A dispute with his publisher, George Allen & Unwin, led to the book being offered to Collins in 1950. Tolkien intended The Silmarillion (itself largely unrevised at this point) to be published along with The Lord of the Rings, but A&U were unwilling to do this. After Milton Waldman, his contact at Collins, expressed the belief that The Lord of the Rings itself "urgently wanted cutting", Tolkien eventually demanded that they publish the book in 1952. Collins did not; and so Tolkien wrote to Allen and Unwin, saying, "I would gladly consider the publication of any part of the stuff", fearing his work would never see the light of day.
For publication, the book was divided into three volumes to minimize any potential financial loss due to the high cost of type-setting and modest anticipated sales: The Fellowship of the Ring (Books I and II), The Two Towers (Books III and IV), and The Return of the King (Books V and VI plus six appendices). Delays in producing appendices, maps and especially an index led to the volumes being published later than originally hoped – on 29 July 1954, on 11 November 1954 and on 20 October 1955 respectively in the United Kingdom. In the United States, Houghton Mifflin published The Fellowship of the Ring on 21 October 1954, The Two Towers on 21 April 1955, and The Return of the King on 5 January 1956. The Return of the King was especially delayed due to Tolkien revising the ending and preparing appendices (some of which had to be left out because of space constraints). Tolkien did not like the title The Return of the King, believing it gave away too much of the storyline, but deferred to his publisher's preference. He suggested the title The Two Towers in a deliberately ambiguous attempt to link the unconnected books III and IV, and as such the eponymous towers could be either Orthanc and Barad-dûr, or Minas Tirith and Barad-dûr, or Orthanc and Cirith Ungol.
Tolkien was initially opposed to titles being given to each two-book volume, preferring instead the use of book titles: e.g. The Lord of the Rings: Vol. 1, The Ring Sets Out and The Ring Goes South; Vol. 2, The Treason of Isengard and The Ring Goes East; Vol. 3, The War of the Ring and The End of the Third Age. However these individual book titles were later scrapped, and after pressure from his publishers, Tolkien initially suggested the titles: Vol. 1, The Shadow Grows; Vol. 2, The Ring in the Shadow; Vol. 3, The War of the Ring or The Return of the King.
The books were published under a profit-sharing arrangement, whereby Tolkien would not receive an advance or royalties until the books had broken even, after which he would take a large share of the profits. It has ultimately become one of the best-selling novels ever written, with over 150 million copies sold.
The book was published in the UK by Allen & Unwin until 1990 when the publisher and its assets were acquired by HarperCollins.
Editions and revisions
In the early 1960s Donald A. Wollheim, science fiction editor of the paperback publisher Ace Books, claimed that The Lord of the Rings was not protected in the United States under American copyright law because Houghton Mifflin, the US hardcover publisher, had neglected to copyright the work in the United States. Then, in 1965, Ace Books proceeded to publish an edition, unauthorized by Tolkien and without paying royalties to him. Tolkien took issue with this and quickly notified his fans of this objection. Grass-roots pressure from these fans became so great that Ace Books withdrew their edition and made a nominal payment to Tolkien. Authorized editions followed from Ballantine Books and Houghton Mifflin to tremendous commercial success. Tolkien undertook various textual revisions to produce a version of the book that would be published with his consent and establish an unquestioned US copyright. This text became the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings, published in 1965. The first Ballantine paperback edition was printed in October that year, and sold a quarter of a million copies within ten months. On September 4, 1966, the novel debuted on New York Times' Paperback Bestsellers list as number three, and was number one by December 4, a position it held for eight weeks. Houghton Mifflin editions after 1994 consolidate variant revisions by Tolkien, and corrections supervised by Christopher Tolkien, which resulted, after some initial glitches, in a computer-based unified text.
In 2004, for the 50th Anniversary Edition, Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, under supervision from Christopher Tolkien, studied and revised the text to eliminate as many errors and inconsistencies as possible, some of which had been introduced by well-meaning compositors of the first printing in 1954, and never been corrected. The 2005 edition of the book contained further corrections noticed by the editors and submitted by readers. Further corrections were added to the 60th Anniversary Edition in 2014.
Several editions, notably the 50th Anniversary Edition, combine all three books into one volume, with the result that pagination varies widely over the various editions.
Posthumous publication of drafts
From 1988 to 1992 Christopher Tolkien published the surviving drafts of The Lord of The Rings, chronicling and illuminating with commentary the stages of the text's development, in volumes 6–9 of his History of Middle-earth series. The four volumes carry the titles The Return of the Shadow, The Treason of Isengard, The War of the Ring, and Sauron Defeated.
The novel has been translated, with various degrees of success, into at least 56 languages. Tolkien, an expert in philology, examined many of these translations, and made comments on each that reflect both the translation process and his work. As he was unhappy with some choices made by early translators, such as the Swedish translation by Åke Ohlmarks, Tolkien wrote a "Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings" (1967). Because The Lord of the Rings purports to be a translation of the fictitious Red Book of Westmarch, with the English language representing the Westron of the "original", Tolkien suggested that translators attempt to capture the interplay between English and the invented nomenclature of the English work, and gave several examples along with general guidance.