In Honor of Valentine’s Day…
Ladies, have you ever been in a relationship, sure it was true love, flush with the feeling that the possibilities were limitless – then one day you woke up and the bloom had faded? The fire that had ignited that passionate flare inside was gone? I think that moment has happened for me. Now when I think about the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, I keep hearing Lady Gaga in my head. Yet I seem to be struggling to avoid it, refusing to say the words, My love affair with Star Wars books is well and truly dying…
When the realization struck me, my first reaction was denial. Much like the stages of grief, which they say can last for weeks and months, I stayed in that frame of mind for quite a while. Honestly, it’s been about a year now. It took me that long to begin to accept the withering in my attraction for books that in the past had required Amazon pre-orders and rush-delivery, or begging bookstore clerks to “just pull one out of the back early.” Having previously cemented my participation in ensuring that Star Wars books reached the New York Times Bestsellers List each and every time, I now found myself not hurrying to the local bookseller, not hitting the pre-order – and I found I felt guilty for my lack of enthusiasm.
Guilt inspired reflection. At first I thought I was falling out of love with Star Wars as a whole. Maybe I was growing up. (Finally, some might say.) But when I really considered how I spent my free time, I quickly recognized that wasn’t the case at all. A Spike weekend marathon can still get me in my chair for hours on end to watch the movies. Friday nights in my house are reserved for The Clone Wars; we watch it twice. On the days the Legacy comic comes out, I rush after work to get my copy. If it’s a rainy day, you will often find me curled up with one of my favorite Star Wars books: Starfighters of Adumar, Revenge of the Sith, Rebel Dream…
That’s when I realized the problem isn’t me. I’m a woman who loves to read, loves to write, loves books, and loves Star Wars. I’m not falling out of love with Star Wars – it’s the Star Wars books that are thoroughly failing me as a fan. Once I realized this, I knew I had to blog about it and hope that the Powers That Be will listen. Otherwise nothing’s going to change in the EU novels, and they’re going to keep losing customers like me. And the sad fact is, there’s simply no reason in the world for them to let that happen.
There was a time when I knew hundreds of women who actively read Star Wars books. The fanfiction community, comprised mostly of women, was pulsing with excitement during the New Jedi Order series. We lived and breathed spoilers, discussed the current book, and speculated where the next one would take the characters. It was a vibrant community with tons of excitement and enthusiasm about the EU novels. Of course, there’s ebb and flow in every online community and fandoms are constantly in flux, but there is no doubt in my mind the Star Wars books have been hemorrhaging female readers for some time, and at a rate much faster than the natural decay of the post-prequels fandom would have suggested. Of the hundreds of women I chatted with on message boards or communicated with privately, some I have lost touch with, others I speak to less frequently, but many I still talk to quite regularly. And almost all of them express the same sentiment I feel: that Star Wars books just aren’t doing it for them anymore.
How did the EU novels get to this point? Considering women make up well over half of the market of book buyers, it seems counterintuitive to me as a business person for the books to not meet the expectations of female fans. So what could have happened to cause them to lose so many female readers so quickly? The answer, I believe, lies in the shift in the kinds of stories that the EU books have been telling. The editors and the authors they’ve hired have lost touch with some very important story elements of the Star Wars saga, and those elements happen to be the ones that most often captivate the imaginations of their erstwhile legions of female readers.
Let’s get real here. Star Wars did not grow into an epic saga that has become imbued in the collective consciousness of our society by only grabbing the attention of male fans. There are plenty of elements of Star Wars that captivate everyone equally. I’ll be the first to admit I love a good starship dogfight and I about fell off my seat in excitement upon first seeing the Darth Maul duel in The Phantom Menace. But the fact is, Star Wars is just not a story about X-wings and lightsabers; it’s also a love story.
Women want to read stories about romances and relationships: not just first-love thrills, but strong and enduring mature love too; not just love but friendship and lasting bonds, the kind of camaraderie that Han and Luke or Obi-Wan and Anakin shared. (I could do a whole blog post to say a lot more about this issue, and I will at some point soon.) Sadly, stories featuring those kinds of elements have been sorely lacking in the last six or seven years of Star Wars book releases, and I think that’s why so many female fans have walked away – to other franchises that do offer them those kinds of stories.
