On his return to California, London was unable to find work and relied on odd jobs such as cutting grass. He submitted a query letter to the San Francisco Bulletin proposing a story about his Alaskan adventure, but the idea was rejected because, as the editor told him, "Interest in Alaska has subsided in an amazing degree." A few years later, London wrote a short story about a dog named Bâtard who, at the end of the story, kills his master. London sold the piece to Cosmopolitan Magazine, which published it in the June 1902 issue under the title "Diablo – A Dog". London's biographer, Earle Labor, says that London then began work on The Call of the Wild to "redeem the species" from his dark characterization of dogs in "Bâtard". Expecting to write a short story, London explains: "I meant it to be a companion to my other dog story 'Bâtard' ... but it got away from me, and instead of 4,000 words it ran 32,000 before I could call a halt."
Written as a frontier story about the gold rush, The Call of the Wild was meant for the pulp market. It was first published in four installments in The Saturday Evening Post, which bought it for $750 in 1903. In the same year, London sold all rights to the story for $2,500 to Macmillan, which published it in book format. The book has never been out of print since that time.
- The first edition, by Macmillan, released in August 1903, had 10 tipped-in color plates by illustrators Philip R. Goodwin and Charles Livingston Bull, and a color frontispiece by Charles Edward Hooper; it sold for $1.50. It is presently available with the original illustrations at the Internet Archive.