Since the cancellation of Enterprise, the Star Trek novel line had been the main driving force behind keeping the franchise alive and continuing the saga. Released of the burden of ongoing televised adventures, which could invalidate their works with little more than a short sentence on screen, the editors and authors had even more freedom than before to expand the universe and steer it into new directions. As a result, a new tighter continuity between the books was created and more and more “book only”-series appeared on the scene. But then a new movie helmed by J.J. Abrams was announced, altering the editorial decisions at Pocket Books years before its release.
In this piece we talk to authors and long time readers – Keith R.A. DeCandido, Geoffrey Thorne, Allyn Gibson, and Steve Roby – about the impact of the movie on the Star Trek novel line both before and after its actual release.
After it became clear that the new movie would be set in the twenty-third century, with the Original Series characters (or versions thereof), Pocket Books made the decision to stay clear of TOS during the development of the new movie, a decision splitting our panel. “A few years ago at [annual convention] Shore Leave, editor Margaret Clark, when asked about why no original series Star Trek books were on the projected schedule for 2008 – this at the time when the film was originally due for release in December 2008 – answered that Pocket wanted to leave the twenty-third century alone,” recalls Trek writer Allyn Gibson. “’It’s J.J.’s playground. We don’t want to step on his toes,’ she said, and Pocket wanted to use [the crossover trilogy] Destiny as a tie-in to remind readers that the twenty-second and twenty-fourth centuries were still ongoing concerns in the novel line.”
Based on his personal experience, Allyn has problems understanding this reasoning. “I was surprised by this move,” he admits, “downplaying the twenty-third century at the same time that the movie would be released. I’ve worked in marketing and sales most of my adult life, and while the word ‘synergy’ gets overused, the fact that synergy has an important effect in driving sales can’t be minimised. Had the film [been] released in December 2008 as was originally planned, Destiny would have made for a poor movie tie-in; the novel trilogy starred no characters that movie audiences would have just seen on screen, and none of the trilogy’s action took place in the twenty-third century. A newly-minted fan, fresh from the film, would have rushed into the bookstore and seen nothing that was of any relevance to the movie. Just to be clear, this is not a knock on David Mack’s trilogy; it’s a good project, just not the right project as a movie tie-in.”
On the other hand, prolific author and editor Keith R.A. DeCandido thinks it was the right decision. “It didn’t quite work as planned, since the movie was supposed to be out in December 2008, not May 2009. But since no one knew what was coming in the movie for a long time, and since there’s a whole lot of other elements to the Star Trek universe to explore, I think it was a good move, especially since it resulted in a nice big event involving the twenty-second and twenty-fourth centuries in Destiny.”
Fellow author Geoffrey Thorne agrees, and emphasises the pitfalls of dealing with the twenty-third century while a new film set in that era was in production. “Even the editors and [the movie’s noveliser] Alan Dean Foster only had partial access to the Abrams film,” he explains. “With that restriction it would have been short-sighted to come out with a bunch of books that could instantly have been rendered ridiculous simply by contradicting what the film established.”
“While I understand that desire to steer clear of the twenty-third century,” agrees Allyn, “I’ve never really bought into the reasoning. Would twenty-third century novels have stepped on Abrams’ creative toes? Certainly not; the Star Trek: The Next Generation novels didn’t step on the toes of the television series when the series was on the air, for instance. There’s always the danger that a filmed production will contradict a novel. Deep Space Nine‘s Crossover invalidated Dark Mirror from pretty much the moment that book was published.”
Reader and blogger Steve Roby has a mixed reaction to the TOS-lite phase during the creation of the movie. “If they’d had something ready to go after the movie came out, then holding back beforehand might have been a good idea.” However, original tie-in books are only following over a year later. “Pocket doesn’t seem to have expected the movie to do so well,” Steve speculates. “Losing [senior editor] Marco Palmieri can’t have helped, but anything planned to tie in with the release of the movie, or to capitalise on it, would have had to have been started before he was laid off.”
Indeed, aside from the novelisation, there was little direct tie-in material (such as making-of books, reprinted TOS novels, or new TOS releases) published around the release of the movie earlier this year.
“I’m sure they kept their powder dry until they were sure of the success of the new take,” Geoff considers. “If it had flopped (not unlikely) they would have been stuck paying for a bunch of novels that had no audience.”
“I find it difficult not to be baffled by Pocket’s response to the film,” counters Allyn. “I have seen more Star Trek merchandise in stores, ranging from board games and t-shirts to breakfast cereal and candy, than at any time in the past. Five years ago, if you wanted Star Trek merchandise, you had to go out and find it. This spring, I couldn’t avoid Star Trek if I tried. Spock was on the front of cereal boxes. The comparative dearth of Star Trek product from Pocket Books was conspicuous by its absence. It was as if the company had decided that the film was simply business as usual and planned accordingly.”
