When TSR Passed On Tolkien

Benjamin Riggs recently revealed this tidbit of TSR history -- Lorraine Williams passing on the rights to Tolkien's works in 1992!

middle-earth-map.jpg

"So, in 1992, TSR almost acquired the rights to JRR Tolkien's work. John Rateliff was sent to London to negotiate the deal, missing Gen Con. (Apparently, no TSR employees were allowed to miss Gen Con, but he was for this...) He met Christopher Tolkien at the Harper-Collins offices, where he asked for the rights to make RPGs, merch, and new books set in Middle-Earth. Chris Tolkien said yes to the RPGs, and some merch, but no to the fiction line.

Back in Lake Geneva, Rateliff communicated this to TSR CEO Lorraine Williams. Rateliff said, "Her immortal words were, ‘Not worth our while.’”

She then passed on the whole deal."

Rateliff wrote the book The History of the Hobbit: The Hobbit / Mr. Baggins / Return to Bag-end.

 
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Russ Morrissey

Comments

Voadam

Adventurer
I don't think Lorraine passing on them is something you can blame her for as they wouldn't have generated that much money anyway.
She was in charge. It was her decision to make on whether to go for it or to pass on it. She made the actual decision to pass on it.

She seems the one to blame or praise for this decision.
 

JLowder

Explorer
They already were. And unable to pay them to boot and they still keep writing 😉

But no way would TSR take Salvatore off Drizzt books. One of the only profitable books they had, and it was a cash cow in that regard
In 1992, all the Realms books were still selling at a very high level. Same with Dragonlance, Ravenloft, and so on. Over the years, Bob pulled away in sales from the rest of the Realms line, for a variety of reasons, but in the early 1990s, most of the Realms novels sold over 100,000 copies in their first year. The vast majority of fiction we were publishing at that time at TSR was making a lot of money.

TSR was paying royalties, and everything else, quite regularly in 1992. They only got behind in royalties 18 to 24 months or so before the sale to WotC. When it became clear that TSR was not paying any time soon, some of the authors, including Salvatore, took them to court.

This would have been the reason Lorraine wanted to do Middle-earth fiction. Compared to games, fiction has a lower cost to produce and was generating a lot of money for the company at the time. Just doing the LotR games would have been much less profitable.

Plus, don't overestimate how much TSR valued any author, especially after Brian Thomsen took over as head of the book department in, as I recall, 1992. TSR came very close to replacing Salvatore on Drizzt just a few years later, because of a disagreement Bob was having with Thomsen. The non-Salvatore Drizzt novel Shores of Dusk was completed and, I believe, already at the printer when WotC bought TSR. WotC very wisely killed the book and brought Salvatore back. Had that book come out, Bob would have been done with Drizzt. TSR came remarkably, predictably close to screwing that up.

All that said, I don't think any of us inside the book department were enthusiastic about the idea of the company publishing new Tolkien fiction. Can't speak for Thomsen, and he passed away some years back, but I don't recall any of the editors expressing a lot of enthusiasm for the idea.

--James Lowder
 
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JLowder

Explorer
Well, and the novels were what got them in the end: mass producing schlocky Middler Earth novels would have been as much of a bubble as the Forgotten Realms, in all likelihood...
The novels did not cause TSR's downfall. The company borrowed a lot of money and overproduced product because they were getting paid on ship to Random House, not sale at the bookstore level. The fiction continued to make the company money right up until the sale to Wizards.

--James Lowder
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
The novels did not cause TSR's downfall. The company borrowed a lot of money and overproduced product because they were getting paid on ship to Random House, not sale at the bookstore level. The fiction continued to make the company money right up until the sale to Wizards.

--James Lowder
James, I recall you mentioning (at the Candlekeep seminar back at Gen Con 2017) that the fiction part of the company continued to be profitable after the sale of TSR to WotC, and it only came to an end a few years ago when Hasbro shut it down due to the fact that, while it was still making money, it wasn't making enough money for them to consider it worthwhile. Can you confirm that again here?
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
TSR/WotC also don't have a good record of licences. They lost Star Wars when they made minis using an RPG licence instead of a toy one. Mistwell would say they were technically right but they lost the licence and SWSE was decent.
From what I understand, licenses are hard to do. The licensor wants to get paid and usually wants to exercise a good bit of say. The former cuts into the available margin and the latter can be quite complicated to manage, introducing another veto point in the process. It's one reason a lot of "obvious" licensed property video games don't happen.
 
