In my recent Fangirl Speaks Up blogs, I’ve been critical of the direction taken by Del Rey and Lucas Books in the recent Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, and offered some explanations for how I think they got off track. It’s easy to be a critic, though – it’s a lot harder to give constructive feedback on how to improve. And just yesterday, word came from the Del Rey Star Wars panel at the C2E2 convention that, as reported by Star Wars Action News, “conversations have been had” about “big things coming after Fate of the Jedi.” So I thought it was time I tackled that constructive endeavor, and made some more specific suggestions about how the Star Wars EU can get its groove back.
I think in large part it comes down to two main themes. First, Del Rey and Lucas Books need to change their perspective on the scope of their target audience and the nature of their marketing. Second, the Powers That Be need to assert firm editorial control over the future directions of the stories and the characters. If they do those things, I think they’ll find success once again.
Marketing and Target Audience
Let’s start off with a basic point that ought to be simple: when Del Rey and Lucas Books think about selling books, they need to be thinking about what’s the right market for books. Common sense and market demographics tell us that not all products have the same customer base. Followers of collecting news at websites like Rebelscum know that Hasbro has pretty definitive sales data demonstrating that toy demand is heavily driven by movie fans and Clone Wars fans, and that there’s much more limited demand for Expanded Universe toys by either children or collectors. Dark Horse, by contrast, has had great success with comic storylines that are pure Expanded Universe.
As I discussed in the Bad Romance blog, in today’s marketplace novels are sold primarily to women. It follows, then, that for Star Wars novels to really succeed in the marketplace, they need to be targeted at that audience. When their stories stopped appealing broadly to female fans, women have shown they’re willing to take their dollars elsewhere – to Twilight, or Harry Potter, or Hunger Games, or whatever else. Even in the last year, the reaction to Her Universe goes to show that there are plenty of women who have been waiting to spend their money on Star Wars products that cater to women specifically. So given that novel sales are driven primarily by women, getting women back buying Star Wars books is critical to the success of the EU. Note, this doesn’t mean that the Powers That Be can’t release some books that will appeal primarily to fanboys, like Knight Errant or The Essential Atlas. The problem is, right now that’s the only fanbase they’re selling to.
My next point is a simple one, too: by definition, casual EU readers cannot be the core of a sustainable EU market base. Star Wars Expanded Universe novels are going to be sold mostly to Expanded Universe fans. Not exclusively so, of course; the novelization of The Force Unleashed made #1 on the New York Times bestseller list by drawing in many gamers who don’t otherwise buy the novels, just as tie-ins for The Old Republic will sell to MMO players. But those books are the exception. Most EU novels rely heavily on EU characters. The post-Return of the Jedi storyline has over fifty novels and forty in-universe years of story development, so even the movie characters aren’t all that accessible to someone who doesn’t know any of that backstory when picking up a current release.
The market for EU books is EU fans, and in my view the decline in Star Wars book sales since the NJO series ended is consistent with this. If the novels were selling to movie character fans, then Dark Nest, Legacy of the Force, and Fate of the Jedi shouldn’t have steadily lost readers when they sidelined the next generation in favor of focusing on the movie characters. But they did lose sales, and it’s because they lost the EU readers who were more invested in the next generation characters from the NJO than they were in the movie characters.
Sadly, Del Rey and Lucas Books knew this as far back as 2003. The release of the final NJO novel, The Unifying Force, included a copy of a Round Robin interview conducted with several key players in designing and shepherding the series. James Luceno, one of the lead story designers for the NJO, had this to say –
But in the NJO we lacked clear-cut archetypes, and those characters who were clear-cut—Luke, Han, Lando, Leia—had, in a very real way, already completed their journeys.
The future of the EU, both in the NJO series itself and after, was in telling stories of new heroes’ journeys with different characters. Ever since A New Hope, Star Wars has been grounded in exactly that – watching young, earnest, innocent heroes develop into older, wiser, more mature leaders. Anakin Skywalker’s choices take his tale into tragedy, but we also get to watch the heroic development of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Padmé Amidala, Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo in the movies, and now Ahsoka Tano in The Clone Wars. Yet since the end of the NJO, the Powers That Be have reverted to relying on the aging movie heroes who had already proven their mettle to carry the storylines. It’s imperative that the people designing future story arcs understand that Star Wars is as much about the journey as the specific characters themselves, and much more so for the EU fans who made up their core market for the novels when sales were at their peak.
