Friday, June 25, 2004

Star Wars: success and failure

The Literary Saloon draws attention to an article in USA Today on what the Lit. Saloon calls the 'baffling' success of the various Star Wars books.

It is nearly thirty years, apparently, since Del Rey books (in the USA) first published a spinoff novel based on George Lucas's 'wildly popular' Star Wars films. The estimate from Lucas Licensing is that there are now some 65 million Star Wars books in print. And Del Rey has just signed a deal to go on doing much the same thing until the end of 2008.

The USA Today article gives the impression that the Star Wars books have been 'consistent best sellers' and that they constitute a totally dependable source of income.

Well, yes, and then again, no.

It is not so long ago since a British publisher had a nasty accident in this particular minefield. In 2000, Dorling Kindersley found itself in severe financial trouble because in the previous year it had overestimated the likely demand for its series of publications related to Star Wars. DK was left with -- ahem -- some 10 million unsold books. And in the six-month period to 31 December 1999 the firm ran up a loss of £25m.

Now it is not uncommon for publishers to be too optimistic about the likely sales of a given book. But to print 10 million copies too many? Seems a bit excessive, wouldn’t you say? The Chairman of company later complained that no one had told him about this large print order.

The outcome was that DK had to be sold to Penguin. Job losses: 350. Also affected were 14,000 people in the UK, and 40,000 worldwide, who were employed as part-time agents for DK products.

So, yes, Star Wars is indeed a nice little earner. But, as ever in publishing, you have to get your sums right.