Keith, however, wasn’t surprised by that dearth, “because I noticed how secretive Bad Robot was being with the movie. Security on this film was locked tighter than a drum. Making-of books require a certain level of access to the film, and it’s obvious that such access was hard to come by. Reprinting TOS novels has not proven to be financially viable in the past – the fortieth anniversary reprints sold poorly, and bookstores tend to order based on how something similar did previously and then order fewer of them.”
Whilst Allyn knows about the lack of success of other reprint projects, he thinks it might have been a good idea in this case nonetheless. “While previous reprint projects, like the Signature Editions and the fortieth anniversary Classic Trek reprints, had not done well at retail, I can’t help but feel that Pocket’s sales force would have done better with reprints this time around,” he suggests. “The screenwriters, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, cited several novels in interviews. I would have repackaged those novels, with photo covers of the actors from the film, reprinted them in trade paperback rather than mass-market, with a blurb on the cover that said something along the lines of ‘Read the inspiration behind the hit film!’ Best Destiny with Chris Pine on the cover, Spock’s World with Zach Quinto, that sort of thing.”
Steve wonders if it was solely the editor’s decision to have so little tie-in material to the movie. “I remember 1979 and the amazing line-up of tie-in books Pocket produced for Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” he recalls. “They had a year’s worth, at least, of movie-related books. On the one hand, this movie should have had a lot of tie-in books. It was a Trek-changing event, and there was a lot of buzz about it well before the release. On the other, the Trek editors at Pocket have to answer to the beancounters, and the beancounters told them that the nonfiction books don’t sell. A lot of nice, expensive tie-in books ended up flooding remainder tables. It’s a tough call. The other side of the story is, could Pocket have gotten enough access from Abrams et al. to do more than they did? Without knowing the degree of internal support at Pocket’s higher levels and external support at Paramount, it’s hard to say whether anything could have been done. The beancounters also got rid of Marco. A really good movie tie-in programme would take a lot of work, and the Trek group took a big hit when he was let go.”
Clarifying what impact Marco’s absence had, Keith adds: “[He] was laid off in a cost-cutting move by Pocket in December 2008. This move had absolutely nothing to do with Star Trek – for one thing, it was only a fraction of Marco’s responsibilities for Pocket – and everything to do with the economic collapse of the fall of 2008. It also resulted in Margaret Clark, the other editor, having her workload increase by 50% suddenly and with no warning. That had an impact on what Pocket was able to do in the movie ramp-up, and it’s possible that that was a factor in the cancelling of Crucible.”
Crucible, a critically-acclaimed trilogy by David R. George III, was originally published in to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of The Original Series in 2006. There were plans to rerelease the three books in one hardback with additional material in the wake of the new movie, but the project was cancelled shortly after Marco Palmieri was laid off.
“The Crucible reprint would have had appeal in the marketplace to readers wanting product based on the film’s milieu,” Allyn ponders, “though because of its scope it might have been daunting to a first-time novel reader.”
Its cancellation, however, is one decision Allyn disagrees very strongly with. “I would have fought hard to prevent the Crucible cancellation. If necessary, I would have found a different format. I might even have considered breaking it up and republishing it in trade paperback.” And while he of course understands the current financial climate’s influence on their approach of the new movie, Allyn feels Pocket Books missed the boat. “Ultimately, projects like these probably foundered on the current recession. Star Trek non-fiction hasn’t been economically viable for a decade. Previous reprints failed at retail. There are economic reasons why these probably didn’t happen. Still, I’m disappointed that Pocket Books, by all outward appearances, didn’t try to do something, anything to coincide with the film, other than the novelisation.”
Given the panel’s mixed reactions to the editorial decisions surrounding the new movie, it would be interesting to know if Keith, as an editor himself, would have handled the situation differently. “I’m a different editor from Marco and Margaret, who are also different from each other, and my entire approach to the line would’ve been different from the get-go,” he contemplates. “I’m not saying my approach would be better or worse, but it would’ve been different. Plus some of the circumstances that dictated some of these choices – the economy, the secrecy on the set – would’ve been in place regardless. So probably, though I have no idea how different it would’ve been.”
Now that the movie is out and the Star Trek fiction schedule for the next 18 months has been released, we know that 2010 will be a TOS– and “nuTrek”-heavy year, with four releases each for both incarnations of the twenty-third century Enterprise. There are voices who argue that Margaret Clark is overcompensating for the lack of TOS releases in the last few years, but is that really the case?
“No,” states Geoff. “I think it’s a way of letting both fans of TOS and of nuTrek [know] that they will be well taken care of in the future.”
“I think it’s a logical reaction to the increased interest in the twenty-third century,” adds Keith. “And that approach of doing things in waves seems to be one that works.”
