Which American Paperback Publisher Ripped off Tolkien first?

When I first bought my copy of Lord of the Rings (the Ballantine paperback) , it had a green box on the back cover with a message from Professor Tolkien saying that another edition of his work had been published without his permission, and that “those who approve of courtesy to living authors, at least, will purchase this edition, and no other”. The blurb was even parodied, along with the rest of the book, on the back cover of Bored of the Rings.

I was puzzled until I saw, in the back pages of the 1966 Ace edition of Silverlock, an ad for the Ace edition of Lord of the Rings. I sought out and eventually found copies of the Ace editions. Later, I learned that Ace was, indeed, the offending company, that they didn’t pay royalties, and that they hadn’t even published all the Appendices. This state of affairs tallies with what’s currently in Wikipedia’a write-up:


Okay, with that as background, I was looking through my copy of Silverlock and saw the Ace ad recently. Here’s what it says:

What? Not only is that, from what I’ve been told, all lies – they had no agreement, weren’t paying any royalties, and were not unrevised and unabridged – but it implies that someone else was publishing pirate editions even earlier. Is this just one of those cases of displacement where the liar imputes his motives to someone else, or was there, indeed, a prior offender? And how could Ace lie like that with a straight face? How did they think they would get away with it? It’s not like this is an obscure market, or LOTR an obscure book – it had already won the International Fantasy Award ( http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?14350 ) But I can’t find any reports of an earlier edition.

Good Lord, someone’s done an entire Master’s thesis on the American publication history of LOTR:

It doesn’t mention any earlier pirate editions, though, or explain the wording of that Ace ad. But it confirms the account in Wikipedia.

I believe this is what happened: After the Ballantine editions came out, Ace agreed that they would pay Tolkien the royalties that he was due for the books. They paid the royalties directly to him, unlike Ballantine. Ballantine was working through the royalty agreements that Tolkien had with his hardback publishers in the U.K. and the U.S. Ballantine thus paid didn’t pay Tolkien directly but paid his hardback publishers. The hardback publishers then paid Tolkien. The hardback publishers may have taken a cut of what Ballantine paid them. Ace, believing that the book wasn’t in copyright and therefore they were only paying royalties out of the goodness of their hearts, didn’t consider it necessary to pay anything to the hardback publishers at all. Later Ace decided not to reprint The Lord of the Rings anymore. I was unaware that there was any time between when Ace decided to pay Tolkien royalties and when they took the book out of print. I’m not certain that I’ve got the facts right though, so I will ask some people who know the history of this matter much better than me what the truth is. I (or maybe one of them) will post a complete explanation of this matter.

Just to clarify the point. It is standard practice in all publishing for the hardback publisher to find a paperback reprinter. For that, and because the hardback publisher usually can make a better deal, the hardback publisher gets 50% of the advance and royalties of the paperback deal. (If the book has not returned the complete advance first, then the publisher gets all money until the advance is covered.)

Of course Houghton Mifflin would take 50% of the money coming in from Ballantine. They made the deal. The clause would be in the contract because it’s in essentially every single contract.

Ace had no contract of any kind, though. They could send payments directly to Tolkien and make an issue of it. As that fascinating thesis paper reminds us, Wollheim continued to crow that he was the one that broke Tolkien in America for many years after the event.

That paper also notes that LotR was an obscure book by almost every standard. The International Fantasy Award was given out by a committee and about 100 people in the dedicated fan community was aware that anything like that existed. The original printing was 1500 copies in America, distinctly smaller than even the press runs of obscure small sf presses like Gnome or Shasta. Total sales for a decade probably didn’t go over 15,000 copies. If Wollheim suddenly sold 150,000 copies then he had reason to aggrandize himself. Not that he needed more. He had quite the ego. And who exactly is going to call him on it? Ballantine? They didn’t count for him.

The thesis also shows why almost everything people say around here about copyright turns out to be wrong. Technically, Wollheim was in his legal rights to produce an edition. Even Houghton Mifflin was aware of the danger. But it would have taken a copyright lawyer a huge number of billable hours to figure out the exact state of the law for this particular case.

