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I've been a fan of adult colouring books for years now, and have used them as a precursor to writing since before they were trendy 🙂 So I'm excited to announce that I've now published An English Country House and Garden adult colouring book, and accompanying notebook, with my Dad, Arthur J Penn, who is a fine artist and print maker. A real Creative Penn collaboration!
This interview with Meg Cowley gave me everything I needed to know to publish these very different kinds of books, so I'm thrilled to be sharing it with you today.
The corporate sponsorship for this show pays for hosting and transcription. This podcast episode is sponsored by 99 Designs, where you can get all kinds of designs for your author business including book covers, merchandising, branding and business cards, illustrations and artwork and much more. You can get a Powerpack upgrade which gives your project more chance of getting noticed by going to: 99Designs.com/joanna
Meg Cowley is an author and illustrator. She writes the fantasy series, Books of Caledan, and also writes and illustrates the children's book series, Diary of a Secret Witch. She also produces Adult Colouring Books, which we're talking about today.
You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- The difference between sales in fiction and sales in coloring books.
- Tips about what makes the best kind illustration for an adult coloring book.
- Information about the important rights illustrators need to retain in order to publish their coloring books.
- The Wacom Intuos 4 digital tablet Meg uses to create her illustrations, and specific details about the images she uses.
- Using keywords for best ranking in Amazon and the cross-genre appeal of coloring books.
- The paper choices available and what works best for coloring books.
- Creating other products from illustrations.
- Marketing and advertising coloring books, and the pros and cons of selling in person at craft fairs.
You can find Meg at www.MegCowley.com and on twitter @meg_cowley
Transcription of interview with Meg Cowley
Joanna: Hi, everyone, I'm Joanna Penn from the Creative Penn, and today I'm here with Meg Cowley. Hi, Meg!
Joanna: It's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction, Meg is an author and illustrator. She writes the fantasy series, Books of Caledan, and also writes and illustrates the children's book series, Diary of a Secret Witch. Now, Meg has a range of adult coloring books, which is what we're talking about today, which is super exciting. Meg, just start by telling us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and illustration.
Meg: I suppose, like most people, I've done it since forever. As soon as I could pick up a pencil, I was drawing. As soon as I could write, I was writing stories. They were quite bad, all the illustrations and all the stories, but when you keep at something, you eventually get better.
The first book I wrote was the first Book of Caledan. That just sort of popped into my head and I just started to write it down. Like many first novels, it's a very long and convoluted process, and so you learn what you're doing and then it gets a bit easier and faster from there on.
It really helps discovering you, to be honest. I was trying to think this morning, and probably just over three years ago I found you and that's where the penny dropped and I thought, “Hang on. I could actually get these books out into the world.” I made the business decision that, actually, I didn't want to traditionally publish and that I did want to do this as an independent author. That's where it started. I focused on the writing for a bit. Once I found out about adult coloring books, again, it was like, “Well, I love drawing. I've drawn for so many years.”
Done a few commissions and things like that, but mostly just personal. And then it was a thing of, “Well, I could do this. I could illustrate that project. I also know how to publish it. Why the heck not? Let's give it a try.” Luckily, it worked out. That's something I really have to focus on for the next few months.
Joanna: I'm really interested, and I specifically wanted to talk to you around adult coloring books, would you be very kind to come on and talk about.
2015 was a big year for you, wasn't it? Tell us what happened and why you got into this area and how it went.
Meg: To be honest, at the end of 2014, I had just published my first fiction book and I was maybe hoping to publish the sequel in 2015, but I haven't really planned out anything other than that. Unfortunately, my health was quite poor last year due to a number of things that happened in 2014. I wasn't really in a good place to write. I find that I need a lot of clarity of thought, I suppose, to write and a clear head, nice environment, good health, things like that, and then the words just kind of flow.
But for drawing and things, I find that easier. It just kind of comes…it sounds really weird, it just flows. My friend suggested to me – I had already heard about adult coloring books – she was like, “Why don't you do one?” And the more I thought about it, the more I thought, “Yeah, I actually could.” So I thought, “I'll start drawing and just see what happens.” So I planned out the wild coloring book, which is my first one. I thought it would be a year of nature in the British Islands. Is that the copy I sent you?
Joanna: Yes, I think so. Yeah.
Meg: A year of nature in the British Islands, so lots of plants and animals that you might see in the British Islands. I thought, “Yeah, let's give it a go,” and the first one came out. I admit, I didn't follow it up as quickly as I ought to have done.
I think a key lesson from indie publishing is, get everything out as fast as you can. Be a productive machine, really.
That's what I'm trying to do this year, is to keep up that production schedule. Once I saw how well it had gone, I mean, it was “I'll stick it out there and see what it's gonna do.” I thought, “Well, let's follow it up.” That's when I did my second one, and now I'm working on my third one.
The sales are really encouraging. It's really nice to find a niche of the market where I can actually produce something that I feel is a good product and I can also make an income from it. Something that I'm really keen to do is keep my integrity. I said this to you the other day. I have to believe in what I'm doing, to be able to convincingly do that, I suppose, rather than just going into a niche where they sell well but I might not necessarily enjoy or be good at doing it.
Joanna: Yeah, absolutely, which is amazing.
Can you give an indication of how much better the coloring books have been for you than the fiction sales?
Meg: Astronomically, like, thousands of sales. For example, today, I've sold about 4,000 books in total. So this is going from July 2014, so it's like 18 months or so. I don't particularly do any marketing, so I know it could be better. That was one of my 2016 goals: learn how to market stuff. But out of about 4,000 books, about 3,800 are coloring related.
Joanna: That's awesome. I know, it's really good.
Meg: It is. Not for my fiction, but yeah, that's good for the coloring.