So how can they draw in more female EU readers? I see three categories of readers that Del Rey and Lucas Books should be targeting.
The first is disappointed fans. These readers are still buying, but they’re on the verge of walking away. How does the EU keep them? Easy: give them more of what they want. In Bad Romance and Missing Demographic, I shared my perspective on a lot of what that would include, especially an increased focus on character relationships, including romances, in the storylines.
The second category is lapsed fans. These are women who used to buy Star Wars novels but stopped at some point. How does the EU lure them back? Some maybe can’t be, like fans whose number one favorite character is Mara Jade or Jacen Solo. Others are still hovering on the event horizon of hope, like Jaina’s fans who have grown weary of the aimless arc her character has taken but would come back to read positive, love-affirming stories about the only living child of Han and Leia Solo as a heroine and woman struggling to balance duty with love just as her parents have done. There are numerous other potential heroines waiting in the wings, as well: Tenel Ka, Tahiri Veila, Syal Antilles, Wyn Fel, and Jysella Horn to name just a few.
The third category is potential new fans. These exist among the vast pool of avid novel readers who haven’t bought the EU before – many of whom are casual fans of the Star Wars movies – but who could easily become loyal readers if they realized that the EU fit the bill. It doesn’t take more than common sense to understand that any female reader who’s reading Harry Potter, Twilight, or Hunger Games (all of which kicked the current EU’s proverbial ass in book sales) won’t have geek-cooties qualms about picking up a Star Wars book. How does the EU draw in these readers to become customers? Same as the disappointed fans: give them what they want to read. I suppose the Ben-Vestara arc in Fate of the Jedi might have been a feeble attempt to do something like this, but for many reasons that pairing was doomed to fail in engaging female fans from the start.
Right now, though, Star Wars books aren’t serving the market in any of these three categories, and it’s no wonder sales have suffered accordingly.
Finally, although gradual improvement will slowly build market share, I’d encourage the Powers That Be not to be afraid to “think big,” as well. And I’m not talking about series size, like the nineteen novels comprising the NJO. Instead, I think a big “event” book has the possibility to jump-start interest in the EU and potentially draw in large numbers of readers from all three categories. The Harry Potter generation is growing up and looking for grownup stories to fill their enthusiasm for reading. The Hunger Games series shows that word of mouth can very quickly launch a book from relative obscurity to tremendous sales; the same goes for Twilight, Stieg Larsson, or Amanda Hocking. There’s simply no reason that Star Wars can’t have the same kind of publicity and impact as those books. In fact, it ought to be easier for Star Wars to achieve that public visibility than other franchises because of its preexisting brand recognition and advertising infrastructure. The Force Unleashed got gamers to cross media and buy a novel, a big “event” book could generate lots of free publicity that could lead people who don’t ordinarily buy EU books to step up and purchase one. And if those people love the book, a high rate of word-of-mouth recommendation would follow, ending in true blockbuster sales.
But the goal of the broader EU, obviously, is a sustainable base of customers, not just a one-shot bestseller. It’s not enough to draw in lots of readers once, then lose them; the goal has to be to keep as many of them as possible. For Star Wars to truly capitalize on the possibility of an “event” book, then, that book would have to offer not only a great story of its own, but also the promise of consistently telling the kinds of ongoing stories that will capture the imagination of readers. You might suspect I have an idea in mind, and you’d be right – but I think that’s better suited for another discussion on another day…
And that’s also my segue to my other theme.
None of my ideas for fixing Star Wars books will work without the firm hand of editorial control to guide the future direction of the storylines and characters. The Powers That Be in charge of the EU need to have a vision of where their segment of the franchise is going. This is especially important for the flagship post-Return of the Jedi storyline, with the iconic original trilogy movie characters and over fifty books of development, far more than any other portion of the EU.
The flagship storyline during NJO series professed to have a vision, but it’s clear from the Round Robin interview that all the parties were not actually on the same page.
