he scenario: you find yourself in casual conversation, and Star Wars books come up. Perhaps you and a friend are discussing what books you’re currently reading. Or you’re discussing Star Wars, and you mention thatyou love reading Star Wars books. “There are Star Wars books?!” your friend exclaims.
This is precisely when having the data on your side is helpful. Cold hard statistics. In fact, the rich history of Star Wars books’ popular success on a mainstream level is revealed by the sheer number of books that have topped the ever-elusive, highly-acclaimed New York Times Best Seller list.
What is the NYT Best Seller List?
A book sales/recommendation list has appeared in the New York Times for nearly 100 years! Beginning in 1931, the Times’s list became a white whale for authors and publishers by the 1950s.
The elusive nature of the list
The problem: it is extremely difficult to conduct an exhaustive search of the various Star Wars books that have topped the best seller lists over the years. That’s why we’re here. On top of that, any discussion of the New York Times Best Seller list should be caveated with a few indisputable facts. There’s a shroud of mystery around the list. The Times keeps confidential all the various factors that contribute to making a book a chart-topper, much like a secret sauce. We know it is loosely connected to book sales from Saturday to Sunday each week from booksellers who report to the Times. Beyond that, there are many factors involved, and yet the publishing industry gives considerable weight to the NYT list. . . even if it is not the only metric used to measure a book’s success and should be taken with a grain of spice salt.
It is also worth comparing the New York Times Best Seller list with that of USA Today and Amazon …but that’s an article for another day.
Now that we’ve muddied the waters a bit, let’s complicate things further. The truth about the New York Times Best Seller list, in fact, is that there is not a single New York Times Best Seller list. There are multiple categories each week into which a book can fall. These include fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, combined print and E-book, hardcover, paperback trade, advice, how-to, miscellaneous, audio fiction, audio nonfiction, business, graphic books and manga, mass-market, middle grade paperback, and young adult paperback! Amazingly, Star Wars books have found themselves on nearly every one of these lists over the years.
Why does it matter when a Star Wars book tops the charts?
Ultimately, a book’s landing on the New York Times Best Seller list is far from the only factor determining a book’s success. In fact, many of our favorite books are relatively under-the-radar books — that’s part of the fun. Nevertheless, chart-topping is good for Star Wars books’ visibility. The hope is that more readers will discover this literary galaxy when they make news. The purpose of this piece is not to over-emphasize how various Star Wars books have performed but rather to chronicle the facts for posterity’s sake. Who knows? Maybe one of these will come up the next time you participate in Star Wars trivia at your local hive of scum and villainy.
A select few Star Wars books have had the rare privilege of being crowned the number one New York Times best seller, an extreme honor in the publishing industry. Often, this involves a massive “tentpole” event book with excellent promotion and/or word of mouth — that, and a boost from the Force. As of this guide’s publication, six adult Star Wars books have crested the list’s summit, with another three Young Adult books and two others. Those books are Heir to the Empire, Episode I: The Phantom Menace, The Force Unleashed, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Thrawn: Alliances, and The High Republic: Light of the Jedi.
Heir to the Empire
The book, often credited with kickstarting the Expanded Universe, proved that Star Wars was perfectly poised for a cultural comeback. Dethroning John Grisham’s The Firm in 1991, Heir to the Empire eventually made its way up to the number one spot after debuting at number eleven. In fact, it stayed on the List for a staggering nineteen weeks! Fans were eager to continue their adventure, as the book’s sequel Heir to the Empire Strikes Back, Dark Force Rising, made it to number two the following year, with The Last Command rounding out the trilogy of chart-toppers with a third placement in 1993. This book heavily influenced the decades of Star Wars books storytelling to follow, establishing beloved characters like Mara Jade, Gilad Pellaeon, Talon Karrde, Borsk Fey’lya, and of course, Grand Admiral Thrawn. This trilogy established Timothy Zahn as a staple among Star Wars authors, going on to pen over a dozen more Star Wars books, including one other number-one best seller in Thrawn: Alliances.
