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Building a Galaxy: New Publisher, New Directions

While the Star Wars franchise is best known for its films, it's also well-known for its sprawling novel series, the Star Wars Expanded Universe. While it's no longer canon, it kept Star Wars going for decades, and still retains a loyal following.
Building a Galaxy: New Publisher, New Directions

By 1997, Star Wars was back in a big way. George Lucas had refurbished and brought the original three films, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi back into theaters for the franchise's 25th anniversary. The Special Editions introduced Star Wars to an entirely new generation that hadn't seen them during their original theatrical run.

That resurgence in interest was thanks in a small part to the growing library of tie-in novels published by Bantam Spectra. It had helped keep the light burning for die-hard fans, and its publishing program was running at full tilt: Bantam Spectra published 15 books in 1996 another 21 novels the following year; almost every one was part of an existing series or trilogy.

But with growth came some new issues. Authors were pitching their own stories, and the Expanded Universe had become crowded and unwieldy. More worrisome, sales had begun to fall. Lucasfilm’s Lucy Wilson realized she needed to reinvigorate the publishing program, describing the situation with Bantam Spectra as “tired.” They needed a change.

Read Part One: Origin Stories, Part Two: Heir to the Trilogy, and Part Three: Expanding the Universe

She set out to find a way to continue the story and drum up new interest. She had several conversations around the idea of multi-author stories, something that she’d seen work in the comic book industry: teams of authors, editors, and artists planning out larger arcs, each producing individual installments.

“I wanted to try this new approach. But I couldn’t put a new multi-book, multi-year program together until we had a new publishing agreement, and given the timing, it was going to have to be part of the licensing rights to the new trilogy of films.”

With declining sales and financial drama at Bantam Spectra, Wilson began to seek out a new publisher who would carry on the franchise, reinvigorate sales execute on plans for a long, multi-author arc.

She found that partner in Del Rey Books, a subsidiary of Ballantine, the publisher that had put out the original Star Wars novels in the ’80s. Bantam Spectra would continue to reprint the books published under their own banner, but for at least the next five years, Del Rey would produce the next generation of novels. With the transition, Del Rey cancelled several books, among them a Shadows of the Empire prequel authored by Charles Grant.

Wilson had to be comfortable with a publisher that would be able to take on the growing Expanded Universe and run with it, without falling into the same problems that Bantam Spectra faced in later years. Above all, she needed a dedicated manager for the program, an editor who could handle the complexity of the franchise.

“I had put out feelers for the names of the best sci-fi editors in the business, and Shelly Shapiro’s name had come up,” Wilson said. “Ballantine Books agreed to bring Shelly into the program if they got the deal, which was one factor, among many others, for their getting the license.”

Shapiro was an editorial assistant at Del Rey, and a former editorial assistant with the Science Fiction Book Club, a subscription service dedicated to genre titles. With the signing of the Lucasfilm contract, Del Rey’s president assigned her as editor of the new project.

With the franchise returning to the public’s attention with the release of The Phantom Menace, Lucasfilm wanted to bring back Star Wars publishing with a vengeance, and Del Rey wanted to do something dramatic. According to Troy Denning, Lucasfilm felt they needed to move away from the approach that had worked in the past: individual authors pitching their own stories. The company wanted to have much tighter control on the larger story arc, which would help maintain continuity and tone. With Bantam closing out their run with a final Timothy Zahn duology, there was an opportunity to reboot the story and reengage their fanbase.

The project Del Rey settled on would be unprecedented in the universe: a large group of authors who would assemble a closely-knit series, each contributing a book or two, published in both hardcover and paperback. They titled it The New Jedi Order. To plan the project, they approached author R.A. Salvatore and other franchise veterans, including Michael A. Stackpole.

Salvatore initially hesitated joining the project: “Though I loved the movies, I hadn’t been reading the novels. The publisher assured me not to worry about that, as they were looking for a fresh voice, a new beginning for the series rather than a mere continuation. “One of the major complaints I heard about the earlier Star Wars books was that nothing ever ‘happened’ to anyone significant: the galaxy far, far away had grown so safe for our heroes that serious drama was becoming impossible.”

Shelly Shapiro said something similar in a 2000 interview. “Once we’d come up with a sketchy outline of where we wanted to go, start to finish, we had to get it approved from on high. For example, as I mentioned earlier, we were told we could not kill off certain characters. We originally intended the enemy to be dark Force-users; we were told they had to be non-Force users. We had a certain plan in mind for one of the characters; we were told to use a different character for this particular plan.”

