they care is whether they get that tingle and want to turn the page. A dedicated reader will read all the books by an author. They don’t have products to sell, nothing else to market.
Q: What are successful, prolific authors’ habits?
TW: Dave Drake writes like it’s a job. Other people think for months, years. Then in six weeks, it all falls out of John Ringo. Heinlein wrote Glory Road in six weeks but usually, he wrote like Drake. Lois McMaster Bujold was very prolific when she had young kids and only two hours to write. She is more relaxed now.
Weisskopf closed the panel by saying that it was nice to see so many people starting the right way, by listening to professionals. But, quixotically, she added, “There is no one right way.”