Joanna: I think that's important. You mentioned integrity. What we're not suggesting in this interview is that people go and get stock photos from free websites and turn them into kind of crappy coloring books. That's not what we're saying here.
Meg: There have been a few webinars about that, and I would steer away from that.
Joanna: But I think that's true of the indie market in general. There's always gonna be people who are trying to jump on bandwagons, but I'm someone who does color as an adult, and you're also one who produces these books with integrity. Coming clean on this, as you know, and telling the audience, “My dad is an artist, and he's interested in producing a coloring book.” He's an artist first, and now, he's considering doing this later.
Meg: Which is what I was to insist. Trying to think about new niches that you can do the same thing in, I guess. There's great opportunities that are there.
Joanna: He sells his prints on paper, so they are individual artworks. But of course, when they're individual artworks, they're not scaleable. Whereas put them in a book and a coloring book, whatever, and they are immediately scaleable. It's a very good idea if you own images that are suitable.
First of all, can we just talk about the suitability of an illustration? Because people will immediately have in their head all kinds of different pictures, especially if they don't color. What are the best types of illustrations for these coloring books?
What makes a good adult coloring book?
Meg: Firstly, stay away from everything you know about coloring books. Most people think of coloring books and children's coloring books, so very simplistic images, lots of big spaces, thick lines. Adult coloring books are a whole new dimension to that.
First and foremost, you're gonna be working in black and white, and you can't really print the gradients very well. Also, it's quite important not to give your colorist, the people who are going to be coloring your book, any preconceptions about what they ought to do and how they ought to color your images.
So if you're adding the shading in, you're actually saying, “Hey, I want you to color my image this way.” And actually, take your emotions out of it because they're gonna do their own thing with that piece. So, black and white.
I would say you can work traditionally or digitally. I have a digital graphics tablet which is basically like drawing onto a digital canvas. It's not about taking images that are already online and things, it's about creating your own from scratch, basically. Whether you do that in a digital or traditional medium.
I use pencil sketches, and these are really good brands of pens. I don't know if you can see them, but these are Staedtler fineliners, and they're really, really good. The quality of the ink is fantastic. So you want to be using decent quality materials, like with anything, to create them. As long as you have the tools to make your images digital, so as long as you can scan them into a computer, if they're not already drawn digitally, there's really no limits to what you can do.
I would say, definitely pick a theme.
No one really wants to color a robot and then a flower. The theme books tend to do really well. Some people like them all right, but most people don't. Themes tend to do really well. So, if you've got a flower book or a mandala book, that kind of thing.
The only thing I would say there is, be really conscious of copyright. For example, something I would love to do is do a Lord of the Rings coloring book or a Harry Potter coloring book, but I cannot touch them for copyright reasons, because I will be selling someone else's characters even though it's my artwork. You've got to be quite original in what you're selling.
Joanna: You could do a fantasy characters book and do your own characters from your Books of Caledan, for example, which might be a kind of crossover niche.
Meg: That is possible. It's something I could consider, but I also like to try and think things that are going to be commercially viable as well. So I'm mixing integrity with sensible business decisions, so what do I want to do and what's going to make enough money for me to pay my bills? That could be great if Books of Caledan becomes like a Harry Potter movie sensation. I'll be there. I'll be making a coloring book. But for now, I'm gonna leave that one.
The last thing I was gonna say about creating the book and moving away from children's book to adult's book is, be really careful about your use of negative space. You don't want too many lines. You don't want too few. People want a variety of images in terms of complexity.
Some, they might want to do a really finely detailed piece. Others, they might not. But what you want to get away from is having too much black space or too much white space in your books as well. So, not too many lines. You're not filling it in for them because that tends to really annoy people and they're like, “I bought this book but half of it's black, and I can only color in these tiny gaps.”
Joanna: That's one of the problems with my dad's stuff. But what we're thinking about is scanning the images and then removing some of his lines to make it a kind of…
Meg: That would be perfect. Exactly.
Joanna: Yeah, to make it as sparse image.
Meg: You could definitely adapt it. That's possible.
Joanna: I think that's really important because you have a drawing, an illustration, any kind of artwork has the same copyright as any other work, right?
In order to adapt my dad's work, he can't sell it to someone else and then adapt it himself. He has to own the rights to that work. So, that's really important, isn't it?
Meg: Yeah, definitely. I would say be really careful with your own artwork, what you do with it. If you do sell your artwork, are you selling the copyright to that image? You need to understand what you're selling. Are you selling the rights for people to use that work, in what context? I looked at licensing some of my artwork out. That can also be a really, really good method of income for particularly coloring book pages because there's a lot of magazines out for coloring at the moment. They've all gone, “Oh hey, this is the thing. We can make a lot of money. Let's do that.”
Now, they license images from online libraries and they're also starting to try and find and illustrate it as well because they've realized that all the other magazines are licensing the same images from the same libraries. So, to try and differentiate themselves and be a bit different, they're going to artists now.
But you have to be so careful about what you're giving away because, generally, they will let you keep the copyright through images, which is perfect, but they stipulate that maybe you have to be exclusive with them for a certain period of time, or you can't print it in any other context, or perhaps they're getting rights to print it worldwide for as long as they like.
You have to be really careful with that because you don't ever want to give someone all your artwork for as long as they like; you want to be able to get it back. Like with any publishing contract, you want to think, “Okay, when are the rights going to come back to me?” There's a lot of things you can do with selling your artwork, but you've got to be really, really aware of what your rights are and what you're giving away and keeping.
Joanna: I want to follow up on your tablets. Tell people what the actual specific tablet is. Is it a Wacom? What is it, specifically?