This is all interesting by itself, but nothing said anywhere so far (including anything said by me) addresses my Real Question as posted in the OP – who the heck is the Ace ad talking about when it says that “these are the only American editions paying full royalties to the author”? Who was publishing in the US and not paying royalties to Tolkien. Besides Ace, apparently.

As both Wendell Wagner and I said, Ballantine would be sending the royalty money to Houghton Mifflin and Houghton Mifflin would send half of it to Tolkien. That how we’re both interpreting the statement. Half as opposed to full. We both could be wrong, but that’s what’s most likely.

Okay. I missed that you were both pointing out that Ace Books was weaselly saying that they were the only one paying full royalties to the author, and hiding behind the technicality. (They wouldn’t have paid any at all, apparently, had not the Ballantine publication come along and paid Houghton Mifflin/Allen and Unwin. The claim is as shady as a political promise)

There’s also the weasel word “directly”. Ballantine wasn’t paying royalties directly to Tolkien; they were paying them to another publisher who was passing them on.

The whole situation was a public relations issue, not a true legal issue. Ace had to give up publishing the book not because they were legally wrong, but because the fantasy/science fiction community made such a stink over their morally bankrupt decision that they would have lost more money in lost sales had they continued to try and sell their version of the books. To save face, they tried to create a situation where they could crow that they were actually on the moral high ground, but this didn’t fly either, so they simply gave up publishing the books.

It’s not clear whether Ace was justified in claiming that The Lord of the Rings was out of print in the U.S. The copyright law was confused at that point, so Ace was trying to interpret it as allowing them to print the book without paying royalties. In any case, the copyright law was changed in 1978 to make it clear that an author couldn’t lose his copyright through the mistake of the publisher, so it’s quite clear now that the Tolkien estate still has the copyright on the book.

Here’s what I’ve been told by someone who is much more knowledgeable than me on this situation: When Ballantine brought out its edition of the book with the statement on the back of each volume that it was the only authorized edition, Ace decided that they were being made to look very bad, so they decided to quit printing the book. They signed an agreement with Tolkien that they would not print any more copies of the book, but they would be allowed to sell any remaining copies that they had in stock. They agreed to pay directly to Tolkien some royalties. (It’s not clear to me whether the royalties that they paid him were less than what he would have received for that number of copies printed in any normal situation.) This agreement was with Tolkien, not with the hardback publisher, who received nothing in this deal.

At that point, when that edition of Silverlock (and possibly other Ace books of that time) were printed, Ace decided to boast that it was the only paperback publisher paying Tolkien directly. It appears that it put this boast in ads in its books only during the short period after signing the agreement with Tolkien and before exhausting its supply of copies of the book. Incidentally, it is true that the Ace volumes were unrevised and (I think) complete and unabridged. Before the Ballantine editions were printed, Tolkien went through the book and corrected a number of small mistakes (in Elvish and such). The Ballantine edition was thus a revised edition, while the Ace edition wasn’t. The Ace editions were certainly authentic. (What would an unauthentic edition be - a copy of some other book?)

The Ace edition didn’t include the index, which Tolkien apparently hadn’t completed for the first edition. the Ballantine edition did. Besides this, although Ace reset the pages, they essentially photographed the Appendices, so any page references in the Ace Appendices don’t match the books.

One error that got fixed was the place name “Catbarion” on one of the maps. It was corrected to “Oatbarton”.

The only place I’ve seen an Ace ad was in the Silverlock book. For years I thought that it predated the Ballsantine edition, which is why I was confused when it referred to someone else printing LOTR. But that edition of Silverlock came out in 1966, just at the time the Ballantine edition came out. I wonder now if one thing triggering the decision to republish Silverlock just then was that it gave Ace a popular place to put that ad, so it’d be noticed.

TTBOMK – Ace was faced with a reader revolt owing to Tolkien’s crafty move in notifying his widespread fan correspondence base of what was happening. These fans then told their friends, etc. – not to mention Ballantine’s claiming the moral and legal high ground.