Allyn, too, is sure that the apparent over-representation of twenty-third century novels next year is just a coincidence. “While the 2010 schedule looks like overcompensation for the relative dearth of Original Series-era projects, given the realities of publishing and the long lead times involved, I’m confident in saying that it’s largely a coincidence that we have so much twenty-third century product next year. The books in the first few months of the year have been in development for a long time, in some cases four or five years.”
Steve sees the possibility that the earlier lack of tie-ins at least played into Margaret Clark’s decision making. “It looks like overcompensation. Maybe releasing these books after the fuss over the first new movie and before the hype really gets moving on the next will turn out to be a good idea.” He also points out that the two sets of novels will have different styles and probably be read by different audiences. “As far as the classic timeline books go, I like the fact that they aren’t basic five-year mission stories. They deal with the kinds of things the longtime fans may be more interested in: Saavik, Pike, and so on. That leaves the more generic style stories for the Abrams timeline, which is about as much as we can expect this early into the development of a new timeline. Those eight books may not look like variety to anyone who doesn’t care about the twenty-third century in any form, but for those of us who do, there’s some relatively unexplored terrain being covered in these books.”
The four novels in the new timeline, which isn’t yet as clearly established as TOS, will be written by four different authors, begging the question of whether this is a better decision than having one author tackle it alone for now. Steve prefers the choice made by Pocket Books in that regard. “Better choice,” he says, firmly. “Much better. While a single author might arguably have better continuity in plot and character in his or her series than a group of authors might – prime example being the regular personality transplants for the new characters in the Next Generation novels leading up to Destiny – a single author series is going to alienate potential readers who don’t like that single author. Whether it’s Peter David’s idiosyncratic perspective on the Trek universe in New Frontier, or Christie Golden’s hyperemotional and new-agey take on Voyager, it’s not going to appeal to everyone. There’s no balance.”
Allyn agrees and emphasises the fact that “one of Star Trek‘s strengths has been the multiplicity of voices behind it, and having four different authors bring their unique voices to the new movie and its milieu hearkens back both to the original series and to the novels as they were ten or 15 years ago. We might get a science-heavy ‘strange new worlds’ piece from Christopher Bennett, then an action piece from David Mack. Different authors have different tones and different strengths.”
“You can get the books out faster if you use four different authors, and that was the objective here,” Keith points out. He also sheds some light on why the novels won’t be hitting the shelves until more than a year after the movie’s release. “Keep in mind that publishing works on a very slow schedule – one reason for not scheduling these books until 2010 was, what if the movie tanked? Suddenly four slots are taken up by books about an aspect of the Trek universe that nobody cares about. Now, though, that end of the franchise is a huge success, and the books can be written with enough time to do it right and give the reading audience four new adventures next summer.”
But won’t it be too late to cash in on the movie’s success, when it’s more than a year after the movie’s theatrical release, and half a year after the DVDs and Blu-rays appear, before the first tie-in novel is published? “The year gap feels right to me,” Allyn contemplates. “The secrecy around the film, such as Foster not even getting a copy of the script to write his novelisation, worked against development of books until the film was out. The days where the early novels for, say, Deep Space Nine were written using the pilot script and the series bible are long gone.”
Steve isn’t sure if it wouldn’t have been possibly to have novels ready for the DVD release at least. “Before the movie came out, and, I think, even after, some writers argued that it wouldn’t be necessary to make a lot of changes to an old Trek novel to make it compatible with the new continuity. The characters rarely spend a lot of time discussing exactly what happened before and during their time at Starfleet Academy, after all. Would it have been difficult to work up a variety of relatively straightforward TOS stories that wouldn’t step on anything the movie establishes, and allow for whatever minor tweaks the new timeline would require?
“[2010’s] books likely won’t be able to build much on some of the timeline’s new elements, like developing the Spock/Uhura relationship, because that sort of thing is at risk of being contradicted by the movie writers. Given the secretiveness of the Abrams team and Foster’s limited access and time to do the novelisation, it probably wouldn’t have been possible to have anything ready for the film’s premiere, but they could have had something in stores by the time of the movie’s DVD release.”
The editorial decisions are made, though, so let’s talk about the new line of novels. All three of our authors would be interested in writing for it, and Geoff even has a person he would like to write a story about. “I would love to write something in the new line. Everybody knows how much I love Richard Daystrom. I would begin there.”
“I think I would enjoy writing for the film’s new timeline,” Allyn concurs. “The characters are generally the same, but there are also vast differences. Kirk is a lot rougher. Spock has great tragedies on his shoulders. These two, especially, are like damaged goods, and that’s a very compelling character to write, one who has to transcend the damage to succeed, especially because a person usually is blind to their emotional damage.”
