New Technology Comes to Tolkien
Over the last several months, Ive seen some widely contradictory press given to an emerging technology for printing books. Whether we readers know it or not, a revolution is happening right now. A new method of printing books in very small quantities can mean that books wont go out of print so quickly, and that selected out of print books may get new lives. Also, it means that any writer can self-publish his own work for a fraction of the cost of older methods.
This new technology is called in the publishing world POD, short for print-on-demand. It means, simply, that a copy of the book you want isnt printed until you order it. This saves the publisher lots of money by not having to print large initial quantities, and also by not having to warehouse them.
There are arguments both pro and con about the value of the books that come out in such a manner. The December 2000 issue of Harper's Magazine had an amusing article about one of the companies, Xlibris, which offers POD services. The article, "All is Vanity: Xlibris saves publishing by destroying it," is written by an editor at a major publishing company, who laments: "We read unpublished books for a living and suggest that Xlibris pause, here, to ponder whether it is a very good thing that 90 percent of the half-million written each year remain unpublished. The book industry has many problems; publishing too few books is not one of them. . . . This is not to say that every good book is published, or that every published book is good, only that the last thing a glutted market needs is the removal of the barrier$that ensures that the work of all but the most desperate marks of vanity presses remains in desk drawers."
The argument goes that by removing editors and publishers, the quality of the books themselves will go down (both the quality of the physical item itself, as well as the quality of the material printed inside). And there is some truth to this. However, in this day and age of publishers aiming more and more towards the mainstream only, unusual and worthwhile books are getting pushed to the side, and POD technology offers these fringe books a chance at life.
POD has finally reached Tolkien, with two new books that exemplify both the pleasures and problems of the new technology.
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First, consider J. R. R. Tolkien University, by David R. Bischoff (Wildside Press, 1-58715-187-1, $14.95). The production quality isnt the best. The text fills each page to the outer margins, and isnt the most comfortable to read. I also noticed a number of places where the text doesnt make grammatical sensea better job of proof-reading should have eliminated such problems. The cover illustration in amateurish, and while Tolkiens name is spelt correctly on the cover, it is misspelled "Tolkein" on the title page, and in the running title throughout the book.
As to the content, well, its the story of Ralph Phillips, a wannabe Hollywood screenwriter, who is hired by a wizard Phineas Escutcheon, who is a professor in his own dimension where a crisis portends, and Phineas plans to save his world by making a blockbuster movie (the special effects, done by magic, will be cheap and a great draw). Ralph Phillips must write the screenplay.
So what does this have to do with Tolkien? Not much at all, just in the sense that another world with magic and elves and dragons has something to do with Tolkien. Bischoffs prose is smooth, and the story pleasantly fluffy. If it would have been a pocket paperback priced at $4.95, I would have felt like I got what I paid for. $14.95, however, is simply too much for what you get. And the content for Tolkienists is negligible.
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Our other entry is Michael Martinezs Visualizing Middle-earth (Xlibris, 0-7388-7254-7, $16.00 paperback). It is a collection of essays written for the Web, dating from 1999 to early 2000. Many of these essays appeared in Martinezs Tolkien column at Suite101.com, and in fact, anyone involved with Tolkien on the Web is likely to have encountered Martinez and his work somewhere. (Hi Michael!) He has a chatty, opinionated and engaging style that makes you feel like youve pulled up a chair to his table at a pub, and got to listen in on his conversation.
Physically, this book is a step above in quality from J. R. R. Tolkien University. The type and font looks good and readable, and the layout is professional. The cover is somewhat bland, and looks as though it is made up from a template, but it is certainly adequate.
As to the contents, there are some twenty-five essays in the book, along with an introduction and some bibliographies. A few titles will give you the idea of the various topics: "Can Middle-earth Survive the Commercialization of Tolkien?""Where Are the Aragorn and Arwen Web Sites?""Tolkiens Middle-earth Doesnt Look Like Medieval Europe""Love, Middle-earth Style""Do Balrogs Have Wings? Do Balrogs Fly?"
Though fun, the collection does have some flaws. The prose meanders at times and becomes repetitious, and sometimes Martinez goes a bit too far in claiming expertness in interpretation (I mean here in the argument on whether Balrogs have wings or not, which leaves me unconvinced, one way or another, though the author seems to think his argument unimpeachable). The book would have benefited from an editors attention, who could have cleared up some non-standard terminology. For instance, Martinez oddly defines "primary sources" as those "written by and published within J. R. R. Tolkiens lifetime," "secondary sources" as "any book produced by his son and literary executor," and "tertiary sources" as "all other books about Tolkiens world." Usual scholarly practice would define "primary sources" as things actually written by Tolkien, and "secondary sources" as writings about Tolkien by other authors. Martinez is clearly mixing in ideas about canonicitythat is, the idea that what Tolkien published during his own lifetime can be viewed as authoritative, while the materials left unpublished and unfinished by Tolkien but which have been published posthumously are to be viewed as less certain, and less authoritativebut his terminology is eccentric.
Anyway, these are minor points. The book makes an interesting fannish collection, and one that I think is definitely worthwhile. Here are a few URLs where some of the essays are still posted on the Web. Check out a few of them, and youll get the idea of what this book is like:
Can Middle-earth Survive the Commercialization of Tolkien?
Tolkiens Middle-earth Doesnt Look Like Medieval Europe
Do Balrogs Have Wings? Do Balrogs Fly? [Note this is an earlier version of this essay, which was revised for the book.]