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License to Kill: How Does Del Rey Fit Into The Disney Era?

anewdawnNow that we’ve all had well over a month to digest the Force Friday releases, some big-picture reactions are taking shape. Recently Jay elaborated on how the Servants of the Empire series tells us a great deal about the canon Empire and why it falls; maybe even more than it set out to. Before that, Sarah discussed how my early fears may have been unfounded, and that the earliest rounds of The Force Awakens merchandise appear to be far more progressive and gender-inclusive than similar items from that other Disney wunderkind, Marvel.

Another thing that’s been bouncing around my head has proven to be a little harder to talk about; but the truth of it remains: it seems to me that Disney-Lucasfilm Press—the in-house publishing division that has released numerous middle-grade books like the Servants series and the “young adult” Lost Stars—is officially running circles around Del Rey. Some might say that producing books for younger readers (even dozens of them) is an easier job than producing “adult” novels Del Rey-style. I don’t particularly think that’s true, but even setting aside all the short stuff, Lost Stars is the equal of any adult novel in both length and maturity, and for many is simply the best novel—no qualifiers needed–of the new canon. Lost Stars is proof that Disney and Lucasfilm are capable of producing a full-length novel that deserves to stand alongside anything ever published by Del Rey, or Bantam before them; and they’re capable of doing it in-house.

Compared to a lot of other fans I know (including some who write for me), I’m a relative pushover when it comes to Star Wars books. It’s very rare that I emphatically dislike anything; when I was reviewing for TheForce.Net I almost never rated a book less than 3 / 4, because the GFFA is such a fun setting that I can usually enjoy even a disappointing book on some level. So none of this is to say that I think Del Rey’s output has sucked over the last year; not everything has been my cup of tea but I’d only describe Tarkin and Heir to the Jedi as remotely disappointing; Aftermath, and Chuck Wendig himself, was a rollicking breath of fresh air for Star Wars publishing, and John Jackson Miller is quite simply one of my favorite Star Wars writers ever and can do no wrong in my eyes.

So this isn’t about shitting on Del Rey. What gives me pause, though, is the fate of that other licensee—Dark Horse Comics. As longtime Expanded Universe partisans (but not, you know, dicks about it), we at Eleven-ThirtyEight indulged in our fair share of wailing and teeth-gnashing when the other shoe fell on that one, but giving the comics back to Marvel was nothing if not logical. Why license out Star Wars comics when you own a Gigantic Comic Company? Aside from that bottom-line aspect, the other selling point early on was that Marvel has the resources to put some of the best talent in comics on the line—and while not every series has been a consistent home run, the bulk of them have been pretty great despite covering some well-trodden ground, and you certainly can’t argue that they didn’t bring their A-list.

tarkincvrSo if Disney has two questions to ask themselves in assigning the novel license, the creative question and the bottom-line question, I can’t help but wonder what case Del Rey is making for itself that Dark Horse wasn’t able to make. Hot item Chuck Wendig will write a book for Del Rey but not Disney? I doubt it. Del Rey has more infrastructure for publishing full-length novels? Maybe, but that’d be pretty surprising considering the full scale of Disney Publishing Worldwide. Del Rey makes better books? Do they?

By all accounts, Del Rey’s Star Wars editors and staff are a completely awesome bunch of people who love their jobs and do them with passion—I’ve never met them in person but as this site’s profile has risen they’ve been nothing but nice and accommodating to us. On some level I’m certain that they deserve to keep making Star Wars books for that reason alone. But Dark Horse had a lot of great people working for them as well, and that doesn’t seem to have mattered in the end. In the current atmosphere where Del Rey’s Facebook posts are under constant assault from low-level sociopaths who still haven’t gotten over the reboot eighteen months later, I think we at ETE have a responsibility as level-headed, amicable Star Wars fans who nevertheless have mixed feelings about Del Rey’s output (over the last decade, really) to ask the question: does it make sense for them to keep making Star Wars books, when Disney seems to be at least as good at it, if not better? What’s the argument I’m missing here?

Personally, I just don’t know. So I did what I always do in these situations: I asked the staff.

