LitChat Interview: Toni Weisskopf, Baen Books

LitChat Interview

Editor/Publisher, Toni Weisskopf, Baen Books
Toni Weisskopf, Courtsey Locus Magazine

Toni Weisskopf succeeded Jim Baen as publisher of Baen Books, a leading publisher of sf and fantasy, in 2006. She has worked with such authors as David Weber, David Drake, Lois McMaster Bujold, Eric Flint, John Ringo, Sarah A. Hoyt, Larry Corriea, and many others. With Josepha Sherman she compiled and annotated the definitive volume of subversive children’s folklore, Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts, published by August House. For Baen she’s edited three original hard science fiction anthologies: Cosmic Stories: Adventures in Sol System, Cosmic Stories: Adventures in Far Futures and Transhuman, with science fiction author Mark L. Van Name.

Baen is also known for its innovative e-publishing program, which has expanded under Weisskopf’s leadership to include not only titles published by Baen, but also titles from other publishers, all without DRM.

Weisskopf is a graduate of Oberlin College with a degree in anthropology. The widow of Southern fan and swordmaster Hank Reinhardt, she is the mother of a delightful daughter, and is possessed by a truly devilish little dog, and a fat and lazy cat who styles himself a “rare white mini-puma.”


LS: Thank you for chatting with us, Toni. We’re so honored you’re here. First up, your childhood included cultures that were very different from one another, (Brooklyn, NY and Huntsville, AL). How do you think your personal cultural diversity informed you growing up and do you think those varying cultural differences drew you into a love of genre fiction?

TW: Well, probably not, since I was already reading genre fiction before I’d ever left Brooklyn. Attribute that more accurately to my parents, who are both voracious readers, and who read in all sorts of genres. Plenty to choose from without even going to the library—and I had access to a great public library, too. I’d read widely in mysteries, Westerns, and Regency romance (okay, just Georgette Heyer) before I dipped my toe in the waters of the SF my dad brought home. I tracked down and read all of Jack Vance’s Demon Princes books before I hit Alabama.

But I did find SF fandom in Alabama, and finding that subculture certainly turned me to my professional career track. And it made real to me one of the themes of Heinlein’s Glory Road—things can be very different from what you were used to if you leave home even if you grow up in a cosmopolitan world.

LS: What were your favorite books as a child?

TW: Wow, so many! We lived a couple of blocks away from the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, so I was able to read as much as I wanted from an early age. Did like the Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald Sobol. Only discovered recently that he was an Oberlin grad, too. One of my first and still favorite, adult SF novels was Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper. Great, quintessentially stefnal story, and fantastic cover art by Michael Whelan.

LS: You studied anthropology in college. How did you move from that field into editing?

TW: Really, the love of SF and the editing came first, the anthropology major was an afterthought. I spent most of my college career working on SF one way or another—helping with the SF club, publishing fanzines, going to conventions, taking and then teaching classes in SF, bringing in speakers. I’m amazed I managed to fit in any classes around that! Of course, I did mine my experiences for a few papers in cultural anthropology and linguistics. That was helpful. But, with the help of a long discussion with a friend of mine, I realize fairly early on that I was not headed for a career in academe, but in publishing. That made it easier to enjoy the anthro classes not a pre-professional, but as pure intellectual exercise. As it happens, wide reading in cultural anthropology comes in very useful when evaluating the verisimilitude of world-building in SF and fantasy.

LS: I’ve read that you have an affinity for children’s folklore and have penned a collection in that genre, Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts: The Subversive Folklore of Childhood. How did that interest begin?

TW: Probably I was an obnoxious child! I’d enjoyed the mildly taboo rhymes and songs I’d learned at summer camp and from my subversive mom, was encouraged by my grandmother on my dad’s side, too. It never occurred to me to make it a project in college, (though I did do a linguistics paper on an Anglo-Saxon curse word), but soon after I knew I wanted to collect such rhymes before I forgot them all. Josepha Sherman had contacts in the folklore field already and she really helped shape the project. We were early “crowdsourcers” in that most of our research was done on the GEnie boards. We also did more traditional research interviewing our own families, going to schools, and even jotting down rhymes from random strangers’ children while in line at the bank.

LS: You began your tenure at Baen as an editorial assistant. Now you’re the publisher. How different are those two roles and what is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about the industry since you began your career?

