How Game of Thrones achieved world domination... 15 years before the TV show even aired

David Barnett
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How Game of Thrones achieved world domination... 15 years before the TV show even aired

It might be hard to believe, as the country revs itself up into a frenzy and prepares to go Westeros for the final time, but there was a time when nobody had heard of Game of Thrones. It was only 2011 that the first season of the HBO series premiered in the US, with the UK following close after, but as the show enters its eighth – and last – outing, it feels like it’s been a household name for a lot longer.

Which, of course, it has, especially if your household is one where the bookshelves groan with fantasy novels the size of doorsteps and series that run to multiple volumes.

People who would never dream of ploughing through, say, the 15 books in the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan count themselves as rabid Game of Thrones fans, and are intimately familiar with the fictional world of Westeros and its warring houses, its dragons, its dark, icy, inhuman kings. The global audience for the show is phenomenal, and probably far exceeds what author George RR Martin ever conceived of when he began writing the books.

You probably know that Game of Thrones is the title of the first book in the A Song of Ice And Fire series, which has been published over 20-odd years. The sixth volume, The Winds of Winter, is famously “late”; the previous book, A Dance With Dragons, was published in 2011, just weeks after the TV show debuted.

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So delayed is the sixth book that the TV show has overtaken the written form of the story, and will bring the epic to an end over the coming weeks, before Martin (GRRM to his fans), has had the chance to bring out the latest chapter. And let’s not even talk about the supposed seventh volume in the series, A Dream of Spring.

Game of Thrones was published in August 1996. Unless you were a fantasy fan, it probably passed you by. It was a strong year for literature; Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt; Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club; The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks; Alex Garland’s The Beach; Sex and the City by Candace Bushell; David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest.

But it was also a very good year for fantasy novels. Published that year were Drums of Autumn, the fourth in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Royal Assassin, Robin Hobbs’ second Farseer novel, the seventh Wheel of Time instalment, A Crown of Swords, Terry Goodkind’s Blood of the Fold, the third in his Sword of Truth series.

Johnson (right) with writers Martin and Hobb at a panel in London discussing their careers (Jane Johnson)

In fact, according to Jane Johnson, fantasy fiction was having a purple patch in the mid-Nineties. “It was booming and we published a number of the finest authors in the bestselling area of the genre – epic fantasy,” says Johnson, who is the publishing director of HarperCollins’ Voyager imprint, which puts out science fiction and fantasy. “We had just two years before acquiring A Song of Ice and Fire celebrated the centenary of JRR Tolkien’s birth with Alan Lee’s illustrated edition of The Lord of the Rings, which I commissioned, sales of which had broken all records.

“David Eddings was an established number one hardback bestseller and other major bestsellers on the list included Raymond E Feist, Stephen Donaldson, Katharine Kerr, Jack Vance, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Megan Lindholm – who would soon publish her first novel as Robin Hobb.”

So, it was a pretty busy market that GRRM was entering into with Game of Thrones. He was, though, no newbie writer. Born in 1948, he grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, and in 1970 graduated with a journalism degree from Northwestern University in Illinois.

That same year he began selling his first short stories to the science fiction magazines, such as Galaxy, and over the next quarter of a century became a huge name in the fields of sci-fi, with novels such as Sandkings and Tuf Voyaging, and horror, with his Mississippi vampire novel of 1982, Fevre Dream.

“I had read several of George’s short stories and other novels, as a fan,” says Johnson. “I really liked Fevre Dream; but epic fantasy was not what he was best known for at the time.”

However, that is exactly what GRRM decided he wanted to write, and what landed on Johnson’s desk in 1993. She had recently been put in charge, as editorial director, of HarperCollins fantasy and science fiction list, having already been looking after the works of JRR Tolkien since 1986. She was in the process of bringing everything together under one imprint, Voyager, which eventually launched in 1995.

Johnson and GRRM at a book signing: the series has now sold 90 million copies worldwide (Jane Johnson)

Unlike many books, Game of Thrones didn’t get a publishing deal in GRRM’s home of the US and then go out on submission to other countries for foreign rights deals. The author’s agent Ralph Vicinanza (who died in 2010; he also represented Stephen King) sent out the submission simultaneously to all major publishers in the US and UK at the same time.

The package that landed on the desks of book editors at the same time comprised 150 pages of A Game of Thrones… not a teasing taster, that was all that there was written at the time. Johnson knew of GRRM’s work, but not as a fantasy writer.

“However, I knew what a brilliant storyteller he was and was excited to see him move into this area of the genre,” she says. “At a time when fantasy was largely about enchanted swords, elves and unrealistic magic, to enter an uncompromisingly gritty world that drew inspiration from the darkest events of medieval history was a bit different, and appealed to me.”

The submission first landed on the desk of Malcolm Edwards at HarperCollins, as he had previously edited GRRM’s other novels at Gollancz, the science fiction imprint at Orion books. He read the submission, but also asked Johnson to do the same as she was in the process of setting up Voyager.

When the first draft of GoT landed, Johnson had been put in charge of HarperCollins’ sci-fi inprint (Jane Johnson)

She remembers: “It blew us both away. I had never read anything quite like those first 10 chapters. When I reached the point at which seven-year-old Bran Stark spies Cersei and her brother Jaime in a steamy incestual embrace, and gets pushed by Jaime off the tower to what seems his certain death, I was hooked and knew we had to have it. The trouble was, every other UK publisher felt the same way.”