The assembled team of writers and editors had to find a way to shake up the Star Wars universe. They dusted off an older idea of an extra-galactic invasion; “the invading aliens were given the working name of Adzakans, and then the Vici-Vicians, which later was supplanted by the Yunnan Vong, before finally becoming the Yuzzahn Vong,” Pablo Hidalgo wrote in The Essential Reader’s Guide. “They were first said to be tribal-minded humans, transformed by ritual tattooing and the use of the dark side into yellow-eyed zealots. Later versions did away with the dark side influence, and the aliens were described as resembling humans but taller, heavier and with less hair. It was author R.A. Salvatore who came up with the bio-organic technology angle to give the invaders a suitably distinctive hook.”

To drive the seriousness of the change, they got permission from George Lucas to do something he refused to allow in the past: to kill off one of the main characters. Shelly Shapiro “put her foot down: Han Solo would live,” according to Chris Taylor in How Star Wars Conquered the Universe. “Stackpole remembers it differently: he says that there was a simple, methodical process of deciding which of the leads—Han, Luke, Leia, Lando, the droids, Chewbacca—it would hurt the least to lose. From whose viewpoint would it be the hardest to describe grief? ‘After two days,’ Stackpole says, ‘we had Chewie locked down.’”

The team got to work, and R.A. Salvatore set about writing the start to this epic series. With the outline in hand, he followed the beats that the team had laid out during their extensive planning sessions.

In October 1999, Vector Prime dropped the bombshell on the Star Wars reading public, and played up the project, even producing a television commercial for it, narrated by none other than Luke Skywalker himself: Mark Hamill. Fans knew that this would be a game-changing book, and there had even been rumors of a major character’s death, but it caught everyone by surprise: it would change up the universe that readers had come to love.

“I have been surprised by the level of anger in some of the people,” Salvatore said. “I haven’t received any of the death threats personally, but they’ve been made, so I’ve been told. I have received many angry e-mails, and I’ve noticed a few curious things about the progression of that anger–it’s like watching people going through a grieving process. ”

Stackpole, one of the other principal architects of The New Jedi Order, picked after Salvatore with his paperback duology Dark Tide: Onslaught and Ruin. The books picked up as the Yuzzahn Vong began to pour into the galaxy, while the New Republic weighed its options. Stackpole had the task of pushing the narrative forward, which meant showing off what the Yuzzahn Vong would do. The novels, originally slated to be a trilogy (Stackpole cut out the central book, Siege, and integrated its respective parts into Onslaught and Ruin), upped the stakes for everyone.

James Luceno followed with a duology, Agents of Chaos. He had originally been a continuity expert for the series; when Stackpole’s trilogy became a duology, he expanded his single book to two, Hero’s Trial and Jedi Eclipse, focusing on the refugees and Han Solo in the aftermath of losing Chewbacca.

The series came to a tipping point with Balance Point, written by Truce at Bakura author Kathy Tyers. Tyers’ book was one of the five anchor hardcovers, and she found herself in a different universe this time: there were far more books to work around, and the organization of the series was more structured.

Tyers found that she liked working in a larger, more collaborative environment: “I was asked to supply rough drafts to the authors who followed me. It was tag-team novel writing, and it was a riot…We supported each other, enjoyed interacting, and handed off our episodes knowing the next team member could do what he or she wanted with ‘our’ characters. I was glad that the author who killed off my favorite character had the good grace to warn me ahead of time.”

The next set of books was a duology, Edge of Victory, by Greg Keyes, commissioned to replace a trilogy called Knightfall, authored by Michael Jan Friedman. That trilogy would have covered a string of military defeats for the New Republic. But while Friedman completed the first installment, Jedi Storm, Lucasfilm ultimately pulled the plug. “[LucasFilm] said they weren’t happy with the way the story was going," Terese Nielson, the novel's cover artist recounted, so rather than salvaging what had been done, they canned it,” In addition to his NJO novels, Keyes also authored a six-part serial story Emissary of the Void, which appeared in Star Wars Gamer and Insider magazines.

In 2001, the most important volume of the series to date arrived: Star by Star, by Troy Denning. Denning had previously worked for West End Games, producing some of the background information the authors would later incorporate into their works. Now, he was coming full circle to provide the story.