Rocky: Does it make sense to let Del Rey keep the license? Yes, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve made some friends in their staff. They’ve been in charge of Star Wars publishing for a good long while, and are well-known for it. Having such a big-name company publishing Star Wars does get them a lot of publicity, and for all of us who’ve seen one of the Del Rey booths at a con, they put on a good show. Basically, they’re good at the publicity and have the reputation to publish tie-ins for such a high-profile universe.

Yes, I’m well aware that I’m one of like three or four people in the universe who loved Crucible. If you get me talking about Fate of the Jedi, I’m going to be sitting there for a good long while ranting before I get to actual opinions. We can all agree that there were some issues with some of the last books of Legends. But really, should they lose the license for a few books that weren’t that great? No. Just look at the New Jedi Order. A nineteen-book series that maintained the plot and told a coherent story, despite length. It takes a lot of work to maintain a story like that, and just knowing that Del Rey has been able to do it gives me a lot of faith in their future.

Heir_to_the_JediThe new storytelling that we’re seeing is relying on all forms of Star Wars media being connected very well. The Story Group has done a great job of making all the parts of Star Wars feel like one coherent story, and we’re seeing characters and plot threads being carried well through different forms of media. Even though Del Rey is only handling books, the books feel like they fit in Star Wars. One of my problems with the last few Legends books was how much it didn’t always feel like Star Wars, and the newer books have easily remedied that. This feels like the Star Wars we know.

Basically, we all know that Fate of the Jedi was kind of a trainwreck. However, now we’re getting books that are much more enjoyable, and feel a lot more like the books that are often considered to be some of the best Star Wars books published. We can’t judge Del Rey based on the worst of what they did; they’re capable of awesome books and have shown it. Also, Del Rey is a well-known publishing house that does plenty of science fiction, fantasy, and tie-in novels. They have a name for themselves, and let’s be honest, a lot of people associate Disney with more childish things. For the sake of image, as well as consistency, it makes sense to let Del Rey keep publishing.

Ben C: Should Del Rey keep the license? Tough one. On the one hand, they’ve done a lot of excellent work across various eras, but on the other hand, all of that is practically obliterated in my perception by the Denningverse. When you have a book like Kenobi denied the wider audience it deserves by dross like Crucible eclipsing it, that’s a problem.

The other element here is that I am not convinced DR has actually really taken on the significance of the new players and what it means for them. Both Lucasfilm Press and Marvel, despite having the license decades ago, are effectively new challengers. Are they worthy contenders? Have they demonstrated that they deserve their chance with the license? In both cases it can be argued it was given to each, rather than competitively won. Certainly that was what lay behind Dark Horse’s poking fun at it via the Barb Wire cover offer a few months back, that it was not even ever a competition.

So, I think for both there is a marked desire to prove that, despite all of that, they are worthy. Lucasfilm Press has done this via the Journey to The Force Awakens hardbacks, but also surprisingly smart series like Servants of the Empire. What they have in common is the way they engage the reader positively. For Marvel, their response has been to put their top writers and artists on their Star Wars books, with some very interesting creative pairings. At the same time, they’ve opted for a pair of core books, with a Rebels-related ongoing and various mini-series. The message is pretty clear: We know what Dark Horse did with this, we know their stuff was good and we’re not going to slag it, so give us a chance?

Of DR’s stuff so far, A New Dawn, Lords of the Sith and Aftermath have demonstrated a more experimental tendency than before. Plus, upcoming items like Battlefront: Twilight Company suggest that is going to continue. On the other hand Tarkin was bad and Heir to the Jedi merely inoffensive. The sense is that DR has been slow off the mark, that it’s been coasting along because it didn’t tag the quality of its competitors within the franchise. Has that changed? If it’s to keep the license, it has to. 2016 will be an interesting year because all the players will be free of the TFA restrictions.

Jay: I don’t think it’s exactly fair to say that Del Rey is suffering under a creative deficit as compared to Disney-Lucasfilm Press. Now, everyone knows I’m a big fan of the Disney-Lucasfilm middle grade and young adult books — I’ve enjoyed basically everything to come out and I’ve written a ton of glowing reviews. The combination of fresh blood, interesting subject matter, and flexibility makes the Disney-Lucasfilm offerings just excitingly dynamic to a degree we haven’t seen in Star Wars fiction.