[Del Rey interviewer]: Would you agree that the NJO series is Jacen’s story—the tale of his coming of age, and the passing of the Jedi crown, as it were, from Luke to Jacen?
[Sue Rostoni, then-Managing Editor, Lucasfilm]: Absolutely. It was our intention from the beginning to make this Jacen’s story, ultimately.
[Lucy Wilson, then-Director of Publishing, Lucasfilm]: Jacen is the focus of the NJO, but I don’t think that makes it his story exactly. Or not only his story. Just as the films are about Anakin’s rise, fall, and redemption through his son, so, too, we wanted the books to be multigenerational, with a strong role for both the original cast from the films and the children of Han and Leia—who are, after all, the future.
[Shelly Shapiro, Editorial Director, Del Rey]: I would add that Jacen isn’t taking the “crown” from Luke. If anything, he is serving as a catalyst to help Luke grow into his next level of leadership.
[James Luceno, Author]: To me, the NJO is about the evolution of the Jedis’ perception of the Force and the rise of a new generation of Jedi Knights to be the vanguard in allying themselves with a more inclusive, more unifying vision of the Force.
Rostoni describes the NJO as a series dedicated to Jacen’s journey and the passing of the torch for the Jedi; Shapiro offers a different perspective, that the series was about elevating Luke to a new level of leadership. Luceno, the one writer on the panel, believes the Big Three had completed their journeys and that the next generation needed to be the heroic vanguard going forward; Wilson mentions all of Han and Leia’s children, not just Jacen, as the core of a new multigenerational storyline. Despite these somewhat divergent perspectives on the core intention of the NJO, however, all four seem in agreement that advancing the next generation of heroes to the forefront was primary.
Yet in the three subsequent story arcs, the Powers That Be have done a complete about-face on their direction. Dark Nest returned to the Big Three as the core heroes and gave the next generation only secondary roles – and despite that reliance on the movie characters did more to “bug” fans than to continue their love affairs with the Star Wars EU. Dark Nest also harkened in the first steps of Jacen Solo’s fall and dead-stopped the emotional and heroic development of his sister, the two living offspring of Han and Leia Solo. Legacy of the Force is undeniably the tragedy of Jacen Solo, and only as an aside in the eighth book did the story bring Jaina Solo up to par to participate in an epic battle to the death with her twin brother turned Sith Lord. And now in Fate of the Jedi, Luke and Ben are traveling the galaxy in their quest to learn more about the reasons behind Jacen’s fall, Jaina is once again sidelined from meaningful heroism and subjected to continued stunted emotional development, Tahiri Veila languishes in extended courtroom morass, and Tenel Ka has gone AWOL. How did the EU get from the Round Robin’s next generation focus to the endlessly continuing adventures of characters whose journeys were already over?
From the outside looking in, it certainly gives the impression that no one sat in a room and pondered where the books had been – 19 books creating a solo new hero for the Jedi – and where it was going – 12 books to tear him down. The tragedy of Legacy of the Force as the EU flagship series wasn’t Jacen’s fall to the dark side, but rather the utter disregard for what drew fans to the Star Wars EU in the first place. The Powers That Be seem to have misunderstood the thematic importance of the Prequel Trilogy. It wasn’t tragedy for its own sake, or darkness for the sake of grim storytelling. Instead, the Prequel Trilogy, the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker, only works because the Original Trilogy ensures the fans of a hope-filled ending. The short-sightedness of the Powers That Be in their post-NJO storytelling decisions was in not recognizing that what comes after the darkness in Star Wars is not more darkness, but light and hope and most importantly family and friends to love.
The editorial vision at Del Rey and Lucas Books wasn’t necessarily aligned at the end of the NJO, and it has been almost completely lacking since then. The NJO had a thick story bible, plot and character arcs designed from the beginning in a series of story conferences that didn’t include most of the authors who subsequently wrote the books, and a management team that coordinated the writing, editing, and later mini-story conferences among the authors. Since then, the flagship storyline has been developed by story pitches, not central planning: Dark Nest was pitched by Troy Denning; Jacen’s fall in LotF was also pitched by Denning, while the involvement of Boba Fett and the Mandalorians came from Karen Traviss; and the Skywalker “Odyssey” plot in FotJ originated with Shelly Shapiro.
