By Sabrina Fried
Published: September 17, 2008
The one criticism I see repeatedly about contemporary Star Wars stories is that anytime a story focuses on any of the main characters from the movies, the story is doomed to have absolutely no suspense or surprises to it. Take the Clone Wars theatrical pilot as an example -- yes, I've finally decided that is how I will refer to it. We already know what is going to happen to both Anakin and Obi-Wan within the next few years. That's precisely why Ahsoka Tano has been parachuted in as a character to which the writers can actually do something, even if chances are good that something will have her exiting stage left at some point just before the timeline hits Episode III in a way that will ensure that no one ever feels the need to mention her ever again. Such is the fate of the Star Wars sidekick. She's hardly the first.
On the business side of Star Wars, having few surprises is a good thing. Although it has been rumored for over a year, it was finally confirmed this week that Del Rey will continue on as the publisher of the Star Wars novels through to 2013. Now personally, I thought that Del Rey's run with the novels so far was more miss than hit in terms of the quality of the stories they were telling. But I can't argue that from a business perspective, they've done a stellar job. In their first and second tenures as the novels publisher, Del Rey released the ebook versions of Vector Prime and Betrayal for free to encourage new readers to pick up their two large series. They experimented with different kinds of novels, from short stories in the ebooks, to longer novellas, one-shots and video game tie-ins to single-author miniseries and multi-author sagas. Del Rey has a vehicle to tell almost any Star Wars story that can be told in prose format. They've used that flexibility to their advantage.
The Del Rey novels have been successful, topping even mainstream bestsellers' lists repeatedly, a feat that few genre novels ever accomplish. But that's not hard to do when you are churning out as many books as they are, with each book inevitably becoming an advertisement for the next one. From 2004 through to the end of 2008, Del Rey will have published 35 novels, or about 8-9 novels per year. The new contract calls on the publisher to keep up that pace of publishing for another four years. Little is known about the 35 new novels in the works -- the ink on the contract is barely dry -- but the official press release does mention that the Legacy of the Force series will be continued with another nine-book series written by three authors. For the new series, tentatively titled Fate of the Jedi, Del Rey will be resurrecting the publishing format that was the operational standard for most multi-book series in the earlier days of the Bantam license: All nine Fate of the Jedi novels will be released as hardcovers (presumably to be reprinted in paperback later, to catch the demographic of readers who do not buy hardcovers).
And yet as a fan of Star Wars stories, and a long time reader of the novels, there's a part of me that is not as happy with this announcement as I hoped I would be, because it seems to suggest that the next four years of Star Wars novel publishing will simply be more of the same. And I think Del Rey has a lot of work to do to get the novels to be more hit than miss by any description other than short forays to the top of the New York Times' bestseller list. Sales are an important factor of any publishing program. But I am a reader that does not work for Del Rey, any other official Star Wars publisher, or Lucasfilm, so I do not need to rely on sales figures for a book to validate my opinion of it. Just because a book is a bestseller, doesn't mean that it is any good. I find myself more concerned with whether Del Rey will publish books that I will want to read more than once. Or books that a new generation of fans coming to Star Wars ten or twenty years from now will actually want to read. The only Star Wars novel that Del Rey has put out in its latest decade as the official novels publisher that I have felt the need to read more than once was Matt Stover's stunning novelization of Episode III. It's one of the few Del Rey Star Wars novels I would recommend to new fans, and pretty much the only one of their novels that still resonates with me even though I haven't read it in over a year. As much as I love reading something that is new and Star Wars, my preference is for new Star Wars that is also good and entertaining. I'd much rather have two or three excellent Star Wars novels a year that tell a good story than a dozen mediocre ones that I feel obligated to read because they explain some important part of continuity. Star Wars reading should be leisure reading, not homework.
As a general rule with Del Rey's backlist of novels, I find that I am enamored more with the ideas they present than the execution of those ideas. The twisted irony of having Jacen Solo, after a lifetime of guarded training and education at the feet of his uncle Luke, become everything Luke spent his life fighting against was wonderful. The Yuuzhan Vong were perhaps the most intriguing antagonists in the Galaxy Far, Far Away since the Empire itself. But somewhere along the line, the Legacy of the Force got hijacked by its subplots, and the New Jedi Order, sort-of forgot to finish its story so it just whipped up some vague thing about a sentient, hyperspace-capable planet (or something) quickly to fill out its page-count and put its ending on the to-do list of other book series. More than the Bantam books, the Del Rey novels are painfully aware of their state as tie-in novels in a carefully orchestrated and regulated multimedia franchise. And it shows. Few of them can ever truly finish their story, because doing so would make it that much more difficult to push the next novel. Where Dark Horse has gone to great pains to ensure they have titles suitable for new fans, Del Rey has gone in almost the opposite direction. In their next four years of novels, I hope that Del Rey learns to apply to the Star Wars novels the same attention and care they provide to their non-franchised fiction. A story must have a beginning, middle and end. Novels should not have to rely on other unrelated stories to tie up their loose ends. Putting out some more introductory stories wouldn't hurt either.
I could harp on a lot of other things in the Del Rey novels: the fact that editing standards have declined in recent years, the fact that Del Rey sabotages their own hardcover sales by encouraging knowledgeable fans to wait for the paperback so that they can get the ebook reprints and other goodies at no extra cost. But then it occurs to me that editing standards as a rule have declined in most of the publishing industry, as editors and the turnaround time they need to clean up manuscripts are cut to reduce overhead. And I benefit from being able to buy a $10 paperback with extras, but those bare-bones hardcover editions are more attractive to libraries and collectors, who will buy the novels, no matter how awful they are, by the skidful. For now, at least. With North America well on its way to a recession in the next year, it will be interesting to see how well those hardcovers sell when they are published.
Is it too much for me to ask to be surprised, if only just a little? I'm expecting four more years of the same from Del Rey, but I would love to see them treat their novels less like products that must be churned out according to their contractual obligations and more like good fiction. I'm expecting to start borrowing Star Wars books from the library instead of buying them because I am sick of plopping down $10 for a 250 page novel and feeling cheated. But I'd love to be able to buy the Star Wars novels again and feel that the price and page count were irrelevant because it was one fine, entertaining romp through the galaxy. If a publisher can drop a moon on Chewbacca and still be paid to publish Star Wars books a decade later surely they find something to surprise me.