Meg: Yeah. I'd grab it. It's a little bit far away. But my baby is a Wacom Intuos 4. It's about this thick, and the active area is 6×8 inches. It comes with a normal size pen, which is called a stylus because that's more fancy.
You basically draw on it and it creates the same thing that you're drawing on the screen. It has pressure sensitivity, so it's just like using real pens and pencils. If you're pressing hard, there's a bigger blob on the screen. You can do so much more with it because you can do different brush types, sizes, colors, transparency. It's awesome.
I use that in conjunction with Photoshop. That's always been the program that I found best to illustrate on. I doubt it was intentionally intended as an illustration program but it's versatile. It's enough to do it, and I find it's just awesome. That's what I use.
Joanna: That's fantastic. That covers the method of illustration.
About the specific image – whether you scan it or you do it directly into the software, does it need to be…I'm not very good on this.
Is it a vector image where it's a scaleable size, or what format does the image need to be in in order to put it into a book?
Meg: Don't laugh, but I really don't use vectors. I probably should, but I don't.
Joanna: What do you use?
Meg: I scan it in, or if I'm drawing in a digital canvas, it's as if I'm just drawing on a piece of paper. I create it in 600 DPI resolution, so that's 600 dots per inch. I always make sure that the size of the image is the final size in the book. For example, 20 centimeters by 20 centimeters at 600 DPI. The recommended print in DPI is 300. I use CreateSpace and they have printed out images for me at 199 DPI.
I found that there is no loss of quality on that, but I tend to err on the side of caution and I would say, “Go a bit higher if you can, or a minimum of 300 DPI.” Now, I use JPEG files or PNG files. That's simple, that's straightforward. Most image software should be able to run to those. I basically insert them in a Word file. I format all my books in Word, stick it as a PDF, upload it to CreateSpace, and away you go. Easy peasy.
Joanna: What's brilliant is you're basically using the illustration itself, that's where your art is, but you're using the most basic method of publishing possible, aren't you?
Meg: Virtually, yeah. Idiot's guide right there.
Joanna: But that's fantastic because it's what they would call the minimum viable product in the start-up community. Obviously, I think the important point to stress there is that you're creating the images at the size for the book you're already writing or creating. For my dad, for example, his print, some of them are A3 size, so we need to scale them down.
Meg: I don't think CreateSpace do an A3 book.
Joanna: No, exactly. So we have to somehow scale them down.
Also, another benefit of getting a thing like a vector image is that we could put those same images on a mug or a business card or that type of thing, right?
Meg: To be honest though, I wouldn't have any problem with doing that without…I mean, I don't vector my images at all, and I don't have any problem. The rule of thumb is, as long as you've got a decent DPI and a decent file size and pixels, all centimeters, whichever dimensions you're using, you can translate it to other formats. So, why I tend to start big is that it's then suitable to use for other formats.
The illustration is the biggest thing, that it's the same size as the cover so I can then use it for the cover and color that in. I can then scale it down for things like business cards, mugs. It's quite versatile. It's hard to go from small to big. It's easier to go from big to small. If you make it bigger, you can do a lot more with that.
Joanna: That's great.
You mentioned there about the cover and coloring it in. Some of these covers are kind of half colored in, like, “You're going to color in the rest of the book.”
Meg: That's what I did with mine.
Joanna: Yeah, which is great. I can see the marketing angle of that. It's like, “Yes, this is a coloring in book.” I guess there aren't any rules there, like, we could still do a black and white cover. It's not necessary.
From all the books you've seen, are there any other tips around the cover itself?
Joanna: All right.
Meg: Definitely color. I would say, it's the same sort of thing as publishing a fiction book. You don't want a lot of white space because white space blends in on the webpage. You want something that's gonna pop and make someone's eyes stop and think, “Hmm. That looks nice. I'm gonna click on that.” Yeah, I would say, definitely, have a pop of color. I did experiment with my second book, doing it in full color as I did with my first one, but I actually found that when I looked at it, it was just a bit too much. It was a bit overpowering.
So I ended up doing just a little circle of color in the middle and that worked me. I thought, “That's aesthetically pleasing. That's going to be eye catching.” I think it does depend on the artwork that you're using, but I would say that color tends to rank higher. The duller the cover, the lower they seem to rank when I pull through. I'm really sad when I go through all the Amazon listings of coloring books.
Joanna: No, you're not sad, and we'll come back to that because it's really handy. I've just got lots of random questions here.
How many pages do you need, and do you print on both sides?
Meg: Right. This is where you have to be really, really aware of your audience and what they want. Again, it depends how much you want to print. You can really do a short book or a long book, whatever you want. But I would say, price your work accordingly. I do around 30 images in my books, but I price it at significantly less than the books that have got a lot more images in it.
So to represent that what you're getting and enough of fair value for that. So you can really hit whatever you want, but I'd say, a good place to start is about 20. When people buy a coloring book, they don't want a couple of pieces of paper to do. They want quite a chunk.
Then, how you format it is really quite important. So this is where I've been through loads of popular coloring books, random popular ones, and read the reviews and seen what people actually thought of them. And that was the most important thing I did when I was deciding how to format the book basically, because they showed me what not to do. Every complaint and every review, I was thinking, “Right. Love that. I'm not going to do that.”
For example, I would say don't print on both sides of the paper. Part of that is due to the paper quality that you will get, because it's not as thick as a traditional publisher might be able to do. But generally, people might want to cut out that image. “When I'm finished with it, I'm gonna frame it.”
Joanna: People do that?
Meg: Yeah. If you've got an image on the back of that, they're then having to sacrifice an image. And that really annoys people because they're like “I bought a book, I want to enjoy all the images. But instead, I'm having to enjoy half of them.” Especially if you're using materials that's going to bleed through a page as well. You're essentially destroying what's on the other side. So I'd say definitely do one sided because then people can cut them out, present them, or they don't have to choose, at the very least, between what's on both sides.
