A Lesson on Creativity and Risk-Taking from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Publisher

Today I had a conversation with a friend who is working on a manuscript for a book to be published in the next year or so. We were chatting about the joys and challenges of writing.

I told her a story about Stanley and Rayner Unwin, who were the British publishers of J.R.R. Tolkien, among many other authors. Stanley founded the publishing house George Allen and Unwin in the early 20th century; in 1936 he was approached by J.R.R. Tolkien to publish The Hobbit

The elder Unwin enlisted the aid of his son, who was then 10 years old, to read the manuscript and write a review. The boy wrote a short but favorable assessment of the book, and it was published. After its success, the publisher encouraged Tolkien to write a sequel, but more than fifteen years would pass by before Tolkien presented a manuscript to his publisher.

It was now the early 1950s, and Stanley Unwin was no long actively involved in the daily operations of the publisher, but his son, now a young man in his mid-20s, worked for the family business. Once again, he was tasked with assessing Tolkien’s manuscript for its suitability for publication. The book, of course, was The Lord of Rings, approximately six times as long as The Hobbit, and written for adults rather than children.

The story goes that Rayner Unwin liked the manuscript, but given its size could not imagine a profitable way to publish it. No matter how he crunched the numbers, it seemed to him that the publisher would lose £1000 (that’s a thousand pounds in 1954 — which in today’s money would be about £27,500 or about $34,000!). Not sure what to do, he reached out to his father for advice.

Surprisingly, his father seemed less interested in the book’s marketability and more in its literary merit. In Stanley Unwin’s words, “If you think this to be a work of genius, then you may lose a thousand pounds.”

Risky Business

We all know how the story goes from there. Clearly Rayner was sufficiently confident that The Lord of the Rings was a work of genius, for he published it in three volumes, and it has gone on to sell over 150 million copies worldwide and is widely regarded as one of the great English-language novels of the 20th century.

But young Rayner Unwin had no way of knowing that when he committed to publishing it in the early 1950s. For all he knew, the book could have bombed and this “work of genius” might have ended up an obscure collector’s item — and a very costly line on his company’s ledger.

It seems to me that there are several lessons that authors might take from the story of the Unwins and their commitment to publishing a work of genius, even at great financial risk.

First, we need to remember that this story is remarkable precisely because it is so unlikely. Publishers are businesses, and like any business they need to turn a profit in order to survive. We can assume that George Allen & Unwin must have been quite successful in order to take a £1000 gamble in the 1950s. Most publishers, then or now, simply wouldn’t take the chance, no matter how good a book is.

Every book published represents a financial invest (read: risk), and if it bombs, it’s simply money lost — and if a publisher has too many turkeys, the entire business could be at risk. This is why editors often seem to be only interested in how well the book will sell. A good editor understands that a truly successful book needs to be a work of art and eminently marketable — not either/or. Like it or not, literary greatness in itself does not pay the bills.

What does this mean for authors? Simply this: it is incumbent upon us authors to balance a book’s immediate marketability with its unquantifiable value as a work of art. We have to be the custodians of its long-term literary value. Our editors and the entire publishing team will help us to hone the book’s title, hook, sales copy, and marketing plan — so they have got our backs when it comes to the money part of the equation. But that means the author has to continually balance making a book marketable with making it a true work of art.

It’s foolish to think that commercial success and artistic merit cannot coexist — Tolkien, the Beatles, J.K. Rowling, and Charles Dickens are just a few examples of artists whose creative genius led to financial glory. By the same token, no creative professional should ever take it upon themselves to reject editorial guidance because their commitment to art will brook no compromise. For every Tolkien there are thousands of authors who are forgotten because their brilliant idea never found an audience. Like it or not, we authors need the machinery of commerce to get our books in the hands of readers — and royalty checks into our banks.

The Ultimate Lesson (at Least for Authors and Other Creative Types)

But here’s the real lesson from the story of Tolkien and the Unwins. If Stanley and Rayner Unwin were willing to risk losing a huge sum of money on “a work of genius,” then shouldn’t we, as authors, do everything humanly possible to make sure our books are true works of art?

And this holds true for all creative professionals: your book, your music, your poetry, your art, your graphic design… whatever you create, you have a choice to just “phone it in,” creating run-0f-the-mill work that some people will like, others will dislike and many will ultimately forget. Or, you have the choice to put everything  you can into your work. Maybe you don’t have a thousand pounds (or thirty thousand dollars) to bet on your “work of genius.” But when you create something, can you put enough of yourself into it, that it would be worth betting half a year’s salary on?

That, to me, is the lesson here. To wrap this up in a contemplative way: The Jewish and Christian traditions say humans are created in the image and likeness of God. What is God, if not the ultimate creator? (We often use the word “Creator” as a synonym for God). Part of being a contemplative is creating the space in your mind and heart to access the limitless creativity of God.

Not all of us are called to be writers or musicians or artists, it is true. But I believe we are all called to be creative in some way.

And like the Unwins, I believe we all need to find ways to be so creative that it’s worth taking a risk for — if not financially, than spiritually, or psychologically. Is your work of art good enough to bet everything on? I’m not saying you should bet everything — but if your work of art isn’t that good, then what can you do to make it that good? I think this is a question every artist, writer, musician, or other creative professional should ask of themselves. I know it’s a question I ask of myself.

Go, then, Image of God — be creative. And be bold and gutsy in doing so.

J.R.R. Tolkien


Featured image: Fran and Carl McColman at the grave of Edith and J.R.R. Tolkien, Oxford, England, July 3, 2017. Photo by David Cole of Waymark Ministries.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.