Thursday, August 06, 2009

Goodbye, Universe

I learned the sad news yesterday that Jim Baen's Universe will be shutting down next year with the April 2010 issue. I had really fallen away from JBU, as I've fallen away from so much in the past year or so (and even more so in the past six months), but I've always felt a kinship with them, since my first published short story appeared in their first issue in June 2006.

They generated such hope and excitement from the moment they announced that they would be producing an online magazine (which was at first going to be called Baen's Astounding Stories). Writers were excited at a new market, especially a market from an established, well-funded publishing house, and even more at a market that guaranteed some space to unpublished writers. Meanwhile, those fans bemoaning the dwindling of short stories as opposed to Big Fat Novels were also happy, as well as those folks who preferred Baen's more old-fashioned, two-fisted approach to sci-fi over the more cerebral fare preferred by other magazines' editors. And if anybody could come up with a viable electronic publishing model, it would be the guys at Baen, virtually the only publisher who had managed to make e-books into a profitable business.

Excitement mounted when they began to announce the writers who would be appearing in the magazine. Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson doing a new Dune story, David Drake doing a new Hammer's Slammers story, Alan Dean Foster, Cory Doctorow, Gene Wolfe, David Brin, Gregory Benford, Ben Bova, Elizabeth Bear, Mike Resnick, not to mention in-house Baen favorites like Eric Flint and John Ringo.

In addition to the normal subscriptions for the magazine, Baen's offered special club memberships with additional benefits, like getting yourself written into your favorite Baen series (not as a major character or anything, more like seeing your name as one of the people killed during a space battle in an Honor Harrington book or something--still, who else would ever have given you the chance?), and the response that first year was overwhelming.

But it so happens that I got a chance to hang out at Conestoga with associate editor Paula Goodlett and web maestro Rick Boatright and author David Drake about a month after the first issue went live, and even then, they had some worried conversations about whether they'd be able to sustain the magazine for more than two years. They'd sold lots of club memberships, which gave them a lot of cash up front, but not as many regular subscriptions as they needed to keep things going.

I heard the same rumblings the following year, when Eric Flint was at Conestoga. We all hoped it would turn around, but there was a sense from the beginning that it might never.

But at the same time, the magazine didn't fold after two years, so even if it didn't fulfill the hopes invested in it from the start, Baen's Universe did at least last longer than people feared it might. And really, like any new venture, they always knew it could fail, but they had the courage to do it anyway. And unlike some writers of this blog, they took that huge risk and managed it in a smart way that will allow them to have a soft landing that won't leave their writers or subscribers high and dry. I wish the entire staff there the best. They were good people who tried to do a very hard thing, and if they didn't succeed as well as they hoped, the science fiction world is better for the attempt.

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