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Oct 022015

Tolkien had no desire to publish paperbacks

You must remember that as late as the mid 1960s paperbacks were still associated with pulp fiction and low quality literary works and Tolkien loved the hardcover editions with it symbols, illustrations and fold out maps.

However, it was the unauthorized paperbacks of The Lord of the Rings by Ace books that fanned the flames of Middle-earth Mania in the US!

By the late 1950s Tolkien’s The Hobbit had become a beloved children’s book that was also appreciated by adults and his newly published The Lord of the Rings trilogy was gaining ground as an important literary work.

At this time, Tolkien had no desire to have his works in paperback form. This was long before the now mandatory trajectory of a popular novel, which is published first in a hardcover edition, then in large paperback edition and finally a hand held paperback, not to mention the digital versions. Tolkien hated the idea of his written works being published in this form. However, it would be the unauthorized version of The Lord of the Rings that would make him a household name around the world.

You can get a detailed account of this on Kirkus Reviews, which has a great article on the Ace Unauthorized Paperback of edition of The Lord of the Rings. This is how Tolkien replied when asked by Donald Wollheim if he could publish a paperback version of the books.

“When he called up Professor Tolkien in 1964 and asked if he could publish Lord of the Rings as Ace paperbacks, Tolkien said he would never allow his great works to appear in so ‘degenerate a form’ as the paperback book.”

Offended by Tolkien’s words, Wollheim didn’t give up. Thinking he had found a loophole in copyright law, he mistakenly thought he could legally publish the books. He believed the copyright for The Lord of the Rings had been abandoned in the US, and that it was in the public domain.  Ace released their version of The Fellowship of the Ring in May, with The Two Towers and Return of the King following July of 1965. The Authorized Ballantine version would come later to the US in 1966.

The uproar over the unauthorized edition by Ace book helped sell even more volumes of the authorized one by Balentine, helping the publishers sell more paperbacks of The Hobbit  and The Lord of the Rings than anyone could have ever anticipated.

Ace’s editions were a commercial success, selling over 100,000 copies, which angered Tolkien and his publishers. They complained, and as early as May 1965, Tolkien began to urge the fans who wrote to him to inform them that the American copies were pirated: “I am now inserting in every note of acknowledgement to readers in the U.S.A. a brief note informing them that Ace Books is a pirate, and asking them to inform others.”

Over the remainder of 1965, the pressure mounted on Ace Books to cease publication of their edition. In October, Tolkien noted in a letter to his son that “campaign in U.S.A. has gone well. ‘Ace Books’ are in quite a spot, and many institutions have banned all their products. They are selling their pirate edition quite well, but it is being discovered to be very badly and erroneously printed; and I am getting such an advt. from the rumpus that I expect my ‘authorized’ paper-back will in fact sell more copies than it would, if there had been no trouble or competition.” Competition to the Ace copies arrived at the same time, as Ballantine Books released their own ‘authorized’ The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers in October and Return of the King in November of 1966. While Ace’s editions were priced at $0.75 against Ballantine’s $0.95, the tide began to turn as the negative publicity mounted.

It’s interesting to see that Tolkien utilized his new US fanbase that he so abhorred, to fight back against the unauthorized editions. He was also correct: The incredible publicity that the row received, which pulled in efforts from the Science Fiction Writers of America, helped to grow the fervent readership for the tales from Middle-earth. It’s also ironic that while Tolkien had resisted so “‘degenerate a form’ as the paperback book,” it was in that format which they first appeared and grew in popularity within the United States.

Though Tolkien was no fan of the adulation he was personally receiving for the books, he must have understood the power it gave him in achieving his ends, when they were mobilized in an effort to help him.

I had a poster on my wall just like this one

It is also important to note that Tolkien actually preferred the artwork on the cover of the Ace books, rather than the ones that graced the covers of the Ballantine editions. I personally like the Ballantine cover art, probably because I owned a set and would often look at the artwork when reading the books. I also purchased the poster that came out in the 1970s… man, I wish I had kept it!

Interestingly, Humphrey Carter, in Tolkien’s official biography, noted that while Tolkien was displeased with the Ace editions, they at least sported covers that resembled their stories; by contrast, Tolkien was distressed at the cover art for the Ballantine editions, to which he noted: “What has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with pink bulbs?”

The fall out of all of this has had two major effects. The first being that Professor Tolkien achieved worldwide acclaim in his lifetime for his Lord of the Rings trilogy and so created a massive fan base of devoted followers of Middle-earth that has only increased over time.

The other ramification of the unauthorized editions was a profound effect on The Tolkien Estate, which now works aggressively to protect their works in the form of legal actions against any and all forms of copyright infringement, no matter how small and which seemed to reach a fever pitch after the release of Peter Jackson’s films.

Whether or not this will continue after the passing of Christopher Tolkien only time will tell.

Make sure to read this entire article HERE


 October 2, 2015  Posted by at 8:03 am
  • Random Musings

    Looking at that poster makes me feel like I’m on an acid trip although I assume that was it’s intention back then.

  • LOL! Flashback! I think you are right!

  • CT

    An interesting story RL. As one who knew nothing about LOTR until PJ’s FOTR in 2001 this is all new to me. I agree with Tolkien though, the Ace cover art is much better.

  • I think one of the things that really stood out was the effect this had on The Tolkien Estate. It definitely explains a lot.