An Illustrated Tolkien Bibliography

The Readers Union Edition
of The Lord of the Rings
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Publishing The Lord of the Rings
The First Impression of RotK
VI  The First Boxed Edition
VII  The Readers Union Edition
VIII  The First Deluxe Edition
IX  Printing and Binding LotR
XIV  LotR: A Bibliography
XV  LotR: A Bibliography of Slipcases

The History of Middle-earth series
A Guide to the Contents
II  Prices on Dustwrappers
III  Original Retail Prices
IV  Print Run Sizes
The Guild Publishing Editions
VI  Shaping of Middle-earth Wrapper
VII  Peoples of Middle-earth Pulped?

Other Articles
Christopher Tolkien Bibliography
I Think I've Got A Hobbit
Missing Images
Nasty Tricksy Hobbits
Printing and Binding The Hobbit
Songs for the Philologists
The Princess Hobbit
-- Ferguson Dewar
-- Letter from J. R. R. Tolkien
-- Gandalf: Not 'Magician' but 'Wizard'
-- Visions of Gollum
-- Of Smaug and the Jabberwock
-- Magazine Gallery
Tolkien Calendars
Tolkien the Esperantist?
Tolkien's Languages and Alphabets
Unpublished Manuscript Found?

The Lord of the Rings - Readers Union Edition - 1960 Introduction
A Proposal
Stock Levels
Number of Copies Bound
An Unrecorded Variant
Image Gallery

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:

  • FR = The Fellowship of the Ring
  • TT = The Two Towers
  • RK = The Return of the King
  • RU = Readers Union.

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 The Lord of the Rings 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 "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.

A Proposal
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 The Lord of the Rings 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.  [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.

Stock Levels
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) The Tolkien Trilogy.  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 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.

  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
(Boxed Edition)
350 sets ---

[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).

On 13 November Ronald Eames wrote to Purnell & Sons (the printers of FR) and Jarrold & Sons (the printers of TT and RK) 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 FR and TT from 5,000 to 8,000 copies.  Purnells gave a completion date of February 1960 for FR and Jarrolds promised TT by April 1960.  [The comparatively distant completion dates were due to backlog caused by a printer's strike]

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.

LotR - Readers Union Edition - Ring and Eye MotifThe 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.

Readers Union wrote to Rayner Unwin on 16 August to let him know that they intended to sell their edition of The Lord of the Rings to members of their new club, Contemporary Fiction, in addition to The Science Fiction Book Club.  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 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
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
Sheets Printed
No. of
Copies Bound
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 The Lord of the Rings, 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 LotR 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.
[Postscript: One set of these hybrid books has now been seen.]

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.

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 J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography' 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)


The Books.
The Books
The Bindings.
The Bindings
Dustwrapper - Spines.
Dustwrapper - Spines
Dustwrapper - Vol.1 - Upper Cover.
Dustwrapper - Vol.1 - Upper Cover
Dustwrapper - Vol.2 - Upper Cover.
Dustwrapper - Vol.2 - Upper Cover
Dustwrapper - Vol.3 - Upper Cover.
Dustwrapper - Vol.3 - Upper Cover
Dustwrapper - Lower Cover.
Dustwrapper - Lower Cover
Dustwrapper - Front Flap.
Dustwrapper - Front Flap
Dustwrapper - Rear Flap.
Dustwrapper - Rear Flap
Volume 1 - Title Page.
Volume 1 - Title Page
Volume 2 - Title Page.
Volume 2 - Title Page
Volume 3 - Title Page.
Volume 3 - Title Page
Volume 1 - Verso of Title Page.
Volume 1 - Verso of Title Page
Volume 2 - Verso of Title Page.
Volume 2 - Verso of Title Page
Volume 3 - Verso of Title Page.
Volume 3 - Verso of Title Page


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