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A PUBLISHING FANTASY

October 27, 2002 at 10:57 pm by xoanon  - 

HarperCollins took a carefully managed approach to its tie-in programme for “The Lord of the Rings”. In the event there was no stopping the film – or the books. Caroline Sanderson reports:

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a phenomenon. Consistently voted the peoples favorite – indeed the “Book of the Century” in the well publicized 1997 Waterstone’s poll – it has notched up estimated sales of 100 million copies worldwide in 50 languages since it was first published in 1954. In the UK, HarperCollins banks on annual sales of half a million copies, in a quiet year.

Last year, which saw the release of “The Fellowship of the Ring”, the first film in the three parts, $300m adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, was not a quiet year. In 2001, total sales of all editions of The Lord of the Rings novels in the UK reached £18.5m at retail, with sales of all Tolkien titles, including the film tie-ins, rising 500% by value year on year. With the release of the second film, “The Two Towers”, scheduled for 18th December, and the third, “The Return of the King”, a year later, this particular publishing fantasy is set to have a very long shelf life indeed.

Even before the December 2001 release of “The Fellowship of the Ring”, sales of The Lord of the Rings trilogy were already double those of the previous year. Quoted in [UK newspaper] “The Independent” at the time, David Brawn, HarperCollins” publishing director of estates and properties, said: “We can’t quite keep up with how it’s going. We thought we would sell books, but not until the film came out. Yet it seems people are reading them now to get up to speed. The film has given The Lord of the Rings a currency which was undreamt of even a couple of years ago.”

Interestingly, even a couple of years ago sales of Tolkien were already seeing a worldwide increase, a phenomenon that Brawn puts down to factors such as the Book of the Century crown, and “millennial fever”. Since HC’s acquisition of the Tolkien list in 1990, however, the company has rarely spent much money on the brand. The readership, says Brawn, renews itself as new generations of young people grow into the novels.

Win-win situation

When the film project was announced, naturally there were concerns about what the result would be like. “We thought, it could be awful and frighten off the next generation of readers, but concluded it was probably a win-win situation, because even if wasn’t great, it would make people want to read the books instead.”

In the event, the first-part of Peter Jackson’s adaptation, “The Fellowship of the Ring”, received almost universal acclaim, and went on to claim four Oscars, including those for Best Score and Best FX. It has also notched up some impressive statistics at the box office.

Despite the widely quoted views of the author’s son, Christopher Tolkien, that the books “are peculiarly unsuitable to transformation into visual dramatic form” (and apart from some grumpy die-hards, says Brawn, “who will always moan about the elf on the left not having pointy enough ears”), the prevailing opinion is that the film has done the books proud.

But would seeing such an extensive and much lauded film adaptation still leave people wanting more and bring new readers to the books themselves? The feeling at HC, Brawn says, was that “they are such fat books with so much richness, that people would need to read them for the full experience”.

And so it has proved. But the huge opportunities presented by the film also brought unique publishing challenges. In the first place, HarperCollins found itself in the unusual position – despite already being the author’s publisher – of paying what Brawn described to The Bookseller last year as “an enormous amount of money” to purchase exclusive publishing rights to the Tolkien films.

Then, getting the tie-in titles right presented creative and logistical challenges, with the spectre of the Star Wars tie-in disaster looming over the project like a Ringwraith. “We were fairly nervous about the whole thing, conscious of what had happened to Dorling Kindersley,” Brawn recalls. “[Their ruinous over-producing of tie-in books associated with Episode One of] Star Wars set back the cause of tie-in publishing by about three years.” So, before the release of the first film, HC took the decision to keep the number of Lord of the Rings tie-in titles strictly limited. This, as Barry Clark, HC’s key properties brand manager, put it, was in order not to “belittle the franchise through a wave of tacky add ons”.

Practical considerations

Apart from new tie-in editions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, only two titles were published in 2001 – Jane Johnson’s Visual Companion and Brian Sibley’s Official Movie Guide. “If you haven’t got too many books, you can get them all in one dumpbin,” Brawn points out.

He is amazed by the number of spin-offs produced by some publishers. “For example, I bought all eight books produced to tie-in with [Aardman Animations”] Chicken Run, and it seemed to me that their values were all interchangeable. It’s a much less profitable approach, I think. Our titles are clearly doing different things, with little crossover of material and photos.” This, he believes, has encouraged people to buy the whole set of tie-ins. “The strategy worked for us last year, so don’t expect our strategy for films two and three to be any different.”

Even leaving aside the HC tie-ins, its existing editions of Tolkien’s work – including The Hobbit – typically registered five-fold, year-on-year increases in 2001. Brawn says that he has little feel for who is buying which editions, but, he adds, “I don’t think we much care. Retailers have supported both tie-in and existing editions. Some people don’t like tie-ins. But if we hadn’t done any tie-ins, I don’t think we would have sold many fewer copies. As Christopher Tolkien once said, you could put J R R Tolkien’s books in a brown paper bag and they would still sell.”

But with a globally hyped film in the offing, and a whole raft of merchandising, from trading cards to bedspreads, ready to launch, was there perhaps a danger that such a small range of books would be swamped? How did HC contrive to keep the books at the centre of things?

Before the release of the film, the Tolkien estate had granted virtually nothing in the way of licenses, so there had never been a proliferation of merchandise. Though the film company, New Line, kept a comparatively tight hold on the licenses it did grant, Brawn will admit to initial concerns about the fact that HC would no longer be working in “an exclusive environment”.

