Timothy Zahn shares Star Wars history


Photo courtesy of starwars.com. Fair Use.

Zahn created one of the most popular Star Wars characters.

Two people covered in blue paint sit in the front row of Overlook Room C in the DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids. Their costumes complete the outfit, both clad in stark white military uniforms, complete with capes. They are cosplaying as Star Wars villain Grand Admiral Thrawn and they’re anticipating a panel discussion with his creator: author Timothy Zahn.

Zahn was the first author to continue the story of the Star Wars universe in book form. His landmark trilogy of novels, collectively known as “The Thrawn Trilogy,” were, at the time of their publication, the only narratives that moved the Star Wars saga forward in time past “Return of the Jedi.” The books introduced many fan favorite characters such as Mara Jade, Jaina and Jacen Solo and Imperial Grand Admiral Thrawn. The latter became so popular that when Lucasfilm wiped away most of the Star Wars expanded canon as part of their acquisition by Disney, Thrawn was one of the few characters who was allowed to remain. However, many at Lucasfilm didn’t believe that the first book, “Heir to the Empire,” would be much of a success.

“At that point, when ‘Heir to the Empire’ was published, nobody knew by then if there were Star Wars fans even out there anymore,” Zahn explained. “The fans had been quiet for eight years, so quiet fans look exactly the same as no fans at all from the point of view of Lucasfilm. [The publisher] wanted a first printing of 100,000 copies. Orders came in for 70,000, so the bookstore people were also not convinced anybody was out there.”

The novel was a risky experiment, a sort of sonar wave sent out into the world to see if there were still any Star Wars fans out there. Within two to three weeks, however, the first printing of the book had been completely sold out. The book spent 12-13 weeks in the top ten of the New York Times best seller list, and by the time it dropped off, Lucasfilm and Bantam Spectra Publishing had made a deal for 12 more books.

Strangely, history repeated itself when Zahn was approached to reinsert Thrawn into the official Star Wars canon. When “Thrawn,” Zahn’s book to reintroduce the character, premiered at a Star Wars festival in 2017, the publisher printed the minimum amount of copies for sale.

“You have to understand the bean-counter mentality,” Zahn said. “This is a Star Wars convention, but how many people who love Star Wars read?” Imitating the thoughts of the doubting executives, he mused, “We offer these books and if we mark these as a celebration special edition and we don’t sell all of them we can’t really sell them anywhere else. Let’s go on the safe side.” Zahn added, “And in doing so they, again, way underestimated the fanbase. Every night… Barnes and Noble were selling out of their regular copies and scrambling to get more the next day… This convinced them Thrawn was popular.” At this, he laughed along with his audience, many of whom were aware of the character’s popularity among fans. They never needed convincing; neither did Zahn.