The first issue of Marvel’s million-selling comic adaptation hit shelves on April 12, 1977 — before the May 25, 1977, debut of the film — but even that was predated by the release of the novelization.
Famously ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster, Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker as the first version was titled, arrived on November 12, 1976. With a striking cover by the legendary Ralph McQuarrie, it sold out of its initial print run of 125,000 copies by February of 1977. Soon, Ballantine had sold another 3.5 million copies.
As the film exploded, the original would see 30 reprints between ’76 and ’79. To date, Star Wars has seen north of 60 reprints in the United States alone, not including the many and varied versions across the planet.
When I interviewed Alan Dean Foster years ago, he remembered his earliest time on Star Wars: “My contract called for me to write a novelization of this unknown film called Star Wars, and then a sequel novel. ‘What should I write for the latter’, I inquired?
‘Anything you want,’ George told me. ‘Just remember: you can’t use the character of Han Solo, and whatever you write has to be film-able on a low budget.’”
Hence…Mimban in Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.
Unlike the modern era, Star Wars saw its paperback release hit shelves before the hardcover. A Science Fiction Book Club version with full-bleed art by John Berkey landed in late ’77, along with the classic gold hardcover with that familiar Berkey artwork boxed off, much like the ubiquitous gold-framed paperback versions.
The novelization didn’t only hit the UK and the States; it also arrived in Japan on May 30, 1978, wrapped in two different covers.
As the reprints continued, subtle changes arose. Some versions had 16 pages of photos from the film while others had a stripe across the bottom right corner of the cover. Some had a burst telling us that there were now over 5 million copies in print, while later versions changed the cover logo from blue with a yellow border to green with a yellow border, to the final Berkey covers that boasted a red logo with — yes, you guessed it — a yellow border.
Here in the UK, the Star Wars novelization was released by Sphere, with the publishing house paying a reputed $225,000 for the British publishing rights. Using the same John Berkey artwork as the US versions, the Sphere paperback framed its cover in striking yellow instead of gold and all reprints featured a red logo. As with the US editions, the reprints tweaked cover details right through to Sphere’s final post-Return of the Jedi reprint in the mid ’80s.
International versions of the novelization were springing up across the planet. The Polish and Dutch versions featured the John Berkey artwork, as did the Hungarian cover, which bled the artwork across the full cover just as the Science Fiction Book Club hardcover had done.
By the time Return of the Jedi had arrived, the three Del Rey novelizations were collected in the Star Wars Saga slipcase, bringing the trilogy together for the first but certainly not the last time.
That striking Vader line art would be used to good effect when the three novels were collected as a Del Rey trade, this time renamed the Star Wars Trilogy. That was the first of a broad number of collected trade releases that would land over the following 30 years in the States and in the UK.
One of the most unusual releases was St. Michaels Great Science Fiction Film Stories. Bringing four sci-fi movie classics together in an abridged collection, this is a hard-to-find UK-only release that summarized Alan Dean Foster’s novel into 171 pages. William Kotzwinkle’s E.T., Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Vonda N. McIntyre’s Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn rounded out this 648-page collection.
The trilogy was re-released under the 25th anniversary banner in 2002 behind classic Ralph McQuarrie artwork as the Star Wars Trilogy, and later again that year behind a soon-to-be-familiar trade style that also saw re-releases for the Han Solo and Lando Calrissian trilogies.
Here’s a look at some of the trilogy collections that arrived during the ’90s. Note the spines, showing differences in price and the placement of the Lucas Books and Del Rey logos. While not every version is shown here, it gives a flavor of the many differences and variations that are out there.
Classic Star Wars became a popular banner for many novel and comic releases during the mid ’90s. Used primarily by Del Rey and Dark Horse, Classic Star Wars was as common at the time as the Legends branding is now.
In the UK, the trilogy came out in 1995 via Warner Books as Star Wars Omnibus, another printing timed to coincide with a home video release, this time the THX mastered trilogy.
In the US, the trilogy landed as individual hardcovers with covers designed to match the US THX video and Laserdisc covers, as well as the Malaysian VCD releases. It showed once again that Star Wars was a far more potent brand in the ’90s than people remember. Indeed, it was motoring toward the Special Editions and the prequel trilogy, and these stylish books put the saga back on bookshelves with a bang.
In the UK it wasn’t only the trilogy collection that garnered a reprint. Orbit released the trilogy as separate novels behind stunning new John Alvin artwork, which matched the UK THX Mastered video releases and ran parallel to the release of a holy grail of UK collecting, the Executor (Exe-Eee-Cute-Orrr as we Brits pronounce it) Box Set, which was the final time the original versions of the trilogy would be released on home video.
The Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition saw yet another collection release, this time a hardcover from Del Rey, featuring Drew Struzan’s Star Wars Special Edition artwork. This Struzan version also arrived in Japan and Germany, two countries where the saga remained as popular as ever.
The individual novels were also released, this time utilizing a gold embossed version of the Special Edition logo, which was seen worldwide during 1997.
In 1999, another release of the original trilogy novels coincided with the arrival of the prequel trilogy, bringing the Drew Struzan Special Edition artwork to paperback for the first time.
With one film left in the prequel trilogy, 2004 was another busy year for the saga. As Revenge of the Sith approached, this striking gold trade featuring Darth Vader was released, with a forward by the Maker himself, George Lucas. The three novels also returned with covers matching the latest DVD releases of the saga, as well as the classic John Williams soundtracks.
In 2015, the trilogy arrived again behind the same artwork used to promote the digital releases of the saga.
Finally, the latest releases: In the UK, Arrow released the gold-cover trade once again, this time without the Lucas forward. The 40th anniversary hardcover release of the original novel, wrapped in a smooth, velvet cover with the classic Hildebrandt Brothers artwork from the advance UK quad poster also landed. A fitting release to celebrate a book which has led a charmed and varied life.
In 40 years, who knows how many editions The Last Jedi will have?
Star Wars: A New Hope is available now in paperback.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi: Expanded Edition by Jason Fry is available now.
Special thanks to Yutaka Tanaka, Brian Cameron, Rebel Scum, and Jedi Bibliothek for many of the cover images.
Mark writes for Star Wars Insider, the Official Star Trek Magazine, Starburst magazine, and is the editor-in-chief of Fantha Tracks. He’s an honorary member of the 501st and Rebel Legion and when he’s not talking, tweeting, or writing about Star Wars, he can usually be found sleeping, where he’ll most likely be dreaming about Star Wars.