Resisting “kiddification”

He praises New Line for exercising restraint. “You can’t be too purist, and they aren’t. The commercial landscape has changed. But there hasn’t been a glut as there could have been.” He believes it was particularly important not to “kiddify” the film, not to go overboard on merchandise for children. “For our part, we have always maintained that The Lord of the Rings is not a children’s book.”

It is clear that to a great extent the books have “ridden on the back” of New Line’s enormous global marketing campaign, though the artistic attitude of New Line Films has also had its part to play in keeping the book centre stage. From the start they never tried to disguise the book that lay behind the film. Says Brawn: “In virtually every press article, the director Peter Jackson has stressed that the film was his interpretation of the book, and he stressed that everyone behind the film “loved the book”, and it shows.”

Sales of Tolkien, including the tie-in titles, finally started to tail off a little around Easter this year, though it was a brief hiatus. Early August saw the UK DVD and video release of “The Fellowship of the Ring” (attended by a £2m marketing campaign), with sales of two million in the first week. According to Jason Ritchie, The Bookseller’s charts manager, all the Tolkien backlist showed sales rises at this time. And, he says, “It’s interesting to note that both parts two and three – “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King” – are now showing big sales increases as people move on in the trilogy”.

Saturation point?

Brawn will admit to wondering at times if “there are enough people left”, but he feels confident that this year should be as good as last. Published on 6th November, the tie-in list for “The Two Towers” has again been limited to four new, or improved, titles. Brian Sibley’s “The Making of The Lord of the Rings” movie guide has doubled in size to 200 pages, boasts more than 500 illustrations, and, it is claimed, “gets much more under the skin of the film”. There is a “beefier” “Two Towers Visual Companion” by Jude Fisher (a.k.a. Voyager publisher Jane Johnson), and two new tie-ins aimed at children (though HC is keen to stress that no age restrictions apply): “The Two Towers Photo Guide” and “The Two Towers Creatures Guide”.

As far as tie-ins of the novel itself are concerned, HC is going “more the hardback route this time”, having been surprised by the number of hardcover editions of The Lord of the Rings it sold last year (they ran out before Christmas). In response to requests from booksellers, HC will be issuing a hardback tie-in edition – “one way of keeping things fresh”, says Brawn.

Making a splash

One interesting new promotional development this year is the appointment of Cow PR to work on a big launch event for the tie-in titles. “We wanted to make a bit more noise about this year’s tie-ins, so with Cow we’ve put together a big London event designed to appeal to as wide a spectrum of people as possible – diehard fans, as well as kids,” Barry Clark says.

The event will take place at Waterstone’s in Piccadilly on publication day, Wednesday 6th November. “It will be an exciting event with things happening on every floor of the store,” says Jessica Livingstone of Cow Activities being finalized include a celebrity appearance, and “we are working with the film’s UK distributor to try to get some exclusive footage from the new film”.

HarperCollins is also hoping for an exclusive stills exhibition of never-before-seen artwork. There will be giveaway lithographs by Alan Lee available on that day only, and there will also be author talks and signings by Jude Fisher and Brian Sibley. For young people, there will be a “creatures corner” with games consoles featuring the new Lord of the Rings game, as well as face painting and other childrens activities. “The whole day is themed like a walk into Middle Earth,” Ms Livingstone says. Waterstone’s has described it as one of their two major events for the season.

So what is it all costing? The marketing spend for “The Lord of the Rings” tie-in publishing last year was, according to Clark, “easily HarperCollins” biggest of the year” (he would not be drawn on the figures). However, he points out that the 2002 spend is very similar, and that the figure represents only 1% of revenue. If you reckon on the oft-quoted 3% of revenue to maintain your position and 5% to grow it, then this is a very cost-effective campaign indeed.”

With the fanfare surrounding the 2001, 2002 and 2003 film releases, one might think that 2004 would present a promotional vacuum. Not a bit of it: 2004 will be the 50th anniversary of the first publication of The Lord of the Rings. This will present different marketing challenges. “The film is all about bringing new people to the book,” says Clark. “We see the 50th anniversary as a time to address Tolkien aficionados and enthusiasts.” It will be an opportunity, Brawn adds, “to reclaim The Lord of the Rings as a literary property”.

Though the impact of the film on sales looks set to be felt for a good while yet, Tolkien is ultimately a publishing story rather than a film story. The Lord of the Rings has been selling for 50 years, and it will remain in copyright for several decades to come. It is crucial, therefore, that in the midst of the film fever the long-term value of the brand is maintained.

Always another generation

Brawn claims he was misrepresented in the aforementioned “Independent” article. (He is reported to have said: “We and the Tolkien family are worried that there is genuine risk of burnout, that at the end of it, there will be nobody left to read this book. Once every household has a copy of the book, there’s nobody left to sell it to.”) He tells The Bookseller:

“Each generation of Tolkien readers provides champions for the next generation. There is no reason to be that the books will have burned out, even though sales may not reach the dizzy heights of these years again.” Apart from anything else, the conclusion of the film cycle will provide HC with opportunity to focus on Tolkien’s other titles for which the films will doubtless have generated renewed appetite.

And with the works of C S Lewis also in his HC estates portfolio, Brawn and his team will have opportunity to rest on their laurels: 2005 is expected to bring the release of “the next big thing” – a film version of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” from C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. There are seven books in that series.

Posted in Old Special Reports on October 27, 2002 by

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