But let’s look at Del Rey for a moment. How many of their books since the Disney purchase have been true, post-reboot books? Most of them — from A New Dawn down — were actually pitched, designed, and written before April 2014. They resemble older SW books, for all the positives and negatives they entail. But even so, we still got the stellar A New Dawn (until a few months ago, the reigning title-holder for my favorite new canon book) as well as Lords of the Sith which was… different, but delivered exactly what it said it would. Heir to the Jedi was a bit of a dud and Tarkin hit-or-miss (excellent lore, flashbacks, not so great with the primary story) but those two were pretty definitely pre-reboot titles. What do we have post-reboot? Aftermath, which was experimental and (in my view) a rousing success and Twilight Company, my new favorite adult new canon novel and one I think people will love.

Let’s also not forget that Del Rey brings us the short stories. These, I think, are an unmitigated success. The post-reboot Insider stories have been phenomenal, and have shown a willingness to use fresh blood and use new authors. I loved “The End of History” and “Last Call at the Zero Angle”, and have great hopes for Janine Spendlove’s upcoming short (especially since I have an idea of what Brand might be up to, thanks to Twilight Company and oooh can’t wait). Let’s not forget that Del Rey also delivered three excellent shorts in the Rise of the Empire darkdisciplebindup, including the harrowing and exciting “Levers of Power”.

In fact, let’s not forget that Del Rey brought us RAE SLOANE, the single greatest character in the new canon.

So basically I’m saying that I don’t agree with the premise that they’ve been doing badly. They’ve not been — they’ve had some great successes and are trying many of the same things that Disney-Lucasfilm is (down to using some of the same authors — Jason Fry for the shorts and Claudia Gray for the upcoming Bloodlines book). They just haven’t had the string of successes that Disney-Lucasfilm Press has, and their calendar had some not great pre-reboot books that were published. I’d hazard that adult novels have a longer publishing cycle than middle grade books or Del Rey’s own short stories (don’t think novels are usually written as blazingly fast as Wendig’s are!).

As for what this means for licensing? All that stuff is alien to me. I think it makes sense why Dark Horse lost the license to Marvel (though I will continue to mourn DHC and its incredible legacy, no pun intended) and I do think Del Rey will want to avoid being complacent, that’s for sure. I think the older post-reboot novels may have had that “same old, same old” feel to them but I’m not getting that feel from the newer stuff, e.g. the shorts and the latest novels. I think that Del Rey knows what it needs to do to build and maintain an audience who expects quality and dynamism in storytelling.

I think the short story program is a great way to bring in fresh blood, see what they can do, and then maybe if we’re lucky they’ll consider some of these new writers for adult books. And at the same time, I hope they’ll continue keeping the best of the old-school writers (e.g., JJM, Jason Fry) and continue inviting the best of the new writers (e.g., Alexander Freed, Claudia Gray, Chuck Wendig). Del Rey may have to prove that it’s worthy of keeping the license, but I think they have the means and ability to do so.

Sarah: Should DR lose the license? Not at this point in time, no. I agree with Jay on this; most of the new canon books were pitched, drafted, and written before the EU reboot announcement and so still resemble the Legends EU. And that’s not necessarily a condemnation aftermathcvreither. Some of the last Legends books still knocked it out of the park (Kenobi comes to mind) and A New Dawn was my personal reigning champ for best new canon novel until the recent batch of Force Friday releases. Lords of the Sith was enjoyable, Tarkin was inoffensive, and Heir to the Jedi is the only one I would consider to be a true dud.

A big problem with the Legends EU was that it had become large and unwieldy over the past few years, and had really written itself into some corners, and in my opinion that was a big factor in the lackluster quality of EU books in recent years. The canon reboot is the chance to start fresh and create an expanded universe that is connected across all media and has a definitive story direction. And of the two true post-reboot novels, Aftermath and Battlefront: Twilight Company, we’ve already started to see that.

