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Julia Donaldson: being a bestseller and push, push, pushing

Iain Broome
Iain Broome
3 min read

Interview by Donna Sørensen
Julia Donaldson doesn’t need much of an introduction.

I bet if you were to accost a British child in the street (not that I am recommending you do) and ask them to name any children’s author, they would likely say, Julia Donaldson.

She has, believe it or not, 157 published books. You may have heard of a little number from 1999, The Gruffalo, which has sold over 10 million copies and even did a stint on Broadway.

Not many writers make their living solely from writing, but she is one. Julia very kindly answered six questions for Write for your Life on life after Grub Street.

The interview

Writing picture books is a notoriously difficult way to make a living, not just because of how much a writer gets paid for one but also when they get paid. Was it after The Gruffalo that you were able to support yourself completely, financially, from writing, or was it earlier?

After writing A Squash and a Squeeze and several other books, I had a job as a Writer-in-Residence, so you could say I was already making my living from writing or at least writing-related work.

I did start to earn more after The Gruffalo but it was all quite gradual, and a lot of the subsequent titles (Monkey Puzzle, The Snail and the Whale etc) were just as successful.

Has your writing changed since you have had financial stability through your books? If so, how?

I already had financial stability, as I’m lucky enough to be married to a reasonably well-paid doctor, so earning more money myself didn’t make a difference. But the fact that the picture books were best-sellers meant that the publishers could take greater risks with me than with novice writers.

So I was able to publish things like a collection of verse (Crazy Mayonnaisy Mum), two song books, a teenage novel (Running on the Cracks). That gave me scope to experiment more than I otherwise might have done.

Aside of the brilliant writing involved and of course, fab illustrations, what do you attribute the massive success of The Gruffalo to? Do you think the publicity campaign by the publisher for example made a difference? Or your background as a performer prior to this?

I don’t think there was a specially big publicity campaign. The book just got very prominent reviews and won some prizes and was latched on to by lots of foreign publishers, and then I think it was word of mouth. My performances may well have subsequently boosted the success of the books (but not just The Gruffalo!)

Since becoming a household name, have you been asked to write anything particularly interesting or unexpected or to appear on anything unusual?

Almost every day I get asked to write something or appear on something, so loads of my time gets taken up with giving polite ‘Nos’.

I did enjoy being on a TV programme called The Beauty of Books in which I got to see the original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland. Oh, and Desert Island Discs [a long-running radio show in the UK] was quite an experience, though I was very dithery about choosing the records.

I imagine your diary is filled up years in advance. Do you still have time to do events in schools and libraries on a regular basis? Do you find this aspect squeezed by bigger commitments?

I have cut down on school and library visits but still enjoy them so carry on doing them locally, in the Glasgow area – maybe about one a month whereas it used to be more like two a week. I do like the spontaneity and intimacy of that type of event.

Thinking back to the unpublished you, sending off manuscripts to publishers, is there any advice you would give yourself to make the process easier?

Not really. I was actually very fortunate in that I was initially approached by a publisher rather than vice versa: I had a phone call asking if I’d agree for one of my songs, A Squash and a Squeeze, to be made into a book.

But then I’d had years of plugging away badgering people to use my songs on TV and radio. I think you just have to push and push and try not to get too disheartened.

It’s always good to have two things out there being considered, so that when one gets rejected you can hope for the other one and then quickly send something else out!

More, more, more

Julia has a fantastic website that not only contains her full biography and bibliography (so many books!), but also a podcast where she talks about her writing, and some writing of her own on writing. Well worth checking out.

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I'm the author of the novel, A is for Angelica. Every week, I send Draft Mode, a newsletter full of tips and tools that help you improve your craft and promote your writing.