TW: There’s nothing new under the sun, and everything always changes.

I can say that I’ve worked almost every job at Baen except the technical side and it helps keeping an idea of how the flow of projects should go—and just how far you can push deadlines.

LS: When a manuscript comes across your desk, what are some elements that will make you want to publish it? Do you know in the pitch whether you’ll want to read the manuscript?

TW: Not always. Writing a hot pitch and writing a great novel are different skills. Not every writer has both. When I start a manuscript, or really any book, I’m looking for personality, style, an interesting, individual take on the universe. I can’t help but in some ways be jaded, since I have been reading SF assiduously since I was about 10, but I try to put that behind me. I am always ready to have my sense of wonder stimulated. I’m not chasing down the “next big thing” so much as I am trying to find a well told story that makes me think.

LS: As someone whose career is focused on great fiction, are you ever able to read a book for pleasure without critiquing?

TW: It has become very difficult for me to do that in SF. These days other than our own authors at Baen, most of my pleasure reading in SF consists of old classics I somehow missed. For instance, I’m reading the Amber series by Zelazny now. I’d read pretty much everything else of his, but was saving this one. I do read mysteries for pleasure, tending toward the cozy side–but not all the way over into cat or knitting mysteries. I read classics of Roman history and literature to broaden my mind (in translation—I’m no David Drake). It’s taking me more than a year to get through Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome—I’m finding the parallels to modern times a little too depressing. And I read a wide range of history, popular science and other nonfiction, just to keep the little grey cells active. I have a cluster of Welsh and Irish medieval literature I never really delved into earlier that I’m looking forward to hitting. Determined on that after reading a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, after I’d recommended studying her to one of my new editors. One thing leads to another. And in my business, eventually it all becomes useful.

LS: SciFi/Fantasy is such a diverse genre with many facets that do not necessarily mimic one another. What, in your opinion, makes great SF and where do you see the genre heading?

TW: To me SF (to include fantasy) is a fascinating genre because it is so interactive. More than any other form of fiction, SF writers and readers and scientists and experts share ideas. That’s an ever-bubbling cauldron that doesn’t have a direction. Some new idea may spark a long series of stories or novels that form a larger conversation. Some old idea may bubble up from the bottom of the pot. That’s part of the fun.

What makes SF great is that it can be very small, and take on the troubles of one character, or it can be huge, and take on gigantic questions. It’s intellectually stimulating while still having great story values. That is what is consistently interesting to me.

LS: How has self-publishing and the ease of distributing e-books impacted the industry? What do you think that impact will mean for the future of books?

TW: Remember where I said there’s nothing new and everything changes? Perfect example. Self-publishing has always been available to authors, from the time people drew on walls of caves. That said, the barriers to publishing widely are now much diminished. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. Speaking as a reader, most of us really want someone between us and all the truly terrible crap out there. That’s what editors are for. Some people don’t want it and for them the heavens have opened up. For the rest of us, without superhuman reading speed and infinite time, it’s worth a few bucks to get the vetting. Of course, publishing houses also serve writers’ purposes, or they wouldn’t have evolved in the first place.

At Baen we don’t deliver books, per se, we deliver stories. And I don’t care what the medium is for that, whether it be electrons, paper, or direct neural stimulation, (figure about 15-20 years for that to become commercial reality, btw), I will sell you a good story. So for us, the future is so bright, I need to wear shades.

LS: I find Baen’s web presence to be one of the most intricate and fan-friendly online today. Was a connection with readers and the availability of new releases something that has always been important to your house? Do you see this evolving even further in the future? 

TW: Connection to the readers was important to Baen from the very beginning. Before I even got there, (and Baen started shipping books in 1984, I arrived in 1987), there were backads soliciting input from the readers in our paperbacks, which responses we then used in other backads, including one for Lois McMaster Bujold, in which we gave equal weight to the great reviews for her books and to the regular reader reactions.

As mentioned above, I think part of what makes SF different is that element of collaboration. We are all in it together. So the connection with and feedback from our readers is a vital part of what we do. As with the delivery of story, we’ll keep up with whatever ways our readers interact, whether that be our venerable bulletin board/chat rooms at Baen’s Bar, via Twitter or Facebook, at conventions, wherever it goes next. Okay, I may draw the line at direct neural interface with everyone. 

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us!