What does Marvel’s Star Wars deal mean for Del Rey?

Del Rey (logo)While it was pretty easy to see today’s Marvel announcement coming, things are much less clear-cut when we’re talking about another high-profile Star Wars publishing licensee: Del Rey.

(I’m putting all issues of canon, continuity and the sequels aside for this post. Those are big decisions made at Lucasfilm, not by their licensees: We can discuss it another time. This post is solely about the franchise’s publishing rights.)

Disney does have a publishing division, Disney Publishing Worldwide. However, their products are mostly books for children and younger readers. Their selections for adults are mostly focused on guide and art books – not fiction. Nor do they have a division devoted to science fiction and fantasy novels, which is Del Rey’s niche. Their closest equivalent, Hyperion, was sold to Hachette last year, and hasn’t been a particularly big player in the genre.

It’s clear that books for younger readers are already moving or will move under the Disney umbrella – the Rebels books, which obviously didn’t have a pre-existing contract, are already there.

Currently Del Rey does the publish art books and the like (The Making of books, for instance) and I can easily see those moving over to Disney Press. The fiction, however… Disney could pair with another publisher (they do have a continuing association with Hyperion,) stop publishing adult novels entirely and stick to younger-oriented books, beef up LucasBooks under Disney Press, or stick with Del Rey.

Del Rey has familiarity with the genre; they’re a major player in the sf/f publishing world. Unlike with Marvel and Dark Horse, there really is no direct equivalent to that in Disney’s stable. They still might chose to move the license, or parts of the license – the art books and other tomes, for instance – but I think the chances of the novels staying with Del Rey are pretty good.

And if it doesn’t, I think it’s possible we’ll see a pretty sharp drop in quality. I haven’t always been the most positive about all of Del Rey’s Star Wars novels, but it is clear that a lot of care has gone into them – and I’m not sure a publisher with a less focused approach to sf/f would do quite as well, even with LucasBooks continuing at the helm.

Both Dark Horse and Marvel are big publishers in comic circles, easily able to attract top-flight talent to licensed products. And back in the 90’s, when Del Rey won the Star Wars license over Bantam, they were both in similar places as top genre imprints. But in today’s publishing climate, does anything beyond the ability to ask someone if they want to write Star Wars book even matter?

Obviously I can’t tell you for sure what Disney and Lucasfilm will do – but it’s far, far harder to point to any one clear solution here than it was with the comics. And I know I said we weren’t going to discuss the canon/continuity issues – but one thing that’s clear from the Marvel deal that some form of the Expanded Universe is going to continue through the sequels.

In either case, Del Rey’s license was last renewed in 2008, so we’ll almost certainly be hearing something within the next few months… One way or another. Whatever the case with the books that are currently in the Episode VII-inspired limbo, there are clearly still some slots left.

12 Replies to “What does Marvel’s Star Wars deal mean for Del Rey?”

  1. well, a big argument for Disney moving SW books elsewhere is that the books have been struggling. Qualitywise there have been more misses than hits in recent years (Kenobi, Plagueis are exceptions). With the SW brand name, I see no reason SW books shouldn’t be selling like Hunger Games, Harry Potter, etc. The book market isn’t exactly hostile towards fantasy/sci-fi. Maybe SW needs a different team to think outside the box and make the novels really exciting again.

  2. They may not all be winners now, but it could be so much worse.

    Sales may have been going down, but I’d say that’s due to a lot of reasons that the sequel trilogy may actually mitigate.

  3. Only tangentially related, but I really want to know what this will mean for the publishing rights to the existing material. Bantam still publish the books that Bantam originally published, but Dark Horse have been publishing the 70s Marvel stuff. I think that’s because Dark Horse went out and bought the rights to do that, but…who knows.

    I certainly hope that DH retains the rights to its own licensed material; I want to see their Omnibus series completed and maintained because Marvel don’t have a great record of keeping stuff in print.

  4. Yeah, I’m not sure how it works in comics. Did Dark Horse buy the rights to the Marvel archive just because Marvel wasn’t interested in reprinting at the time? Was there a time limit on that deal? Will/can Marvel do their own reprints of their old stuff when the Dark Horse ones go out of print?

    It’s pretty screwed up if Dark Horse can’t reprint/recollect their own stuff… Can they continue things like the omnibus program past 2014, or will they only be able to reprint the collected versions published when they held the license?

