I am absolutely beyond excited out of my mind for this interview. I had a chat with one of my creative friends, Johanna Basford. She is so inspiring, she pioneered the coloring books for adults craze that blew up a few years ago. Lots of good stuff packed into this interview. I know you’re going to love it!
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got to where you are today.
Johanna: I am an illustrator. I actually studied textile design in art school, and thought I was going to do fashion… turns out I am not a fashion girl. And I did freelance illustration for a whole long time, did illustrations for loads of different companies like packaging, web design book covers. And then I got asked if I would like to do a coloring book for kids. I said I’d love to do a coloring book. All my artwork is hand-drawn black and white. It just lends itself really well to the medium. But I wanted to do a coloring book for adults.
This is in 2011 and the publisher was like, Well, we’re not really sure. So I drew up the first five pages. I showed them what it was going to look like, in my style, very intricate and detailed—just like my commercial work I was doing for like perfume companies and cosmetics brands and champagne brands and it’s like adults are going to color it in and they’re not going to feel silly. They’re not coloring in a Disney princess. It was going to be beautiful and they loved the idea.
So we tentatively went forward and printed 13,000 copies in that first print run. And I was really scared that we weren’t going to sell any and I’d have to give the advance back to my publisher and all that horrible stuff. But no! It went really well and the book sold and we did another and another and another and another!
And here we are today just making a whole lot of books not doing so much of the freelance work, but it all came at a really good time because it was just my started having babies. Freelance could be tricky with a small baby. As you know!
Your first book has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. What’s that like?
Johanna: So the Secret Garden published in I think like spring 2013 and it kind of did okay at first. And then it started doing a bit better and we went to print three times. I remember we got to the point where I wasn’t going to have to give the advance back and thought, phew that’s good cause I’ve already bought a new Macbook! That was lucky.
Then we hit 100,000 copies. I was like, Oh my gosh, that is like bananas. And we’d exceeded all expectations. Cause when we did the book, to be honest, the publisher was a bit nervous because the sales team said, It’s not a kids’ book, it’s not an adults’ book. We don’t know where to put this thing.
And you know there’ve been adult coloring books for ages and ages and ages. Secret Garden was by no means the first one. I just think it was the first one in this bubble and people didn’t know where to put it. So we didn’t really have big expectations, we hadn’t gone into thinking it was going to be a bestseller. So everything sort of took us by surprise. And then we started working on Enchanted Forest, while I was pregnant with my first baby and then we sort of hit the point where the numbers were climbing and a lot of foreign publishers were jumping on board. You know a coloring book is a really easy book to publish abroad because there’s not that much writing in it. So it’s easy for a foreign publisher to do a translation because I didn’t write many words.
I was on the phone with my publisher and I said, could you please let us know when we get to 750,000 sales? I wanted to phone my mom, and do this cool Instagram post… they went really quiet on the phone. I was like, Oh my God, something’s happened, sales have tapered off or there’s been an error. And she said, well we’ve sold well over a million by now!
I had not anticipated that. So that was the sort of really weird moment that was in a car park. And I’d been saying nursing the baby as you do, just in a car park. So yes, it was a funny moment. But now I realize it’s really difficult to track book sales numbers. So we work off the figure that we’ve now sold over 21 million books worldwide. The actual numbers are probably bigger than that. But as you know it takes so long for sales numbers to filter through, especially when you’ve got 40 foreign publishers, so it’s really difficult to track. I mean, that number’s so big now, that I can’t even picture it.
Your first book has been on the New York Times Best Seller List. Have any of your other books been on it or just the first one?
Johanna: I think the first one and the second one. The third one was on as well… let’s see, this is a weird thing for me. For a while it was like all I really wanted was to get on the list, I wanted to get #1 and I was really focused on that and then I dug into how that happens, it’s an art! It’s not just simply big sales. It seems like it’s a lot of weird things. And then I was getting frustrated with that we weren’t managing to do this. And then I remember like, what am I doing? The intention in the first place was never to try and get on a list or sell a certain number of books. And I think the minute you start focusing on these weird goals that weren’t, you know, the things that inspired you to do the work in the first place, it takes you down quite a dark path and it can get confusing as to what your motivations are. And also where something like that where you have no control over the result. It seems really weird now in hindsight, to sort of pin your expectations and your way of valuing your work and your effort and your time on a thing that you have no control over. It’s far better to just try and do your best work. I knew that everything else would take care of itself.
Can you walk us through just the overall process of writing, editing and working with a publisher?
Johanna: So I think my process is a bit different from something that’s a bit more text heavy or even yours that’s more instructional. So my book that I published last year How to Draw Inky Wonderlands is an instructional book with step-by-step, so that was a little more involved, but for a typical coloring book, I like to say it’s really complicated, but it’s not!
