The Case of Roger Tory Peterson

Licensing the Artistry of a Birder

With the publication of Wild America in 1955, Roger Tory Peterson introduced the word birding to describe the pursuit of bird watching, distinct from the sport of hunting fowl. News articles and journals had used the term earlier, but Peterson was the first book author to capture it fully in text and images. Capture it he did, in a life dedicated to studying nature.
His first book, Field Guide to the Birds, published in black and white by Houghton Mifflin in 1934, popularized birding in the United States. The key to Peterson’s work was his identification system, which helped readers to recognize bird species quickly and easily by their distinctive markings. As he painted ever more color images, the “Peterson identification system” became the preeminent method to identify birds worldwide. It has lent itself nicely to each new technology development.
The active birder is a specialized breed indeed, willing to fly long distances and to perch for interminable stretches, just to snap the perfect photograph of a single bird species. Peterson cultivated this market brilliantly, writing and illustrating guide after guide at first, then editing new volumes on an ever widening range of environmental and wildlife subjects, over 50 guides in all.
Peterson never had a literary agent; for 50 years, he dealt directly with his publisher, Harcourt Houghton Mifflin. His publishing deal formula was simple: never sign a contract before you finish a manuscript or before the publisher accepts it, and never take an advance, unless you really want the pressure to complete your project, which he did not. He secured for himself the highest royalty rate ever for a trade paperback edition, particularly for the full color format. His publisher could afford to pay the royalty because of the sizeable press run for new volumes and the strong steady backlist sales for older ones.

Licensing Potential

Peterson also dealt directly with Mill Pond Press, the publisher of the signed and limited edition prints of Peterson’s paintings of birds. In the early 1980s, the founder of Mill Pond, Robert Lewin, wanted to explore licensing Peterson imagery. Lewin read a major series of New Yorker articles on publishing that quoted my law partner, Mort Janklow, and called for licensing representation.
By then, Peterson was renowned internationally as a wildlife painter, photographer, writer, lecturer, conservationist—and birder. He had received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Peterson’s new edition of the Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern United States had just sold over a million copies. Nearly 20 million Americans fed birds in their backyards, and companies like Ralston supplied the birdseed. Birders needed binoculars, cameras and film, camping equipment, outdoor clothing, travel services, and more. Peterson worked prodigiously hard and produced a massive amount of creative work. The licensing potential was significant. Arthur Klebanoff volunteered to handle the assignment.
It was complex. Peterson needed to protect his name and his distinctive autograph as trademarks for individual licensing projects. They had to work out a trademark separation agreement with Harcourt Houghton Mifflin to give Peterson’s book publisher control over the branded line, “Peterson Field Guides,” and to preserve for Peterson the non-competitive uses of his name and imagery.
Peterson and Klebanoff met right before Peterson’s 75th birthday. The Franklin Mint, a subsidiary of Warner Communications at the time, wanted to create a $300 bird figurine based on one of Peterson’s paintings. The Mint invited them —Peterson, his wife Virginia, and Klebanoff —to Wawa, Pennsylvania, to see samples. Klebanoff arranged for a limousine to take them to and from the meeting, during which Peterson objected to every sample he saw there, since none of them accurately depicted a bird in nature. Klebanoff had negotiated for naught.
Or not. In the limo ride back to New York, Peterson feared that Klebanoff was angry about not closing the deal. He explained that his job was to accomplish his objectives, not to compromise them for money. Peterson relaxed and enjoyed the birds and wildflowers along the New Jersey Turnpike. From then on, they had excellent personal and business rapport. Klebanoff subsequently licensed songbird images to American Express for a set of collectible plates, to the Danbury Mint for a set of collectible vases, and to C. R. Gibson for a line of stationery. Each license earned more than $100,000 in royalties that helped Peterson pay for his passions – travel and photography.

Targeting Nature Audiences

A key broader opportunity came in 1984. The National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution honored Peterson by installing a major exhibit of his work on the 50th anniversary of the Eastern Field Guide. The show drew more than six million visitors to the Washington Mall. The catalog and small gift shop further burnished Peterson’s image. Klebanoff approached Easton Press, the sister division of the Danbury Mint, about launching the Peterson Field Guides in leather-bound editions – 40 volumes at the time in a direct response continuity offer.
Direct response marketers seemed their best means of distribution since they could target the nature audience and could test their offers before rolling them out. Their business model is such that they can offer their clients either no guaranteed advance and higher royalties or modest advances and lower royalties. Klebanoff knew that Peterson’s work would sell, and so he offered the right to test and waived guarantees, provided that Peterson received a top-of-market royalty. This strategy encouraged the direct marketers to test more programs and brought substantially higher royalties for each program rolled out.
Easton Press went all out. Each volume featured a black and white frontispiece from Peterson’s enormous archive. The author created a special image for the Eastern Birds edition and autographed that volume. He also helped Klebanoff to secure the mailing lists of the Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation for Easton’s use.
The result over time was one million-plus books sold at $40 –a program that convinced Easton Press to enter copyrighted thematic publishing (and become Klebanoff’s largest client) plus a series of Roger Tory Peterson licensed collectibles programs that grossed tens of millions of dollars of sales. To put these sales numbers in context, the entire trade division of Harcourt Houghton Mifflin never grossed over $100 million annually. More importantly, Peterson had to do no extra work to support this licensing; that was the essence of Klebanoff’s assignment.
He also looked for book publishing opportunities outside the Field Guide program. One became a two volume facsimile edition (at $300) of the original art plates for Roger’s Eastern and Western Guides. The Easton Press project grossed nearly $2 million.

A ‘Field Guide’ Legacy

Before Peterson’s death in 1996 at 88, Klebanoff arranged for Rizzoli New York to publish a high quality illustrated “legacy” book that would showcase his many talents: The Art and Photography of the World’s Greatest Birder. That book set the stage for subsequent licensing and publishing projects. After his death, Klebanoff assumed full representation of the estate’s publishing activities.
Peterson repeatedly told him, “I haven’t taken my best picture yet.” That was why he never used his spectacular photography commercially. Peterson also never sold original Field Guide art in his lifetime, so there were hundreds of original images to sell, separate from their intellectual property rights (the core assets of the estate). After Virginia Peterson’s death, Klebanoff began exploring a new distribution channel: auction houses. In 2010, he arranged for the first ever Peterson original art sale at Christie’s. In 2012, Guernsey’s Auction House will conduct a major auction dedicated to Peterson art and photography.
At the opening night party for the 1984 exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History, the longtime overall head of the Smithsonian, Dillon Ripley, referred to the famed birder and founding wildlife photographer as the “Audubon of the 20th Century.” Peterson’s retort: “I am the first Peterson, not the second Audubon.” He was both.

Copyright 2021 Home | Scott Meredith Literary Agency | Leading New York Literary Agency