Following on from not drawing into the spine, all the edges of the page, because people struggle to color it all in. Again, going across both pages as well. There's nothing more lovely than opening up a coloring book to here to see this beautiful double paged spread but you can't color at the middle of it. It's really annoying for people, so don't do it.
This also is a practical application that you have to think about when you're designing it, because ultimately, what you're doing after you've drawn the artwork is trying to figure out what the end consumer of that product wants. I'm giving it to them. You have to stop thinking like the artist who's drawing the images and start thinking like the colorist who's gonna color them, and what do I want to sit down and do when I open my coloring book?
I'd say that also, going back to what I said at the beginning about making sure you've not got too much positive and negative space, make sure that you've got a range of complex designs. Some people, sometimes, they just want to color in a really big space because they can't do with all the detail.
And other times, that's gonna really annoy them and they want to get into the little nitty gritty bits. So if you give them the variety of designs where they can do one or the other, or both, then people are going to be a lot happier. And I've seen reviews both ways saying, “Oh, it's too complex. It's not complex.” So again, give them a mix.
The last thing I've tried, which seems to work quite well, and I'm not seeing any other coloring book do this, is using a tester page. Right at the front of my books, I put just a blank page with sort of an invitation to scribble on it.
You know, “Try your materials. Try out your coloring techniques,” and it means that people don't have to choose an image to sacrifice with a potentially bad material or coloring technique. They can just go and do it on that page. I'm sure most people have a spare piece of paper, but if not, then again, you're giving them the solution right there. It's about trying to, if there are any problems, fix them right in your book.
Joanna: On that, do you write anything in the book?
Do you have like a welcome page or anything about you, the artist, like, an end message? What do you actually put in the book, apart from images?
Meg: Yeah, I do all those things. I put an introduction at the front, which is basically saying, “Hey, welcome to my book. I hope you enjoy it.” I like to point out all the little things I've done for them, like not drawing into the space in case they want to cut the artwork out. Things like that. If they haven't thought about it, you might give them a nice idea. If they have, they think, “Oh, ain't she sweet? She's caring about what me, the colorist, wants.”
I think that helps build a nice relationship with the colorist because they feel like you're not just some mass produced book. You actually care about their enjoyment of the product and this is about their enjoyment, really, because coloring is a luxury, I suppose, and a therapy for some people. So if you make them feel like you care about them, then that increases their enjoyment of the book. I do stick the usual, “Hi, this is a bit about me” at the end of the book and “Please leave a review” at the end of the book.
Joanna: Yeah, which is fantastic. Of course, we're going to give your, “This is Meg Cowley, everybody, and you can go and buy her coloring books and model.” This is very important. Just behind the theme there, because I just remembered. Of course, a lot of people do this for therapy. And in fact, pretty much all the coloring books in the shops have “Garden coloring book for enhancing your calm” or “For stress relief.”
Joanna: Yes. This is what I was going to ask you. I know they also have adult coloring book on the front as well.
What have you found are the best kind of ways to do that? Is it literally…because everybody's got calm and mindfulness and all that.
Meg: I know, right?
Joanna: You know what I mean? Is it just a case of fitting into that niche at this point?
Meg: Yeah, I mean, I'll just grab one of my books so I have…this is one of my books and it's the “Calm,” keyword, “Coloring Book.” “Creative,” keyword, “Art Therapy,” keyword, “For Adults,” keyword. The series is called, “Coloring Books,” keyword, “for Adults,” keyword. Basically, what you're trying to do with your title is, think, what's going to get me noticed on Amazon?
This is where you sit and type into the search bar in Amazon all the things that you can think of with coloring, and you can pick up on the keywords that are going to come out, and that's what you try and stuff in your title, any keyword. And you stuff in the keywords and all the rest of it. I would say, yeah, as much as they're overused at the moment, go with them, because that's what's going to get you noticed. That's what's going to get you selling.
Joanna: Absolutely. You can't avoid this type of thing. Essentially, it's a non-fiction book. I mean, weirdly, it is a non-fiction book, and we know that you have to have keyword titles for non-fiction.
Meg: I've seen them ranked in some bizarre category, honestly. People say, “I'm ranked number one,” and I”m thinking, “Yes, in a completely weird category.” But you know, if you can get into them, go for it.
Joanna: Hypnosis or something.
Meg: Exactly, yeah. I think both of mine are top ten or something like that in self-help, but it is a self-help book. So that's why it's helpful to rank.
Joanna: Yes, in fact, I was thinking about this, because I think my dad is going to be an English country garden, house and garden type of thing. It's very gardeny in English.
That could go into a gardening category. It doesn't have to go in coloring books, does it? That's the thing, it can go across genre as such.
Meg: Yeah, the only thing you're limited by is the codes, really. I put mine in self help/creativity. There are some other ones that I would like to get into but because they don't have a code for it, I can't get into them. Like the coloring books for adults category, it doesn't have a code, or it didn't the last time I checked. Which sounds ridiculous, but you kind of have to work with what you've got. But yeah, you could definitely get into some really obscure niches.
Joanna: It's interesting.
Obviously, this is a coloring book, so it doesn't make sense to have an eBook version. But do you have an eBook version anyway? Because then you can get into these other categories.
Meg: I would say, no to an eBook because if you do it, for example with KDP, what you're actually going to be giving people is a book that they can't print and they can't color. So, it's more of a viewing piece, which I suppose might be quite nice, but it's not really the point of it. The point is a coloring book. The way around that is to do a print your own copy. For example, I stumbled upon payhip.com, which is one of many platforms that you can do and where you basically sell a PDF copy, which you can discount off the paperback. So people are getting a good bargain.