So some of my personal thoughts here:

I don´t know too much about what Mrs. Williams did or didn´t do. I have no idea how well known the financial problems of TSR were back in those days or anything about mismanagement pertaining to that era. But for me the following can be said:

1) MERS was translated into german and it sold well and was played pretty widely here in Krautland. the system was known and had a solid fan base (contrary to Rolemaster which was considered a no-go for too much complexity by most gamers I knew (excuse me here). So a market for a Middle Earth RPG was there.

2) LotR was a book many knew by name, but haven´t read it. "The Hobbit" (renamed "The little Hobbit" here in Germany) was even read in schools as official literature in classes, but after the "true" nature became known, it felt out of grace somehow (too much violence/spooky/whatever?, No idea). Again an indictor for a possible market.

3) The movie by Ralph Bakshi was no success at the screen due to its unusual technique and leaving out of great parts of the book. We never ever heard of the other hobbit movies (the animated ones) until many decades later (at least the circles I usually confer with).

4) D&D/AD&D 1e/AD&D 2e was translated into german but tremendously lost ground to our home based systems "The Dark Eye" and "Midgard". Nowadays you can buy 2e german stuff for pennies over here. And 2e was at least what I experienced over here, not an engine to fuel a LotR RPG (subjective view here).

5) What was included in the licensing between TSR and the Tolkiens? AFAIR from posts here, "games and some mercs". So can we conclude, that the license was solely on publishing print RPGs and some obscure merchandising? Where computer games included? (remember TSR did pretty well on the SSI deal).

6) IIRC Gygax denied more than once, that LotR had a great impact on D&D. So I can imagine, that aquiring the license during his primes would have "destroyed" his reputation as a kind of "godfather" to RPGs. So not a bad move IMHO from him. And was there really a market for another setting back in those days? More to that later.

7) IIRC Rian Demsey (hopefully written correctly) stated, that TSR killed itself partially by publishing too much material/settings and therefore competing with itself? So would have the publication of a ME setting have raised the sales to save the financially struggling TSR at this time in a time, when the RPG market was battled more than it is nowadays? I leave that to others to evaluate and decide.

Finally let me say this with so few information it´s hard to make any definite conclusions about that decision either by Gygax or Mrs. Williams. Hindsight is not the solution IMHO.
 

GreyLord

Adventurer
The novels did not cause TSR's downfall. The company borrowed a lot of money and overproduced product because they were getting paid on ship to Random House, not sale at the bookstore level. The fiction continued to make the company money right up until the sale to Wizards.

--James Lowder
Things like this are always interesting as they put into questions many things stated by Dancey and others.

I typically believe the other end of the story, but the idea of books and other items are things that became popular as they were broadcast as some of the reasons for the fall by individuals (not just Dancey on this one) that came later and supposedly were being authoritative in their statements.

I appreciate your comments on this.
 
Just as a side note:

Last week I went with my daughter (6 years old) to the public library to get her more "The Smurfs" comic books (she loves those small blue gnomes). And when we entered, have an educated guess, what was on display for "The book of the month"?

A starting box of Pathfinder 1e with those stand-up paper minis!

And she likes skipping through my collection of OSR and D&D books, she was keen on getting that item back to home to play the game.

Now for the current discussion. Would it helped TSR to publish something similar for ME or D&D (okay I know crossover to another discussion, sorry for hijacking).? My bet is a definitive yes. Game accessories besides blank books enhance sales (subjective opinion here).
 

Beleriphon

Totally Awesome Pirate Brain


Say what you will about Jeremy Irons in this movie; at least he was having fun.
He knew it was bad, it was a paycheque (probably a decent one), so he played a scenery chewing villain to the hilt. What else can do but over act, when the dialogue is... bad?
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
He knew it was bad, it was a paycheque (probably a decent one), so he played a scenery chewing villain to the hilt. What else can do but over act, when the dialogue is... bad?
Oh, don't get me wrong. I'm not blaming him.

I mean, 99% of Nic Cage movies are only watchable to see what Nic Cage is going to do!
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Dangit! I read the headline and came here to dump on Lorraine Williams, only to read the posts and be convinced that she made the right decision. Damn you all and your well-reasoned posts!
 

Farland

Explorer
Same. Imagine R.A. Salvatore writing an Aragorn novel that is mostly intricate descriptions of swordplay and battle.
That sounds horrible.