So I think of a theme and I write a big long list of stuff I’d like to draw, then just start drawing it! I have big sheets of paper, I have a rough template of the size of the printed page in the book. And I just draw this stuff. So I draw all in pencil first, then I redraw it in ink. I scan it in and do a few minor tweaks, but I just sit at my desk for a few straight months and I draw hundreds and hundreds of pictures and we typically need about 90 bits of artwork for a book so I’ll always do like 120 or 130. Every time I finish a batch of 10 pages, I send them over to my publisher just so they can see what I’m up to.
And also there’s the backup cause that is on their server as well. You do not want to lose those files. By the end, I print them all off. So I have hundreds of sheets of paper with artwork on it. I lay them all out on the floor. I try and put a flow to the book—what pictures work well together. What’s going to go in the dump pile, what’s not going to make it into the book, etc…
And then I just send the publisher a big long list of file names so that they can work out which order to put them in and they do all the technical work. My publisher is Penguin Random House and they do all the technical stuff of putting the book together, etc.
After sending the artwork, we do finishing touches such as any introduction, text, final copy, little illustrations that are dropped in here or there. The cover itself is actually done near the start basically because publishers need to cover really early for marketing. So that’s all taken care of. Then it’s just a case of signing off and approving proofs!
How long would you assume all of the illustrations in one of your books would take you?
Johanna: Oh, I don’t know. I honestly couldn’t tell you. I mean it does take a long time and sometimes I look at other artists who have a practice that’s a little bit freer and envy how quickly they can finish a piece. Obviously there’s so much talent and history behind it, but yeah, my process is really involved because you essentially draw a piece twice. You draw it all in pencil and then I take layout bond paper on top and do the inky details.
Sometimes I could do a page and a day, if it’s quite a simple design and it’s not too intricate and maybe you know, it’s got some symmetry. Other things? Yeah, you’re looking at two to three days. Sometimes I’ll spend a week on something. I just did one recently that ended up in the trash after a week of working on it, because it just won’t work.
I always say I would much rather it be all killer, not a filler. I want every piece to have earned its place in the book and not just to be stuffing things and to take up a few pages.
You’re a mama and I’m curious, how do you balance like all the deadlines when it comes to writing a book and having two kids I think?
Johanna: Tha’s such a great question. I would say it’s a work in progress. Anyone that says I’ve got a great work/life balance is lying to themselves. So I always just say, you know, we’re doing our best. My husband runs his own business too, so he’s pretty busy. I used to work from home and I found that really difficult because, you know, I tried to balance working, looking after baby myself. I had this little play pan set up and crib in my studio and it was just insane.
So when she was about six months, we hired a nanny for a couple of days a week to come in and look after her while I was working. And that kind of went okay for a while, but still not great. Then we had Mia our second and I was meant to have finished Ivy Wonderlands and I just couldn’t do it. I was huge when her, and just so tired with the second baby. So I had to finish it pretty quickly after she was born. Literally eight days of maternity and then I got back to the book, which again was bananas. I wouldn’t want to do that again.
But as my kids got older I would hear the kids playing outside with the nanny or they would be confused and like what’s called the office and studio and play area. So it didn’t really work. So now I have got a studio, it’s about eight minutes drive up from our house. It’s so good.
So a typical day though, I get up at five o’clock in the morning. I exercise, because I feel if I don’t exercise, I go to this really dark, horrible place and my mood just immediately drops.
I also need like an hour just to collect my thoughts before the day. My oldest has never been a good sleeper and she just wakes up and runs to her desk to start drawing. So then we deal like the mom stuff. I leave around 8am, that’s what our nanny comes into the pack a little alone. I head to the studio and typically I draw Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday is my admin day. I’m all done by five o’clock everyday and I head home to see the kids.
Do you have anybody like working with you or is it just you?
Johanna: For a while I had quite a lot of people working for me. I had a studio assistant, various freelancers and parts of staff that were doing licensing and I was employing around five to six people, and I was miserable. I hated that it was a company and a business as opposed to a studio practice. For me, licensing just wasn’t my space, so I didn’t want to do that. So, now I delegate and outsource random tasks here and there.
I think as well it’s such a taboo to speak about childcare. You know, I am not looking after my kids all day. I pay someone else to do that. I come to work, and I’m okay with that. I used to feel bad about that. I just can’t run a business without help.
Do you think everyone has the ability to be creative or artistic?
Johanna: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, there’s a reason kids draw. A toddler will just pick up a pencil and go for it. They don’t hesitate! That’s something we’re all born with like this passion to make a mark. Then as we get older, I don’t know why, but we just get so nervous.
I kind of wonder like what is my point? Why am I here? What is my mission in life? And I genuinely think it’s not to make some pretty pictures, but it’s to inspire other people to pick up a pen or pencil and to make their mark. And I think when you find your purpose, it just makes so many things fall into place. If I can give people the tools and the confidence, I can definitely do that. That’s my purpose.