Watership Down – What’s it all about?

part four of the story of the genesis of Watership Down

4. Publication - The Thunder Breaks

By 1969 Adams had a finished, well-polished final typescript containing what we’d recognise as Watership Down. The long genesis of Watership was by no means over. Now began a ten-month struggle to get the thing published. That was where Adams paid the price of not following the conventions of writing for children. Many publishers and literary agents didn’t quite ‘get’ the book. They thought it was either too long and too complex for a children’s book, which is what Adams was selling it as, or too, well, talking animally for an adult book. One potential publisher seriously suggested that Hazel was not an appropriate name for a male hero. It looked as though Watership Down might never get into print. In fact one vital element was still missing. The text was exactly like it is now, the map was there, in fact we’d recognise everything, except the title! It wasn’t called Watership Down. Remember that the location came during the writing process, and that the story Adams told to his daughter didn’t mention Watership Down, or any other place by name. The story was originally all about two rabbits, two brothers, Hazel and Fiver. That was the novel Adams was trying to sell: “Hazel and Fiver”, not “Watership Down” at all. He had tried, and been rejected by twelve publishers and agents. It was the thirteenth, when he was about to give up, when things changed. Adams had tried, rather in desperation, a small London publisher, a one-man band more or less, who had published some poetry books he’d seen. That’s how he came to send a copy of his typescript (there’s evidence to suggest he had two ‘doing the rounds’) to Rex Collings, the name of the publisher, and the man who owned it. Collings liked it precisely because it was different from conventional children’s literature of the time. He decided to publish it. That was in 1970, but Collings was to sit on the typescript for another two years, presumably while sorting out other projects that he already had in the publishing pipeline, before the presses finally rolled with Watership Down. The title was one of ten suggestions submitted by Adams when Collings felt “Hazel and Fiver” didn’t do the novel justice.

The scene was set for one of the biggest publishing events in history… or not. Collings was not a major league publisher; he published small works with small print runs sold through a number of more specialist bookshops with little or no publicity. Watership Down thus entered the world five years after it was conceived in a print run of just 2000 copies. That was pretty much all Collings could afford to give a first time author with a potentially radical concept in children’s literature - “a proper grown-up novel for children.” Not surprisingly, initial reaction was subdued and the book was slow to be noticed. Things were happening however, the 2000 copies of the first edition - a small number by any book’s standard - sold encouragingly quickly, and oddly not just to children, nor to adults buying for children.

One of the other twelve, Puffin books; the major force in British children’s publishing, a company who published most if not all of the classics of modern children’s literature; had not in fact rejected Watership, but had sat on it. They too, maybe after seeing the initial hardback sales, decided to publish, and in 1973 did so. Puffin are part of the massive Penguin books empire, and so Watership soon crossed the Atlantic, there a funny thing happened. It was not published as a children’s book, instead it went straight onto the adult list, and sold well. With two editions, the Collings hardback and the Puffin paperback, now on sale to children in the UK, Penguin took it on to their adult list and now sold the same book in two covers, adult and child’s, a first. Watership Down is only sold as a children’s book in the UK, everywhere else, and it was eventually to be translated in to thirty or more languages, it’s sold purely as a mainstream adult title.

Now the reviews really got going, and the public became switched on to Watership Down in big way. It won both the Carnegie Medal and Guardian Award for children’s fiction for 1972. Now it got really noticed and Watership madness began. The first edition print run was 2000, now print runs were 100,000 or more, and even they sold out quickly. There were as many as six print runs of both the Puffin and the Penguin version in some years, with sales in the US topping even that. All this makes those 2000 Collings 1972 first editions very rare and highly sought after (though not the 1973 first US editions, which are much more common. It is these first US editions that come up regularly on Ebay). Even in 1978, before the release of the film, first editions were going at auction for around 1200. The paperbacks climbed to the top of bestsellers list everywhere in 1974. Worldwide number one bestseller was the boast, and it wasn’t an idle one. In the UK it sold a million copies in the record time of just twenty months. In 1978, boosted by the film, Watership Down once more appeared at the top of the UK bestsellers list. Several millions of Waterships had entered the world by now. Adams’s persistence and blind doggedness had paid off. The rest is publishing history.

Let me tell you more about the effects of Watership Down...

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