Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and up to the present day, cheaper book club editions of Tolkien's best known works have been issued in the UK - in the main by Book Club Associates / Guild Publishing, but latterly also by The Book People / Ted Smart. However, they were not the first club to obtain permission to issue their own edition of one of Tolkien's books. In 1960 Readers Union published a single impression of each of the three volumes of in their own bindings and dustwrappers, under a shared imprint with Allen & Unwin.
In the absence of the current article very little information about this edition is available. Wayne G. Hammond's bibliography has only one short paragraph, which gives brief descriptions of the bindings and dustwrappers, and notes (incorrectly) that it was "? " of the A&U edition. The Tolkien Collector?
As is often the case in Tolkien publishing history, the path to publication and beyond was not a smooth one - correspondence between Allen & Unwin and Readers Union mentioning can be found in the A&U archive from as early as 1958 and continues until 1961.
Readers Union had had a long association with Allen & Unwin, and 1958 Readers Union had been publishing cheap editions of Allen & Unwin books for over twenty years, indeed the very first RU book was from the A&U list. On 25 February 1958, Readers Union wrote to Sir Stanley Unwin to express an interest in selling (in 1959) the three volumes that comprise as a set to their members - indicating that they wanted to use 3,000 sets of sheets. Two days later Sir Stanley replied to say that A&U had not thought of issuing a cheap edition because the books were still selling so well. He expressed an interest in hearing a proposal though, but hinted that he would want a good price. He also added that A&U could print the sheets when they reprinted the individual volumes.
Readers Union responded the following day with an offer of 4s. per set of flat sheets (including royalty), noting that this was more than the 3s.6d. that they usually paid. In addition they would have to add 1s.6d. to this for binding and another 3d. for a dustwrapper. This would mean that they would have to charge members 11s.6d. or 12s.6d. rather than their usual price of 10s.6d. RU would arranged for the binding of the sheets and the production of dustwrappers. There is no trace of any response to this offer, but on 7 March 1958 Ronald Eames, A&U's Production Manager, wrote to Jarrold & Sons (the printers) to request estimates for printing 3,000 copies of the three volumes on cheaper paper.
Over a year later, on 19 May 1959, Readers Union contacted Sir Stanley's great-nephew, Philip Unwin, to remind him of their interest in (as they termed it) . They mentioned that rather than offering it to members as a regular choice, they would like to offer it as an additional and extra choice so that they would not be restricted by normal price constraints. They sent another letter on the 27th, mentioning that some of their members thought that Tolkien would fill "an aching gap" in RU offerings.
Philip seems to have checked stock levels and passed the details on to his cousin Rayner Unwin.
| Bound || Sheets |
| The Fellowship of the Ring || 813 || 2,500 |
| The Two Towers || 1,000 || 2,390 |
| The Return of the King || 1,707 || 2,896 |
On 2 June, Philip responded to Readers Union saying that Rayner was keen to see offered as an additional choice to RU members. He noted that it would not be possible to supply 3,000 sets of flat sheets until the books were reprinted, and promised to get in touch again when this happened. Readers Union responded to acknowledge this on the following day, and to ask for 3,000 sets of sheets for each volume as and when they were reprinted. "Reprint 8,000"
An internal memo to Philip Unwin, dated 10 November, gives the stock levels at that time in addition to the size and date of the last printing.
| Bound || Sheets |
|The Fellowship of the Ring|
(5,000 - Last printed February 1959)
| 1,350 || None |
|The Two Towers|
(5,000 - Last printed January 1959)
| 1,540 || None |
|The Return of the King|
(4,300 - Last printed March 1959)
| 1,254 || 1,796 |
|The Lord of the Rings|
| 350 sets |
"It would not hurt us to reprint all 3 volumes now"
On the 11th, Philip wrote to Readers Union to tell them that A&U were about to reprint and would supply 3,000 sets of flat sheets of and at 4s. per copy, and that they expected to reprint in six months time (i.e. in May 1960).
On 13 November Ronald Eames wrote to Purnell & Sons (the printers of ) and Jarrold & Sons (the printers of and ) to enquire as to which binding schemes the books were laid out. Readers Union's binders (The Ferndale Book Company) needed this information to be able to fold the sheets before they were collated and bound. Readers Union's formal order arrived just after, so Mr. Eames wrote to the printers again to increase the print orders for and from 5,000 to 8,000 copies. Purnells gave a completion date of February 1960 for and Jarrolds promised by April 1960.
Rayner Unwin informed Tolkien on 10 December 1959 of the sale of the sets of sheets to RU at a low price.
On 16 December Ronald Eames contacted Readers Union to ask them for the text that they would require on the title page and verso thereof. A&U received this information and passed it on to the printers on the 21st. On 8 January 1960 Mr. Eames sent the proofs of the preliminary pages for to RU for approval, noting that A&U required their full imprint on the title page. This was followed on the 14th by the proofs of the prelims for . The proofs were passed on 14 January and proofs on the 26th. The Readers Union editions were to be printed alongside the 9th Impression of , and the 7th Impression of .