I think Del Rey’s biggest challenge is to not remain complacent, and here is where I think that Disney-Lucasfilm press helps. Having pressure from a “rival” publishing house could be just the push that Del Rey needs to publish books that don’t fall into the same pitfalls of the Legends EU. It could result in more experimental books as well as some fresh talent, which we’ve already seen with the addition of Chuck Wendig, Alexander Freed, and now Claudia Gray. The success of the middle-grade and young adult novels could be enough to keep Del Rey on their toes.

20 thoughts to “License to Kill: How Does Del Rey Fit Into The Disney Era?”

  1. Someone might need to correct me, but from everything I’ve read and have been told, Disney Publishing does not have an adult fiction arm.

    While the Dark Horse to Marvel license transfer made a lot of sense, it only made sense because there was an actual arm in place and infrastructure that could handle that license. I don’t believe Disney has anything remotely similar in the adult fiction sphere, and I’d wager creating a division that can handle that from the ground up is a pretty non-trivial task.

    1. That seems to be part of it, but I confess that I’m still unclear what distinguishes “adult fiction” from something like Lost Stars in terms of publishing infrastructure. If they can produce that I don’t know what’s stopping them from producing, say, Aftermath.

      At the most, I guess I could see them needing to hire editors who specialize in adult fic instead of YA? But I dunno.

      1. Probably a lot more than that. Editors that specialize in adult fiction, different marketers, different sales strategies. Just a lot of different people with different industry relationships and experience to what they already have. To do that, quite likely you you’re going to have to replicate all of the resources Del Rey and similar adult fiction companies have. Just starting an imprint to handle that segment alone is going to require a lot of resources they probably don’t have.

      2. I guess what I’m saying is that Disney taking the license in house and publishing adult fiction themselves is probably a MUCH bigger task than a lot of people think it is.

      3. Hyperion is big on the more adult non-fiction side of things and really doesn’t handle SFF. If Disney wanted to do this, they’d need to essentially create a SFF imprint, which is vital to attracting authors/editors/marketers in that genre.

  2. I think part of the reason why I found the YA and kids stuff from this round of book releases so refreshing was that it wasn’t Del Rey.

    It’s odd – I like so many of the Del Rey stories much better than the Bantam era books… but the feel of the books done by Del Rey was just off. They were too Denning Bloody (yes, Denning is an appropriate curse word), or too focused on power plays… they just didn’t feel… right. And maybe they were too ambitious is scope — 19 book series are hard to keep unified.

    The new books from Disney just seemed to tell stories – tell things that happened in the Star Wars universe… not THIS IS THE STORY. Maybe that’s what I miss even from the Bantam era. Even when Bantam books advance the overall star wars story… they didn’t seem pretensions about it – as though this was THE VITAL THING in the Star Wars universe. They were fun adventures… but didn’t always destroy the galaxy.

    I like stories much more than GALACTIC WIDE TENSION I guess.

    So what does this mean? I wouldn’t cry if the license went elsewhere – especially if whoever handled this round at Disney decided to try to bite off some “adult” aimed novels. I’d trust it to be better than Del Rey’s tenor. Of course, Aftermath was just a story… maybe Del Rey won’t be horrible.

    1. As somebody who was critical of the NJO and especially everything that came after, I get what you mean, I do. I even stopped reading for years. But just as I feel it’s unfair to hold the pre-reboot holdovers again DR, I especially think it’s unfair to hold the pre-Disney stuff against them. It was a different era, a different focus, and a different approach. I’m heartened by what they’re doing now. And I think if they continue playing their cards right, they can do just as astonishingly well as Disney-Lucasfilm Press has been doing. I mean competition spurs innovation, right?

  3. Damnit your comment system keeps eating my attempts at responses so this is shorter than what I wrote originally. To my knowledge, Brian is correct that Disney does not have an adult fiction publishing branch just like Del Rey does not have a YA branch. It makes sense to let both of them keep doing their thing. Also, if they were to do a license change, it would’ve made more sense to do so BEFORE material for the new canon started coming out. Look at the comics and how they made that mostly* clean split.

  4. I always forget that the first four of six canon novels were probably pitched and written before the reboot. It makes a lot of sense – I re-read Tarkin over the past three days because it was reprinted in “Rise of the Empire”, but I felt like it was a really incomplete novel because it relied so much on the Legends canon.