Ace had an extensive SF line (and a few fantasy titles – people tend not to realize how much fantasy fiction as a publlishing genre postdates and derives from the enormous popularity of LOTR). They stood to lose a lot more in sales not made to disgruntled fans than what they were making off the ‘pirated’ LOTR.

So to stave off this loss, they entered into an agreement with JRRT – they would sell off their inventory but not reprint. They would pay him royalties, volunarily, directly to him. And JRRT would ‘call off the dogs’, writing his fan base to let them know that Ace had cleaned up its act and done the right thing.

For obvious reasons, having already been printed, none of the Ace LOTR books has a note to this effect in it. But you can be sure that Ace publicized the fact to the F&SF community as much as they could; I presume the ad in Silverlode is part of that “hey. we’re really not that bad” campaign.

WW and Exapno: Exactly. Ace paid royalties directly to JRRT, when they finally paid any; Ballantine paid his publisher for US paperback reprint rights, and they in turn paid JRRT the appropriate royalty. The one cavil I’d make with what you said is that I believe (but could easyly be wrong) that Ballantine and Houghton Mifflin both paid Allen and Unwin, the company who had the contract with Tolkien to publish LOTR. HM had contracted for US hardcover rights, Ballantine for US paperback rights. (I think it was Penguin who bought UK paperback rights, but that’s a very hazy memory.)

Hey, can anyone find images of the Ace covers? I can’t seem to find images, but I’ve seen them IRL.

Search and ye shall find:


Polycarp, it’s Silverlock, not Silverlode. Incidentally, I never mentioned Houghton Mifflin in my posts, since I wasn’t sure if the royalties went through Houghton Mifflin at all or went directly to Allen and Unwin before being passed on to Tolkien. That’s why I only wrote “hardback publisher.”

Looking over those covers again, I’m troubled by them. I think they were rushed and/or the illustrator didn’t read very carefully. And I’m not fond of some of the choices.

Fellowship of the Ring


– Well that’s Gandalf in the front, of course. But apparently it’s Gandalf the Yellow. And his companions look like Robin Hood’s Men. Are these supposed to be anyone in particular? Aragorn? Boromir? Legolas? And where are Gimli and the Hobbits?

The Two Towers


Obviously a Nazgul, but it’s not Riding a Black Horse, and it’s not riding a Flying Mount From An Older Age. It’s riding a Black Flying Horse.
The Return of the King


Well, I guess that’s Sauron in the Hood with the Big Red Eye (at least, I assume it’s red – it’s hard to tell). But he doesn’t look like I imagined, or like Peter Jackson did, either. Evidently Gandalf is getting his fashion sense from Elric of Melnibone, and is wearing what looks like a stylish dunce cap. I hope that’s not supposed to be Aragorn in that goofy-looking Bunny Helmet with the Antenna in the middle. I assume that’s Gimli holding his axe on the lower right, but I can’t figure out how he’s supposed to be posed. Who the hell are the other guys?

I haven’t checked to see if the Runes are even real, not to mention if they actually spell anything. My guess is that they’re just for show.

You know, with the lightning bolts coming out of his hands, that robed figure looks like Emperor Palpatine as a Cyclops.

And that’s a damned Phallic Barad-Dur there!

I think that’s the illustrator’s misguided attempt at a helm of Gondor, which IIRC is described in the books as having swan’s wings. The one in that illustration looks like it has an entire swan perched on top.

You may be right – I’d forgotten that. Even the Bothers Hildebrandt put Asterix-like wings on that helmet:

I couldn’t see wearing one like that into battle – even a clumsy sword swipe by an opponent would pull the helmet off your head. The Jackson version you link to makes more practical sense.

by the way – there’s not a single identifiable Ring or Hobbit on any of those covers, which seems a waste. But there’s an interior sketch of a Hobbit – presumably Frodo.

I wouldn’t be too critical of the Ace covers. Whatever you might say about them, there aren’t any emus. :smiley: