Do you like your trilogies served one volume at a time, or all at once? If you have an opinion on this Question of the Age, then my publisher would like to know. In the old days, he says, large works were split into three for reasons of cost – in other words, for prosaic reasons that had nothing to do with the reader. But now there are eBooks, and print-on-demand paperbacks, raising the question of whether readers prefer trilogies one way or another, or even if they care.
The Lord Of The Rings is arguably the most famous trilogy in fantasy literature. Tolkien delivered the manuscript in one ginormous sheaf to his publishers – who were horrified, as they had been expecting (or rather, hoping) for something much more concise. And a lot sooner. The publishers split the book into three because printing it all at once would have been fabulously expensive. What’s more, paper was still rationed (this was the early 1950s.)
But perhaps uppermost in their minds was that they had no idea whether anyone would buy it at all. To be sure, the Victorians were familiar with three-volume novels, but big works of fantasy were without precedent – unless you wanted to go back centuries to Malory’s Morte D’Arthur or Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Splitting The Lord Of The Rings into a trilogy allowed the publishers to test the water – if the first volume wasn’t well received, they wouldn’t have to print so many of the second, and so on. Even then, the individual volumes were expensive. The Fellowship Of The Ring cost a guinea, or twenty-one shillings, which was a fortune in 1954.
The Lord of the Rings was published, in trilogy form, between 1954 and 1955. It didn’t make much of a success until pirate copies appeared in paperback in the United States a decade later, by which time one-volume editions became cost-effective. But the trilogy form was enduring. If any blame can be apportioned to the fact that fantasy novels often run into trilogies (or more), it can be placed squarely at The Lord Of The Rings – even though the economic imperative is gone.
False modesty being a much overrated virtue, I shall now introduce my own trilogy - which began life in the electronic age. The first draft was conceived as a single novel, but it fell naturally into thirds, and it was fellow Occam’s Typist Dr J. R. of Rotherhithe who first suggested that I turn it into a trilogy. You can get it in separate volumes both in print and electronically. And I hear a one-volume edition is projected. What would you choose?
I close with a Rings-related anecdote. A couple of years ago I was travelling back from an international conference. My schedule necessitated a five-hour stop-over in Sao Paulo. Luckily I had my iPad, and The Fellowship of the Ring loaded onto iBooks. But I finished well before my next flight was due to depart. I had no other reading matter. Everything in the airport bookstore was in Portuguese. In any case I had no local currency. But the WiFi was excellent. A few keystrokes later and I had downloaded The Two Towers. Result.