Wednesday 30 July 2014

Jaws: Doubleday Refuses to Bite

"It was a first novel.  It was a first novel about a fish." (Peter Benchley)

Peter Benchley in the newsroom courtesy

     Doubleday editor Tom Congdon gave writer Peter Benchley $1000 to write the first 100 pages of a novel about a great white shark who terrorizes an oceanside town.  Benchley did the work.  Congdon read it over.  He was unimpressed and demanded that Benchley rewrite it.  Benchley spent the winter tapping away on in his typewriter in a room above a New Jersey furnace company and the summer in a converted turkey coop in Connecticut.  The result was the runaway bestseller Jaws.

     Peter Benchley had written articles for years, including stints with the Washington Post and Newsweek. He was a speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson.  He had a dream of writing a novel.  He had read an account of a renegade shark that had terrorized the New Jersey shore back in 1916, killing 4 people in 12 days.  In 1964, he had read a newspaper article about a great white shark weighing 4,550 pounds, that was hunted and killed by fisherman Frank Mundus off the coast of Long Island.  This was fodder for his book.


Frank Mundus catches great white shark circa 1964 courtesy

     Doubleday editor Tom Congdon gave him an advance to write the book which features a fisherman named Quint who tries to hunt down a great white shark in the fictional town of Amity, Long Island.   Congdon read the first 100 pages and rejected them due to their humorous tone.  Benchley redoubled his efforts, penning a serious drama this time.  

     Reading his second manuscript, Congdon loved what he saw.  At the last minute, he and Benchley met at a New York restaurant and debated over titles for the work: The Stillness of the Water, Leviathan Rising and The Jaws of Death.  None seemed to strike a chord with Congdon.  The only word the two men could agree on was "jaws".  Congdon said it was short and would fit well on a jacket cover.  

     In February of 1974, Doubleday published the original hardcover edition of Jaws.  Congdon sent the publication tot he Book of the Month Club and it was placed on their "A" Book List.  He also sent it to Readers Digest where it was condensed for publication.  Bantam picked up the paperback rights to the book for $575,000.  

     In the meantime, movie producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown were interested in the movie rights.  They approached Stephen Spielberg to direct the film.  Leaving nothing to chance, the three men, along with some close friends, purchased 100 copies each of the novel, driving it to the top of the California bestseller list.  In no time, Jaws was a New York Times bestseller, staying there for 44 weeks.  The film debuted in June of 1975, the first of the blockbuster summer movies and the highest grossing film until "Star Wars".

     The novel about a fish went on to sell 9.5 million in the U.S. and 20 million in total.  It was time for its author to move out of his turkey coop.

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