    Heir to the Jedi was pretty bad, but I also know that it was part of the Empire and Rebellion trilogy (or whatever it was called), so I know it really was written for a different canon. At least its scope wasn’t too big and tried to focus on Luke in the meantime (even addressing Leia stuff…). I think the novels show signs of a post-Legends redactor, though, showing that Del Rey is excited about and striving to help build the new Star Wars galaxy as a super connected place where new stuff can happen.

    That being said, I’ve not really loved any of the canon novels. Most of them have been good, not great, but I don’t think that this means they should lose the license to somebody else. I think their collective talent can do some serious work in rebooting the galaxy, they just have to be given the chance. Marvel did something great by taking the license: they took it from limited resource Dark Horse and gave it to a powerhouse of comic book resources and some of the greatest comic book writers of the 2010’s have come aboard to start writing. Who would Disney give the publishing license to that has better talent attached? I don’t see any good alternatives, to be honest.

    I mean, yeah, Del Rey had some huge bombs in their list. I hated Crucible more than anybody else, but I thought Fate of the Jedi had some highlights. Vestara Khai has been one of my favorite characters (until Crucible butchered her and made her another vengeful ex), so I know that they can do it well. But the Fate of the Jedi series showed me something that I can truly credit Del Rey with: they care about the connected universe. Fate of the Jedi tied in both the Mortis trilogy from the Clone Wars while looking ahead to Dark Horse’s Legacy series. I don’t remember Dark Horse playing much off other established canon (except a few tie-in mini-series and some cameos in KotOR). Even if they did, they didn’t play along as well as Del Rey. When Lucasfilm and Disney are now concerned with a giant, shared universe, I think they can count on Del Rey for their willingness to participate and their ability to play well in groups.

    1. Actually a really good point. DR is definitely game and excited about the shared universe, and has a long history of doing so.

      Also worth considering the stable of authors they are working with now are vastly different than the ones they had been working with. A few holdovers, sure, but there’s a lot of fresh talent. I have a feeling if we look back in a few years we’re going to see two very distinct eras in quality output with the canon reboot being the dividing line.

  5. Burst out laughing at the NJO part. Sorry, Rocky. Grand plans limping to an unsatisfactory conclusion is pretty much the story of all the Del Rey mega-series, and that didn’t start with LOTF and FOTJ. But hey, I was old and jaded by SW fiction even back then.

    I can’t speak for YA stuff, but I suspect a lot of the difference between Marvel’s output and ability to get bigger talent vs. Del Rey’s post-Disney has to do with the culture of comics vs. that of adult sci-fi. Giant properties ARE the juggernauts in comics, there’s no sacrifice or shame in writing Star Wars any more there would be in doing a Superman or Spider-Man title. Original titles are still the outliers there. Whereas in sci-fi, licensed titles are looked down up and, in many cases, may actually pay out less to writers despite the guarantee of higher sales.

    We all know that Chuck Wendig reached out to Del Rey and while he’s not the first Star Wars author to do that, his was certainly one of the few who did it in public. But if he hadn’t, who would have ended up writing those post-ROTJ books? Who had they reached out to? What big names have turned them down? (John Scalzi is one who has admitted it, though that was pre-Disney. James S.A. Corey was a big get, but I doubt we’ll see them again now that The Expanse has a TV show.)

    Long story short, I think it’s much harder for Del Rey to find top-notch talent than it is for Marvel. And maybe for Disney LFL, since the YA/children’s market is so much larger and, I suspect, a lot more diverse (and thus, maybe, less snobby.)

    Though I didn’t think Lost Stars was anything more than fine/okay, that has a lot to do with my disinterest in that specific form of YA than anything else. I’m interested to see what Gray does for Del Rey.

    1. I don’t think that Marvel’s ability to get bigger talent has anything to do with the culture of comics but more with the fact that their competition for big names is extremely limited since it’s basically just DC. Dark Horse is most certainly second tier and I don’t think that being exclusive to Image is even a thing/

      1. What I’m saying is, there’s not a cultural stigma against working on a big property. Or, I assume, a financial one. Comics are not generally an environment where (most) creators can make more on their own stuff than they can working on a property, unless you’re, like, Neil Gaiman.