    There could be less issues with Bantam because they’re part of Random House as well. (That merger happened right around the time Del Rey got the SW license.) But the only thing I could see it really impacting is rare cases like that 20th anniversary HttE hardcover… I don’t know if that would have happened if Bantam and Del Rey weren’t sibling imprints.

  5. I heard all digital SW comics purchased on DH’s website will still be available on the cloud after 2014.

  6. Thanks for this. I hope the license stays with Del Rey but I don’t know enough about the industry to even begin to speculate.

  7. Not an IP attorney (although I love to play one on the internet, much to my shame):

    But in checking the copyright page on various comics and novels, they are all © Lucasfilm.

    Therefore, Lucasfilm – not Dark Horse, not Marvel, not Del Rey, not Bantam – holds the distribution and reprinting rights to the content (depending on licensing contract terms). I’m guessing Dark Horse didn’t have to purchase the rights to the Marvel comics from Marvel. Lucasfilm probably held those rights and were able to confer a license to print and sell the comics to Dark Horse. The artists and writers would have been hired under work-for-hire agreements, so no further negotiation with them would be needed.

    Depending on the terms of Lucasfilm’s license agreement with Dark Horse, Lucasfilm should also retain rights to the work done under the Dark Horse license and conceivably (depending on whatever protections and retail rights Dark Horse was able to insert into the agreement) Marvel can reprint the Dark Horse material in the future.

    The Dark Horse artists and writers would have been hired under work-for-hire agreements, and, depending on any contracts for services they might have that would keep them exclusive to one comic book publisher over another, they, too, could conceivably be hired by Marvel. (The editors, as those are publisher staff positions, are less likely to be hired away but it also happens.)

    As for the novels, they are also © Lucasfilm and thus the content belongs to them. The license could end at Del Rey and go to a non-Random Penguin publisher, and conceivably the novels could be reprinted by the new publisher (again, depending on the terms of the original licensing agreement and whether the books have to go out-of-print at the original publisher first before the printing rights can revert, etc.)

    I’ve never been shy about my personal, probably wholly misguided and definitely irrational, mad-on for how Del Rey and its editorial team have mishandled the EU. From choosing wildly inappropriate authors to bloviated storytelling to stubbornly visiting the same sandbox over and over when it’s painfully clear the sandbox is empty, I believe Del Rey and the previous regime at Lucasfilm made far more painful missteps than the handful of moderate successes. (I admit the adult novels seem to be currently on an upswing with Kenobi and Razor’s Edge….)

    I don’t think quality would fall if the license went to another publisher. It’s hard to see how anything could fall below the nadir of Crucible, after all. I’d love to see what Tor, or Ace, or DAW, or Orbit, or Baen, or Voyager would do with the license. Or even Amazon’s 47North imprint -I’ve heard good things about the editors and the creative/business process from people published by them.

    And Jennifer Heddle’s old employer, Simon & Schuster, announced in October they are creating a YA/Adult SF/F imprint. Interesting timing.

    1. I suspect it all depends on what the Lucasfilm/Dark Horse contracts say – they’ve gotta be more involved than the original Marvel ones, and they’ve renegotiated or renewed them a few times since the DE days. Obviously we’re not going to see the contracts, but with the upswing of graphic novels over the last two decades I can’t believe it doesn’t mention reprints in a case such as this. But all they’ve mentioned so far is the digital stuff. And they might not be equivalent to the LFL/Bantam contracts… Different industries, different methods. But it seems unbelievably unfair not to allow them basic reprint rights on material they produced, particularly when they lost the contract through no fault of their own.

      As for the novels… I don’t think we’ll see a huge fall in quality if we get another publisher LIKE Del Rey in – so that covers Tor, S&S, etc. Just not anything that Hachette or Disney holds. (Tor in particular would be very interesting: They’re riding pretty high these days.) But the Marvel Press/Hachette Disney stuff has looked very, very chintzy and throwaway from this end.

  8. I think Hasbro’s IP offers a good example of precedent. They own the content, regardless of the publisher. That’s why IDW can reprint G.I.JOE material that Marvel and Image first printed. Marvel can’t, even though they originated it. Same thing with Transformers. IDW is the current publisher, and they’ve reprinted the Marvel run and some of the DreamWave stuff.

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