Vintage Vault: Sphere Books, the 70’s and early 80’s home of Star Wars novels in the UK

One of my earliest Star Wars related memories is of reading the Sphere Books paperback edition of the novelisation, over and over again, until the pages yellowed, the corners became dog eared, the spine broke, and the pages fell apart. I don’t know how many times I read that book, but in the days before VCR, DVD, and Disney Plus, it was my favourite way of reliving the movie that meant so much to me. I loved that book, and can still recall whole passages of the text.

The original Sphere Books was a British publishing company launched in 1966 by Thomson Corporation, and the publisher became known particularly (at least by me!) for science fiction, fantasy and horror paperbacks, as well as film and TV tie-in titles. Sphere was sold to Pearson PLC in 1985 and became part of Penguin. The name was retired in 1990, but was relaunched in 2006 as an imprint (trade name) under Little, Brown & Company.

The Star Wars novelisation, credited to author George Lucas but actually ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster, was first published in the US by Ballantine Books on November 12, 1976.  Foster later said, ““My agent got a call from Lucas’ lawyer of the time, Tom Pollock, as someone thought I might be the writer to do the novelisation of Lucas’ new film. I already knew his work through THX 1138 and American Graffiti. I accepted the offer to meet with George, and did so at Industrial Light & Magic, then in a small warehouse in Van Nuys, California. We hit it off well, I got the assignment (for two books), and that’s how it happened.”

Foster had met with production staff in December 1975, where he was given a script, some of Ralph McQuarrie’s pre-production art and a tour of Industrial Light and Magic. He was also shown some special effects footage, which fired his imagination. “Between the 16mm reel and McQuarrie’s art I felt I had a good idea [of what the film would look like],” he later said. “But I was doubtful everything that was on the page would actually end up on screen. I was pretty stunned when it did, and then some.”

In the United Kingdom, the Star Wars paperback novelisation was published in 1977 by Sphere Books, featuring cover art by John Berkey, and the early ‘Pointy W’ Star Wars logo.  Sphere had reportedly paid $225,000 for the British publishing rights.

The company produced a number of paperback versions of the original movie tie-in. The first edition was published in 1977 (well before the movie release), under the ‘Sphere Science Fiction’ banner, which is printed on the front cover and spine, with a cover price of 95p. 16 colour pages of photos were bound into the centre. A flash across the bottom right of the cover proclaims the movie as “A spectacular motion picture from Twentieth Century Fox!

The novel was reprinted seven times that year, again priced at 95p, and then again in 1978 and 1982. The reprints featured a starburst top left of the cover stating “16 pages of glorious colour“, whilst the flash, bottom right, was changed to read “The greatest film of the century!

A later 1983 reprint (one of three that year) omitted the photographs, and the flash now read “Well over 1 million copies sold“.  The cover price had risen to £1.75, and for the first time a barcode featured on the rear cover.

The novel was widely publicised, offered as prizes in newspaper, magazine and comic competitions, and promoted in press packs given to journalists at preview screenings of the movie. Even the cinema poster urged fans to “Read the sensational novel in Sphere paperback“.

Sphere produced some eye-catching retail displays to promote the novel, with arguably the best of those being an R2-D2 shaped standee, with a box insert to show 9 books on display, as seen here in a photograph from Craig Stevens’ excellent book, The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain.  A smaller counter top display was also produced featuring the Hildebrandt Brothers poster art and the tag line, “Now over 5 million copies worldwide!“, with space for the book to be displayed to the front.  Like all store display material, such items are highly prized by collectors today.

Promotional posters were also produced for use in bookshops, with two known versions, one featuring the novel itself, and the other with the Hildebrandt poster art and three images from the movie. Both feature the “Now over 5 million copies… ”Tag line.

