December 16, 1901 is the official publication birthday of The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter—the very first batch consisted of 250 copies privately printed and distributed. As much as I love Peter Rabbit and all the characters from the series, I’m inclined to celebrate this day as the birth of independent female writers.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit originated from entertaining letters Potter sent to Noel Moore, the ill child of her former governess. Each story was inspired by her own pets, including a rabbit named Peter.
Sometime later, Potter had the idea of publishing the stories in books. Potter could see, in her mind’s eye, the exact way to present these stories to children. The only problem was convincing adults it was a good idea.
Potter had to endure multiple publishing houses telling her “no”. Being told no is not always a bad thing—sometimes hearing the word “no” helps us refine our work—in Potter’s case, the word “no” was more about conforming to predicted consumer behavior and less about the book itself. Potter had a very set idea as to how this book should be presented. Between this idea and her strong personality, most publishing houses declined.
Potter knew what she wanted. Refusing to settle for anything less, she decided she would do it herself. Not only did she take on the private printing of her beloved books; Potter prepared all 41 of the black and white woodblock engravings and the color frontispiece. She ensured the layout was exactly how she imagined it and funded the printing of all 250 initial copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Potter shared the 250 copies with family, friends, colleagues, even strangers in the park. She also sent a copy to a few publishing houses who had previously rejected her. And it worked. One of her previous rejections, Frederick Warne & Co, changed their mind and signed her up. They went on to sell 20,000 copies in the next year.
Every year, when Peter Rabbit’s ‘birthday’ come around, I like to pause for a moment to truly appreciate Beatrix Potter as a role model. After so many rejections, it would have been easy to say “enough is enough” and give in or give up. Instead, Potter had an idea for what she could achieve and she stuck with it.
By the time Potter was ready to print her third small book, The Tailor of Gloucester, it was pretty well established Potter knew what she was talking about. And yet the publishing company, Warne, wanted to make significant changes–cutting images, changing layouts and messing with the story.
Thankfully, Potter remained true to her vision and self-published 500 copies, with no changes. And they were a hit! Once Warne saw her success, they came crawling back and conceded that yes, Beatrix Potter knew what she was doing. The success of the series was enough to save the struggling company.
Self-publishing is hard work. We have to do the majority of that hard work ourselves. But if Beatrix Potter has taught me anything, it’s that no-one is going to do the hard work if I’m not prepared to do it myself first. As independent authors, we have the power to follow things through, and we have the responsibility for making things happen.
Happy birthday, Peter Rabbit—your lineage commemorates Potter’s determination, self-belief and true grit—and that’s pretty special.
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