People can print as many copies as they want, so, obviously, they can get quite a good value from money of that. They handle the nitty gritty things like paying you super high royalties, like 90%. They handle the VAT and all that kind of thing. So that's the way around it, but then you're off the mainstream platforms like Amazon. So you're really using your own popularity and…
Joanna: Yeah, you have to have a well trafficked website, really, for that.
Meg: Yeah, absolutely. I don't particularly market. I'm kind of like, “Oh, they're over here if you want them” kind of thing.
Joanna: Let's talk about publishers, because my thought was CreateSpace, which is great, is still not the best. As you said before, it's not the best paper quality. The number one best selling coloring book, which I also have, the Johanna Basford one, Secret Garden.
Meg: Oh, I know. I have it, too. It's beautiful.
Joanna: Yeah, everyone has it. That's why it made half a million pounds last year. The paper quality is exceptional, isn't it? I don't think there's any bleed with even thick coloring pens. But we can't do that because it's way too expensive to be able to produce a book like that.
What investigations have you done around paper, and what have you ended up with?
Meg: It's really hard because you have to choose between the two cons. You either get the product that you want with zero distribution and you sit on 2,000 copies, and try and sell them. Which no one should do really, because it's just really a bad idea.
There's CreateSpace, obviously. They have the one paper choice between cream and white. That's it. That's the thickness. If you've handled any paperback book, that's the thickness of paper you're working with.
It's suitable for coloring crayons and water base paints, but alcohol markers, you'll struggle with. I really like alcohol markers. They are the most versatile, which is really frustrating but they bleed on this paper. So you have to compromise there.
I did also look at Ingram Spark. Now, that was more to get into book stores because the first thing I thought was, coloring books are everywhere. I don't want to be limited to Amazon. I want to be getting into my local book shop, my local independent store, that kind of thing.
CreateSapce, you'll struggle with that because the publishers cannot get the margins that they want, and you cannot get the margins that you want simultaneously. I thought, maybe I should consider Ingram where they can give the book shops the margins that they do want to persuade them to stock them.
But when I went into the bookshop – and this is well before I published. This is probably just over a year ago – just to see what coloring books they had in. I saw the paper quality and I thought “I can't put my book next to that.” So I thought, “Okay, let's steer away from going into book shops at the moment and stick with Amazon.” And I know that Amazon is a great marketing vehicle, and you shared an article a few weeks ago about…what was the name?
There was the coloring book artist who had made like half a million dollars or something self publishing for Amazon. I think I've got it written down somewhere. Janine Morrison, that's it. It's quite clear that you can do it online only, but there isn't really a way to do it. I'm getting to book shops and have that quality product. It was the same.
Joanna: Yeah, that's the thing. Like you say, you have to make that choice at this point.
But have you had complaints or bad reviews around paper quality that have affected sales, I guess? We all get bad reviews, so that's not an issue. Has that happened?
Meg: I think I just had the one. To be honest, the view that I went down was, I had to tone it down from one luxurious coloring book to “Okay, these illustrations are going to be at the same quality, but maybe I now have to create a more budget friendly, affordable sort of version.” I had to make a choice between creating this luxurious quality product or creating a more affordable budget friendly version based on the materials that I had to use. That was what I had to do. I reflected that accordingly in the price.
So, where does the market lead us RRPs are about 10 pounds over, minor priced at five pounds or thereabouts. And to reflect that, you are actually paying for a more budget product, and I think that's been well received. I think people, prolific colorers perhaps I should say, appreciated the fact that they can buy and color, and it's not going to break the bank. It's just this one review that I've had about the poor paper quality, and that's it.
Joanna: That's great. And I think by putting that stuff upfront about testing, like, people haven't ruined some of the pages. So that's really super.
Also, you have square, don't you? How is that? Why did you choose square rather than a different size?
Meg: In the second book, I chose circles, to be honest. I might do triangles next. The illustrations that I was doing fit a square quite nicely, whereas the illustrations in the second book that I've done fit a circle quite nicely. So it was just going with the flow.
Joanna: The print size you did was a square rather than more of a book shape.
Meg: Oh sorry, yeah. Again, it was just the illustrations that I was doing. They looked quite a lot nicer as a square rather than a rectangle, so I thought, rather than creating a rectangular book with a square image in the middle, I would be better just creating a squared book. But there are some people who do A4, that sort of ratio height to width book. And they work quite well too. You've got a bit of versatility to choose what you want to do with them, to be honest.
Joanna: Fantastic. I'm just trying to think of what else we have. We talked about the pros and cons of indie in terms of if you get a traditional deal for a coloring book right now, you could have that really great quality but it might take six months to get out there.
What are the other pros and cons of indie, have you found?
Meg: I think the key one that you've just mentioned is speed to market. Indies have definitely got the edge when it comes to that. I mean, Johanna Basford is releasing her next book in, I think, this August it's scheduled for. By that time, I'm hoping I can put three more out. I think there seems to be a common thing, but indies are trying to push the boundaries. It's not “I've got this book ready. I'm going to sell it for a year. I've got this book ready, I'm going to publish it now.” That's the freedom that we have.
These books are really easy to create. Once you've actually done the illustration, the formatting is so simple that you could literally upload the formatting to CreateSpace. I think the record that I've had is, I've uploaded it on a Sunday morning, it's been on Amazon by mid-day, and I've had it in my lap on a Tuesday, which is amazing.