This method of story design has caused real problems. For one, the pitches often contained a core premise but the other subplots never got developed thoroughly; for example, Jaina’s insignificant role for most of LotF is incongruous with her crucial role in the denouement, while the authors of FotJ seemingly have no clear idea of what Han and Leia are contributing to the story. Another problem is that the pitch-by-pitch method has caused the overall story to take a direction incrementally that it very well might not have taken if it had been planned from the start. For example, in the December issue of Star Wars Insider, Troy Denning discussed the morally gray state of Luke Skywalker’s mindset midway through FotJ. That version of Luke isn’t George Lucas’s Luke anymore, and I’m not sure that the editors would have deliberately brought Luke to that point by conscious design, particularly if they were relying on movie fans to buy those books. The OT hero is simply unrecognizable to a movie fan who picks up FotJ because they see Luke Skywalker on the cover.
Similar problems are arising in the other novels outside the flagship story. Del Rey and Lucas Books have been hiring the author first, then deciding what story they’re going to write. Interestingly, just a few weeks ago, on February 22, Paul Kemp tweeted this:
@paulskemp Idea for the Star Wars duology has sprung, Athena-like, full formed from my brow. Running it by editors and @holocronkeeper. We’ll see.
So apparently they signed Kemp to write two books without any idea what the books were really going to be about. It’s no wonder we’ve gotten such a hodgepodge of random stories. Some of them have been books that under-use some of their best authors by telling random side stories instead of advancing the ball in significant ways on the core storyline, such as Matt Stover’s Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor or Tim Zahn’s Allegiance.
We’ve also seen a dramatic increase in niche books – heavily skewed toward Sith plotlines and original character Jedi – that are generating little enthusiasm among the broader EU fanbase. Death Star is a perfectly fine book and I’m sure Perry and Reaves enjoyed writing it, but who exactly was the target audience for it? Or books like Kemp’s Crosscurrent or Reaves and Bohnhoff’s Shadow Games, about decade-old videogame characters Jaden Korr and Dash Rendar, respectively? I’m sure Jeff Grubb is a fine novelist, but did anyone think they’d hit big sales with a book about the Hutts? Don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty of room in the EU novels for standalones and niche books, but even those books must be a part of a broader strategy for the overall picture of the EU marketing strategy. Who are the customers, what do they want to buy, and how are we going to deliver that product to them?
So what should Del Rey and Lucas Books do to generate the kind of vision and editorial control I’m talking about? Here are some basic starting points:
- Remember that the goal of Del Rey as a licensee is to sell books, so the vision for EU novels has to be designed to maximize EU book sales. If that’s the goal, the Powers That Be need to be very careful whose feedback they’re listening to – not just the fanboy echochamber on internet messageboards – and keep in mind that the potential broader book-sales audience currently has no voice, other than in what they are willing to buy.
- Pick the story first, then the author to write it. Without a vision, the EU will continue to wander and continue to lose readers.
- Don’t let individual authors become too invested in their own personal ownership of their contribution to the saga, whether it’s Traviss and the Mandos, Denning and gray morality, Golden and the Lost Tribe, Miller and Knight Errant’s dark ages, or even Zahn with Mara Jade, Thrawn, and the Chiss. The saga is bigger than any one contributor, and the interests of the saga always should come first.
- For the flagship storyline, decide where the characters’ lives are going and then decide how to get there. Perhaps pitches can be used to iron out the specific details, but it has to be Del Rey and Lucas Books, not individual authors’ pitches, that determines, for example, what role Ben Skywalker is going to serve in his twenties, thirties, and forties and how each new story will fit into and lead toward those roles.
- Ultimately, there is a lesson to be learned from the storytelling success of The Clone Wars. George Lucas’ involvement balanced with the fanboy enthusiasm of Dave Filoni shows that it’s possible to engage new fans.
And that’s my bottom line on fixing Star Wars books: they can shift their marketing and retarget their audience, but without editorial control and a vision in place too, true market success for the EU books will remain as elusive as water in a Tatooine desert.