As far as trends go, there are few that hit the perfect bubble shape like adult coloring books. A small and niche market had existed for years, but in the first months of 2015, demand skyrocketed with over 12 million books sold. A year later, the trend was already on its downward slope, a joyous yet incredibly brief blip in the publishing industry. Today, adult coloring books are certainly selling more than they did pre-2015, but nowhere close to the same record-breaking numbers at the height of the trend. So, what happened to adult coloring books? Why the flash trend and sudden decline? Are they still around? And what types of coloring books are readers buying today?
How adult coloring books became a million-dollar trend
Regina McCombs | MPR News Pass the colored pencils, kiddoes: Grown-ups have muscled in on the fun.
2020 was the year of the adult coloring book.
At the start of the year, adult coloring books were a little-known niche item, but by December, bookstores around the country had cleared shelf space for the hundreds of different coloring books publishers were churning out.
There's no exact figure, but sales for adult coloring books were in the millions last year. The top ten bestselling titles sold at least 1.5 million copies , according to Publishers Weekly.
Coloring books for adults aren't new, but the market ballooned last year thanks to the intricate drawings of Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford. Basford published her first adult coloring book, “Secret Garden,” in 2013, and it was a sneaky success, selling more than a million copies in two years.
When her follow-up, “Enchanted Forest,” hit shelves in February 2015, the world took note. It sold almost a quarter of a million copies in its first month, and sold out within weeks.
“The floodgates opened,” said Steve Mockus, executive editor for Chronicle Books.
Chronicle, in addition to publishing its own books, is the U.S. distributor of Basford's titles. “No one knew to what extent people wanted to color until they recognized the success of ‘Secret Garden' and ‘Enchanted Forest,'” Mockus said.
Press around the world marveled at the feat: Coloring books, for adults, flying off the shelves? How did that happen?
It may not be as big of a trend as it used to be, but there is still a steady market for adult coloring books and a group of coloring enthusiasts online who share their art and passion with the world. Many are hopeful that the genre is growing again, with new types of coloring books out this holiday season.
Today, the market is essentially split into a few categories. Unfortunately, with a variety of platforms and protected data, it's difficult to point to exact sales numbers.
After the initial boom, indie self-publishers began using Amazon's print on-demand services to offer coloring books at $4.99 or $6.99 price points. A 2018 Forbes article speculates that a major percentage of sales diverted from traditional booksellers and went to Amazon. As Licalzi noted in our interview, as early as 2016, it became increasingly difficult for Blue Star to sell books at the $14.99 price point they had started with. These inexpensive options continue to abound on Amazon, with the majority of top-selling books priced at less than $10.
There is also a strong how-to and crafting component to these books, though, so it makes sense that a sizable portion of sales occur at craft stores like Michaels and Jo-Ann stores.
And, as we approach the 2019 holidays, that original segment of the market is picking up steam again, too: stand-out, high-quality coloring books that can command higher prices.
Simply put, quite a bit.
At Blue Star, they're releasing one of their first new coloring books in years. They set out to make something “beautiful and entirely different” with a higher production value and a big name behind it. With fuzzy velvet pages, perforated pages, and premium paper, Bloom: A Coloring Book by Alli Koch ( @Allikdesign on Instagram, out in November 2019) promises a gorgeous coloring experience.
Johanna Basford also published a new book in October 2019:
How to Draw Inky Wonderlands: Create and Color Your Own Magical Adventure
that will teach readers “no-skills-needed secrets” for drawing.
From the beginning, Basford notes that her mission has always been to help people “pick up a pencil and be creative.” Her newest book also celebrates the supportive online community that has developed since the initial rise in adult coloring books, her favorite part of her work.
Basford notes that:
“The colouring and creative community online and IRL is huge. People are collaborating, sharing tricks and tips, sharing their work and cheering on their co-creators. It's such a warm spirited and wonderful group to be part of. These days, there's a trend towards sharing skills. Helping other people to learn a trick you have discovered, explaining a new technique, giving advice on how to blend a certain type of pencil. I think the spirit of social media is less ‘look at me and all this fancy stuff I have' and more ‘hey! look at this cool thing I can do! Here's how you can do it too!'” On the Amazon charts, adult coloring books that compel readers to completely “zen out” or get their stress out through swearing are still popular, but old favorites are back again. For example, a few anatomical coloring books have returned to Amazon's top list.
If you were ever frustrated with the sheer size and undertaking of some designs, you'll find that more are bite-sized or organized into daily bursts of creativity or devotionals.
