Discussing the Star Wars Publishing Landscape with Lucasfilm’s Michael Siglain

The creative director of publishing on exploring a galaxy far, far away in books and comics.

Mysterious histories, unexplored locales, shifty characters — all of this and more are being added to the Star Wars universe on a regular basis. The world of publishing is constantly expanding the boundaries of what we know about the galaxy through books and comics for fans of all ages. Maybe a story introduces a new character, maybe the pages feature a different style of storytelling, or maybe an entry explains the ins and outs of X-wing tech. Publishing is seizing opportunities to explore and experiment with a broad range of material.

To celebrate Star Wars Reads, a month-long appreciation of Star Wars books, we connected with Lucasfilm publishing’s creative director Michael Siglain to talk about where we’ve been and where we’ll be going as we approach the release date of The Last Jedi.

StarWars.com: The current storytelling universe kicked off in 2014. What’s it been like to see fan reception and success from your side of the table?

Michael Siglain: It’s thrilling, and I’m happy everyone is coming along for the ride and for the adventure. It was a big thing for Lucasfilm to move away from the Expanded Universe and try something that is very ambitious with one shared universe. The idea of having that one shared universe where something on the film slate relates to something on the animation slate that relates to all facets of publishing, be it an adult novel or a kid’s chapter book is challenging, tricky, and exciting.

To see that people have joined us on this adventure is really gratifying, and to see that top creators have joined us as well is equally gratifying. We have a wide range of talent both on the kids side and on the adult side, whether it’s a Del Rey novel or an IDW comic. Even on the nonfiction side, it’s a wide range of talented people who are saying, “We want to be a part of this, and we’re going to join you on this exciting adventure.” The sales have been there. The accolades have been there. It’s nice to have so many titles on the [New York] Times bestseller list and other bestseller lists around the world, and it’s nice to have the fans embrace it and say, “This is cool. What else do you have planned?”

StarWars.com: With practically endless opportunities and stories to tell, is it a challenge to release titles in a measured way?

Michael Siglain: It is. You don’t want to oversaturate the marketplace by doing too many stories. You want to keep the mystery. It’s vital, from my perspective, to always keeping the mystery. I never want to fill in all the blanks. I always want to keep a little bit of mystery there. Part of the fun of Star Wars is not filling everything in so that not only can other authors or filmmakers come to the table with ideas, but so the readers can still fill in some of those gaps themselves — and whether they’re right or wrong, who knows?

There’s a lot that we’ve done. There’s a lot more to do. We’ve barely just gotten started with the storytelling we want to do. We’re trying to keep it as fresh and original as we can. We’re trying to change it up. If you look at even what we did for the Journey To Force Awakens program versus the Journey To Last Jedi program, you’ll see some similar formats. Here’s a adult novel, here’s a YA novel, but it’s very different types of storytelling that we’ve been doing. We’re never looking to just do anything that is cookie cutter or to do something just because we did it before.

We’re always trying to consider what works and what’s special about a book and why should we be doing it and why should we be doing it at a particular time, as well. You might have a great idea for a story but realize it would be really cool if we waited six months, or nine months, or a year to connect with something that’s going on in another part of the company. We can be very patient. 

StarWars.com: So for something like the Thrawn novel, you could wait to release it close to his appearance in Star Wars Rebels?

Michael Siglain: Right. That was a perfect example. That was something that animation said, “We want to bring Thrawn into Rebels.” Then once those conversations started, it was about determining how we could celebrate Thrawn in the publishing side, in the publishing world, and it was really a no-brainer to have Timothy Zahn come back to the character and do a new novel timed relatively close to the Rebels stories.

StarWars.com: Do you and your team have to kind of check yourselves to keep from falling down the rabbit hole of possible stories?

