Beatrix Potter and Today’s Publishing Reality

- by Susan Lyons

I finally got around to watching Miss Potter (the movie about Beatrix Potter, author of those wonderful children’s stories that I’m sure we’ve all enjoyed). Being a romantic at heart, I enjoyed the love, pathos, and happy ending. Being a writer in today’s world, I thought, “Oh my gosh, is this what it used to be like?”

Today I’m going to take a look at Miss Potter’s experience (based on the movie, which I imagine took “fictional license” with the woman’s real life) and compare it to what most of us in the publishing world experience today.

1.   Beatrix found her passion (storytelling, writing and drawing) and followed it, but for a very long time didn’t have the whatever-it-takes to try to get her work out into the real world (i.e., published) – in large part because the people around her didn’t take her work seriously.

      Reality: Yup! That’s a common experience for writers today.

2.   BP’s characters were her imaginary friends. She actually saw and talked to Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, and all those other animals.

      Reality: Well, duh! If our characters aren’t real to us, how can we possibly make them real to our readers?

3.   When BP had the guts to seek a publisher, she walked into an actual office, sat down with real people, and sold her book to the first publisher she approached.

      Reality: In our dreams! Yes, real offices do exist, but I doubt any wanna-be writer ever visits one (and even many published authors have never seen their publisher’s offices). As for selling on your first pitch? Nope, most of us sell after stacking up dozens, if not hundreds, of rejections. And that “most of us” includes amazing, and amazingly popular, writers like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King.

4.   BP was assigned an editor who: (a) was male and cute; (b) totally respected and adored her work; (c) had lots and lots of time to devote to her first book; and (d) worked closely with her to make it the best book it could possibly be.

      Reality: Uh . . . (a) The editor’s likely to be female (not to say she won’t be cute [g]). (b) If we’re really lucky, we’ll get the positive vibes. (c) As for time, the facts are: you are not the editor’s only author; your editor is guaranteed to be seriously overworked; and face it, it’s your first book – the publisher isn’t likely to make much money off it, so how much time can they realistically invest? (d) Close editorial involvement does sometimes occur, but it’s a rarity these days because editors really are seriously overworked and, more and more, authors are expected to turn in manuscripts that are almost flawless.

5.   BP and her editor visited the printers and worked with them until they got things right.

      Reality: LOL. Authors are lucky if they get input on covers and back cover copy. They’re lucky if they ever visit their publishers, much less their printers. Publishing is a specialized business these days and the idea is, the writer’s job is to write, and the publisher is the expert at all else: editing, design, marketing and so on.

6.   BP had the great joy of seeing her first book as the featured display in a book store window.

      Reality: Dream on. What gets a book into store windows these days? (a) Publisher dollars, which only extremely rarely will be invested in a first book. (b) Bestseller sales, which without publisher marketing dollars aren’t likely to happen because, let’s face it, most readers aren’t even going to hear about your book.

7.   BP earned the respect of family (except perhaps for her mother), friends, acquaintances, and a whole ton of readers – but it took quite some time.

      Reality: This hasn’t changed. Respect is hard to come by, especially if you write genre fiction (and particularly romance), and it usually comes only after you have several books out, and sales numbers are impressive. (And then try looking for respect in Canada, where I live, where only literary fiction really “counts,” a bestseller is a book that sells 10,000 copies, and there’s considered to be something rather “tacky” about writing for the mass commercial market [g].) Thank god for the readers who buy our books, and especially the ones who write to us, come to signings, post great reviews, and in other ways give us the feedback that reaffirms that we’re not fools for following our passion into this crazy world of publishing.

8.   BP made enough money from her writing to buy a country estate and acres and acres of land.

      Reality: In this day and age, a writer is very lucky if she/he makes a living from her/his writing. Of course, some do make it big. And they’re most likely the ones like Beatrix, who have true passion, a unique vision and skill, a great work ethic, a timely product, and an editor and publishing house that truly support that product. It’s possible to achieve that level of success. For the vast majority of us, however, our dreams are far less ambitious. All we ask is to keep playing with our imaginary friends, writing our books, pleasing our readers, and putting food on the table (and an occasional chocolate in our mouths!).

12 comments

  1. Interesting. Yes, the geography and distance between the writer and the publisher is staggering. And the face-to-face contact seems very limited.

    And yet, in spite of all these obstacles, writers keep writing – like yourself.

    Thoughtful post.

    Jodie

  2. Yes, many of us do indeed keep writing, Jodie. For at least some of us – as with Beatrix, I think – we can’t not do it. I don’t know whether it’s a calling, a passion, an obsession or an addiction, but it’s definitely a compulsion!

  3. I wish I had the drive you ladies have to write. I know I love reading but I just do not have that special gift of writing.

  4. Interesting article, Susan! I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your comparisons. In our dreams would an editor have the time BP’s did.

    Sheryll

  5. Kimmy, we writers are very happy to have people like you spending your time reading, rather than writing! It’s because of you that publishers buy our books.

    Thanks, Sheryll – and yes, in our dreams. And of course, fiction writers know all about dreams and fantasies [g].

  6. Fascinating breakdown of Beatrix Potter’s writing and publishing experience. Thanks for taking the time, Sue. I should be writing and not reading blogs but you tempted me with Beatrix Potter. I had better wind up my passion and get back to work.

  7. Always happy to tempt someone, Anita! Thanks for stopping by. I hope you see the movie, if you haven’t already. Not only did I enjoy it, but it made me remember the books – and no doubt it was books like Potter’s that fed my own passion to be a writer.

  8. Susan kudos to you for coming up with this quirky article. When I watched the movie I never thought I’d be re-visiting it in this way. I have a special place in my heart for BP’s books and for Winnie the Pooh too. It must be the child in us that never wants to grow up or let go of what was special to us then.

  9. Hi Sue. I’m a big fan of Winnie the Pooh as well. Maybe it’s that we don’t want to grow up, but I bet it’s also because there are some good messages in a lot of those kids books. As well as fond memories of childhood, being cuddled and having stories read to us.

  10. Sounds like they too a wee bit of creative license with the movie. But if only it could be that way… I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I should. I LOVED Beatrix Potter books (and Winnie, too!) when I was young. Thanks for such a fun blog!

  11. Ros, I’m sure you’re right about creative license. I deliberately didn’t go and check Beatrix’s real life, to see how accurate the movie was. I figure, it’s fiction.

    Which reminds me of a pet peeve. It bugs me when people nitpick details in fictional works. You know what, the characters don’t actually exist, so does it matter if a particular restaurant is on a different side of the street or a particular event happens in a different month? Seems to me, you choose to read or view either fiction or fact, and if you choose fiction you shouldn’t be too picky!

    With this movie, I decided that, even if it was about a person who really existed, I’d treat it as a fictional story loosely based on BP’s life – and looking at it that way, it was lovely. I’m sure her own life was far more mundane and boring, just like our own [g].

  12. Very interesting blog.