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“There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.” – Beatrix Potter
Since the publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the Peter Rabbit series has sold over 150 million copies in dozens of languages. Countless children have grown up reading the charming adventures of Peter and his friends.
What many aren’t familiar with is the story behind the series.
Beatrix Potter was born in 1866 in London. She and her younger brother grew up under the influence of their artistic parents, who enjoyed nature and spent their summers in the countryside. The two siblings were surrounded by many pets, such as rabbits, mice, frogs, and lizards.
Beatrix Potter was fascinated with nature. From an early age, she sketched and studied different animals and plants. Although she never had any formal schooling, it was evident from her art instructor and governesses that she was both intelligent and inquisitive.
Gradually, her sketches evolved to become beautiful watercolors and illustrations. By the 1890s, she became interested in the field of mycology. Potter developed her own theory of fungi reproduction and produced a paper to present to the Linnean Society. Although the paper was never published, the drawings have been used and contributed to the study of fungi.
Potter drew illustrations from her favorite stories and fairy tales alongside her nature sketches. She and her brother began creating greeting cards for sale, and then sold illustrations and verses to a publisher. These early successes encouraged her to create her own stories.
The Creation of Peter Rabbit
While on holiday, Potter sent letters with sketches to friends. In one of these letters, she told the story of four little rabbits: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter. It would become the basis for Beatrix Potter’s career and a popular children’s series.
After her book was rejected by numerous publishers, she decided to publish 250 copies on her own dime for friends and family. It was a hit. Frederick Warne & Co., who had initially rejected her book, offered to publish the story on the condition that the illustrations were colored.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which was published in 1902, became an instant bestseller. 23 tales were released over the next decade, telling the adventures of Peter Rabbit and his friends. Children revered her books for their vivid illustrations, depictions of rural life, and animated storytelling.
One of the most interesting aspects of Beatrix Potter, however, was her knack for business. It was Potter’s idea to create and patent a Peter Rabbit doll in 1903, making it the oldest licensed literary character.
She went on to create other merchandise, including Peter Rabbit-themed tea sets, clothing, board games, and toys. Coloring books and guides were also sold, all under the licensing of Frederick Warne & Co. Her spin-off merchandise and books provided large profits for both Potter and her publisher.
With a steady income in hand, Potter was able to purchase farmland in the Lake District. In her new home, she became a leader in conserving land from developers. Potter also purchased farms that she later restored and preserved. Together with her husband, she became a major sheep herder, breeding thousands of sheep and experimenting with remedies for sheep diseases.
When Beatrix Potter passed away in 1943, she left over 4,000 acres of land, farms, cottages, and livestock to the National Trust, the largest donation at the time. While Potter continues to delight children with her tales today, she has also made her mark in mycology, nature preservation, and fell farming.
The Artist and His Artwork
Recently, I visited a local art gallery. The artist predominantly works with ink to create large-scale abstract paintings inspired by nature. Wide, sweeping brushstrokes of contrasting colors are used to evoke emotions of awe, curiosity, and reflection.
Although the gallery is lined with finished original pieces ready for sale (and some personal paintings not for sale), the artist offers to create one-of-a-kind commissioned work. Various merchandise are available, such as prints, books, and clothing. He also teaches regular painting lessons and art history lessons.
Besides this, he lends his artwork for rental to other galleries, museums, and organizations. In turn, he hosts and promotes others’ artwork in his gallery, creating a source of revenue and an opportunity to connect with fellow artists.
Although he’s an artist, he doesn’t simply create paintings to sell. Instead, he caters to a wide set of needs, such as:
- An individual who enjoys collecting art or art-related items
- An aspiring artist looking to hone their craft
- A hobbyist who wants to learn more about art, history, and culture
- A fellow artist who wants to promote their work
- An organization that wants to feature a painting
Different people and organizations have various needs and wants. For instance, a hobbyist would more likely take an art history lesson than rent a painting, while a curator would be more interested in finding a suitable piece for a museum than purchasing art supplies. By catering to different needs, the artist is able to increase his revenue sources while maintaining his livelihood.
The best part of this process is that the artist is able to use one set of skills to serve a variety of people. Similarly, Beatrix Potter used one good idea – an illustrated story on animals in the countryside – and was able to expand on this idea to include more stories, merchandise, and games.
It all comes down to finding what works and doing more of it.
Direct and Indirect Income Streams
We tend to think of things in a linear manner.
We pursue a certain degree, expecting to do the same type of work afterward. We follow the job duties of a position, adhering strictly to do what is expected. When we fail at reaching a goal, we consider all our efforts wasted and forget the lessons learned along the way.
But as you saw beforehand, there are many ways to use an idea or skill. A story about a rabbit turned into a series of similar stories, licensed merchandise, and eventually a means for agriculture and land preservation. Being an artist can also become a channel for sharing art knowledge, connecting with others, and promoting positive change in society.
Game of Thrones is one of the most successful shows in history. While it generates direct revenue from the 18.4 million viewers that tune in each episode, its indirect revenue from over 60 licensees creates more sales and strengthens the brand. It’s a virtuous cycle where the show encourages product sales, while the products reinforce the show’s popularity.
Just think: What types of products could a popular show create?
If you pictured toys, clothing, and coloring books, those are only a few of the possibilities. Some unique ideas include themed cookies, “Iron Throne” beer, talisman necklaces, and even a language book for those who want to learn Dothraki.
Ultimately, it’s about catering to people’s needs. While the creator benefits along with the consumer, it’s because the creator gives people what they want.
Expand On What Works
If you find a concept or service that resonates with others, expand on it.
You can collaborate with others to create something new, similar to how Game of Thrones worked with a pastry company to produce themed cookies. You can build upon a popular concept to create more products and services, just as Beatrix Potter did with her Peter Rabbit series.
A florist I know frequently partners with spas and cosmetic brands to create gifts. One of her best selling items is a rose bouquet with a letter arrangement, so she’s started to offer variations upon this popular product.
The beautiful thing is that many ideas can spring from a single idea. As Beatrix Potter said, “There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.” The same can be said about coming up with ideas. You never quite know where they’ll take you.
P.S. If you are interested in Beatrix Potter’s story, check out the movie “Miss Potter” featuring Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.
“Licensing the ‘Throne’ : HBO cashes in on series.” Saiidi, Uptin, CNBC.