Johanna Basford: the secrets of her success

Adept use of social media, timeliness, talent and hard work are all behind Johanna Basford’s record book sales. On the launch of her latest title, Lost Ocean, we profile the Scottish illustrator

Johanna Basford has sold 7 million books. Let’s just allow that to sink in for a moment: seven million.

In the world of art and design publishing, a sale of 10,000 is considered a reasonable success: 7 million is absolutely unprecedented. It’s an incredible achievement, both for Basford herself and publisher Laurence King, one of whose editors spotted her potential after seeing her work in Creative Review.

Cover of Johanna Basford's new book, Lost Ocean
Cover of Johanna Basford’s new book, Lost Ocean

This month sees the publication of Basford’s third ‘adult colouring book’. Following Secret Garden (2013) and Enchanted Forest (2015), Lost Ocean is billed as “an inky underwater adventure beneath the waves”. It will be Basford’s first book for her new publisher, US-based Penguin Random House. Lost Ocean’s initial print run, for the US and UK alone, will be 1.2 million.

Spread from Lost Ocean. Photo: Hayley Fraser
Spread from Lost Ocean. Photo: Hayley Fraser
Spread from Enchanted Forest, published by Laurence King
Spread from Enchanted Forest, published by Laurence King

But Basford’s story is inspirational beyond the sheer scale of her success. It’s a tale of dedication and hard work, a case study in the use of social media and evidence that you really don’t have to move to the big city to achieve success as an illustrator.

She told it at Graphics Weekend, two days of talks at the Victoria & Albert Museum, organised by CR and our colleagues at Design Week for this year’s London Design Festival. Basford was one of our speakers: following her presentation she discussed her work with me on stage.

Punk Peacock print produced for the 100% Design show in 2008
Punk Peacock print produced for the 100% Design show in 2008

Early on in her career, Basford explained, she made the decision to stay in her native Aberdeenshire rather than move to London. She’d interned at various fashion brands but disliked the city and the incongruity of drawing her beautifully detailed images of nature amid all the concrete. To mitigate her geographical remoteness from potential commissioners, Basford quickly embraced the virtual networking possibilities of Twitter. Her TwitterPicture initiative, which she was running as far back as 2009, is an object lesson for anyone seeking to take advantage of the platform’s unique qualities. For each one, Basford would announce on Twitter that, on an appointed day, she would make a drawing incorporating suggestions from her followers (you had to be a follower to take part, thereby neatly building her numbers). As the drawing progressed, she would then tweet updated images of it, showing how she had included each suggestion. In this way she was able to build a loyal and large following of those who felt a personal connection to her work. She was also able to mobilise these fans when it came to finding commissions, as we at CR were to find out.

In 2010, Bamford took a copy of CR and created her own illustrated cover for it. She sent the cover for us and asked if we would be interested in commissioning her
In 2010, Basford took a copy of CR and created her own illustrated cover for it. She sent the cover for us and asked if we would be interested in commissioning her
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After Johanna Basford had sent us a hand-illustrated copy of CR, we commissioned her to create this drawing for our August 2010 issue

Basford described how she took a copy of CR, wrapped it in a new cover of her own design and mailed it to us – but not before taking a photo of it and alerting her Twitter followers to what she’d done. They responded by urging us to commission her, which we duly did.  One of Laurence King’s editors saw that commissioned piece and asked her if she would be interested in doing a book with them – initially to be a children’s colouring book until Basford suggested doing one for adults.

The production of that first book is testament to another of Basford’s strengths – her work ethic. At the time, she was a freelance illustrator working on commissions. It took four years after graduation, and a failed wallpaper business, to reach this point. In common with so many graduate illustrators, Basford juggled shop and waitressing jobs with drawing work. On her days off she would go on ‘commission missions’ to London, taking the overnight bus, schlepping round as many appointments as possible, getting the overnight bus back and then going straight back to her shop job. To give her an incentive, she wrote a £10,000 forward-dated cheque on her business account for six months hence. This was her target – if she could earn this amount she would do illustration full-time, she explained.

The book was fitted in around her freelance commissions with Basford working on other projects from early morning until dinner time, then the book in the evening through until the small hours of the morning.

Work in progress for Lost Ocean: Bamford sticks each completed drawing up on her studio wall so she can track her progress. Photo: Hayley Fraser
Work in progress for Lost Ocean: Basford sticks each completed drawing up on her studio wall so she can track her progress. Photo: Hayley Fraser

There were to be 100 artworks, each painstakingly hand-drawn over many hours. Clearing one studio wall, she stuck each drawing up as it was completed, steadily filling the wall over the ensuing nine months.

That first book had a print run of just 13,000 copies for the English edition – there would be 40 overseas editions in total as Secret Garden, in a moment of perfect publishing serendipity, hit the crest of the colouring-in wave.

Basford drawing one of the pages from Lost Ocean. Photo: Hayley Fraser
Basford drawing one of the pages from Lost Ocean. Photo: Hayley Fraser

Basford says that she always hoped that her readers would get the same sensations from colouring in her artwork as she did from drawing it – the pleasure of total absorption in a creative act. “I just made a book I loved and hoped other people would feel the same,” she said. “It wasn’t until I saw the comments on Amazon that I realised that other people were feeling that way”. She has since had messages from therapists and from people recovering from serious injury or chemotherapy all describing how colouring in her pages helps them. Now the whole ‘mindfulness’ movement adds another aspect to the books’ success and her enthusiastic readers share their works via Instagram, Facebook and her website.

Embroidery by Mary Corbet based on one of Basford's drawings
Embroidery by Mary Corbet based on one of Basford’s drawings
Basford now has a huge social media following of fans who send her images of their colouring on and more: A fan's tattoo based on one of Basford's drawings
Basford now has a huge social media following of fans who send her images of their colouring on and more: A fan’s tattoo based on one of Basford’s drawings

And as is the way in publishing, one successful book spawned a whole category. Basford is sanguine about the copycats and me-toos: “Every time another book appears, it means more people who are doing something creative – I really hope we see more and more books each year,” she said.

With Lost Ocean comes a heightened level of expectation and a change of circumstance. Basford became a mother last year, finishing Enchanted Forest shortly before her due date, then, after taking just six weeks off, starting on the new book, which was completed in August.

Johanna Basford in her studio. Photo: Hayley Fraser
Johanna Basford in her studio. Photo: Hayley Fraser

It has, she admitted, “been a crazy couple of years. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t put those images out for free on the internet.” Asked what her advice would be for any young illustrator Basford replied “keep trying, draw every day and share your work and you never know who might see it”.

Lost Ocean by Johanna Basford is published in the UK by Virgin Books, priced £12.99. See johannabasford.com Lead photo: Hayley Fraser

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