Adventures In Editing, Part IV

vaderTwenty years ago this past spring, Bantam Books rocked the science fiction world by publishing HEIR TO THE EMPIRE by Timothy Zahn, a continuation of the story told in the STAR WARS trilogy of movies, which had ended eight years before. It was authorized, but not devised, by Lucasfilm Ltd., producer of the wildly successful pictures.

You might have trouble believing this, but by the early Nineties, STAR WARS had fallen off the top-of-mind cultural map. People still loved the movies, but thanks to home video, they’d seen them as many times as they wanted, often to the point of gluttony. As a production company, Lucasfilm had been concentrating on the third Indiana Jones feature, which was released in 1989, and on a television series based on a younger version of the character. Industrial Light + Magic and Skywalker Sound, its visual and audio effects divisions, were very busy, but mostly with commissioned work from outside. Lucas Licensing, the arm which had made George Lucas’s fortune when he presciently retained merchandising rights to STAR WARS and its characters, was also doing much of its work for others; I seem to remember that a sports league, maybe even the NFL, was a client at the time. All these LFL people were savvy and shrewd professionals, but without new product to drive demand, the STAR WARS brand lay fallow.

In publishing, the STAR TREK brand had stayed alive for decades for Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books – new novels were still being written about the characters in the original Sixties television iteration! – but that fire was periodically stoked by new tv series and feature films, which would in turn inspire new groups of novels in a virtuous circle. In addition, STAR TREK had the luxury of being an episodic story: the characters would begin in stasis, something would happen to threaten the calm, they’d solve the problem and get back to normal. In other words, you can watch episodes of the original series in any order you like (except for the pilot, which uniquely is a two-parter), and they’ll still make sense. With the exception of some two- or three-show “arcs,” the latter STAR TREK series also followed this template, making it far easier to publish episodic novels, since the only requirement was to fix anything you broke by the end of the book.

STAR WARS, in contrast, has never been a group of disparate episodes, but rather one long story. There is a preferred order in which to experience the original movie trilogy – indeed, on initial viewing it’s even necessary. Nowadays there are six movies, and if you were brand new to the concept, you’d need to watch them all in order. So if you want to add to this saga, it’s much, much harder now. But there was only the trilogy when Bantam suggested to Lucasfilm, “just let us play with some time after the third film.” (At this point, George was still maintaining that his planned epic was a nine-film saga.) It was Lou Aronica who wore them down. Del Rey Books, the original STAR WARS novelizers (the first one came out before the film!), had rights to anything pertaining to the completed films, but that wasn’t what Lou was proposing. He said, “Let’s continue the story with your characters, only in book form.” Also, please remember, Lucas Licensing wasn’t doing much STAR WARS business at the time. Finally, LFL’s Lucy Autrey Wilson (see below) took a flyer on Lou’s suggestion — and turned on a revenue stream that is still flowing today.

In one sense, it was a courageous decision on Lucasfilm’s part. What if Lou’s project bombed? That would tarnish the brand, which was still one of the best-loved trademarks in the world, and a licensee losing money on STAR WARS would have a chilling effect on other potential partners in the future.

But that’s not what happened.

When HEIR TO THE EMPIRE landed in bookstores, it was an instant sensation. It went straight to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there. We heard that at a couple of megastores, customers were actually helping the staff uncrate cartons to get at their copies. It turned out that after eight years, there was a huge pent-up demand for new STAR WARS stories, untapped by anyone else. We had put a bargain price on the first printing to help get the book kicked off (I have a copy with the original low-price-promoting “belly band” still affixed: wonder if it qualifies for Sotheby’s yet?); at each reprint we nudged the retail price up a little bit, until it cost as much as a regular hardcover. The torrent of customers remained at full strength. As with the smash success of New Line Cinema’s THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING years later, the initial hardcover publication of HEIR TO THE EMPIRE alone earned back Bantam’s entire guarantee to Lucasfilm for the whole literary trilogy and thus started paying royalties: all else – a paperback reprint, an audio version, and two more new books – was gravy, after normal overhead. (Editing, proofing, buying paper, printing, binding, shipping, distributing, etc. You incur such costs with every single book, even the Holy Bible. Well, you might retain the original edit there.)