On the basis of those first 150 pages, an auction took place, with the first three books of the projected series up for grabs. Johnson recalls it being “extremely heated”, and while demurring to say just how much HarperCollins eventually paid for the book, she adds that the numbers being flung about were “eye-popping”. She says: “Much of the bidding took place during the department’s Christmas lunch; we ended up offering the largest advance for a work of fantasy ever paid in the UK. I can’t say how much, only that now it has earned out many times over!”

“Earning out” is when a book makes enough money to cover the advance paid to the author by the publisher, at which point the author starts getting royalties, a percentage of the price each copy is sold at. With the A Song of Ice and Fire series now having sold 90 million books worldwide, it was certainly a good investment for HarperCollins.

Johnson already knew Martin personally from the sci-fi and fantasy literature circuit (Jane Johnson)

Johnson already knew GRRM personally from the sci-fi and fantasy literature circuit. She says: “I had met George at various conventions before the submission and I really liked him and enjoyed his company: he was friendly and funny and ferociously clever, and of course I was a fan. I love and respect all my authors, but there must always be a measure of professional distance. Of course, I can’t speak for how any of them feel about me!”

At a time when fantasy was largely about enchanted swords, elves and unrealistic magic, to enter an uncompromisingly gritty world that drew inspiration from the darkest events of medieval history was a bit different, and appealed to me

Jane Johnson

In fact, as well as being publishing director at HarperCollins, Johnson has her own writing career which has seen her bring out more than 20 books for adults and children. Her novel The Tenth Gift had some unexpected fallout: it resulted in her marriage to a Berber tribesman, and now they split their time between the UK and Morocco. Her latest historical novel, Court of Lions, is about the fall of Granada and newly out from Head of Zeus, who will be publishing her next book, The Sea Gate, in 2020.

After the excitement of the auction, it was time for GRRM to finish the novel for Johnson and her opposite number at the winner of the US auction, Anne Groell at Bantam Books. They edited it in tandem, with Groell presenting their joint editorial notes to GRRM to make the necessary changes before publication. Bantam and Voyager published simultaneously on 1 August 1996, A Game of Thrones being the lead title in the UK, due to the massive buzz around it that had been generated among fans of the genre, excited to see what GRRM would do with the fantasy tropes.

However, as you make the last minute preparations for your Game of Thrones parties for the debut of the final TV season, it has to be understood that outside this cognoscenti of fantasy readers, there wasn’t much excitement about the book… at least, not at first.

“You have to remember that before the Lord of the Rings movies and the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones came along, fantasy was widely regarded as geeky and uncool,” says Johnson. “Bookshops tucked SF and fantasy away at the back of their stores. So while fantasy readers loved A Game of Thrones from the off, it took time to establish a genre series.

You have to remember that before the Lord of the Rings movies and the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones came along, fantasy was widely regarded as geeky and uncool

Jane Johnson

“The original jackets were colourful and striking – by the fine sci-fi and fantasy artist Jim Burns – but I felt they did not appeal far enough beyond the genre, and that we needed to try to get the books into the hands of a wider readership, so we repackaged them in the current livery with iconic covers by Larry Rostant, and after that sales got a lot more traction, so you could say it was something of a slow burner. But it grew and grew steadily as the story sucked more and more readers in: by 2005, which was six years before the HBO series came along, he was a number one bestseller.”

There had been interest in adapting A Game of Thrones for TV or film from around 2007, and the deal was struck with HBO in 2009. Johnson recalls: “We were of course very excited and soon there was an incredible buzz across about the idea of an adaptation that promised to be ‘Sopranos in Middle-earth’.

“The media were running articles about it under such banners as ‘The most eagerly anticipated TV show ever’. But you never know whether adaptations are going to succeed: they could be dismal or sink without trace. I had, however, seen at first hand what had happened with Peter Jackson’s movies of Lord of the Rings and it looked as if Game of Thrones was treading a similar line with wonderful casting, costumes, locations, so we had great hopes for increased book sales.”

Kit Harrington and Emilia Clarke play Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen in ‘Game of Thrones’ (HBO)

And, of course, reports Johnson, “Book sales went through the roof and have continued to build and build. To witness the series establishing itself as a global cultural phenomenon has been a joy and a blast. I adore the books, their epic scope, their combination of humour and violence and realpolitik, and it’s such a privilege to be one of a handful of people to engage with the manuscripts before anyone else reads them.”

Speaking of new manuscripts… the time it’s taken GRRM to finish the sixth volume has brought out some rather unattractive traits in those who identify as his fans, with a sense of entitlement on show in some quarters as readers whine about how long they have to wait. So much so, that author Neil Gaiman once felt moved to admonish such a fan with the message: “George RR Martin is not your bitch.”

Still, the question must be posed. Is Jane Johnson expecting the manuscript of Winds of Winter to be landing (with the customary thump that must accompany all GRRM novels) any time soon?

“Just like Jon Snow, I know nothing!” she laughs. “Except that George is working very hard and will announce the completion on his blog when he gets there. And as soon as we possibly can after he delivers, we’ll publish.”