How Johanna Basford OBE sold millions of copies of her colouring books for adults

Awarded an OBE at Buckingham Palace for services to art and entrepreneurship, Johanna Basford discusses her incredible success with best-selling colouring books, including Secret Garden of which Kate Middleton enjoys.

Johanna Basford has just been awarded her OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) at Buckingham Palace for her colouring books, of which the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton enjoys, Prince William has revealed. 

Johanna was awarded the OBE for services to art and entrepreneurship. While only 33, Johanna has sold millions of copies of her colouring books for adults: Secret GardenEnchanted Forest, Lost Ocean and the forthcoming Magical Jungle – and was largely responsible for kickstarting the popularity of the genre.

Magical Jungle is full of flora and fauna from the rainforest – with hummingbirds, monkeys and tigers. It's out on August 11.

Last year, I interviewed Johanna about how she became a creator of best-selling books, and why colouring books for adults have become so popular.

>> Read on for the interview

In the first half of 2013, illustrator Johanna Basford was blogging weekly for us about her self-imposted sabbatical, where she was spending eight months away from commissions to concentrate on developing her skills and personal projects. Three weeks into this, she received copies of her first book – a colouring book aimed at adults called Secret Garden.

Perhaps ironically for something produced before the sabbatical, it's this book has been her biggest commercial success – selling over 1.5 million copies to date. Johanna's follow-up Enchanted Forest has sold 225,000 since it came out in March. Colouring in for adults has become a popular pastime for people who are possibly put off drawing by the empty page, and as a form of relaxation linked to the also-currently-popular principle of mindfulness.

The success of Johanna's books has seen them top Amazon's book charts (where they've sold out, but will be back in stock on May 4), feature in prime-position displays in bookshops like Waterstones – seeing which is when and where I first realised that Johanna had hit the big time – and seen Johanna interviewed on shows from Radio 4 to NBC's Today show.

Despite this mass-market success, Johanna was still happy to be interviewed for our creative industry magazine about the journey from a commercial illustrator to best-selling author – and where she's headed next.

NB: How did the books' success happen?

JB: "The sales numbers were steadily good until late summer last year. My publishers were happy and I was delighted. Sales in France for example were particularly strong where we were outselling cookery books. I love the idea of chic Parisian ladies downing saucepans in favour of colouring pens!

"Then things went a bit crazy. I started to notice some really peculiar traffic on my website and social media accounts for places like Brazil, Thailand and Korea. Turns out, this was the foreign editions launching. Secret Garden sold 130,000 copies in the first 90 days of release in Korea. Crazy!

"In autumn last year we reached the 200,000 sales mark and I was dancing about the studio like a twit. I phoned my editor to ask if she could ring me when we reached the quarter-million mark as I wanted to tweet about it – but the phone went quiet and I began to panic. Turns out, we were going to hit a million by Christmas."

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NB: What's the key appeal of colouring-in for your books' buyers? And why are they drawn particularly to your books?

JB: "I think adult colouring in has been a bit of an underground movement for years. Parents often tell me they used to wait till the kids were tucked up in bed, then whip out their colouring books and pencils as a bit of a guilty pleasure. Unlike traditional colouring books aimed at children, the artwork in mine is super-intricate and detailed. I try to make each page a mini work of art in its own right. While kid’s books might use fairly simplistic imagery, I draw pictures as detailed as I would create for a limited edition print or a book cover.

"I signed the contract for my grown-up colouring book in late 2011 – long before the category blossomed into what it is today. We weren’t trying to emulate another successful book or follow a tried and tested blueprint, we weren’t even sure if it would sell. The first print run was a tentative 13,000 copies and I was fairly sure my Mum was going to have to buy a lot.

"The joy of being first and doing something no one else was doing at the time was that I created the book in splendid isolation. I was entirely selfish and just created a beautiful book that I myself wanted to own and colour.  I think that shows in the artwork. At the risk of sounding like a hippy, it was made with love – no huge financial motivation or commercial endgame.

"I worked on it late into the night and at weekends whilst my day job remained my client illustration work. As the sales numbers started to come in we began to see other grown up colouring books pop up on Amazon and I made the decision not to look at them. I didn’t want to be influenced, even subconsciously, by what everyone else was creating. I wanted to protect that bubble of isolation I had when I created Secret Garden."