        In comics, the name properties are top of the heap. In the culture of sf/f, original works are. Plus, financial considerations: A writer will likely make more on an original novel, and a novel takes much longer to write than a comic does. The original novel may not sell as well as a SW one, but they get an advance, plus a percentage of the sales when the advance cash is in. And if they get Hugo/Nebula award recognition – which they likely wouldn’t for SW, because that’s not the culture of those awards – than they sell more. With a SW novel, even if they get do a percentage, they’re sharing with the license-holder: In this case, LFL.

      2. This is an interesting conversation — to what extent is tie-in fiction hampered if it can’t get the big names in the field? Personally I’m happy with the trend in authorship lately, where we have authors who were fans first and in many cases read EU back in the day. I don’t believe in gate keeping or anything like that, but many of my favorite SW books in Legends and in the new canon were written by authors who plainly loved the EU. I see that applying to a lot of the fresh blood and returning authors, and I like that. It doesn’t guarantee quality but it gives a feel that I like.

        But I’m interested in SW lit doing new things. Being creative and taking risks. Sometimes that doesn’t work out (I agree with Dunc about the NJO, but it was at least a new idea. Repeating the multi book concept ad nauseum on the other hand…).

        How do you get top talent to write for SW? Maybe by fostering a rep that allows for creativity in storytelling not usually seen in tie-in media.

    2. On the one hand, yeah, there’s a tendency for franchise fiction to be looked down on, yet on the other, how many authors that we know of turned down an invite to write Star Wars? The brand name seems to over-ride that dismissive attitude for the authors concerned.

  6. Adult Star Wars novels is not the only Star Wars story media that Disney do not publish in-house: they also do not publish Star Wars kids comics – those are published by Panini (Europe) / Titan Magazines (US).

    Another consideration is that Disney wasn’t really structured to publish “adult” novels prior to their takeover of Lucasfilm, Disney’s primary market was children (or rather the wallets and purses of those children’s parents) and as such they didn’t really have need of an “adult” publishing arm – anyone really going to buy an “adult” novelization of the further adventures of the Little Mermaid et al.?

    It made sense for Disney to invest in children’s and YA publishing and create their own publishing divisions and hire staff (editors, etc). But then came their purchase of Marvel.

    While Disney may have bought into Marvel’s catalogue of across-the-board marketable superheroes (my own 4-year-old son loves the Avengers though he hasn’t seen any of the films/comics/TV shows – it’s all down to kids clothing and kids toys); it also brought into Disney Marvel’s millions of “mature” readers. Prior to this Disney’s “mature” audience was, in simple terms, divided between adults accompanying their children to theaters (and buying merchandise for their kids – like I do for my kids) and those adults who, for want of a better description, never grew up. Now Disney had a dedicated adult market but still concentrated on only one print medium: comic books. A medium for which Marvel has had decades of experience – so no real need for Disney to interfere or get involved.

    Then came Lucasfilm and it’s differing markets: adult novels, adult comics, YA books, kids books, kids comics (both European comics from Titan and Dark Horse’s “parent friendly” digest-sized books), adult toys, kids toys, etc. Obviously, owning Marvel, adult comics went in-house, as did most kids and YA books (but not all – DK/Scholastic still publish kids books). But, both adult novels AND kids comics currently remain outside Disney: Del Rey for adult novel and Panini (Europe) / Titan Magazines (US) for kids comics.

    1. That’s a great and very helpful way of breaking it down, thank you! I have to add, though—it’s funny that you mention “an adult novelization of Little Mermaid”, because Disney actually published something like that just recently. Between that and Lost Stars, it definitely seems like they’re dipping their toes into more mature publishing, if not “adult novels” in the categorical sense.

      1. Yup — as noted, I quite enjoyed the YA adaptation/reimagining of Aladdin. It was darker, gritter, and more political than I expected. It’s right up my alley — I wasn’t aware there was a large audience for that, but if there is that’s pretty great. But as I think I’ve made clear, I enjoy experimentation.

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