There are well over a hundred Star Wars Expanded Universe novels now, so I’m going to put the specifics of my book-by-book assessment in a separate blog post as an appendix to this one for those who are interested in how exactly I’ve broken down the stories. Here, for now, I’ll just give you the summary. From 1991 to 2003, nearly all of the novels released contained substantial amounts of story elements that appealed to female fans. These included stories about the early years of the Han/Leia marriage, Luke’s romances with several different women before he circled back around to marrying Mara, the Big Three’s own deep bonds and their friendships with a broader group of close pals, and the fantastic portrayals of romance and comradeship among starfighter squadrons in the X-wing series. Starting in 2004, however, those kinds of stories all but disappeared in the EU novels. By my count, hardly any of the novels since that time involved substantial amounts of story elements desired by female fans. Given that, it’s no surprise at all that so many have left and found what they were looking for elsewhere.
A couple of examples should make the point pretty clearly. In the last several years there have been Star Wars mystery novels, Star Wars horror novels, and Star Wars novels featuring Sith as protagonists – but where are the stories about new romance flowering against the backdrop of galactic threats, or the stories about mature love enduring the greatest challenges? If the editors and authors think they’re doing that in Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi, they are sorely mistaken. You can see how I feel about the utter failure of the romantic plotlines in Fate of the Jedi in my review of Vortex. Suffice to say: the love of Luke’s life is dead, Han and Leia are making terrible parenting decisions in raising their granddaughter, their surviving daughter Jaina has been sabotaged and undermined in her love life for nearly twenty books at this point, and the ill-conceived Ben-Vestara romance has been an utter flop in catching reader interest.
Another good example is the recent book Knight Errant by John Jackson Miller. I’ll post a full review of the novel within a week or two, but for now the point is this: it lacks any romance and it fails at building relationships between its characters, and that makes it a far cry from what a typical female fan wants to read. This is somewhat surprising, frankly, because Miller’s previous EU endeavor was the highly regarded Knights of the Old Republic comic series, and it had notable doses of both. Yet it seems that this nature of the story for Knight Errant is entirely intentional on the author’s part. In a recent chat held on the Star Wars Books page on Facebook, Miller had this to say about his story:
[T]he interesting thing with Knight Errant is that there’s a pretty complete lack of romantic threads, at least to date. Kerra is just waaaaaaay too busy to even think about it. Lord Daiman is in love with himself, but that’s not quite the same! VEEEEERY early in the planning, I had considered Daiman being the sort of person where you might have a Twilight thing happening with him and Kerra — but once I figured out who Daiman was and who Kerra was, that was obviously impossible. And, yes, it’s been done. But I do explore Sith/Jedi romance in the two Lost Tribe stories, “Purgatory” and “Sentinel.”
The original concept that Randy Stradley at Dark Horse presented to me was “lone female Jedi” and then the time period. It seemed pretty obvious that she would travel, Lone Ranger style — but without even having a Tonto. Any kind of sidekick or droid would just weigh her down, and of course, that’s the situation we keep hitting her with, the burden of having to take care of others. Kerra gets a little testy about these things, and it’s not going to get easier for her. She’s been interesting to write, because unlike Zayne, she’s a little too intense to be lovable. But she doesn’t want our love, anyway! She just wants to do her job.
It’s unclear if a female protagonist was a deliberate attempt to capture female readers or if that was simply an editorial whim. Knight Errant is receiving rave reviews in the TFN Literature forum, but as far as I can tell not one of these glowing reviews is from a female reader. Knight Errant was written by a fanboy for fanboys; it will not draw in new readers, specifically not female readers. Accordingly, the people making choices about Star Wars books should regard feedback from a slim fraction of the fans with caution. Making business decisions about who and what to sell in the literature market within the confines of an echochamber isn’t the wisest course.
Why aren’t women, who spend as much if not more money on books as men, responding with resounding 10/10 reviews for this tale of a female Jedi? Because women don’t want to read stories about female characters who are too busy for love – that’s all too often the story of our real lives, not what we want to find in our escapist fiction. Too busy even for a sidekick? Come on! Every week working women struggle to balance work and friends, and too frequently our pals are the ones who suffer. If they were using a female protagonist to draw female readers in, why would they think we would want to read about a Star Wars protagonist who does the same thing? And the notion of Jedi/Sith romance; it’s inherently doomed, if not downright perverse, and certainly not the kind of hopeful, uplifting, romantic love that most women are looking for in their favorite fiction. At least I give Miller credit for skipping that. Knight Errant is not a Star Wars book I’d recommend to any of my female friends, not even my fellow fans, because honestly, there’s really nothing in it that they’d like.