Joanna: It is absolutely amazing. Of course, you mentioned the distribution to book stores. I am considering looking into Ingram Spark, but I'm kind of with you in the even if you end up going with Ingram Spark and you pay for the best quality you possibly can, then your royalties are going to be very small with the discounting and everything. And then plus, you probably still won't be able to get the quality of a Johanna Basford. So why go to the 80% and lose the money, whereas…it's a difficult thing, though.
Meg: It is really difficult, yeah.
Joanna: That is tough.
What I'll probably do is, order a couple of different price points and see the quality. I think that's the aim here, isn't it?
Meg: The best thing I did was go into the book shop and just handle and look at what they actually have, because that was a massive eye opener for me to think, “That's what I'm up against in the real world.” Yeah, definitely. We also have a lot more of versatility as indie, so we can push out a lot of different products as well, which I think gives us a great edge.
So, we can still be putting out quality products. All right, paper quality is not the most fantastic, but as far as the actual content goes, we are up there. We can be just as good as all the other people who are publishing them. But we can also create more diverse products. So this is something that I'm using to diversify my income streams. The business side of me is like, “Money!” It's the internal struggle of every indie, is, “I want to create this wonderful thing,” and the other half is like, “Yes, but I need to pay my mortgage.”
Joanna: It's like a diversified portfolio.
Meg: Sounds like a stock broker. This is my second coloring book, which is the Calm coloring book. I also brought this out as a 2016 diary, and this has been really successful. This actually outsold my first coloring book in December, by far. And I actually got a better margin on this. So that's quite nice. I also brought it out as an A4 notebook as well. Both of these have all the illustrations that the Calm coloring book do, but they also have the extra benefits of, in this case, it's got notebook paper about 100 pages worth.
This one is a week per page diary as well, so with all the extra things that you'd expect from a diary. It's been really well received. It's been so well received. I went back and did one for my first coloring book as well. That's already started selling. I sneakily published that a week ago and it's already starting to trickle in. I haven't told anyone about it yet.
Joanna: I love it. I think this is amazing because what you've done is just shrink those coloring things down on the page and then fill the rest of the page with like blank lines for a notebook. Or you've presumably downloaded some kind of template of the 2016 diary.
Meg: I have made that.
Joanna: You have made it. That's lovely.
Meg: I know. I'm actually using this one as well. And you're going to laugh because look at what I've started doing this year. My little sticker reward chart.
Joanna: Awesome. You've got stickers in there too.
Have you thought about creating stickers from your artwork to sell as well?
Meg: That's something in there. Once you start thinking about what else can I put? The images that I've already drawn on, you just start thinking of so many things. You got to be careful because you could literally stamp everything. So you're trying to think about, “Okay, what's going to sell? Because I would love to make stickers of them.”
They're amazing, but probably not many people would buy them unless they were on Amazon. But yeah, I'm trying to think of different projects that I could do. One that I did think of was – this is quite funny on it. You can't do it, unfortunately – just a blank notebook. Completely blank pages with a lovely light motif sort of cover. Unfortunately, Amazon doesn't let you print more than three blank pages in a row. I don't know if you've ever had that telling off from them.
Joanna: Okay. But you could do three blank pages, then a coloring in, three blank pages, then a coloring in.
Meg: Yes, you could.
Joanna: This is the thing. This is what's so brilliant, because I write wordy books and you can't do…I mean, yes, there are multiple formats – eBook, print, audio book – but then it's adaptation into screenplay or whatever. I love this image stuff. I think it's brilliant. I'm going to have to start doing some art classes or something.
Meg: Definitely. This is what I was trying to do because it was trying to create that model of multiple income streams. Like, you have the little infographic where you've got your one book and then it turns into an eBook, and a print, and an audio book, and then times number of language, times number of countries. I was thinking, I can't make an audio book of a coloring book. I can't make an eBook. What else can I do with it?
As it turns out, there's quite a lot if you just sit down and have a think, and even just trying to think as a writer or an artist, “What do I actually want?” and then thinking, “Oh, maybe I could do that myself.” I think that's the greatness of the indie world, it's sitting down and thinking, “Oh, I need this so I can solve that problem myself.” I'm really enjoying the diary because it's got everything that I want in a diary.
Joanna: That's absolutely brilliant. What I wanted to ask was also about marketing. You said, “Oh, I don't do much marketing,” but you did a lot of work around keywords. Clearly, you looked at all the books in the store, looked at all the positives and negatives, and you actually have created a product that people want, which in itself is marketing. You have done a lot of that.
What about other things? For example, are there book bloggers for coloring books, or do you use Facebook ads, or what are the other options for marketing?
Meg: Yeah, all of the things you've said, I'm doing. That's great. That's the background work I think of it as. Marketing, to me, is the active getting out there and being like, “Hey, buy my book,” without being like, “Hey, buy my book.” There was a Facebook blogger who started up around the same time that I did my first book, and she's now really successful, which is awesome because she's reviewed so many coloring books by now. She was the first person to handle and review my book, and luckily, she gave it a good review which I think has helped subsequently.
I've also toyed with Facebook ads, but I've only run one or two. That's something that I really want to push in 2016, my own education of understanding how to do them and then following through and running them. I do have a coloring newsletter – a newsletter for my young adult fiction, my children's fiction, and my coloring books. It's difficult to keep up but I figure you can't put them together because their content is so different. So it's worth doing that.
The coloring newsletter is actually quite good, to be honest. There's quite a few followers, and I noticed that back when I was doing lead generation Facebook ads and offering the same free download of coloring pages that I offer anyone who signs up to my mailing list. I got some really good results. I think my first lead was about 13 pounds, which was fantastic. I only took a small ad on that, 20 pounds or so. It was good. It was encouraging. The next one didn't do so well, but I think you learn what not to do as well as what to do. So something to expand on in 2016.