The Phantom Menace Novelization
The fervor surrounding the return of Star Wars leading up to the release of Episode I in 1999 was hard to avoid no matter where you turned. Not only did the marketing take over Toys R Us, Pizza Hut, and the local movie theater, but even the bookstore fell prey to the frenzy. Fantasy legend Terry Brooks did the honors of tackling the novelization of Episode I and was well-rewarded. Surely the four variant character-profile covers helped the sales as well. These included Anakin Skywalker, Darth Maul, Queen Amidala, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. (Be sure to check out the backs of the books in search of the acclaimed Watto cover!)
Terry Brooks kickstarted what would become an acclaimed trilogy of Prequel novelizations, with Episode II to follow by fellow fantasy powerhouse R. A. Salvatore and Matthew Stover delivering quite possibly the best-written Star Wars book of all time in Revenge of the Sith. Brooks’s The Phantom Menace novelization contains additional material not seen in the final film, including scenes with young Anakin piloting (and crashing) Watto’s podracer before the film’s events (poor Watto).
The Force Unleashed Novelization
Few Star Wars stories outside the films received as much hype as The Force Unleashed video game in 2008. The player could play as Darth Vader’s secret apprentice, Starkiller, portrayed in the cutting-edge motion-capture technology by none other than Sam Witwer. Following his role in The Force Unleashed, Witwer would go on to voice many more villains in the Star Wars universe: Maul, Palpatine, and the Son from Mortis in The Clone Wars. The Force Unleased was not only a groundbreaking video game but a compelling story. Starkiller’s character arc is a favorite among many fans. It even received a sequel a few years later. Sean Williams, the author of the Force Heretic trilogy from the New Jedi Order and The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance, wrote the novelization based on Hayden Blackman’s story.
The Force Awakens Novelization
Can you see a trend developing? Star Wars novelizations have historically performed well on the NYT list, with Episode VII: The Force Awakens taking the top spot following the highly anticipated return of Star Wars to the limelight. This novelization holds a special place in Star Wars books history, in fact. Alan Dean Foster, who ghostwrote the original novelization, Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, had the honor of making his grand return and introducing yet another era wtih a Star Wars film novelization..
The announcement that Timothy Zahn, Thrawn’s creator, would return to write more Thrawn stories in the current Canon took the fandom by storm. While his grand return did not quite take the top spot, it did get close. Its sequel, with the striking pose of Thrawn alongside the dark and broody Darth Vader, surpassed its performance with Thrawn: Alliances. How much of the book’s success was due to its incredible cover? And how much was due to the simple recipe of Thrawn + Zahn? It certainly stands out as a surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one!
Light of the Jedi
The High Republic blasted from out of nowhere into our lives and to the top of the best seller list like a ship exploding into a million pieces from out of hyperspace. Charles Soule’s first prose Star Wars book was fiercely anticipated and incredibly well-received. We at Youtini think so highly of it that we adapted and expanded our “Foundational Five” Star Wars books into the “Essential Six.” It successfully introduces not only this all-new era but a core cast of tangible and memorable characters—Avar Kriss, Elzar Mann, Buryyaga, Bell Zetifar and his charhound Ember, Porter Engle, Loden Greatstorm, and of course, one of the greatest villains ever to originate in Star Wars books—Marchion Ro. It deserved the top spot on the charts for both giving the High Republic initiative and exciting launch and for its sheer quality. It earned the highest marks not only on the NYT list but also in our hearts.
Young Adult Books
To date, three Star Wars books have topped the charts in the Young Adult category. Those books are Ahsoka by E. K. Johnston, The High Republic: Into the Dark by Claudia Gray, and Padawan by Kiersten White.Considering that Star Wars books only officially embraced the YA category in 2015 (books prior to that were either children’s books, junior readers, or adult books), this is a spectacular success rate.
Not to be confused with the Disney+ Series of the same name, Ahsoka by E. K. Johnston tells of the Clone Wars protagonist’s escape from the Inquisitors after Order 66 and her attempts to lay low, abandoning the Jedi path. This eagerly awaited book was the first Star Wars novel to feature Anakin Skywalker’s former apprentice as the main character. Yes, she’s appeared in a Legends novel or two (No Prisoners, for example), as well as some Clone Wars episode adaptations in junior readers and comics, but she hadn’t received an original adventure in this medium until this point (and still hasn’t received another to date)! Ahsoka is a truly groundbreaking novel. Its story has since been retold in another medium in condensed form in the Tales of the Jedi episode, “Resolve.” If you’re interested in checking it out, the audiobook is read by none other than Ashley Eckstein!