In other words, STAR WARS was white-hot once again. Or maybe it had never cooled off at all; it was just that nobody was obliging with new stories. And, of course, Timothy Zahn hit a homer, crafting a terrific cosmic-scale epic that had the look and feel of STAR WARS. There is a direct causal link between the publication of this novel and LFL’s three prequel movies.

The entrance to Skywalker Ranch. Yes, security is watching you.

Soon Galoob, Hasbro, Dark Horse Comics, and other licensees got on – or, for some, back on – the STAR WARS train, and Bantam eagerly contracted for more books. From the beginning, Lou and Betsy Mitchell, who edited the Zahn trilogy, had a clear idea of how the program might differ from Pocket’s STAR TREK franchise. First, they would put a lid on frequency of publication, in order to make each release an important event (and give each book a better chance of making the New York Times bestseller list; every single Bantam STAR WARS novel did exactly that). Hardcovers would henceforth be self-contained stories, while paperback original tales would appear in the form of trilogies, to be completed within a year. For authors, they insisted on finding established sf pros who happened to like STAR WARS; the pro part came first. (Tim Zahn was a Hugo winner, for example.)

By the time Betsy left Bantam and I inherited her list (see Part III), she and Lou had mapped out the first wave of the new STAR WARS cycle. I came aboard for the second book of our first paperback-original trilogy, DARK APPRENTICE by Kevin J. Anderson, and I worked on the STAR WARS property (alongside the other sf projects detailed in Part III) for about five years thereafter. My colleague Janna Silverstein was already working on forthcoming hardcovers by Dave Wolverton, Kathy Tyers and Vonda McIntyre, and I had the rest. (When Janna’s first SW entry, Dave’s THE COURTSHIP OF PRINCESS LEIA, hit #1 ahead of a new release by Danielle Steel, who did and does sell books by the palletload for Bantam’s sister company Dell, Ms. Steel — obviously mistaking it for a traditional romance — icily asked her publicist, “Who is this Princess Lee-ah?”) Not long afterward, Janna herself left for an opportunity out west, and I pretty much became the STAR WARS guy, spending about a third of my time on Lucasfilm properties. (I also edited Indiana Jones novels, and a trilogy by George and Chris Claremont based on WILLOW.)

The Main House, where George Lucas’s office is located.

Working in somebody else’s universe is different from whole-cloth worldbuilding, and some authors don’t care for it: I was turned down more than once by people I’m sure would have done a great job. You have to follow guidelines set down by the copyright holder – which, to reemphasize, isn’t you – who has final and ineluctable approval over whatever you do. There’s a great deal of inventiveness possible in shared-world storytelling, but it’s all at the pleasure of the licensor. No means no, and if that loss of freedom bugs you (note that we only invited established authors who were accustomed to owning their copyrights), this part of the business isn’t for you. For example, we wanted to do a novel telling the backstory of Yoda. If you’re a STAR WARS fan, wouldn’t you want to read that? Me too. But George Lucas declined, saying he wanted Yoda’s origins to remain mysterious, and he was true to his word: in the three prequel movies we don’t find out much more than we’d already inferred. End of story. Another disadvantage is that royalties on “work-for-hire” projects are either shared with the licensor, as was the case with STAR WARS (at least while I was there), or not paid at all (a flat fee is the only remuneration), so you earn less on each copy sold. Most of the royalty on STAR WARS books went to Lucasfilm, but the volume was so great that STAR WARS authors still received handsome checks, and just as important, their work was almost certainly read by more people than ever before. They got a smaller piece of a mammoth pie. If you were already a major bestseller, you could probably make more money with your own stuff, but only a tiny few authors are able to use that kind of math. And then there’s the intangible: some authors just love STAR WARS. Look who agreed to novelize THE PHANTOM MENACE: the hugely bestselling Terry Brooks! I’m not saying the dough didn’t flow, or that Terry didn’t possibly bring some of his own readers to the event, but clearly there was a desire on his part to work in George’s galaxy. (By now the property was back where it started, at Del Rey – a storied imprint launched by Terry’s first novel, THE SWORD OF SHANNARA; the publisher surely used this opportunity to promote him further – and I have no idea how his agreement was forged. I’m only observing from the outside.)

