Donald A. Wollheim


Donald A. Wollheim : biography

October 1, 1914 – November 2, 1990

The famed Ace editions, now collectors’ items There was a time when no paperback publisher would publish fantasy. It was believed that there was no public for fantasy and that it wouldn’t sell. Then Wollheim changed everything when he brought out an unauthorized paperback edition of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in three volumes — the first mass-market paperback edition of Tolkien’s epic. In a 2006 interview, his daughter Elizabeth said:

He called Professor Tolkien in 1964 and asked if he could publish Lord of the Rings as Ace paperbacks. Tolkien said he would never allow Lord of the Rings, his great work, to appear in ‘so degenerate a form’ as the paperback book. Don was one of the fathers of the entire paperback industry. He’d spearheaded the Ace line, he was the originating editor-in-chief of the Avon paperback list in 1945, and I think he was hurt and took it personally. He did a little research and discovered a loophole in the copyright. Houghton Mifflin, Tolkien’s American hardcover publisher, had neglected to protect the work in the United States. So, incensed by Tolkien’s response, he realized that he could legally publish the trilogy and did. This brash act (which ultimately benefited his primary competitors as well as Tolkien) was really the Big Bang that founded the modern fantasy field, and only someone like my father could have done that. He paid Tolkien, and he was responsible for making not only Tolkien extremely wealthy but Ballantine Books as well. And if he hadn’t done it, who knows when — or if — those books would ever have been published in paperback.LOCUS, June 2006, Betsy Wollheim Interview.

Tolkien had authorized a paperback edition of The Hobbit in 1961, though that edition was never made available outside the U.K. Eventually, he supported paperback editions of The Lord of the Rings and several of his other texts, but it is difficult to say whether he was persuaded to do so by the manifest economic wisdom evident in sales of the Ace editions. In any case, Ace was forced to cease publishing the unauthorized edition and to pay Tolkien for their sales following a grass-roots campaign by Tolkien’s U.S. fans. A 1993 court determined that the copyright loophole suggested by Ace Books was incorrect and its paperback edition was found to have been a violation of copyright under US law.Eisen, Durwood & Co. v. Christopher R. Tolkien et al., 794 F. Supp. 85, 23 U.S.P.Q.2d 1150 (S.D.N.Y. 1992), affirmed without opinion, 990 F.2d 623 (2nd Cir. 1993). In the LOCUS obituary for Donald Wollheim, however, more detail emerges. Houghton-Mifflin had imported sheets instead of printing their own edition, but they didn’t want to sell paperback rights. Ace printed the first paperback edition and caused such a furor that Tolkien rewrote the books enough to get a new copyright, then sold them to Ballantine. The rest is history. Although Ace and Wollheim have become the villains in the Tolkien publishing gospel, it’s probable that the whole Tolkien boom would not have happened if Ace hadn’t published them.


Upon Wollheim’s death in 1990, the prolific editor Robert Silverberg argued (above) that he may have been "the most significant figure" in American SF publishing.

Robert Jordan credits Wollheim for helping to launch his (Jordan’s) career. Wollheim made an offer for Jordan’s first novel, Warriors of the Ataii, though he withdrew the offer when Jordan requested some minor changes to the contract. Jordan claims that Wollheim’s first, ‘laudatory’ letter convinced him that he could write, and so he chose to remember the first letter and forget about the second.McAlpine, Rachel. .Kleffel, Rick. . The novel was never published, but Jordan went on to write the immensely successful Wheel of Time series for a different publisher.

Marion Zimmer Bradley refers to him as "a second father", Frederik Pohl calls him "a founder", and Robert Silverberg says he was "seriously underrated" and "one of the great shapers of science-fiction publishing in the United States".