In all the hullabaloo over the new Disney/LFL kissyface, who cares about something as mundane as books? I do, that’s who.
Yes, this is all speculation. Yes, I don’t know what I’m talking about. (Exactly how does that distinguish me from the rest of the blogosphere?) I don’t know what this deal will mean to jobs at either Disney or Lucasfilm, though as a survivor of a big publishing acquisition, I can assure you that the buyer holds all the cards. However, unlike most, I do speak as someone with a modicum of backstage knowledge anent the STAR WARS book-publishing program, b/c I was part of the team that revived it in the 1990s. This acquisition of Lucasfilm Ltd. – and Lucas Licensing, let’s make sure to underline – by Disney may actually disturb the “canon” that has long been established in the library universe. If that should happen, the movie arm will simply swat that literary stuff away – or maybe it’s all bigger than that! I wouldn’t imagine Disney has even considered the issues I’m about to raise, but future fans will. So adjust your propeller beanies, and let’s blast off!
When Bantam offered to extend the fictional lives of STAR WARS characters in the early 90s, everybody assumed there was nothing to lose. As I’ve already written, the property itself was only on simmer. Let Han and Leia marry, and even have kids. Where was the downside? As it happened, though, Bantam’s releases ignited a long-simmering powder keg among STAR WARS fans, and demonstrated a huge pent-up demand for more stories in this universe. These books set in action a sequence of events that directly led to the filmed “prequel trilogy.” Without book-length kindling, you’d have no new movies. (I’ve heard a cynic or two say, “Great!,” but I don’t share that view. I’m inspired by the fact that printed books, just words on paper, were still able to have such an impact on popular culture at the end of the twentieth century, and I enjoyed the prequel movies, especially Episode III, far more than their detractors seem willing to concede is even possible.)
However, nobody – in my view, not even George – reckoned on a potential continuation of the cinematic STAR WARS story beyond the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI. He’s always said it was a nine-film saga (and if you believe Disney’s gonna stop after STAR WARS Episode IX, I have a storm-weathered suspension bridge to Brooklyn on which you might care to bid), but I truly don’t believe he ever thought his bluff would actually be called. That’s why he gave Bantam the go-ahead to set its first novel five years later. STAR WARS author Tim Zahn has already weighed in on this issue, and maybe there is some wiggle room. But Disney announced that as part of the deal, George has already delivered treatments for the next three films.
If Disney/Lucasfilm declares with a feature film that the generation-ago literary tie-ins must have occurred in some parallel universe, what will happen to the stories, some elements of which have already crept into the filmed “canon”? You’ll wind up with a Moebius-strip narrative that’ll make the hugely episodic STAR TREK story look Dickensian by comparison, the same kind of jam in which DC Comics found itself when it finally decided to blow everything up in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. Some comics fans still aren’t sure what’s what, and that happened twenty-five years ago!
The STAR WARS book publishing program has long been bled very thin, and its subjects these days are mostly outliers in the universe, increasingly decipherable only by fanboys and girls. That’s why most of the books no longer make the New York Times bestseller list. (Although I have no doubt they’re still hugely profitable, and that Del Rey Books is delighted to have the program around.) It will be fascinating to watch what happens if the next three films intrude on what has already been published. I assure you that new movies will take precedence over old books – but how then will the Empire manage to preserve what it already holds?
4/25/14: Today, as I predicted in graf 2 up there, Lucasfilm announced that new STAR WARS material going forward will only consider the movies, animated series, and certain aspects of 80s-era role-playing games to be “history.” The books and stuff, I guess, officially didn’t happen. Here’s Variety’s report.
11/2/15: Today we learned that Lucasfilm has requested that Del Rey postpone the hardcover publication of its Alan Dean Foster novelization of the next movie, THE FORCE AWAKENS — and Del Rey has, duh, said ok. The e-publication can go on for mid-December and the release of the movie, but Disney was concerned that the long lead time necessary for print publication, what with presses and proofs and such, created an environment ripe for fan spoiling. (It’s way harder to get an advance copy of an e-book.) This means that Del Rey must cede the lucrative holiday season for what would undoubtedly have been a huge bestseller, the ultimate tie-in; they’ll pub in print in January. But the former LFL is the proverbial golden goose, so any prudent publisher does whatever the hell it says. (Remind me sometime to tell you about Bantam and the DICK TRACY movie.)