Michael Siglain: Sure, and sometimes we do have to be reined back. All of us on the publishing team are all fans and at times we do have to at times divorce ourselves from that fandom to be completely objective and consider what the best story to tell is. We have to think about what is going to benefit the book and what’s going to benefit the franchise. It’s not Mike’s Star Wars. It’s not [executive editor] Jen Heddle’s Star Wars. As much as we would love to say, “Okay, I’m going to do the Tarkin/Count Dooku story because I’m a Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing fan,” that’s not quite going to work. You do have to remove yourself at times and realize that yeah, we’re all fans, but we have to do what’s best for the story, format, and franchise.

StarWars.com: And speaking of your team, how many people do you work with at Lucasfilm to make the publishing magic happen?

Michael Siglain: We have five editors, two designers, a managing editor, and a temp up at Lucasfilm, and they’re all awesome. Jen Heddle works on the adult fiction and the YA fiction, and she also does LEGO. Caitlin Kennedy works on our global pools and kids books. Frank Parisi works on all of our comics — Marvel and IDW — and he also works on our behind-the-scenes titles. Brett Rector works on our nonfiction titles and magazines, and Samantha Holland works on nonfiction, fiction, and magazines, and there’s a lot of crossover between everyone on the team.

We try to make sure that everyone is in the loop with what we’re doing. Collaborating is one of the fun parts. I like rolling up my sleeves and getting into the weeds on what the stories are and what we can do, but the team is really responsible for the all of the heavy lifting. They’re all amazing and I’m very grateful.

Lucasfilm has been making Star Wars books for 40 years and I still get excited every day when I come in. I’m working on Star Wars! When I was a kid, I read the comics and played with the action figures with my best friend across the street in my backyard. Never in a million years did I ever think my name would be associated with the franchise. It’s unbelievable, and that’s not lost on me or anyone here. The fact that we get to do what we do is a tremendous honor and a tremendous privilege. Look at how lucky we are. Let’s hope some of that fun, some of that sense of excitement, some of that sense of wonder comes across in the books. If we can do that, then we did our job for that day, and hey, let’s do it again tomorrow. Let’s see what cool Star Wars books we can make tomorrow. That’s what it’s all about. 

StarWars.com: Looking at the slate of available and upcoming titles, you have stories in different formats for all different ages. Have you made a concentrated effort to be more inclusive with the material you’re releasing?

Michael Siglain: Totally. It’s funny. You hear the phrase “Star Wars is for everyone” a lot around here, and it’s true. We want to make sure that if you are a hardcore fan who’s been reading for years that we have something that you’ll want to pick up and read and that you’ll still get excited over, and if you’re a new fan, we want you to have that same excitement. Something I was saying to the team the other day was the books that they’re working on may be someone’s hundredth Star Wars book, or it may be their first. They have to be equally cool.

We try to think about how we can throw a wide net. Say you have a reluctant reader on the kids side, maybe there’s a chapter book that we could do that would get them excited about Star Wars. They might want to read something about the Forces of Destiny show. Okay, great. Let’s do chapter books for them. Then there’s the nonfiction side of it all, for the people who want to go deeper into the mythology, what can we do for those folks? What can we do for even younger kids? Okay, here’s a picture book about BB-8 and the adventure he had on Jakku this is something that a parent could read to a kid at bedtime.

That’s another thing that we look at on this side, is the ability to share these stories. So much of what Star Wars is, is legacy, and it is that sharing of stories from one generation to another, and we want to explore that through publishing.

StarWars.com: Besides being able to experiment with various formats, I feel like publishing has a chance to dip into other genres. Do you look for and leverage those opportunites?

Michael Siglain: I think you have to. Going back, one of the things that made Star Wars Star Wars is the fact that George Lucas did pull from multiple genres. I think we have to do that on the publishing side, otherwise, the stories do feel a bit monotonous. If we can tell something that is a bit more of a romance story set against a galaxy far, far away, then why not? If we can take Lost Stars and say it’s Casablanca meets Romeo and Juliet meets Star Wars, and you’re going to get that snapshot of the saga, then why not do that?