Salvatore told Denning about the series when it was starting up, and Denning then sent a note and some writing samples to Sue Rostoni in late 1998; he followed up monthly before eventually giving up. In July 1999, he “got a call out of the blue” with an offer. He offered to prepare a pitch, only to be told they already knew what he was going to write about—and wouldn’t tell him about it until he’d signed a contract.

“After I signed the contract, I got the bible — over 500 pages of details Stackpole and others came up with. I knew which book would be mine, and I’m like, ‘oh my god! Anakin Solo dies!’ and from that, my assignment was to write an outline to show how all those details would happen. I wrote up the outline, and then they sent me Vector Prime and other materials.”

The death of Anakin Solo was a major event in the Expanded Universe: he was one of the three Solo children, a major character who emerged from a decade of stories.

Denning picked up writing as the series began to arrive in bookstores, receiving Kathy Tyer’s outline and other early books. “I was writing my book when Balance Point came out, [and] she did things in a slightly different manner; all my characters were about 10 percent off from where they should have been. I had to go rewrite 400 pages.”

Elaine Cunningham authored the next installment, Dark Journey, which took place in the immediate aftermath of Star by Star and followed its impact on Jaina Solo. “Bob [Salvatore] knew my work in the Forgotten Realms,” Cunningham recalled. “He felt that I’d be a good fit for a book that focused on Jaina, so he recommended me to Shelly Shapiro.”

Cunningham had the difficult job of following on the heels of the galaxy-shaking consequences of Star By Star. By the time she arrived, the broad strokes of the storyline were already in place, and the planning teams had determined many of the story beats the novel had to hit. “The ‘story bible’ decreed that during this process, Jaina Solo would come perilously close to the Dark Side,” she said. “The details were pretty much up to me — subject, of course, to approval from Del Rey and LucasFilm.”

The length and depth of The New Jedi Order afforded Del Rey and its authors do to something interesting: focus intensely on single characters with the backdrop of an intergalactic war. The series had already done this at points with other members of the Solo family, and Dark Journey stood out as a particular character study.

The next books were a duology from X-Wing series author Aaron Allston: Rebel Dream and Rebel Stand, which saw the capture of the Galactic capital, Coruscant. Following Allston’s duology, Del Rey brought Matthew Stover in to write the next installment, Traitor. Like Cunningham’s novel, this one would focus on a member of the Solo family: Jacen Solo.

Stackpole and Salvatore convinced Stover to join the project. “[They] collared me at a convention and whispered these magic words into my ear," Stover recalled. "‘First print run of a quarter-million copies.’ Plus, the story Del Rey had in mind for me — a captured Jedi being alternately tormented and trained by a dark echo of Yoda — sounded like something I could have some fun with.” Stover helped to plan the later elements of the series, attending story sessions at Skywalker Ranch; with the larger beats of the series planned out, it was time to begin bringing it to a conclusion.

Stover wrote his book in 2000, and uniquely, it was the first entry in the entire expanded universe that featured none of the characters from the films. The Expanded Universe had officially pushed away from its source material, almost a decade after it had begun. Readers had essentially grown up with the children of the Solo family, and were now seeing them age into full-fledged protagonists. Like Cunningham’s novel about Jaina, Traitor has endured as a Jacen Solo novel, one that would become more important with time.

After Traitor, the series entered its home stretch with Destiny’s Way, authored by Walter Jon Williams. It was a major hardcover, depicting a fractured New Republic desperately trying to counter the Yuuzahn Vong, and was followed by Sean Williams and Shane Dix’s Force Heretic trilogy, which connected the New Jedi Order back to a prequel novel, Greg Bear’s Rogue Planet. Keyes returned for the penultimate book, The Final Prophecy, and the final installment, The Unifying Force, came from James Luceno in 2003, wrapping up a massive storyline that spelled out major changes to the Star Wars and left the galaxy in a radically different place.

The New Jedi Order had lasting consequences for the surviving characters, steering and influencing the books that would come after. But it was also a major experiment in publishing that paid off for Del Rey. Spanning 19 novels and 11 contributing authors, it was a massive logistical effort, requiring coordination on the development, writing, and marketing ends—almost to the point where it again became unwieldy for readers.

But with the New Jedi Order ending, a new series was just getting started.

This feature was originally published on Barnes & Noble's Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog. I've reprinted it here with some edits and minor corrections.

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