Beloved Tolkien trilogy sets cash registers ringing -

Some day historians will list billionaires of the 21st century: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Frodo Baggins.

Frodo Baggins?

Fifty years ago this month, the fantasy tale that became a worldwide phenomenon was launched when J.R.R. Tolkien's ``The Lord of the Rings'' was first published in the United States by Boston-based Houghton Mifflin.

Tolkien's tale of elves, dwarves and hobbits has not only proved to be one of the most popular books of all times but it has inspired one of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters, with the ripple effect surging through museums, home entertainment, collectibles and the music and toy industries.

And just think: In 1968, Tolkien sold the film rights for a mere $18,000.

Here are snapshots of the Middle-earth economy.

PUBLISHING: From 2000 to 2004, 25 million copies of various versions of the ``Rings'' trilogy and Tolkien's ``The Hobbit'' have been sold. Houghton Mifflin's Tolkien-related books generated $48 million in sales in 2001 and $54 million in 2002. Unlike most classic novels, it remains available in hardback editions. ``For a book that's 50 years old, it's unprecedented,'' said Houghton Mifflin projects director Clay Harper.

STILL MORE PUBLISHING: Interest in all things Rings has spawned a cottage industry of scholarly commentary and criticism, plus pop-culture books focusing on Peter Jackson's movies. Currently, Houghton Mifflin's Tolkien catalog features 106 titles. A search on ``Lord of the Rings'' on yields a whopping 91,388 hits.

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