Sphere also produced two paperback copies of the novelisation with simplified and shortened text, and including the photograph insert, as a “Special young readers edition“, as stated on the cover flash. Sphere’s own version had a red cover with an 85p cover price, whilst a second version, produced by Sphere under the Scholastic banner (a specialist children’s and educational imprint), had a yellow cover, with no price stated.

The final movie tie-in produced by Sphere was a 1978 adaptation of the Marvel comic series, in standard paperback format. Featuring an eye-catching comic art cover, the book also includes an introduction by Stan Lee, and preface by Roy Thomas. Priced at 75p, the book is a straightforward reproduction of the comic, although with pages about a third of the size of the original, it’s a little hard to read.

After the success of Star Wars, author Alan Dean Foster wrote a second stand-alone novel, titled Splinter of the Mind’s Eye – a tale of Luke, Leia and the droids, marooned on a remote jungle planet and pursued by Darth Vader. The book was intended as a potential low-budget sequel had the original Star Wars movie been a flop, but instead was launched to feed the insatiable appetite of fans for new content between movies.

Splinter was a huge publishing success, and the paperback was reprinted by Sphere at least 4 times, with cover prices rising from 85p in 1978, to £1.00 in 1980, then £1.10 and finally £1.50 in 1983 (also the first cover to feature a barcode on the rear).

A retail poster for Splinter was clearly designed to capitalise on the success of the original novelisation, featuring pictures of both books, and catching the attention of potential customers with the tag lines, “…Darth Vader lives on…” and “…a spectacular new adventure!

Further Sphere paperback releases included the Han Solo trilogy by Brian Daley, telling tales of the smuggler and his Wookiee copilot adventuring in the Corporate Sector, a far flung region of the galaxy.  Han Solo at Star’s End was published in 1979 with Han Solo’s Revenge appearing in 1980, both at a cover price of 95p. Han Solo and the Lost Legacy followed in 1981. All 3 books were reprinted in 1983, with a barcode on the rear and a jump in cover price to £1.50.

Another 1978 paperback release from Sphere was From The Blob to Star Wars: The Science Fiction Movie Quiz Book, with cover price of 85p. A cover flash promotes the “Special Star Wars Section“, and the novelisation is advertised on the rear cover. It’s clear which of the several movies featured was going to prove most popular with readers!

With the launch of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, again Sphere had the British publishing rights for the tie-in novelisation, written by Donald F. Glut, a friend and former USC classmate of George Lucas. The first paperback edition priced at £1.00 boasted “8 pages of fabulous colour” and the cover flash proclaimed “The great new film spectacular!“. Reprinted in 1980, the book was again reprinted in 1983, this time without photographs, and with a barcode on the rear, at a price of £1.75.

To promote the Empire paperback novel in bookshops, an eye-catching standee was issued, featuring the iconic McQuarrie image of Vader in flames, with the Empire logo below. The novel was sold, by some retailers, from a simple plain black display box, featuring the Empire logo, and the ambitious tag line, “The space fantasy extravaganza the whole universe has been waiting for!” Two retail posters were available, both with pictures of the novel, one with a red background and the other with a colourful starfield.

As with Star Wars, there was a simplified ‘Special young reader’s edition’ of Empire, with a red cover, and a 95p cover price. There was no separate Scholastic edition, but this book can be found with a black Scholastic sticker on the rear cover.

The last Sphere paperback release was Once Upon A Galaxy: A Journal of the Making of The Empire Strikes Back, by Alan Arnold. A fabulous read, the book chronicles Arnold’s experiences following the movie making process, first on location in Finse, and then at Elstree studios, with many cast and crew interviews and candid insights into the production. The book has 32 pages of black and white photographs, and was published in 1980, with a cover price of £1.25. It is now one of the more sought after, and hence expensive, of the Sphere releases.

Sphere lost it’s license to produce Star Wars books after Empire, which was instead passed to Futura for Return of the Jedi. However, the company’s output from that galaxy far, far away will live long in the memories, and hearts, of fans of a certain age.

Photos (c) Craig Stevens, Andy Preston

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