Marianna Sorensen

The Business Behind Beatrix’s Bunnies

Marianna Sorensen

When I think of the books of my childhood I hear the warm words and picture the creative illustrations. But I have never considered the business ventures behind those pages and images. Beatrix Potter, author of the Peter Rabbit books, was a pioneer for lone authors leading their own businesses.

Potter used her books and her ideas to build a business empire and became an innovator in licensing and merchandising literary characters. It all began in 1893 when she wrote letters to the child of her former governess with stories about a character she called Peter Rabbit. Her former governess suggested she publish the stories along with the hand-drawn illustrations in the letters. The publishers she approached with The Tales of Peter Rabbit rejected the early draft, saying it was too plain and small. So she decided to publish it herself, and wanted to make sure it was inexpensive and easily accessible for readers. A year later, she came to an agreement with one publisher after a compromise on the length of the stories and colored illustrations. From October to December of 1902, the publisher sold 28,220 copies.

Thanks to Potter’s approach, Peter Rabbit is one of the oldest licensed literary characters, but he had existed in Potter’s mind for far longer. Her childhood had a great effect on the creation of Peter Rabbit and the stories she wrote. She loved drawing and would spend time drawing her pets, which included mice, frogs, snakes, a bat and—of course—rabbits. Her two pet rabbits were named Benjamin Bouncer and Peter Piper, and they gave her the inspiration for her future books.

Potter also planned, patented and sewed together a doll of Peter Rabbit. She even designed a board game. In the end, she was able to secure an unusual amount of merchandise and patents to accompany her books—an idea unheard of at the time. This merchandise also included tea sets, handkerchiefs, bookcases, stationery, slippers and wallpaper.

If you would like further proof of Potter’s legacy consider this: two million of her books are sold a year—so approximately four books of hers are sold every minute. So next time you see Peter Rabbit, consider the business behind him and the publishing pedigree he began.

Did You Know?

Though rabbits and hares appear very similar, they actually have many differences. The jackrabbit (which is, in fact, a hare) can move up to 40 miles per hour and leap more than 10 feet high. Rabbits just can’t quite reach those levels.

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