“Most TOS novels are written with the main seven characters as a well-oiled machine that has worked together for ages,” points out Keith. “You can’t write J.J.-Trek books that way, because these people barely know each other. It’s the equivalent of writing all your TOS stories prior to Where No Man Has Gone Before – the crew dynamics are wholly different from what we’re used to with TOS books.”
Steve believes the tone of the nuTrek novels will be significantly different from other releases in the Star Trek novel line. “I think inevitably [the new timeline novels are] going to be safer and more generic than the other Trek book lines, which have a great deal of freedom these days. The new timeline books aren’t going to be canon, so they’ll have to tread carefully to avoid being contradicted. Plus, very little has been established so far about the new timeline. There’s only so much to build on that’s new to this timeline, and that’s the stuff that will probably be the touchiest from an approvals perspective.”
Allyn sees benefits in the fact that the new timeline is free of all the continuity baggage and inter-book continuity of the Prime Universe. “In the new timeline, the slate of continuity has been largely wiped clean. Everything is new again, and I would hope that the novels steer a path not unlike the novels took during the nineties, with the Enterprise off exploring strange new worlds that didn’t draw upon Star Trek‘s history except in tangential ways at best. I would like to see continuity references downplayed, I would like to see in-jokes curtailed. I would like to see the movie-continuity novels adhere to the old comic book adage that every issue is someone’s first issue. In some respects, the Star Trek novels haven’t been especially inviting to a new reader the past five years or so; the movie continuity novels are an opportunity to bring people back into the fold. Name-checking something out of a Voyager episode would be the sort of thing to avoid.”
Geoff points out that in the end something else is important when writing the books. “I wouldn’t treat [books in the new timeline] differently than any other book. I try to write good, intelligent stories irrespective of whether they are original or tie-in. I think the other authors are the same. I wouldn’t want to simply do nuTrek versions of old TOS stories.”
When asked which authors they would like to see tackle the new timeline, our group mention Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore, Margaret Wander Bonanno, Jeffrey Lang, Diane Carey, Terri Osborne, and David McIntee.
“I think Pocket has an interesting lineup in the works,” comments Steve, on the planned roster of Alan Dean Foster, Greg Cox, Christopher L. Bennett, and David Mack. “Dayton Ward certainly seems like an appropriate choice, and I’d be curious to see what someone like David McIntee, who’s done some action-oriented Doctor Who novels, could do with this more action-oriented Star Trek.”
Speaking of Doctor Who, that franchise was revived a few years ago with a new TV series, much like Star Trek’s recent movie revival. When that happened, the existing novels based on the original series were phased out, replaced by new series novels alone. So, is a similar plan – phasing out all the Prime Universe books, and publishing only New Universe novels – something that’s likely, or a good idea, with regards to Star Trek?
“I think it’s unlikely that Pocket Books would ever phase out novels set in the ‘original’ timeline,” Allyn believes, “for the simple reason that there are fans of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and the other series who simply have no interest in Kirk and Spock, no matter which universe they inhabit. Phasing out twenty-fourth and twenty-second century novels would amount to leaving money on the table, with no guarantee that there would be any greater demand for twenty-third century novels.”
Steve sees the matter in a similar way. “It would be grossly premature to do anything like that. The new Star Trek has brought a lot of people to theatres to see one movie. That doesn’t necessarily translate to the same kind of connection to the series that watching a hit TV show every week for a few months every year does. That ongoing relationship isn’t necessarily there. So it’s hard to say whether an almost all-new audience for books will suddenly materialise, though it obviously did happen with Doctor Who.”
Geoff doubts that the same will happen for Star Trek simply because the two series have little in common in his opinion. “Doctor Who is not Star Trek. Setting aside differences in tone, Star Trek is simply more broad in scope and execution than Doctor Who which, despite occasional cast changes, focusses on the adventures of a single character and his sidekicks. In my view, it would be a massive error to dump all the Prime Universe lines. And, of course, as long as people are willing to buy them, there’s no reason to do so.”
“It was a good idea for the BBC because there was a noticeable difference in sales numbers.” Keith explains. “Whether or not it’s a good idea for Pocket will not be known until we find out how those four books do next summer.”
Whatever will happen in the long run, it’s obvious that the new movie has influenced the novel line and will continue to do so. Only time will tell what that means for the continuity Pocket Books has created over the last years, and the Prime Universe in novel form in general.
Alan Dean Foster’s novelisation of Star Trek XI was released by Pocket Books in April 2009. Four original follow-up novels – Refugees (by Alan Dean Foster), Seek a Newer World (by Christopher L. Bennett), More Beautiful than Death (by David Mack), and The Hazard of Concealing (by Greg Cox) – will be released by Pocket Books between May and August 2010.