Another example is with the Marvel comics. “Screaming Citadel” is a story arc that’s a bit more gothic horror, and that’s exciting. That’s what also keeps a lot of the storytelling new and fresh and fun and what keeps people coming back for more. We did that with Tales From a Galaxy Far, Far Away, which is a book that we did with The Force Awakens. We had a bunch of short stories about some of the secondary, tertiary characters, but it was all genre stories. It’s fun to be able to do stories like that, that’s something that we certainly look to.

StarWars.com: Even when you go into other genres, I imagine you have to keep tone in mind. How do you work with the licensees to stay on track?

Michael Siglain: It’s an extremely collaborative process. The editorial team here at Lucasfilm works very, very closely with everyone within Lucasfilm, certainly with Story Group, but also with the games division, with the everyone from the asset team, everyone on the online side, and at the same time we work very closely with our licensees. We are partners in crime with everyone at Del Rey, Marvel, IDW, and DK, just to name a few. And honestly, we wouldn’t want it any other way. The most enjoyable part of the job is that collaboration.

StarWars.com: I’m sure that collaboration is especially key when you work with licensees on stories tied to unreleased films.

Michael Siglain: That’s the toughest part, honestly, is keeping all the secrets because we’ll get access to stuff earlier on. We can’t share anything about it, and we have to tell people, “You have to wait until the film is out because then you’ll have the context. Then it will make more sense.”

In terms of projects that are directly connected to the films, we had a great working relationship, particularly on Episode VIII with Rian [Johnson], and we were able to sit down with him very early on in our process and walk him through our publishing plan. Obviously with something like that, Story Group and the franchise team here is heavily involved. But to be able to have that one-on-one interaction with the filmmakers is invaluable and to get their input on what we want to do is fantastic because again, we’re supporting their film. The film is what leads the charge, and it’s what will always lead the charge. We’re here to enhance that experience. Coming out of The Last Jedi, if you’re excited about those bombers, you want to know more about Rose, then pick up Cobalt Squadron and you’ll get a little more into her story. If you come out of the film and say, “Man, those porgs were adorable,” okay, here is a picture book for kids called Chewie and the Porgs and you can go home and relive the adorableness of the porgs.

StarWars.com: We’re into the Journey to The Last Jedi publishing program, with titles like Leia, Princess of Alderaan and Phasma already out. We have a Luke book on the horizon, and also a story about Canto Bight.

Michael Siglain: Yes. With something like The Legends of Luke book, that was something where coming out of The Force Awakens, everyone’s talking about Luke Skywalker. You see him the last two seconds of the movie, but he doesn’t say anything. We thought, “Well, if you’re a kid coming out of that movie, and that’s your first experience, what’s everyone talking about? What are those legends of Luke Skywalker?” That’s how this one came about; we went to author Ken Liu, and Ken came up with six different and dramatic stories.

And Canto comes right before the film, and it is just pure fun and excitement. You have this super glamorous casino city, and to get to experience a little bit of that before the film is really exciting. We were very, very lucky to be able to do something like that before the film comes out to get people even more excited. I think that’s going to be one of the big set pieces of the film that people walk away from just completely amazed by it.

StarWars.com: Looking beyond The Last Jedi, can you tease what’s happening next year?

Michael Siglain: We have the “Journey to” program going on right now, that’s very exciting. When The Last Jedi releases, we’ll have our day-and-date program. We will have a slew of books coming early next year as well that will allow us to go beyond the film a little bit more. Once the film is out and everyone’s seen it, it allows us to do more complete storytelling. Obviously there’s certain things we can’t say. We don’t want to go into any spoilers from the film, but we can address some of that certainly after the film comes out.

What we’re looking to do next year is really just to top what we did this year. We want to make sure that we’re doing something that is still going to be exciting. It’s still going to feel new. It’s still going to be different whether it’s bringing in different authors, whether it’s different formats, or whether it’s different ways that we can tell the story. We will certainly be focusing on characters from The Last Jedi, but we’re also going to be focusing on characters from the entire saga, and that’s the beauty of it. There is so much storytelling potential. The sky is really the limit.

Amy Ratcliffe is a writer obsessed with Star Wars, Disney, and coffee. Follow her on Twitter at @amy_geek.

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