And that is also a prime example of the marketing shipwreck by Del Rey on behalf of Star Wars books sales – the utter failure to utilize the power of passing the book along and word of mouth. How is it that books reach staggering sales figures? Is it in marketing blitzes and brand recognition? If it were that, you’d think Star Wars would have the edge. Everyone recognizes the name, so that should be in the plus column, yet Star Wars has failed to create a name for itself within avid book readers at a time when scifi and fantasy book sales are shooting out through the roof. In the past couple of years, I’ve been forced to hesitate when female friends browsing the bookstores or noting my bookcase full of Star Wars books asked me, “Should I pick up that book?” or “What book should I read?” Back in the day, I passed along many of my Star Wars books, which were rife with romantic developments and great friendships. The current roster, though, is devoid of romance, and anything I might have recommended from the past would require a dozen or more frustrating and completely unsatisfying companion books with no foreseeable promise for the futures of any Star Wars pairings. For a saga built around the notion of hope, it is very much lacking in the romance department.
What about the future? Unfortunately, the horizon of known upcoming titles is just as bleak. Not one of the novels on the publishing schedule for the rest of 2011 looks to have anything meaningful to offer to female readers.
Here’s a perfect example of the problem. A couple of years ago, Sue Rostoni at Lucasfilm revealed that Michael Reaves, a well-regarded established EU author, and Maya Kathryn Bohnhoff, a newcomer, would be writing a novel tentatively titled Holostar. There was much initial excitement, in large part because fans speculated that the book might be the story of the most famous holodrama actress already established in the EU: Wynssa Starflare. She has a marvelous life story, but it’s only been spoken about in dribs and drabs over the years, in hints and glimpses of flashbacks and backstory. Originally Syal Antilles, she’s the sister of famed Rebel hero Wedge Antilles. During the later years of the Empire she became one of the most famous actresses in the galaxy, and married one of the Empire’s most famous starfighter aces, Baron Soontir Fel. But when the Empire collapsed they ended up on the run, pawns in the struggle among various Imperials to rule after the Emperor’s death. Soon they vanished from the face of the galaxy, ultimately reappearing over a decade later in the Unknown Regions among the Chiss and the forces left there by Grand Admiral Thrawn. Their son Jagged has been a major character since the New Jedi Order series, and we know from the Legacy comics that in time he’ll become the first Emperor of a new Imperial faction. Can you see why fans would have been so excited about the possibility of a Wynssa Starflare novel? Fans have been asking for more stories about Starflare and Fel for years. It would have been a must-read book for every fan of Star Wars, and one that more than likely would have been a must-pass-along-to-my-pals type of story.
But what we’re getting, of course, is something entirely different. First we found out that the holostar in question isn’t Starflare, but some entirely new character in which the fanbase has no vested interest at all. Then we learned that the male protagonist would be Dash Rendar, a character from the 1996 videogame and novel, Shadows of the Empire. Seriously? Who cares? I’ll tell you who – a very small niche of fanboys. Recently the book was retitled to Shadow Games. In commenting online about the change in response to a fan who speculated that the Rendar-actress story sounded like the famous Kevin Costner-Whitey Houston film The Bodyguard, Bohnhoff said the following:
Just a word about the plot. The Bodyguard, it ain’t. So you see, if it was called that, it would horrifically misleading and a bunch of pre-teen girls would buy it and cry out with great tween angst when their expectations of dreamy romance were rudely, rudely quashed.
Honestly, I find this quote to be nothing short of insulting. I’m an adult, well-educated professional woman, not a tween, and I love dreamy romance and angst and all the cheese that comes with it. In fact, I think The Bodyguard sounds like a fantastic premise for a Star Wars story. Because, you know what? That’s exactly what George Lucas has been doing for some time – he retells his favorite stories with a Star Wars twist. (At Celebration V, Dave Filoni talked about how a number of the episodes of The Clone Wars are consciously based on classic films George loves, just as the original film borrowed heavily from Kurosawa and others.) Based on Bohnhoff’s quote, I have come to the decision that I won’t be spending my money on Shadow Games; but I most certainly would have bought Holostar, and so would all of my female Star Wars friends, if it had in fact been the Wynssa Starflare book – or even the Star Wars version of The Bodyguard.