When you play in somebody else’s sandbox, you begin with a core group of characters already fixed in the minds of the readers, so the only players you have to fully flesh out are the ones you’ve invented. To some authors, that’s a great standing start; it’s actually possible to build a nice career on work for hire. To others, it’s delimiting and dilutes their own creativity. What we were looking for were writers who could successfully straddle those two points of view, and bring all their creative skills to a new kind of playdate. End of sandbox metaphor. (Once an editor, always an editor.)

All this may sound simple to you: just watch a couple of movies and start your engines. Trust me: if you think it’s easy, that’s only because you haven’t tried it. This stuff can’t be tossed off. You start with research, as with most any other project, and an expanding universe like STAR WARS reminds me of the apocryphal schoolkid’s complaint: “History’s lots harder now, Grampa! There wasn’t so much of it back when you were in school!” With STAR WARS, this is literally true: the story gets longer and more complex with each new fictional addition. Lucasfilm was able to send “Care Packages” to new writers, but they comprised an ever-tougher batch of information as time went on, and you had to be a quick study, because the assumption had to be that your audience had read everything that had gone before. Otherwise, you would hear from the fans. On the first STAR WARS book to appear after Betsy left, Kevin Anderson’s JEDI SEARCH, our cover artist had mis-drawn a battle ribbon on the uniform of a military woman. It didn’t take a week for the first letter to arrive correcting us. (Lots of heraldry had already been invented by West End Games’s designers for their roleplaying edition of STAR WARS.) Doggone it, how could Bantam be so stupid?

If your first reaction is to laugh or sneer at such fan nerdosity, your heart’s in the wrong place. We considered ourselves stewards of STAR WARS’s fine reputation. That’s a requirement for any effective work for hire, or in fact any genre which has ardent devotees, including mystery and romance. Fans can tell when they’re being patronized, and they hate it. So rather than making fun or blowing it off, that instant we added West End’s designs to our Care Packages for artists, to try and make sure it never happened again. The attention to detail was so intense that when we hired Mike Stackpole to do a series of novels based on LFL’s X-wing “flight simulator” video game, he spent enough time with the software so that his first novel depicted the actual first few training missions in the game itself. Most readers couldn’t know that, only gamers, and only if they were able to lift out of the story long enough to notice. But we knew.

At ILM, Han Solo in carbonite, where we left him in SHADOWS OF THE EMPIRE.

This is not to say we didn’t have a good time or joke around. Our publisher could do a brilliant Wookiee growl. In his former position as publisher of Pocket Books, he’d worked on STAR TREK long enough to pick up a few Klingon phrases, including one he translated as, “license to print money.” The Lucasfilm folks had perfectly normal senses of humor too, but we never allowed that to bleed into the work itself unless it served the story. Humor is part of the mix that makes STAR WARS so enjoyable, and our writers cracked some good ones, as had the original screenwriters. (For a property like MEN IN BLACK, humor is so important that it’s part of the sell.) But bringing new work into a franchised universe is, in one way, like performing a farce: from THE PRODUCERS to ANIMAL HOUSE to NOISES OFF, the distinctive elements only work if every character takes the situation absolutely seriously.

