Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The State of Star Trek Literature

It was announced today that Star Trek books editor Margaret Clark was laid off in another round of cutbacks from Simon & Schuster. Though I have been highly critical of her work, I have mixed feelings about the move. But while fanboys on the interwebs are justifying the move as being solely based on overall market conditions and not on her performance or the sales of her books, something that has been bothering me for a while about the Star Trek line has crystallized.

In 2001, Pocket released Avatar, a two-book story set after the events of Deep Space Nine that continues the story of those left on the station. Well planned and
written, it became a favorite and a bestseller, leading to likely the most acclaimed run of books in the history of Star Trek literature. Tight, cohesive, and innovative storytelling made the series a success, at least for the first ten or so books.

Of course, other such series have been planned and executed to varying levels of success. After Nemesis, a new series following Captain Riker on Titan has been pretty good, as has the TOS-era Vanguard, which takes place on a space station near Tholian space. But there have been misfires as well. The follow-up to Enterprise has been mixed, and the first four books following Voyager were abysmal. However, they sold well, or at least well enough to continue, and as the overall universe became more and more complex, the references between various novels began to increase as well.

But as can quickly happen, these references at times became cumbersome, especially for those uninitiated to the larger mythos. This leads me to my point, which unfortunately I can’t back up with sales numbers as they aren’t available: the audience for Star Trek books isn’t growing. Rather than making the novels accessible to a wider audience, the stories got tighter and more interrelated. This is great an appreciated if you are like me, a person who reads nearly everything, but for a casual reader this can be infuriating. Riker and Troi have a kid now? Tucker is alive and a Romulan spy? Didn’t he die in the show? The same paradox happens all the time in the comic industry; reward the dedicated readers even though doing so is alienating the casual and/or potential fans.

Then there comes the recent Star Trek movie, which has currently grossed over $256 million
domestically. Other than the novelization, the first book to exploit such a hot property won’t be released until next June, a full year after the movie debuted. By then the film will be out of the public’s mind, whereas a book released in the next couple of months could really capitalize on its popularity. Such decisions by the editorial staff aren’t helping bring new readers into the fold, and IDW has proven that tying into the film makes a lot of economic sense.

Editorial decisions like this make me wonder if Clark really had a long future as an editor on the line. She didn’t seem to work well with some of the better authors, and her books couldn’t stay consistent with each other. Not situating her company to take advantage of the wild success of the film in a timely manner is yet another strike.

I’m not saying Clark should have lost her job, but even though I don’t have a business degree I understand that companies are out to make money. Structuring a line so that is hard for new readers to gain access doesn’t help sales increase; in fact, it insures sales will decrease because you are going to lose some people to attrition anyway. So while I am not happy Clark is gone because I now must worry about the future of the stories with which I have become engaged, to some extent at least, I’m not sure that this wasn’t something that any of us could have seen coming eventually.

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