Why The Lord of the Rings would not be published in 2019
A couple of years ago, I postulated what the genre would look like without J.R.R. Tolkien. Today, I thought I would offer a follow-up to that… a situation where this world without Tolkien suddenly has Tolkien reinserted. In 2019. Pretend for the sake of argument that our beloved Oxford Professor gets himself caught in a time-warp, and that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are both sitting on his desk, complete, but unpublished. After familiarising himself with this newfangled internet thing, he decides to try getting them published. What happens?
In a nutshell, The Lord of the Rings never sees the light of day. Except potentially as an obscure self-published text.
Now, the immediate reaction is to use this to denigrate the state of the book industry. The Lord of the Rings is a classic, the most important work of modern fantasy ever written… that it would not be published in 2019 is an indictment on the modern world. Correct?
Actually no. Book publishing has developed the way it has for a reason. Let us consider the question of why The Lord of the Rings would fail to find a publisher.
(1) The Length.
Curiously, not of the entire trilogy, but rather of The Fellowship of the Ring, which clocks in at a hefty 180,000 words. Publishers today are generally seeking works in the range of 70,000-120,000. Too short, and a book does not justify the fixed costs (making it expensive for a reader wanting bang for their buck), too long and the variable costs (editing) make the book a risk. There are exceptions, of course – the fantasy genre is rife with very long books – but these books exist because of the precedent set by The Lord of the Rings in the first place. No Tolkien means that fantasy novels are likely shorter by convention.
This actually goes double for first-time authors (established authors have a bit more leeway). Tolkien in 2019 might have to throw everything at The Hobbit first – The Hobbit being shorter, and much easier to market as children’s fantasy.
(2) The Pacing.
Agents and publishers have a lot of manuscripts to read, and limited time to read them. This is not their fault – it is simply the way things are. So rather than request full manuscripts, they generally ask for a query letter, a 1-2 page synopsis, and the first three chapters. The query letter basically tries to give the fabled Elevator Pitch in the space of a paragraph (“why should anyone care about this book”?), the synopsis gives an expanded thematic and plot summary, and the first three chapters should show the story hook and general competency. If the agent or publisher like what they see, they will ask for the full manuscript at this point.
(Note that J.K. Rowling provides a useful lesson in how not to write a synopsis. She got very, very lucky).
Which then raises the question of how Tolkien would go about submitting. I think Tolkien would struggle with the query letter (“It is not possible even at great length to pot The Lord of the Rings in a paragraph or two”). He may do better with the synopsis, though the Scouring of the Shire may stick out as a structural oddity. And the first three chapters… would you be willing to take the financial risk on a long book, based entirely off A Long-Expected Party, The Shadow of the Past, and Three is Company? These chapters do communicate the story hook, but they do not really serve as representations of the darker and more mature later chapters. Worse, even if the agent or publisher asks for the full manuscript, they will run headlong into Tom Bombadil, and decide that the pacing is just wrong. So they’ll move onto the next submission, leaving Rings behind.
Again, The Hobbit might actually be a better bet here, since the first three chapters (which cover the story hook, the trolls, and Rivendell) do actually move along at a decent pace, episodic nature notwithstanding.
(3) The Content.
This is probably the more contentious aspect. But a genre without Tolkien would likely have far more larger than life characters (think Conan) than Everymen, and the market would be calibrated accordingly. The Hobbit, again, might work better here, since the work has an element of deconstructive parody to it, with gentle and genuine humour arising from Bilbo’s suburban bourgeois sensibilities. Especially when those sensibilities run headlong into Norse myth. By contrast, the first three chapters of The Lord of the Rings still have the hobbits in The Shire, and the readers in this world might be restive for some “real” action.
Where The Hobbit might fall over (though it would still be an easier 2019 sell than Rings) is characterisation of the dwarves – many of whom get minimal focus. Tolkien might find himself having to cut everyone bar Thorin, Balin, and two or three others, while the likes of Tom Bombadil would need to hit the cutting room floor before Rings could even be considered. It would be quite the editing job.
And what of The Silmarillion? Forget it. Artistically, it is a truly staggering piece of work, but at the commercial level, it only succeeds off the back of The Lord of the Rings – without an established Tolkien fanbase, the thing disappears without a trace, due to its relative inaccessibility. Tolkien himself actually seems to have realised this, and based off his letters, anticipated that he would probably have to pay for publication of his First Age stories (in his day, it would be vanity publishing. Today, he would likely resort to self-publishing… but no-one would read them regardless).
So yeah… it’s a depressing thought. In a world without Tolkien, no-one in 2019 could replicate Tolkien’s understanding of language (and how it relates to myth), due to the collapse of philology as a subject. Worse, even if you could magically bring the man himself – and his fiction – to 2019, the Middle-earth works would not be publishable, not due to the banality of the modern age, but due to simple commercial reality. We’re rather lucky he produced what he did, when he did.