The biggest sales phenomenon in the hard-to-predict world of books has surprised the industry and delighted all those who tucked one into their beach bag this summer. While the long-awaited Harper Lee book, Go Set a Watchman, the prequel of To Kill a Mockingbird, flirted with The New York Times best seller list, in another section of the bookstore, a completely different trend has been catching fire. Requiring nothing more than a set of markers or crayons, the latest craze in publishing is grown-up coloring books.
While grown-up coloring books have been in existence for some time, few could have predicted this year’s meteoric rise of Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt & Coloring Book. Cautiously published in 2013, with a print run of just 16,000 books, Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford saw her own collection of intricately rendered black-and-white drawings of flowers, leaves, trees and birds as little more than a vanity project. But when Basford started receiving floods of emails from readers loving her book, they were not from children. If the surging demand for coloring surprised both Basford and her publisher, the industry, too, was equally unprepared as the craze caught hold and sales started to rise.
Barnes & Noble College’s Director of Trade Books, Jack Barney, is the first to admit that it seemed an unlikely phenomenon. “They were originally marketed very much as children’s books,” he says. “When I looked at our own inventory, it didn’t seem that (Secret Garden) was behaving any differently than any other title in our crafts category,” he recalls. Barney noticed things change quickly after The New York Times published Alexandra Alta’s article, “Grown-Ups Get Out Their Crayons.” “Basford had really built her fan base from her craft business,” he notes, “but her fans were posting on social media with images of their coloring books, and from that buzz, it really took off into the mainstream market.”
With a fan base firmly grounded in adults from college age up, Secret Garden started selling globally more than 1.4 million copies in 22 languages, and along the way, overtaking more established best sellers like Lee’s Watchman, and popular authors such as Anthony Doerr and Paula Hawkins. At The Harvard COOP bookstore, Trade Manager Nancie Scheirer admits she, too, was initially skeptical at how sustained the trend might be. “One of our floor managers had ordered a dozen of the coloring books over the winter break,” she recalls, “after that, we just couldn’t keep them in the store,” she says, adding that she reordered an additional 500 copies for the summer.
Sustained by coloring clubs, coloring contests and a viral outbreak of coloring posts on social media sites like Pinterest, the new breed of coloring book titles have found an appreciative audience in stressed-out adults who have been coloring to relieve stress or boredom on work commutes, and students who have discovered the almost Zen-like benefits of ‘art therapy’ coloring sessions as a break from studying and finals. And should you think coloring books are only for those bringing crafty tints and hues to flowers, architecture, animals or Buddhist mandalas, think again. Comic book publisher Marvel is publishing an adult coloring book of its own, The Age of Ultron Coloring Book, this fall, urging fans to ‘put color back into the hero’s last ditch effort to save mankind.’
It’s not surprising, given the success of Secret Garden that publishers have reacted strongly to the burgeoning sales trend with close to 200 new titles being published between September and the end of the year, including a number with holiday themes. Titles such as Splendid Cities: Color Your Way to Calm and The Mindfulness Coloring Book: Anti-stress Art Therapy for Busy People are finding their own fan bases, while Basford herself has followed her initial success with a second book, Enchanted Forest.
At The Harvard COOP, nearly 2,600 coloring books have sold in the last 10 weeks, with the bookstore hosting a ‘Cocktails and Coloring’ Party on October 27 to celebrate the release of a new Johanna Basford book, The Lost Ocean. Scheirer is sanguine about the latest big thing in publishing. “We’ve become pretty good at predicting trends, but sometimes you never quite know the book of the season — until it actually happens.”