No matter the franchise, a key element of success is generating buzz to build enthusiasm for the characters and the story. In a crowded marketplace, nothing says “Pick me! Pick me!” like creators who show enthusiasm for their product. One great way to do that is to give the fans hints and teasers from upcoming stories. When done well, it raises interest in what’s next and sparks speculation and theorizing about where the characters’ lives are going.
Over the last year or so, I’ve noticed an interesting contrast between the strategy taken by The Clone Wars in promoting itself on the one hand, and Lucas Books and Del Rey with the Expanded Universe novels on the other. They’re both part of the same Star Wars franchise, yet they’ve followed completely different strategies, particularly when it comes to teasing the fans with juicy hints from future storylines.
Before getting into that specifically, though, I wanted to say a word about the difference between a teaser and a spoiler. Really, it’s a matter of degree, in the sense that both involve revealing information from an upcoming product (like a TV episode or a book). But in the traditional sense, spoilers tend to involve plot points: Qui-Gon dies in The Phantom Menace; Darth Vader is Luke’s father; Jaina Solo kills Darth Caedus. A good teaser, by contrast, reveals nothing major about the plot but catches attention and interest. At the same time, a good teaser hints toward something that will actually pay off in a fun or unexpected way when the surrounding details of the tidbit are revealed.
The Clone Wars has done some really effective teasing during Season Three, especially for the second half of the season. At times they chose to reveal outright spoilers, such as allowing some fans to see the Nightsisters trilogy in theatrical screenings weeks earlier than the television premiere, and some of the plot points revealed in Star Wars Insider articles. For the most part, though, TCW has relied on much more discrete teasers. They released a trailer with flashes of images from many episodes, which led to lots of fun speculation of what those glimpses might be. Some of the guesses were wildly wrong, of course, but that’s all part of the game. The teasers got more specific as the episodes approached. For example, a short clip of Obi-Wan talking to (seemingly) Qui-Gon’s Force ghost was very cool – but gave away nothing even approaching the amazing scope and thematic power of the Mortis trilogy. The reveal that Tarkin would appear in the Citadel episodes spoiled none of the drama of the jailbreak – and the teaser paid off when Tarkin lived up to a younger version of the ruthless, scheming persona of A New Hope, right down to his respect for Anakin and disdain for Obi-Wan. Similarly, the teaser that Chewbacca would meet Ahsoka couldn’t possibly have prepared us for the chilling context in which it occurred – and yet we got to see the beloved Wookiee we know so well, from his compassion and mechanical skills to his courage and fierce protectiveness.
Compared to TCW, the relative dearth of teasers for the EU books has been rather conspicuous. Some books have been given sneak peeks, like the excerpt from Knight Errant included in the Issue #0 giveaway at Celebration V or the early chapters of Red Harvest posted on starwars.com in the weeks prior to its release. Paul Kemp occasionally tweets or blogs a teaser from a manuscript in progress, but as far as I’m aware none of the other authors do this. Recently the Star Wars Books Facebook page has posted sneak peeks at the annotations from the upcoming Twentieth Anniversary Edition of Heir to the Empire, but so far it’s been facts that informed fans have known for a long time.
The absence of enthusiastic teasers from Lucas Books or Del Rey is most noticeable, though, in the flagship series. When the Fate of the Jedi series began, an initial burst of promotion included a free PDF to introduce new readers to the characters and their backstories, and later three free online downloads in the form of short letters from Ben Skywalker to his cousin Jaina Solo while he traveled about the galaxy with his father. We were given funny lines and interesting settings from the manuscript. Yet, now six books in, the use of teasers to build fan interest has all but vanished. Five of the novels released to date had advanced reader copies distributed to reviewers at fansites – but on the condition that their reviews be posted only after the book had hit the shelves. The authors have stayed silent, and the editors have been sparse in their public statements too. Sue Rostoni did reveal that Lando Calrissian and Luke’s former love Callista would appear in Allies – but the payoff to each of those fell rather flat, with Lando’s role in the book seemingly being written simply for the sake of having him in the book and Callista being revealed to have been consumed by the monstrous creature Abeloth long before Luke actually arrived to discover that fact. With the release of the next book, Conviction, a little over a month away, fans have seen no teasers about the book; the only information we do have is the jacket cover blurb for the novel, which appears to contain flat-out spoilers for what occurs in the book (in contrast to all the recent previous jacket blurbs in the flagship series, which had described how the story got to the point where the book began). This way of handling the books is puzzling to say the least – particularly when most of the options available for spreading the word are free, other than the cost of the authors’ and editors’ time.
At the end of the day, book sales flow from fan enthusiasm as much as anything else. Word of mouth generates sales, and pre-publication buzz is even better. TCW has certainly figured that out for promoting their series. For example, Dave Filoni spent over an hour in a live chat with the ForceCast crew last week, even though Season Three is over and Season Four is probably five or six months away. In recent months we’ve also seen media interviews with several of the voice actors, a Los Angeles Times profile of the series’ head writer, and new podcasts from Ashley Eckstein. In addition to Dave as the very effective, very public front-man of TCW, there’s a solid ground game always keeping TCW in the public eye. The central marketing program for Star Wars books is a pale shadow by comparison. There’s a small presence on Facebook, including Erich at Del Rey and Leland Chee’s new Holocron page, but little else in the ground game; there’s certainly no significant public face comparable to Dave Filoni. When Lucas Books and Del Rey are doing so little to hype their books, while TCW is doing so much, the dissonance is hard to miss.
There’s no reason for the market penetration of Star Wars books not to be much greater than it is. On any given day you can find a new interview or release for the Hunger Games trilogy, to the point that everyone knows who you are talking about when the name Katniss is brought up. When was the last time Ben Skywalker, Mara Jade, or Jaina Solo were mentioned that way? One of the best ways that the Powers That Be can get more readers back to being excited about the books is to show the fans just how excited they themselves are about their books – in part with well chosen teasers that hint at just how fun the books are going to be to read.
With the beginning of the exciting mini-trilogy – as the publishers have dubbed books seven through nine of Fate of the Jedi – just a little over a month away, it’s time for the market saturation to begin, in earnest.
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