In a talk given to a group of schoolteachers, Wilson Rawls related how he wrote the first version of the novel (along with five full novels, and hundreds of short stories and novelettes) during the years that he worked on construction in Mexico and Idaho. He rolled the manuscripts up and saved them in a trunk at his parents' home. When he met his fiancée, Sophie, he did not want her to know about his failed dreams of becoming a writer, so about a week before he got married he visited his parents and burned all his manuscripts. He then returned to Idaho and married Sophie. About three months later, he confessed to his wife that he had burned all his manuscripts and had always dreamed of being a writer. She encouraged him to rewrite one of his stories. He quit his job and wrote the novel in just three weeks. He said, "I had it memorized."  He would not let her read it until it was finished. He said, "I finished it on a Friday. I gave it to her Saturday morning and I went to town. I stayed in town all day. I knew she had time to read it. I called her on the phone. I just knew she was going to laugh at that writing...but when I called on the phone, she said, 'You get back out here to the house, I want to talk to you...this is the most wonderful dog and boy story I've ever heard in my life.'"  She encouraged him to lengthen the story, because she felt it was too short to be a novel but too long to be a short story. He went to work on lengthening the manuscript. He wrote it longhand with no punctuation. She then typed it up and submitted it to the Saturday Evening Post.
The Saturday Evening Post rejected the manuscript in 3 weeks. Sophie then sent the manuscript to the Ladies Home Journal. She believed that a woman editor at the Ladies Home Journal would like the story. About four months later, Rawls received a letter from the Ladies Home Journal saying that it was the wrong kind of story for their magazine, but they wanted to send it to the Saturday Evening Post. Upon the second submission to the Saturday Evening Post, it was accepted. It was first published in serialization in the Saturday Evening Post in 1961 under the title The Hounds of Youth.
DoubleDay then accepted the book for publication. Rawls said DoubleDay then "broke my heart." They changed the title to Where the Red Fern Grows, and attempted to market it to adult readers. For about six years, it languished on shelves and failed to sell. DoubleDay was going to put it out of print, but one agent named Mr. Breinholt from Salt Lake City fought for it and asked for just a few more months to market it. He got Rawls a speaking engagement at the University of Utah to a conference of over 5,000 reading teachers and librarians. Copies of it were made available to them. When they took it back to their schools, the children loved it, and orders began pouring in. Jim Trelease states, "Each year since then, it has sold more copies than the previous year."