To be clear, I’m not saying I want romance in Star Wars to be Gossip Girl or The Vampire Diaries, but I don’t think it’s asking too much to have romance in Star Wars, just like in some of my other favorite franchise like Buffy, Alias, and Lost. Let’s not forget, The Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones have romance as their core stories. I also don’t think it’s the least bit coincidental that the part of Star Wars with the most direct involvement of George Lucas currently – The Clone Wars – has maintained its sense of romance and relationships throughout. Obviously there’s the camaraderie between Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ahsoka, but there’s romance too: Anakin and Padmé, Obi-Wan and Satine, even a bit of flirting between Ahsoka and Lux. Because let’s not forget: Star Wars isn’t hard scifi and it isn’t fine literature – it’s space opera. It’s in fact built on the backbone of pulp fiction and cheesy B-movie serials from the early 20th century. At its core, space opera is all about romance and relationships, the very same things that female readers crave.
The biggest irony of all, though, is that Star Wars is leaving enormous bags of money on the table by not reaching out to these female readers – and if there’s anything we know about George Lucas, it’s that he’s usually pretty good at making money. It goes all the way back to George holding onto the merchandising rights to the first movie, and proving to the studio just how foolish they were in not understanding what the public wanted. In 2010, Star Wars was still the number one toy franchise in sales to young boys. So why would Lucasfilm be turning their backs on all the money there is to be made in book sales to female readers? The evidence is numerous, but one recent report that really rang true to me is the shift in strategy at Barnes & Noble (B&N) to increasingly target female readers, especially in the romance markets. I can see it in every B&N I’ve been to: where there used to be more than a whole case of Star Wars books, they’re now relegated to the bottom two shelves on one case. Not only that, but B&N has extended the romance section in most of its bookstores to make room for more titles that appeal to the female reader. Likewise, a quick check of the Amazon SciFi/Fantasy Bestsellers list reveals not one Star Wars title in the top hundred, not even Knight Errant released within the past month, but a preponderance of books bought undoubtedly by women. Back to the word of mouth phenomenon I mentioned earlier – fantastical romantic tales are so powerful, a self-published twenty-something from rural Minnesota became a bestselling paranormal romance author in less than the span of a year. If the big booksellers like B&N have figured out where the money is, then I have to ask, how could Del Rey, a major publishing company, have failed to follow the swelling tide?
When I started working on this blog post, I made a note to myself to make sure that I was clear that my main concern is the absence of romance and relationship stories embedded within the stories told in the EU novels. But if they’re working other niche novels anyway, it surely does beg the question why they haven’t attempted a romance-centered novel. As I said above, the novels used to do that just fine prior to 2004. The New Jedi Order remains one of my favorite series in the EU, and it has plenty to offer female readers. So my fundamental point isn’t that there needs to be Star Wars romance novels, but that Star Wars novels need to return to their space opera roots in romance and relationships. And that right there is the irony for me – because a romance novel set in Star Wars is absolutely something I would tell all of my friends to read, knowing they would enjoy it. I have no doubt whatsoever that a true Star Wars romance novel would outsell the other niche books by an order of magnitude. Del Rey has published mysteries and horror but no romance? From a business perspective it makes no sense, especially in light of the fact that Star Wars’ own creator has always made an affirmative choice to include romantic elements in his storytelling. If it’s intellectual snobbery by the Powers That Be guiding the books side of Star Wars, then shame on them for their arrogance and for forgetting their Prime Directive (to make George money). If it’s failure to find an author to write it then it’s just laziness, because believe me there are plenty of (already published) authors who would grab the opportunity in a heartbeat.
The fact is, if Star Wars novels don’t get back on a track where female fans can be excited about them too, then Del Rey will be turning their back on a market share equivalent to, and probably greater than, men. The decision so far to leave all that money on the table speaks volumes about the misguided thinking and poor decisions that have shaped the recent EU releases.
In the end, it seems to me that Star Wars books have become caught in a vicious cycle. By releasing books that appeal mostly to fanboys and not fangirls, they’ve lost a lot of fangirl interest. This has created a feedback loop where they’re only listening to the readers they still have, instead of thinking about the readers they could also have. (One reason for this is the failure to pay attention to the fanfiction community and the numerous female fans there, which is the subject of my next Fangirl Speaks Up blog post.) As a professional working for a multi-national company, I’m well aware that every successful business needs to do two things. One is to hold onto its existing customers, and Star Wars books have failed dramatically in this regard over the past few years. The other is that, at the same time, successful businesses are constantly striving for growth by bringing in new customers. By ignoring the fangirl market and then assuming that there’s no fangirl interest, the Powers That Be in Star Wars books have committed the cardinal sin in business. I only hope they figure out where the future – and the dollars – in Star Wars books are before it’s too late.