Friday, 30 November 2012

J.R.R. Tolkien and American Publishing

This article is taken from the October, 1969, issue of Books and Bookmen.

Written by James Blish.

One of the most unexpected swings in recent US literary taste has been the widespread popularity, especially among undergraduates, of heroic fantasy. Curiously, the early and still the major beneficiaries of this interest were British authors, but this situation is now in process of change.
The boom began with the 'hobbit' fantasies of the Oxonian J.R.R. Tolkien, a past member of the Oxford Inklings circle which also included C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. These books had had a small but extremely devoted following in the States since their publication there, but they were not as popular as the three interplanetary romances of Lewis, or the turgid horror stories of the American H.P. Lovecraft.
Then, five years ago, the US paperback publisher Ace Books discovered that through a failure on the part of Tolkien's American publishers, his major work, the three-volume The Lord of the Rings, had been thrown into the public domain in the States. Ace promptly brought out all three volumes in paperback, and the Tolkien cult grew from a few hundred people to many thousands. At first, Ace proposed to pay Tolkien none of the proceeds, and another paperback house, Ballantine Books, risked bringing out an authorised edition, with small changes and additions which could be re-copyrighted, a public notice that Ballantine would pay royalties to the author, and a note from Tolkien asking readers to buy this edition and no other.
Amazingly, this worked. The new printing prospered, at the expense of the Ace edition, and Ballantine now have in print what appears to be every word Tolkien has ever published. (They also do a sizeable trade in 'Come to Middle Earth' posters, originally intended for bookstores but now for sale, and there is even an LP record of hobbit songs.)
Another accident enables one to make a rough estimate of the magnitude of the market. Under pressure from Tolkien fans and writers' organisations, Ace eventually made to Tolkien a royalty payment of around £3,333. Starting from the fact that the minimum paperback royalty in the States is two and a half percent, it must be assumed that the Ace edition at that point (three years ago) had sold about 337,000 copies, despite a year of Ballantine competition. As for the Ballantines, they claim to have grossed more than $1 million on Tolkien, placing their sales in the vicinity of 1,053,000 - a staggering figure, even allowing for the fact that they have more Tolkien books (and posters) to offer, especially when one adds to it the Ace sales. Mr. Tolkien may not yet be in the same league as Harold Robbins, but for a genre author he is setting records of his own (and will probably last a lot longer).