What was the original price (first edition/first printing by Allen & Unwin, London) of The Lord of the Rings books when they were first sold in 1954/1955?
Tolkien himself reflected on the original prices of his works, which was twenty-one shillings (one Guinea) each.
The price seems to have been high for the times but set because that was the lowest amount for expenses to be paid.
Very many thanks for remembering the ageing Professor, and bracing him up with your letter. I know 21/- is a frightful price, but don't forget that I have to sell an awful lot before the ghastly expenses are paid off. The fact that I get not a halfpenny until that is done, does not matter so much, as this: if enough are sold I may be able to publish more. So add to your great kindness in inducing such as you can to beg borrow or steal a guinea rather than a copy!
Letter 136, To Rayner Unwin, 24 March 1953
Tolkien wanted the publications to be a bit more fancy but that would have cost more money...
Pictures are far too expensive, even if I had sufficient skill to do them and cut out artist's fees. I tried, but alas! can only draw v. imperfectly what I can, and not what I see. The wrapper is all that survived of three separate designs I made, one for each pan. Part I was to have been all black with red and gold letters, and the three opposing rings: Narya (red), Vilya (blue), Nenya (white). . . . .1 But it was reduced; and the lovely (I thought) facsimiles of the 3 burned pages of the Book of Mazarbul also vanished – so that folk could have the thing at the trifling cost of 21/-!
Letter 151, To Hugh Brogan, 18 September 1954
The website The Tolkien Bookshelf specialises in rare books by or about Tolkien. It has images of many older and original editions, for example:
- The Lord of the Rings, 1st UK Edition, 1st Impressions with Original Dustjackets (London: Allen & Unwin, 1954) and
- The Lord of the Rings, Comprised of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and the Return of the King, 1st UK Edition, 1st Impressions, with Custom Clamshell Case (London: Allen & Unwin, 1954).
When you look carefully at the images of the dust jackets, you can see that they all have the same price: 21 s net. This means that the three volumes together would have cost 63 shillings (net).
Now 20 s = 1 £, but how much is that in today's money? The Currency converter: 1270–2017 of the National Archives can help: you select the closest year (1955) and set 1£ and 1s for the price of a single volume. According to the converter, this amounts to £25.06 in 2017 (for a single volume).