Into the Dark
Claudia Gray is no stranger to Star Wars book fans. Her debut Star Wars novel, Lost Stars, is widely regarded as one of the very best. It’s even one of the Youtini Essential Six. Her novels consistently are well-received, with such bangers as Leia: Princess of Alderaan, Bloodline, and Master and Apprentice. Her first novel in The High Republic era, Into the Dark, followed Jedi Padawan and book nerd Reath Silas on a harrowing adventure to an abandoned space station. Only said space station wasn’t quite empty. A small crew of Nihil in disguise tricked him into awakening the dreaded sentient, dark side plant species called the Drengir. A rip-roaring good time all around. For everyone except the Drengir’s victims, that is. Meeeeaaaaat.
Especially amazing about the book’s performance is the way the first wave of High Republic books broke through into the cultural consciousness right out of the gate; both Light of the Jedi and Into the Dark were number one best sellers, while Marvel’s The High Republic comic series set all kinds of records in its sales as well—cresting over 200,000 copies sold of issue number one! Not only that, but A Test of Courage by Justina Ireland made it to number two on the Children’s Middle Grade Hardcover list!
A third Star Wars Young Adult novel to take the number one spot is Padawan by Kiersten White. This young Obi-Wan adventure sees the apprentice rebel in a fit of teenage angst, landing on a carnivorous planet with a ragtag bunch of misfit orphans. Capitalizing on Kenobi Fever (™) in the months surrounding the release of Brotherhood by Mike Chen and the Disney+ series Obi-Wan Kenobi, White’s debut Star Wars novel was not only a good time all around but a sales success.
Other Miscellaneous Number Ones
By our count, a handful of other Star Wars books have climbed to the peak of various other NYT lists as well. The Return of the Jedi storybook was the number one children’s book in 1983 (number one for eight weeks, in fact), and Legacy of the Force: Revelation by Karen Traviss was the number one mass-market paperback in 2008. The only number one bestselling graphic novel that turned up in our research was The Star Wars. Based on George Lucas’s rough draft of what would eventually become the massively successful franchise, The Star Wars is a slightly askew “what could have been” comic adaptation from Lucasfilm historian J. W. Rinzler, with art by acclaimed artist Mike Mayhew.
What makes a Star Wars book ascend to the number one spot?
As you can see, there are several trends here and a couple of head-scratching oddities. One, novelizations perform well. While not always the most popular among Star Wars book enthusiasts, novelizations are great jumping-on points for the Star Wars-book-curious population. There’s something to be said for leaving a film (or video game release in the case of The Force Unleashed) and picking up the book the next day out of sheer excitement.
Secondly, Thrawn is quite a popular character. Take the frenzy at Star Wars Celebration Europe, for example when Thrawn’s live-action look was revealed. Heir to the Empire and Thrawn: Alliances are number one best sellers for a reason. That reason is blue.
Finally, there seems to be a level of excitement that has enough momentum to propel a book to popular success when fan fervor reaches critical mass—evidenced by both The High Republic and Obi-Wan Kenobi with the books Light of the Jedi, Into the Dark, and Padawan.
Beyond that, however, there seems to be no direct connection between a book’s reception and reviews in the book-reading world and a book’s success on the New York Times list. After all, sometimes all is as the Force wills it.
Here, we highlight the Star Wars books that have charted in the top ten. Numerous other books have landed on the New York Times Best Seller list outside of the top ten, and we refer you to this impressive piece for more information.
Of course, several hundred Star Wars books have been created in various genres over more than four and a half decades. Despite our best efforts, some may have fallen through the cracks! Nevertheless, here’s what we were able to uncover.