That being said, imagining going into my FLGS back then and picking up a TSR boxed set for Middle-Earth, a Dwarves of Erebor splatbook, could have been mind-blowing.
That would have been awesome.
 
In all honesty, we should be glad it never happened. Just think, instead of the Peter Jackson movies, we would have ended up with a LoTR movie akin to the Dungeons and Dragons movie. ;)
That is what I was thinking too. lol

As for the original offer/attempt to buy the rights, no one writes and publishes fiction novels in Middle-Earth if your last name is not Tolkien, so no way Christopher would have sold the rights to new novels in Middle-Earth, or ever will. I do not think any past or present attempts of RPGs in Middle-Earth even contain any short story-type fiction.
 
Ahem (scroll down to the list of what we’re doing).

:)
You know, I never even bother going to the C7 website since they nuked their forums. Such a pointless move. I do still follow them on Facebook, though. Also, maybe you missed the threads here about the 2nd Ed and the cover art and the outrage of showcasing a beardless female dwarf.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
As for the original offer/attempt to buy the rights, no one writes and publishes fiction novels in Middle-Earth if your last name is not Tolkien, so no way Christopher would have sold the rights to new novels in Middle-Earth, or ever will. I do not think any past or present attempts of RPGs in Middle-Earth even contain any short story-type fiction.
Not legally, at least. Though I'll add that I found that particular story to be quite entertaining.
 

JLowder

Explorer
James, I recall you mentioning (at the Candlekeep seminar back at Gen Con 2017) that the fiction part of the company continued to be profitable after the sale of TSR to WotC, and it only came to an end a few years ago when Hasbro shut it down due to the fact that, while it was still making money, it wasn't making enough money for them to consider it worthwhile. Can you confirm that again here?
Yes, that's my understanding of the situation. The fiction continued to make money for Wizards, especially the Salvatore Drizzt books, right up until the fiction line stopped. In fact, Wizards still makes money off all the TSR/WotC fiction they keep in print. A couple times a year I receive royalties for ebook and audiobook sales of the novels and stories I wrote in the early 1990s. The payments are not huge after so many years, but still not zero.

Wizards also makes money off the books other houses publish under license, like the new Drizzt novels or the Matt Forbeck pick-a-path books. They get a licensing fee for those. And, they do not have to keep a fiction department or other fiction specialists around to edit, distribute, and advertize them, only someone or a small team to approve the licensed content.

The full reason Wizards shuttered the fiction line is complicated. The line generated profit, but that it was not enough profit to counterbalance cost or match the money Hasbro/WotC would make by investing company resources elsewhere is a big part of it. There was a clash at WotC about the role and status of fiction within the brands, too, one that mirrored debates that happened at TSR. Which team gets to set the direction for the Realms, for example--fiction or the RPGs? Overall, Hasbro was never fully on board being a fiction publisher, as that requires staff and expertise they normally would not have. They're used to licensing that kind of stuff, as they are doing now.

--Jim Lowder
 
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JLowder

Explorer
Things like this are always interesting as they put into questions many things stated by Dancey and others.
Ryan Dancey described seeing all the returns in the TSR warehouse, especially novels. But you have to view that image in context. The returns were not there simply because no one wanted the products. When Ryan toured the TSR warehouse, it was after Random House had flushed all TSR products out of their system, because the book trade distribution deal TSR had with Random House had collapsed. RH returned all the products and demanded repayment of all the money they had paid to TSR on receiving those products--every penny paid for any product that had not yet sold--because their deal with the company was over. If RH had held on to the books, a significant portion of that stuff would have sold.

Yes, TSR had been overprinting and overshipping products to Random House, because the company got paid on ship, not sale. (And fiction authors were paid royalties months after reported sales; so TSR held the money they received from RH on a novel's ship until sales were recorded and royalties eventually issued, meaning they made interest on that money during that lag. Giving them more reason to overship.) Yes, the company was cannibalizing its market by publishing too many different game lines and, with fiction, too many individual books. Remember, though: those books were still selling, just not to the level at which TSR was shipping them to Random House. And there were people in house at TSR warning upper management this was a bad practice as far back as 1990 or 1991.

Had TSR not been, essentially, digging the debt hole with Random House deeper with every product ship in the mid-1990s--had the company set realistic sales targets and not used Random House as an ATM--they probably would not have swamped themselves financially. That's not the only reason the company floundered, though, so who knows if it would have been enough to save them?

--Jim Lowder
 
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