Building a Galaxy Far, Far Away: New Publisher, New Directions (1998-2005)

neworderAll week long, we’re exploring the formation of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Click here for an index page, which will be updated as they are published.

By 1997, the Star Wars 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. 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.

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 then 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 put out 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 so an reengage the 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. 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 was to cover a string of military defeats for the New Republic. Friedman completed the first novel, Jedi Storm , but the books were ultimately cancelled: “[LucasFilm] said they weren’t happy with the way the story was going, so rather than salvaging what had been done, they canned it,” according to the novel’s cover artist, Terese Nielson. 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 focused intensely on Jaina Solo, and took place in the immediate aftermath of Star by Star. “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 intensely on a member of the Solo family: Jacen Solo.

Michael A. Stackpole and R.A. Salvatore convinced Stover. “[He] collared me at a convention and whispered these magic words into my ear: ‘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 that featured none of the characters from the films. The Expanded Universe had officially pushed off 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 Expanded Universe.

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.

The Clone Wars

With the release of Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Del Rey Books renewed its license with LucasFilm with an arrangement that would take them through the end of 2008encompassing 18 new novels—nine hardcovers and nine original mass-market paperbacks, three of each to be published per year. The agreement covered an arc of novels following the events between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Long off limits to authors and confined to vague mentions in the novels, the epic struggle alluded to by Obi Wan Kenobi in A New Hope was now fair game.

Like in earlier collaborative settings such as Shadows of the Empire, Del Rey had to work closely with their fellow licensees producing movie tie-in merchandise. Along with Dark Horse Comics and Cartoon Network, an overarching story emerged: the Clone Wars Multimedia Project. This would be a new era for the publisher; they now had two reference points from to work within—the months after Attack of the Clones, all the way through the final prequel.

The first novel to appear was Stover’s Shatterpoint, a darker story that helped set the tone. Stover had been invited back for a novel about Mace Windu, and he spent several months trying to figure out exactly what to write, “getting rejection after rejection until they finally told me they wanted ‘a horrors-of-war story, like Cold Mountain or All Quiet on the Western Front.’ I said, ‘Have you actually read All Quiet? Everybody dies!’ Which is problematic in Star Wars, especially when you’re writing a continuing character. But in the end, with that to go on, I came up with a one sentence outline: ‘How about Apocalypse Now with Jedi in it?’”

That sold Del Rey, and Stover constructed a novel heavily inspired by Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. Stover worked briefly with Steven Barnes, who was slated to write the next novel in the series, The Cestus Deception, mainly to make sure that they weren’t going to contradict one another.

MedStar I: Battle Surgeons and MedStar II: Jedi Healer, written by Michael Reaves and Steven Perry, appeared later in 2004. Perry, who had originally written Shadows of the Empire, returned to the universe after the Bantam Spectra contract upheaval that had pushed him out. Along with Michael Reaves, he pitched a novel that he described as “M*A*S*H in space, and a chance to do a little stuff with oddball characters, some of whom show up in subsequent books.” Perry had a medical background, and the pair of novels featured Jedi Master Barris Offee, who had been stationed at a medical center on the front lines.

Several other novels appeared around the same time: Jedi Trial, a war novel, appeared from military science fiction authors David Sherman and Dan Cragg, while an adaptation of the Republic Commando video game appeared from Karen Traviss: Hard Contact. Of all the Clone Wars novels, few were as successful as Traviss’ series, which eventually stretched to include Triple Zero, True Colors, Order 66, and Imperial Commando: 501st. The character-driven series developed in much the same way as Michael A. Stackpole’s X-Wing books, following a set of characters not typically seen in the movies, or even other novels: clone troopers. In addition to her work with the Republic Commandos series, Traviss also penned the novelization of the pilot for the Clone Wars television series.  One novel, Escape from Dagu, which would have focused on a Jedi Knight named Shaak Ti, was cancelled, and replaced with Dark Rendezvous by Sean Stewart, which focused on Yoda, a first for the literature world.

While the Clone Wars novels were being written, Dark Horse Comics worked on their own stories, creating a delicate continuity, with works often moving past one another. Unlike the New Jedi Order, the Clone Wars series involved a much wider narrative, with an enormous cast of characters.

After his work on Shatterpoint, Shelly Shapiro called Matthew Stover to write the novelization of the final film. Stover noted that the project was entirely different from that of writing a regular novel:  “You have a lot of freedom in a basic tie-in—a lot of stuff in those two books is entirely my own invention. In the novelization, I was working directly from Mr. Lucas’s final shooting script. There is very little freedom at all, except in hypothesizing how going through these events would feel for the characters—and maybe a little bit in elaborating backstory.” Stover interviewed George Lucas for his thoughts on how Revenge of the Sith had come together, and worked with Luceno to help him construct Labyrinth of Evil, a direct prequel to Revenge of the Sith, which hit theaters in 2005.

2005 marked the end of two major ongoing projects for Del Rey: the New Jedi Order had ended, leaving a radically changed Expanded Universe in its wake, while the Clone Wars had examined the previously off-limits part of the canon. The two experiences were radically different from what had come before. Del Rey and Lucasfilm worked strictly, ensuring all of the books operated within a framework that would serve the larger story, while granting individual authors latitude to develop their own ideas: collaborative arcs, with each book relying on the others in tight, focused series events, and connected novels with a shared background.

These advances were necessitated by the sheer growth of the Expanded Universe, and would serve the company well as they moved beyond the prequel trilogy and the New Jedi Order, and explored the future of Star Wars…

Click here to read other installments in this five-part series.

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