There were times when it felt like I’d crammed so much arcana about, say, Boba Fett, into my brain that it filled up, leaving no room for everyday stuff like my own phone number. But you simply cannot know it all, not if you want to occasionally leave your reading room and interact with other people. Fortunately, we had tremendous colleagues at Lucasfilm. Howard Roffman, a talented attorney and marketing wizard who came on board during THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, was now the head of Lucas Licensing, and Lucy Autrey Wilson, who retired early this year, was its director of publishing, our key contact with LFL and a tough negotiator at contract time. Lucy was one of Lucasfilm’s first employees and can remember typing up pages of the STAR WARS – guess we’d better get used to calling it “Episode IV” – screenplay on an IBM Selectric while most of the rest of LFL was in Tunisia shooting; her name rolls by in the end credits. Working directly on our books was the amazing Sue Rostoni – also just retired this summer – and her cohort Allan Kausch. I watched Sue become a very, very good editor before my eyes; at first she would nitpick at facts she knew were wrong, and then as she gathered more confidence, was able to cut right to plot holes and uncharacteristic behavior even at the outline stage, saving everybody hours and hours in the bargain. So each of my STAR WARS books was looked at very carefully by two editors; Sue could overrule me on a point of “fact,” but you could count our disagreements that deserved a conversation on the fingers of one hand. Plus she edited comics, too, and I have no idea how you do that. I don’t remember Sue ever missing a deadline by so much as a day; that’s one of the hallmarks of a real pro. Allan was the historian of the STAR WARS universe. He had a huge horizontal timeline stretched along the wall behind his desk, and kept notebook after notebook of cross-referenced characters and events from the books, movies, comics, games, animated spinoffs, you name it. Allan was dear to my heart because he was a Dickhead. I mean, of course, a devotee of Philip K. Dick, one of the most influential science fiction writers ever. Allan helped unearth some long-lost work and used love and persistence to get it published. (He has most recently edited a collection of Michael Moorcock’s nonfiction that will go on sale next spring.)

My bride Linda (l.) with Lucy Autrey Wilson, the godmother of the STAR WARS publishing program.

What was George Lucas’s personal involvement in all this? If you guessed zip, you’d be wrong. Obviously he didn’t use his valuable time reading manuscripts, but he did lay down fictional parameters. At first, we set our stories five years after the end of RETURN OF THE – oops, Episode VI. Then we began asking permission to “fill in mortar” at earlier places in the saga. We were not to disturb the filmed story, which came to be known as “canon,” and we never did: our books supplemented or added to it, but to our knowledge we never printed anything that challenged any fact or motivation in the movies. Quite the contrary, in fact. For example, Kevin Anderson emphasized the point that in Episode IV, Han Solo had every right to brag about his ship making the Kessel Run in “less than twelve parsecs” (the parsec is a unit of distance, not time, but it sounded to non-scientists like the latter): the Millennium Falcon was so agile that it could move closer to heavenly bodies and black holes for a more direct line, thus reducing the distance traveled (and finishing faster, too). So there, fanboys! No, from the beginning we’d give the Lucasfilm people our ideas, then they’d prepare a one- or two-page checklist of the most important, story-affecting points, allowing George to answer YES or NO. “Can Han and Leia get married?” YES. “Can they have kids?” YES. “Can Han join the
Empire?” NO. (Just kidding about that last one.) We even contributed to the canon. In his first book, Tim Zahn gave a name to George’s planet-sized city that was Headquarters of the Empire (West End Games had it listed as the generic “Imperial Planet”). Tim called the place Coruscant (it means shiny or glittering), and when it came time to depict the location in the Special Edition of Episode VI in 1999, George simply retained Tim’s proper name, and we were thrilled. We had all been pronouncing it core-us-KANT with the hard C; when our audio people needed to confirm the word before recording HEIR TO THE EMPIRE, George responded, core-us-SANT with a silent C, so buddy, that’s how you utter the word to this day, including the actors from Episode I on.

George’s personal parking space. He’s not here at the Ranch today, but he might be down at the Presidio visiting ILM or Lucas Licensing. Anyhoo, it’s still frickin RESERVED.

