Sometimes, the fiercest battles are fought over the sweetest of rabbits.
Ah––and there you have it, my fifth and final late great champion of the self-published or otherwise non-traditional author: Beatrix Potter. A titan in the world of children’s books, Potter’s hand-illustrated flights of fancy have found their way into the homes of millions––millions––of readers. The Tale of Peter Rabbit alone has sold over 45 million copies and been translated into dozens of languages*––and it all started as a quiet private venture, financed by Potter herself.
Beatrix Potter’s legacy is a rich one. She was a rather wealthy heiress, and waited until 47 to marry––a radical choice for the time. She was also a dedicated, if amateur, environmentalist. Mostly, today we remember her for her books, but we also remember her for her mammoth lifetime work of preservation; it is in large part because of Beatrix Potter, and her dual income as both an heiress and a successful children’s book author, that we have England’s Lake District National Park.
While we know her mostly for the products of her lifetime labors, I might suggest that we remember more than just the books themselves, but also the place which they occupied in Potter’s life. As both author and illustrator, she was responsible for more than just the text on the page; she was responsible for its artistic direction, and in many ways, its actual production. And then there’s the small matter of financing; while her later books were picked up rather quickly, Potter had first to overcome extreme prejudices against both her gender (women were discouraged from involvement in the business side of publishing, at the time) and her vision for the book (which was exacting, down to the page number, the types and quantity of illustrations, and the physical dimensions of the page). She operated in somewhat of a vacuum, without the enormous mechanism of the picture book industry as it exists today.
And yet, she persisted. With a little help and quite a lot of her own money, Potter printed 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, produced to her exact specifications. The book was so popular that within a year, she was approached by one of the publishing companies who had turned her down and forced her into self-publication. By the time of her death in 1943, she had radically reshaped the author/publisher relationship––rather luckily for us, in the here and now––into something much more like a partnership than it had been. There are manifold lessons we can learn from Miss Potter, but here are the two that rise to the top:
Don’t let others change you without your permission. The publishing companies that Potter attempted to sell The Tale of Peter Rabbit to had plenty of suggestions on how she could make the book better––or rather, more salable. They suggested she cut down on the number of illustrations, and alter the book’s size and the number of pages. She stuck by her guns, self-published her book, and later of course history has proven that her vision for children’s book was the future of the industry. You too must stick by your guns, when it comes to the fundamental elements of your book that make it, well, yours. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t listen and internalize the suggestions of others––specifically, publishers––but remember, they’re in the market to sell books and make a profit (or as many companies might say, to recover their investments). A self-publisher chooses to cover those initial expenditures, and retain the work intact. That’s both a radical and rewarding idea. The danger for self-publishers is just as great, however, when it comes to finding themselves on the firing line for making bold (or distinctive) artistic, aesthetic, or other content-related choices. You’ll receive a lot of advice. It’s important to give yourself permission to not follow those suggestions that lead you away from your own vision.
This is the last author in my current series (previous authors have included Johannes Gutenberg, Alexandre Dumas, Jane Austen, and Henry David Thoreau). Check back next week as I wind up the series by recapping the ‘greatest hits’ of self-publishing inspiration, so to speak, that these authors have provided! And then––in two week’s time––drop on by as I launch into a new series!
If you have any comments, reflections, or suggestions, I’d love to hear them. Drop me a line in the comments box, and watch this space on Wednesdays in 2015!
|ABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog, kellyschuknecht.com.|