Joanna: Have you done any kind of in person? Would you print a number of them and try and hand-sell them at events or anything like that?
Meg: I did do a Christmas fair. It did not go well. It was a really, really small one and then I thought, naively, “Yeah, I'm going to sell my books. My books are awesome. Who wouldn't want to buy my books?” I bought about 200 pounds of stock, and I sold about 50.
Luckily, I managed to then hand-sell the rest of them online. But I was really disappointed with that. So for future events, I would definitely say if you do want to do a Christmas fair, go to a bigger one where you've got high foot fall, lots of different stalls that are offering a nice diverse range of products. Possibly something a bit more artistic and all, so it's a bit more different a niche rather than mass produced and cheap and things like that. The opportunity is there but I think you have to plan carefully what you're doing. And again, learn from your mistakes.
Joanna: That is fantastic. Okay, the other thing I guess I wanted to ask is, do you see this dropping off? I mean, obviously, it's going to have to drop off from where it is. It's been ridiculous.
Meg: No, it's not.
Joanna: I mean, but it's been crazy.
Meg: Don't say that.
Joanna: Two of the top ten best selling books in 2015 were adult coloring books.
Meg: It's awesome.
Joanna: It's amazing. Which is why…and you are doing well because you are surfing a wave with something that you're already good at. You're doing this, as we said, entirely with integrity.
What have you learned about the adult coloring, colorist, as you say? And even if it fades a little, do you see this as a market that's just going to keep going?
Meg: Yeah, I do. This is why I've been releasing a bit slower than perhaps what I ought to have done, because after the first one, I was like, “Is it going to sell? Is the next one going to be viable? After the second one, hmm, how is this one going to sell? Is the other one going to be viable?” After following people like Johanna Basford and hearing about what they're doing, the fact that the traditional publishing industry is still following this and is going to publish her book in August, rather than rushing another one out, because I feel like they're rushed out last one and the third one quite quickly.
And that made me worry, like, “Oh, they're just pushing out now to maximize the sales. Is it then going to drop off?” The fact that they then said, “We're not going to publish another one for..” I think they made the announcement about nine months in advance.
We've got a whole nine months before this next one comes out. That made me think, right, they've got confidence that it's going to go well for at least the next nine months. So I think that reflects, for the rest of us, that it can also go quite well. I think, for the moment, I'm just going to try and see where it goes.
I'm going to focus on that, because that's the most commercially viable project line I'm working on at the moment. I'll focus on that, see where it goes. If I do really well, if I do as well as Janine Morrison, fantastic. If not, re-evaluate, as I think we indies do, and just see what's happening, really. But I think it's going to stay for 2016. I think it might not be as strong as it was in 2015, but I think it will stay.
Joanna: Yeah, exactly. And as you said, you enjoy it. It kind of comes naturally to you, to do this work anyway. So, why not? Why not? It's crazy. Where can people find you and your books and your coloring books and your free newsletter, where people can download some coloring? Because that sounds cool.
Meg: The easiest place to find me is my website. It's www.megcowley.com. I have links to all my free books and free coloring pages on that. If you don't want to visit my website and you just want to download my free coloring pages straight away, I'm at illustration.megcowley.com, and you can get some free samples from there. I also send out monthly free pages just because that's awesome. Who doesn't love a free coloring page? I'm also on twitter, @meg_cowley. I'm on Facebook at facebook/megcowley.
Joanna: The books on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, and all that?
Meg: Yeah. I publish only books on Amazon, so everything's available on Amazon. I [inaudible 00:46:30] all the expand distribution, so I presume it will pop up somewhere on the ether.
Joanna: Brilliant. Thanks for your time, Meg. That was great.
Meg: You're welcome. Thank you very much for having me on the podcast.
Great post. I missed something though. Does Meg go with CreateSpace or no? I thought they only have the 2 paper choices, neither of which is good for alcohol markers, right?
So I still didn’t catch how she is actually having the books made and distributed but I see they are on Amazon.
Joanna Penn says
yes, we’re both using Createspace – and the paper quality is pretty good 🙂
Jean Fischer says
What type of coloring tools are used to color in stainglass?
Aina Taurina says
So glad to read your interview. Both my most respectable indies – Joanna and Meg. I am learning a lot from you both. Thank you very much! Yes, my first colouring book is out and I am extremely happy that 4 (four) are bought. Do you smile? Me too, however, I was ready that there will not be any sold, except those that I bought to present my friends. A very good result for a test drive.
vince iuliano says
another awesome jam packed podcast Joanna. following your career keenly, wishing you all great success. turns out you’re a damn good thriller writer too!
Super-trooper-duper interesting as usual.
I find this vector image debate curious.
Like Meg said, as long as the original is a high enough DPI then surely that caters for everything you need it for – i.e. printing in the book (presumably same size as you drew it) or reducing the image for other purposes – mugs, business cards, ads, notebooks etc. And if you’re scaling down then there is no quality loss, only when you’re scaling up.
So am I missing something here? Is there any reason the images would need to be scaled up? If not, I’m not too sold on this vector graphics brouhaha. But then I’m not a digital artist or a publisher so I may be oblivious to something else important here.
It just occurred to me it might be chinese whispers leading to unnecessary trouble & expense for no real practical gain.
If someone bought me a colouring book, I’d be a bit peeved if it was printed on both sides of the page – for one thing, colouring in a drawing on one page would surely have a bad effect on the drawing the other side, either bleeding through or indenting that page. Also I can totally see people wanting to cut them out and frame them, especially if they did a good job of it and they’re not big on drawing or painting – they’d want to show it off.
Anyway that’s my ignorant ramblings on something I know bugger all about really.
Meg’s drawings and covers are really nicely conceived and drawn I think, and the print quality looks lovely.