These books sold. They sold, and they sold, and they sold some more. It didn’t take long before the Locus bestseller list was casually topped by Bantam’s STAR WARS books, all the time. They ran rings around sf books that didn’t have the benefit of a media tie-in, with Pocket’s STAR TREK books in a rejuvenated second place. Charlie Brown, Locus’s publisher, finally decided that to indicate which “serious” sf books were selling would require a separate bestseller list, and now you have disparate Locus lists for media, gaming, etc. Our STAR WARS publishing program caused that to happen. I once asked Charlie how you could tell which books were “science fiction” and which were “other.” “Check the copyright,” he said, in the most concise definition I’ve yet heard.

We had great fun with a nifty idea. One day, Lucas Licensing mused, “We have these partners. Let’s put them all together and see what happens.” We all decided to tell the same story, “SHADOWS OF THE EMPIRE,” set between Episodes V and VI, so Han Solo is frozen in carbonite, but we get to use Darth Vader. We sent Steve Perry (I already loved his work; see this “interview” with “the Emperor”) out to Skywalker Ranch to powwow with them. We pubbed Steve’s novel, Hasbro did action figures, Dark Horse did comics, West End did games, etc., etc. It was a movie tie-in with everything but the movie. This was so close to what STAR WARS fans wanted in their heart of hearts that they said, in their thousands, give us more movies! And in the fullness of time, that’s exactly what happened. So much for the view that books don’t matter.

But STAR WARS matters too. I’ll never forget taking a bunch of quietly-sneering-but-still-starstruck sf authors to Skywalker Ranch for dinner during the 1993 Worldcon in San Francisco. Bantam rented a bus or two, and we all made the 45-minute afternoon ascent over the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County, off the highway at the Lucas Valley Road exit (pure coincidence, as it turns out), and up Zorklike twisty turns into the Lucasfilm property. David Brin (one of my cherished but still inherited authors – see Part III) had learnt to play the “Darth Vader Theme” on his harmonica, and he serenaded us as we pulled up. We enjoyed a tech demo reel and then a wonderful catered dinner in an unutterably beautiful solarium setting. Our LFL hosts were jazzed to meet such notables as Marion Zimmer Bradley, at least at the tables I visited as one of the Bantam co-hosts. Amazingly, the adulation tended to flow back toward the writers. This was a phenomenon most of them had never expected of the evening, but trust me, it was genuine. I’m sure that’s part of the reason why you continue to see big, big, Hugo-winning names take up STAR WARS stories, because the respect really does run both ways.

STAR WARS, and books based on it, remains a magnificent, uplifting milieu that looks to become a permanent cultural icon. I’m glad that books re-lit the torch, and proud that I got to help carry it part of the way.

NEXT: I work on some cool fiction.

Other Installments:
Part I   Part II   Part III   Part V

3 Responses to Adventures In Editing, Part IV

  1. Steve Perry says:

    Thankee kindly, boss. Nice to be in such august company.

  2. Ken Houghton says:

    Scuttlebutt of the time was that later _SW_ novels paid $60,000 flat–good but not necessarily great money, especially given the clearances and details required.

    But, of course, you would be known as ever after “NYT Best Selling Author…”

    They became a good career move. But I still suspect Zahn did his because he thought they needed to be done (which is why he was a brilliant first choice).

    • Steve Perry says:

      There was a period whereupon the fee was flat and sans royalty, but it was not the same for every writer. Hardbacks were worth more than paperbacks, and if you had a good agent and some clout, you could get a bigger fee.

      This was mostly at Del Rey, who had to give away the store to get the rights for SWs books, and it has since changed. Nobody gets what Tim got for a royalty for the first one, though.

      The no-royalty business caused some consternation. SFWA got uppity, and I think there was some fool notion they were going to bring George Lucas to his knees, but it wasn’t David versus Goliath, but more like Goliath versus the Lilliputians. Writers who chose the SFWA side found themselves persona non grata at the Ranch. As did some who didn’t agree with the SFWA stance but who didn’t protest loudly enough.

      And with the increase in titles, the guaranteed NY Times status faded. There are still titles that that do, but most do not.

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