NB: Is there anything you do to your drawings' compositions to make them particularly suitable for colouring in?

JB: "To be honest, they aren’t massively different to my regular commercial illustration work, which is possibly why it takes me so long to create each page – anything from one to three days. I add less detail and tend to not block fill areas with black, instead leaving these sections open for people to fill with the colour of their choice.

"I try to have a mix of compositions in the book, some repeat patterns, some panoramics, some symmetrical motifs. I like the idea that people can just dip in and out of the book, find something that charms them and colour away. No need to finish the page in one sitting or work through the book from start to finish, there are no rules. You don’t even have to stay within the lines! I tell people all the time, I go over the lines a lot! I just draw an extra little bit of outline and contain my spillage. It’s not about the pursuit of perfection, it’s just about making your mark.

"When I was little my Dad spotted me doing this, adding the extra outline to enclose a stray scribble. He commented that he’d caught me ‘cheating'. Even at the tender age of five,  I remember thinking he was silly. How could you possibly ‘cheat’ at colouring?!"

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NB: How does the success of Secret Garden – and now Enchanted Forest – make you feel?

JB: “Surprised – who would have thought it! I very nearly didn’t even make Secret Garden. I was scared I could spend six months working on something and never earn enough money to even pay back my advance. Looking back, I’m glad I took that risk. I remember posting a tweet that night asking the Twittersphere if I should let me head or my heart rule when making a big decision. Twitter said ‘heart'. I’m glad I listened. Clever internet.

"I still get excited when I see the books ‘out in the wild’. Friends send me photos from all over the world of different foreign editions of my book in shops and in the hands of their relatives – it’s amazing! If the excitement and joy of seeing something I’ve made ever dwindles, I’ll know it’s time to move on."

NB: Has the success of the books allowed you to do anything that you otherwise wouldn't have been able to?

JB: “Yes, it’s given me the security to take on some projects that I might not have been in a position to do before: for example, some no-fee work for charities and a few jobs for clients with killer briefs but modest budgets.

"Perhaps more importantly, it’s affected the way I select which jobs I can now accept. I became a mum last year and nothing could have prepared me for the craziness that is trying to be a working mum. Before, I'd be loathed to turn a client away and – if I needed to work 20 hours days – that’s what I did. I have a little person to care for now and she demands enough all nighters without trying to add a deadline and a conference call into the mix.

"The books have given me a bit of flexibility. In publishing the deadlines tend to be in weeks and months, whereas my commercial clients worked in hours and days. I’m lucky enough that I can now pick and choose which projects I take on and be realistic about what I can achieve in a day. Some days I won’t lift a pencil. I’m ok with that."

NB: How did you want Enchanted Forest to be different from Secret Garden?

JB: “In some ways I wanted it to be very similar. I wanted to retain the same sense of charm and delight on each page, and the treasure hunt aspect: there’s a number of hidden birds and beasties in each illustration to spot. Also the idea that each page is a mini work of art in it’s own right. I worked on a different scale with this book and made the artwork a little less tight, allowing people space within the lines to add their own details or embellishments and not just colour.

"There is more of a narrative to the second book too, it takes you on a journey through the forest, where you have to find nine hidden symbols. At the end of the book you are asked to redraw these symbols to unlock the castle door and reveal the secret treasure within (spoiler alert: it’s a fold out poster of dragons, shown here). I loved these sort of quest based adventure puzzles when I was little and wanted to integrate some of that story-telling and excitement into the book."

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NB: What's next?

JB: “I’m currently working on Colouring Books 3 and 4 – too many ideas, too little time! – and I’ve just completed a limited-edition bottle label for my husband’s company, BrewDog [a favourite brewery of the Digital Arts team too]. Hinterland is an inky dark composition featuring Jackalopes and skull-emblazoned botanicals.

"I’ve got a couple of charity commissions in the pipeline too which is always nice. And then of course there’s the long list of ‘Things to Do’ – those other dream projects that are always bubbling away in der the surface, slowly making their way to the top of the pile.

NB: Studio Pup – who’s clearly grown somewhat since these photos were taken – was sometimes as much a part of your blogs for us as you were. How's he doing?

JB: “Splendidly, thank you. He was a little curious when the baby arrived but now spends his time either snoozing in the studio with me or camped out under the high chair, awaiting the torrent of food which falls from it."

Read Johanna's sabbatical blog from here.