With production of the first two volumes now underway, Readers Union were anxious to know when A&U would be printing the third volume because they wanted to be able to include in their programme for December. On 13 January they asked Philip Unwin if he was able to give them a date. "1,600 stock" Philip replied that a reprint would be needed in May or June.
There seems to be some correspondence missing from the files from around this time, but on 17 March Ronald Eames sent proofs of the prelims for the RU edition of for their approval. The RU edition was printed alongside the 6th impression of .
The sheets for and were despatched from the printers to the binder late in April, while was still on press. The correspondence files do not record when the printing of the sheets for was completed, but it was probably late in April. For some reason the sheets were not sent to the binders until 3 October - an oversight perhaps? Maps were sent to the binders in late September or early October, so it is likely that the 3,000 copies of the three volumes were all bound by November 1960.
Readers Union wrote to Rayner Unwin on 16 August to let him know that they intended to sell their edition of to members of their new club, , in addition to . Rayner responded to say that he did not believe that they would have any difficulty selling their 3,000 copies very quickly.
The books were sold to members at a price of 12s., presumably in December 1960 in time for Christmas. Rayner's prediction proved true - as evidenced by a letter sent by Readers Union to Sir Stanley on 17 January 1961 to inform him that the edition had proved very popular and to ask if they could obtain a further supply of 500 copies, either in sheets or bound books, to satisfy orders placed by members. They also asked if another reprint was planned in the near future.
Sir Stanley replied the following day to say that while A&U would shortly be reprinting , they had substantial bound stock, but no sheets, of the other two titles. He also declined to offer them bound stock at a reduced price and noted (a little sarcastically perhaps) that it was a shame how Readers Union always seemed to underestimate their stock requirements for A&U books. Judging from the tone of his letters to them, Sir Stanley was not overly fond of Readers Union, or to be very keen on doing business with them. In the same letter he went on to say that A&U would not be reprinting and for eighteen months and two years respectively - yet both titles were reprinted in the Summer of 1961.
Readers Union responded to defend their tendency to underestimate their requirements, saying that it was a result of them for many years being too optimistic!
Number of Copies Bound
After publication, invoicing problems arose because Allen & Unwin issued invoices for the number of sets of sheets that were delivered to Readers Union, while Readers Union were only expecting to pay for the number of copies that were actually bound - during the binding process some copies are inevitably spoiled. The printers had supplied additional sets of sheets so that Readers Union should have ended up with 3,000 sets of books, but spoilage during binding appears to have been higher than expected.
| Printer || No. of Sets of|
| No. of|
| The Fellowship of the Ring || Purnell & Sons || 3,036 || 2,979 |
| The Two Towers || Jarrold & Sons || 3,060 || 2,978 |
| The Return of the King || Jarrold & Sons || 3,060 || 2,973 |
An Unrecorded Variant
On 24 January 1961 Allen & Unwin processed an order from Readers Union for fifty sets of , for what appears to be the standard booksellers discounted rate. These were to be supplied without dustwrappers so that Readers Union could substitute their own wrappers. The existence of this variant of the RU does not appear to have been recorded anywhere else. Somewhere there are fifty copies of the Allen & Unwin 10th/7th/6th impressions in Readers Union dustwrappers.
Two sets of the three Readers Union volumes have been reported in slipcases . These appear to be the standard grey paper covered slipcase issued by Allen & Unwin. There is no mention of them in the correspondence between Allen & Unwin and Readers Union, or that between A&U and Jarrold & Sons (the suppliers of the slipcases). The lack of any correspondence regarding them means that it is unlikely that they were issued by Readers Union. Perhaps the most probable explanation for these slipcased sets is that somebody has inserted the Readers Union books into the Allen & Unwin slipcase at a later date. If you own one of these slipcased sets, or you have any further information, please get in touch.
J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography
Wayne G. Hammond with the assistance of Douglas A. Anderson. 1993.
St. Paul's Bibliographies, Winchester. ISBN 1873040113.
Oak Knoll Books, New Castle, Delaware. ISBN 0938768425.
The Tolkien Collector
Edited by Christina Scull. Issue 2, February 1993. Williamstown, MA.
See especially pp.26-27 'Addenda and Corrigenda to ' by Wayne G. Hammond.
The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide: Chronology
Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond. 2006.
HarperCollins, London. ISBN 0261103814 / 9780261103818.
See especially the entry for 10 December 1959.
Allen & Unwin Archive
RUL MS 3282 - AUC 801/1 (Letters to/from Jarrold & Sons 1958)
RUL MS 3282 - AUC 812/5 (Letters to/from Readers Union 1958)
RUL MS 3282 - AUC 837/6 (Letters to/from Jarrold & Sons 1959)
RUL MS 3282 - AUC 847/8 (Letters to/from Purnell & Sons 1959)
RUL MS 3282 - AUC 848/8 (Letters to/from Readers Union 1959)
RUL MS 3282 - AUC 874/4 (Letters to/from Jarrold & Sons 1960)
RUL MS 3282 - AUC 884/4 (Letters to/from Purnell & Sons 1960)
RUL MS 3282 - AUC 884/16 (Letters to/from Readers Union 1960)
RUL MS 3282 - AUC 922/12 (Letters to/from Readers Union 1961)