And there are some lovely drawings in your dad’s colouring book Joanna. He’s obviously an excellent artist. I bet he’s proud as punch with that. Plus he gets to slipstream behind the your behemoth publishing knowledge. Could I adopt you please? That’s a joke!
It’s funny, even when these podcasts aren’t particularly relevat to what I am aiming to do, there’s always something useful in there – helps build up a picture of the whole industry and tools and images and dos and don’ts and god only knows what else. All good stuff.
Joanna Penn says
Glad you enjoyed it 🙂 and the vector discussion was a tangent, and not necessary 🙂
Definitely! All good stuff!
I’m listening to your cheery voice while driving to work on a rainy Thursday in southern Belgium…
Your *colorful* podcast with Meg uplifts my spirits right up!
Ingrid Sawubona says
What a fabulous interview! I was so excited about this podcast that I actually phoned my hubby at work to tell him about it! Thanks for all the valuable info!
What a great episode, Joanna! I’m a fledgling fiction writer and have been lurking in the background for years listening to your podcasts. I’m so happy you took this subject on because, while I hope to publish a novel someday, I feel its a long way off—much to synthesize before I can complete a long work of fiction the way I want. I’ve been an artist and designer since I was a child, and have worked as an architect for 30 years; so when I recently discovered the adult coloring book trend it occurred to me that creating one might be an easier goal to accomplish sooner, and let my fiction writing goals continue to mature. I had been looking for “how-to” information on adult coloring books for quite some time, but had not found much of any value—until now, that is. Finally, there’s something of substance on the subject of adult coloring book creation in your interview with Meg, relating her experiences as a burgeoning coloring book author, illustrator and publisher. This episode brims with practical information and has encouraged and inspired me. Thank you so much, Joanna Penn with a double “n”. (I’ve always wanted to say that.)
P.S. It’s nice to be out and not lurking about anymore.
Thanks so much for this awesome podcast!
I’m making my first coloring book and I have been really struggling with the paper quality. I am really truly beyond worried Amazon will let me down. I’ve been looking into Lulu and wondering if that’s an avenue you would recommend? I considered making an artist edition with thicker paper. I’m confident in my images but terrified the publisher I choose will let me down. I would really appreciate some advice!
Kitty Blake says
Hi there, I recently published Kitty’s Cat: Colouring Book for Adults via Create space. I too was worried about the paper thickness, so I ordered a colouring book that I knew was published via create space (by Jenean Morrison) also some samples from Create Space.
I find the quality of the paper is fine for colouring, and pretty amazing considering how easy it is to do and the cost.
My book is here: http://myBook.to/kittyscatcolouringbook
Derek Murphy says
This is awesome! You’re always a few steps ahead of me, I’m putting together some adult coloring books now. The top 100 bestsellers on amazon are almost all children’s books or adult coloring books… it’ll be nice to have some products in that space.
Joanna Penn says
It’s a lot of fun, Derek!
J.H. Winter says
This is such a wonderful podcast. I’d been suggested by one of my followers, that I should consider creating an adult coloring book based on the illustrations she’d seen of mine. This was perfect timing to find this podcast to find some ideas on how to self-publish an adult coloring book. Thank you so much for having this available!
Anna Travis says
I enjoy the podcast, but this one really hit home for me. After I finished listening, I went nuts. Even with four kids underfoot, I got to work, and my book went live today.
And thanks Joanna, because I have fiction books, too. Before I started listening to the podcast, I used to get bogged down in the seemingly never-ending editing process. It’s hard to keep going when you only have a couple books and feel like, why bother?! But you’re podcast and books encouraged me to keep building my backlist, to be mindful of the long-game, and to work towards where I’d like to be in five years. 😉
Someday I hope to be on the podcast! LOL.
Timothy C Halverson says
Wonderful interview Joanna, and it is what made me discover you on Youtube. I have been working on my own colouring book and I feel a bit stuck as to where to go now that I have everything drawn up.
I was wondering if permission is needed to publish a colouring book based on famous quotes (like poems)? Or can I just gather the quotes I like and publish a book without consent?
Joanna Penn says
It probably comes under Fair Use but check this out: http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2014/10/06/legal-helen-sedwick/
I know it has been some time, but relistened and read the show notes today. I’m planning to publish my book in about 2 weeks (need to reformat my work and add some more).
I really appreciate all the resources to this podcast.
Betty Schneweis says
Has anyone published a “f*** cancer” coloring books???
I published an adult coloring book through Lulu. Has anyone else used them? They turned out SO amazing! It has only been over a month and Im not seeing any marketing on their part. Im curious if anyone else has worked with them?
Here is my book https://hannahleftwrightart.com/collections/frontpage/products/adult-coloring-book
Suzana Sandoval says
In looking at the Intuos4 tablet, there are so many to choose from. What price range is yours. Price is a big determining factor for me.
Alyssa Slusher says
I have a question I have created a coloring book that is not at all complex as regular one is called kittylicious I know that many children like adult coloring books so I wanted to do some thing more simple and im worried about publishing because im 12 but I have asked opinions on it from many age groups and all have seemed to like it but im worried about getting a business interested in it if you have any tips just respond as soon as you can because even through im young I think I could still get this published i have 4 other siblings and we live with our mom and I have always been interested in coloring books and decided to get started So just tell me if you can think of anything it would mean so much to me your really inspiring to me
I am working on a colouring book for children and this interview was incredibly helpful – thankyou!
Ivam located in Australia and so Lightning source through Ingram Sparks is a much more affordable option for me. I’d like to buy a few colouring books printed through them first but I am having trouble finding some. Do you know of any printed using Lightning Source/Ingram Sparks?