Steady Stream of Success in the 90s
Following the critical success of Heir to the Empire in 1991, Timothy Zahn’s sequels fell right in line in an almost artistic fashion. Dark Force Rising reached number two in 1992, with The Last Command debuting at number three in 1993. Chef’s kiss
The Truce at Bakura, a Star Wars book about dinosaurs reptilian aliens who entech their prisoners’ souls into battle droids in the days following Return of the Jedi, made it to the fifth spot. Dave Wolverton delivered The Courtship of Princess Leia in 1994, seeing Han and Leia on an adventure on Dathomir, which soared to number seven. The Crystal Star followed in the eighth spot, Children of the Jedi sixth, Shadows of the Empire fifth, with a few others in spots 15-12.
Prequel Era and the New Jedi Order
As previously mentioned, Terry Brooks’s The Phantom Menace was extremely successful. Other books in this period achieved high placements as well. The New Jedi Order’s debut book, Vector Prime, reached the tenth spot in the same year. Greg Bear’s Rogue Planet debuted at nine, as did Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter by Michael Reaves. Timothy Zahn once again showcased his popularity with Survivor’s Quest at number nine (his, or Mara Jade’s). Another number nine was Labyrinth of Evil by James Luceno. Both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were this close to The Phantom Menace’s chart-topping success, each landing at second on the list.
Late Legends Hits
Timothy Zahn has a knack for this kind of thing, doesn’t he? Allegiance was a top-ten best seller in 2007. The finale of the Legacy of the Force series made it to number five—and started Youtini, by the way, being the legendary first Star Wars book CEO Dr. Corey Helton stumbled upon. . . The next series, Fate of the Jedi, saw Christie Golden charting with all three of her books: Omen taking the number four spot, Allies at number eight, and Ascension at number seven. Troy Denning closed out the series in a big way, with Apocalypse making it all the way to number two in 2012!
Other massively successful books of this period were The Old Republic: Revan (8) and Darth Plagueis (4).
The first Canon book to land on the New York Times Best Seller list was Aftermath by Chuck Wendig. It debuted at number four. Its sequels, Life Debt and Empire’s End, charted at numbers nine and three, respectively. Claudia Gray, no stranger to this list, produced Bloodlines, the Leia-centric spy-thriller, at number five. Thrawn by Timothy Zahn was number two in 2017, followed by another villainous origin story in Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson at number ten. As was previously mentioned, The Last Jedi novelization was a number two best seller, and The Rise of Skywalker five (we at Youtini declared it an absolutely excellent novelization, by the way). Zahn’s success continued into yet another new era with Thrawn Ascendency: Chaos Rising reaching number nine in 2020.
More Tip 10s since 2020
Recently, The High Republic: Race to Crashpoint Tower by Daniel José Older was number four on the Children’s Middle Grade Hardcover Books list. The same week, The High Republic: The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott debuted at number nine, continuing the trend of The High Republic’s critical success. It went on to finish second in the Youtini March Madness event, falling short of its predecessor, Light of the Jedi.
At the end of the day, it is important to note that a book’s popular success does not equate directly with a book’s quality. Books take off, climbing the charts for many of reasons—name recognition, fan fervor, and even amazingly captivating cover art! One book making number one on the list is not necessarily a bigger achievement than a book charting at four or five. It depends largely on the other books being released in the same season.
There are, however, some notable implications to a Star Wars book soaring to the top of the charts.
One massive perk when a Star Wars book becomes a New York Times best seller is simply this: more people will be exposed to Star Wars books. “They’re still making Star Wars books?!” your neighbor might exclaim. That’s when you swoop in and tell said neighbor about Youtini.com, our network of podcasts, and the massive community of like-minded fans always willing and eager to share in the love of the literary galaxy far, far away. A book making it huge is great for all Star Wars books, which makes it good for Star Wars fans!
Not only does the “New York Times Best Seller” tag benefit the fans, but also the authors and publishers. It promotes the longevity of the franchise. When an author makes it on “the List,” they can add “New York Times Bestselling Author” on the covers of all future books for the rest of their career—a huge boost for these creators we know and love! And,, let’s face it — while these books are a form of art, they’re also a cog in the wheels of Lucasfilm’s Star Wars storytelling and the publishers’ bottom line for making books that sell, employ, and engage.
Star Wars books have had a long and rich history of not only transporting readers to another galaxy, but of landing on the bestselling racks in bookstores. As we’ve seen, a significant number landing on the New York Times Bestselling list over four decades, with many more well on their way.