And, our post on the best adult coloring books of 2019 showcases books with whimsical landscapes again, like Karen Sue Chen's Flora And Fauna: A Coloring Book for Adults Hidden within the bestselling coloring books, there's also the hint of the next trend gaining in popularity:
drawing books , like Basford's newest release. It makes sense. Like coloring, drawing is inexpensive and meditative and easily Instagrammable.
In the optimistic years of 2015, adult coloring books showed us how to color beautifully within the lines. In 2019 and beyond, drawing books promise to teach us how to draw the lines themselves.
Start 2021 with a brand new reading tracker, inspired by the Bullet Journal:
The coloring book phenomenon has been met with an ensuing wave of cultural criticism. Some critics have called the rise of adult coloring books a sign of an infantilized culture Susan Jacoby told The New Yorker that “the coloring book is an artifact of a broader cultural shift. And that cultural shift is a bad thing.” Sales numbers, however, seem to indicate that coloring fans don't care.
“Anything that's popular receives a backlash,” said Mockus, the Chronicle Books editor. “You could argue that creativity is inherently childish making things up and expressing yourself.”
Maybe you have seen adult coloring books on the shelves of your local bookstore and wondered, “who buys these things?” After all, coloring is something we generally think of as being a children's activity. There are a lot of people out there who are confused about who coloring books are for. They're interested in coloring, but they really don't know if it's for them – or even if they are supposed to be doing it.
If this sounds like you, read on!
Years after the fact, we can only speculate at the sudden demand for adult coloring books. There was nothing sad about it, though. With any huge trends, there are always multiple and overlapping motivations behind their rise, but most importantly, they speak to an unmet need of a community.
As Basford noted, it may have been that coloring was an analog hobby that could break our smart phone habits. Or maybe, it's more simple. Coloring was fun and affordable. For $20 or less, readers could start a hobby with the potential to fill hundreds of hours with zen-like stress relief.
Likely, the appeal was all of these things and more.
I recently talked to (the incredibly wonderful) Johanna Basford about her take on the adult coloring books genre and why it resonated with so many people. Her thoughts about this are similar to what they were in 2015.
In our interview, she noted that:
“I think people were craving a digital detox. Social media, smart phones, rolling news all these things make us constantly connected to the world, never really focusing on something for an extended period time and always distracted by pings or notifications or screens. Colouring gave people an accessible way to be creative and treat themselves to some digital detox time.”
Image courtesy of the author.
During our interview, Licalzi with Blue Star Press took this idea further. He thinks the stress relief factor was a major part of the trend, but also mentioned the rise of Instagram's popularity at the time. Bright coloring pages fit the social media site perfectly. (A side note: hobbies that are both beautiful to share on Instagram but also offer mindfulness benefits are a sure recipe for a trend. Just ask bullet journalers and plant parents today.) Instagram also encouraged normal people to explore their creativity, Licalzi noting that:
“I feel like coloring did the same thing. It created a lot of people who appreciated art and gave them the confidence to begin creating their own for the first time. It was this perfect storm of Instagram, the desire to be an artist, and a focus on health and wellness.” I believe there was something else there, too, if we look back on that period.
In their own way, some of those think pieces about adult coloring books were right. Not in their derision or scorn, but in their underlying intuitions. For a brief time, the bookish (and wider) world joined in an online and IRL coloring circle that was bright and joyous. It was idealistic in the way that children are.
And, looking back, it was idealistic in the way most of us Hillary supporters were at that point sure that that the world was bright and forward-thinking and on the cusp of greatness. In that world, we could have our first female president and work-life balance and daily doses of colorful Instagrammable mindfulness, thankyouverymuch.
Basford's Enchanted Forest and other adult coloring books beckoned us into their pages, but many of us were already there waiting, eager to explore the limits of our creativity and joy.
Why Adults Are Buying Coloring Books
In 2011, the British publishing house Laurence King asked Johanna Basford, a Scottish artist and commercial illustrator specializing in hand-drawn black-and-white patterns for wine labels and perfume vials, to draw a children's coloring book. Basford suggested instead that she draw one for adults. For years, she told her publishers, her clients had loved to color in her black-and-white patterns. The publishers were convinced, and ultimately ordered an initial print run for “Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book” of thirteen thousand copies. Since the book's release, in 2013, it has sold about two million copies worldwide; for a time earlier this year, “Secret Garden” and a follow-up, “Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest and Coloring Book,” were the two best-selling books on Amazon. “If someone saw you coloring in one of my books, they wouldn't give you a weird look, because it's the same kind of artwork you would see on a champagne bottle,” Basford told me. “The artwork itself is sophisticated––not like a car or a bunny with a bow in its hair.”