The Readers Union Edition
of The Lord of the Rings
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For more detailed images and additional notes regarding the preliminary pages, dustwrappers and bindings see the image gallery at the foot of this page.
The following conventions are used below:
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 "printed with the ninth? (partly corrected) impression" of the A&U edition. [Wayne noted that this was an error on page 26 of Issue 2 of The Tolkien Collector - it should have read "printed with the 1960? (partly corrected and altered) impressions".]
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 The Lord of the Rings can be found in the A&U archive from as early as 1958 and continues until 1961.
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. [By way of comparison, the standard A&U edition cost 21s.] 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.
Philip seems to have checked stock levels and passed the details on to his cousin Rayner Unwin.
On 2 June, Philip responded to Readers Union saying that Rayner was keen to see LotR 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. [A handwritten note on this letter states: "Reprint 8,000". Presumably this was 3,000 copies for RU and 5,000 for A&U]
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.
[A handwritten note on this memo states: "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 The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers at 4s. per copy, and that they expected to reprint The Return of the King in six months time (i.e. in May 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 The Fellowship of the Ring 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 Two Towers. The FR proofs were passed on 14 January and TT proofs on the 26th. The Readers Union editions were to be printed alongside the 9th Impression of FR, and the 7th Impression of TT.
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 The Lord of the Rings in their programme for December. On 13 January they asked Philip Unwin if he was able to give them a date. [A handwritten note on their letter states "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 The Return of the King for their approval. The RU edition was printed alongside the 6th impression of The Return of the King.
The sheets for The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers were despatched from the printers to the binder late in April, while The Return of the King was still on press. The correspondence files do not record when the printing of the sheets for RK 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.
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 The Return of the King, 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 The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers 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
An Unrecorded Variant
Two sets of the three Readers Union volumes have been reported in slipcases [not seen]. 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.
The Tolkien Collector
The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide: Chronology
Allen & Unwin Archive
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