The novel was first completed in 1934, under the working title Airtight. Despite support from H. L. Mencken, who deemed it "a really excellent piece of work", it was rejected by several publishers until September 1935, when George Platt Brett of Macmillan Publishing agreed to publish it. Brett's decision was not without controversy within Macmillan. Associate editor Granville Hicks, then a member of the American Communist Party, was strongly opposed to publishing Rand's novel. Rand later said that Brett was unsure whether the novel would turn a profit, but he thought it was a book that ought to be published. The first edition was issued on April 7, 1936.
The initial American publication of We the Living was not a commercial success. Macmillan did not expect the novel to sell and did little marketing. Initial sales were slow and although they picked up later, Macmillan destroyed the plates before the first printing of 3000 copies sold out. Eighteen months after its release, the novel was out of print. Rand's royalties from the first American edition amounted to $100.
There was also a British publication by Cassell in January 1937, and editions were published in Denmark and Italy. These did considerably better than the American release, remaining in print into the 1940s.
In 1957, Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged became a best-seller for Random House. Its success motivated them to republish We the Living in 1959. In preparation for the new edition, Rand made some changes to the text. In her Foreword to the revised edition, Rand declared that "In brief, all the changes are merely editorial line changes." Rand's description notwithstanding, some of the changes have been taken to have philosophical significance. In the first edition, Kira said to Andrei, "I loathe your ideals. I admire your methods." In the second edition, this became simply "I loathe your ideals." A few pages later, Kira said to Andrei, "What are your masses but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?" Rand's revision deleted this sentence.
The significance of these and other revisions has been debated. Rand scholar Mimi Reisel Gladstein commented, "She claims that the revision was minimal. Some readers of both editions have questioned her definition of 'minimal'." According to Ronald Merrill, Kira in the first edition "adopts in the most explicit terms possible the ethical position of Friedrich Nietzsche." Rand had made her break with Nietzsche by the time she published The Fountainhead. Barbara Branden says, "Some of her readers were disturbed when they discovered this and similar changes" but insists that "unlike Nietzsche, she rejected as unforgivably immoral any suggestion that the superior man had the right to use physical force as a means to his end." Robert Mayhew cautioned that "We should not conclude too quickly that these passages are strong evidence of an earlier Nietzschean phase in Ayn Rand's development, because such language can be strictly metaphorical (even if the result of an early interest in Nietzsche)". Susan Love Brown countered that "Mayhew becomes an apologist for Rand's denials of change and smooths over the fact that Rand herself saw the error of her ways and corrected them."
Nearly everyone who reads We the Living today reads the second edition. The first is a rare book; the second has sold over three million copies.
- 1936, Macmillan, hardback
- 1937, Cassell, hardback
- 1959, revised edition, Random House, hardback
- 1960, revised edition, New American Library, paperback
- 1996, 60th Anniversary edition, New American Library ISBN 0-451-18784-9, paperback