What Adult Coloring Books Show Us: Light, and Dark

In Guest Contributors by Porter Anderson

Of all the colors in the big box of crayons, which hue is missing? Adult coloring books roll on in major publishing markets, but the picture coming together isn’t about books.
This is the homepage artwork at PutMeInTheStory.com directing you to "the first personalized coloring books for grown-ups."

This is the vivid homepage artwork at PutMeInTheStory.com directing you to “the first personalized coloring books for grown-ups.”

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Fuzzy Wuzzy,’ 1998 to 2005
It’s springtime for Crayola. Not that we haven’t known for some time that everything’s coming up “Brilliant Rose” for adult coloring books. (That’s a shade of crayon produced by the company from 1949 to 1958, “Fuzzy Wuzzy” having been a more recent shade, 1998 to 2005.)

Last Friday, The Bookseller’s Lisa Campbell reported that the late Terry Pratchett is to be honored in the UK with an adult coloring book from Gollancz, created by the illustrator Paul Kidby. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Colouring Book is scheduled for an August 11 release.

A few days earlier, The Independent’s Alexandra Sims warned us:  Adult colouring book craze prompts global pencil shortage: “The world’s biggest wooden pencil manufacturer, Faber-Castell, say they are experiencing ‘double-digit growth’ in the sale of artists’ pencils and have been forced to run more shifts in their German factory to keep up.” The adult colorists, it seems, are beyond the standard 36 colors, too, going for larger 72- and 120-color sets.

Elite Daily's story features examples of coloring-book pages from "Have a Nice Life Asshole: Breakup Stress Relief Adult Coloring Book" by Creative Collective.

Elite Daily’s story features examples of coloring-book pages from “Have a Nice Life Asshole: Breakup Stress Relief Adult Coloring Book” by Creative Collective.

At Elite Daily, Connor Toole surveys coloring books that offer such sayings as Have Fun Living With Your Mother and Your Brother Is Better Looking and Time To Come Pick Up Your Shit, Dumbass to the person you’re breaking up with. Real class, you see? Color them “Mango Tango” (produced from 2003 to the present).

Us Magazine last weekend offered us The 12 Coolest Adult Coloring Books You Need Right Now. You don’t want them, you need them, you see.

Sarah Halzack’s piece from The Washington Post is in The Seattle Times notes that in November, Wal-Mart added “a dedicated four-foot section for adult coloring books in its stores.” And Target, this month, Halzack tells us, will get its adult coloring book offer up to 40 titles in its stores. Michael’s, the handicraft chain, is up to 150 titles, Halzack says. She cites Nielsen reporting a 26.4-percent increase in colored pencils in 2015.

Back at Crayola, Halzack reminds us that the company (owned by Hallmark) has released a line of “Color Escapes” collections of pencils and coloring pages “aimed squarely at adults.” Her article bears a photo of adults coloring together in Washington, DC, at Busboys and Poets: heads down, deeply engrossed, five rational-looking grown-ups working away at their coloring together in a lounge.

Après “Permanent Geranium Lake” (produced 1903 to 1910), this is getting deluge-ional.

A page from a personalized Put Me in the Story coloring book features the name of the person to whom the book is given.

A page from a personalized Put Me in the Story coloring book from Sourcebooks features the name of the person to whom the book is given.

Beyond the Social Question

In Tom Tivnan’s rundown earlier this month of the 68 shortlisted companies in the British Book Industry Awards (the ceremony is May 9 in London), we read:

BBiAAdult colouring books powerhouse Pavilion leads the charge for indie publishers and is up for four awards: Independent Publisher of the Year (sponsored by Firsty Group), Batsford for Imprint, Batsford publisher Tina Persaud in Editor and the work on Batsford star Millie Marotta in Marketing Campaign. Laurence King and Michael O’Mara, who both had huge success with colouring titles, are also vying for the indie publisher gong.

Here’s the full shortlist in the category of Independent Publisher of the Year:

  • Andersen Press
  • Faber & Faber
  • Head of Zeus
  • Laurence King Publishing
  • Michael O’Mara Books
  • Nosy Crow
  • Oneworld
  • Pavilion Books

These are strong contenders, literary houses and specialist studios like Faber and Head of Zeus and Oneworld and Nosy Crow, in competition with coloring books. And Pavilion is riding in with its recent win of the Independent Publishers Guild’s International Award. It’s not even alone in the “Maximum Purple” (1926 to 1944) class of coloring book leadership. As Tivnan reminds us, Laurence King and Michael O’Mara are also here, like a curious wave of “Eggplant” energy (1998 to today), a Crayola hue that leaves you wondering…what is it?

The concern is not that coloring books are somehow inherently bad. They’re not. To some, it’s an especially peculiar populist distraction, sure, but what’s more important is that we not get our colors mixed up and think that this is about books or literature.

Regular followers of the New York-based consultant Mike Shatzkin (he directs the Digital Book World conference) took note when they read him at the very end of last month writing of a trusted colleague’s point about the strength of print in the States:

Mike Shatzkin

Mike Shatzkin

“The entire print book sales increase shown in industry statistics can be accounted for by the rise in sales of adult coloring books, a category which has taken a big leap forward in the past 12 months.

“For one thing, it is impossible to predict with any accuracy whether or for how long those sales will sustain.

“But, more importantly, the sales of print that do not include adult coloring books, which have no ebook equivalents and are the good fortune of a few selected companies, are still declining.”

What Shatzkin is looking at suggests that in the US, the so-called “print resurgence” is not in books one reads or buys to give others to read, but in coloring books, pastimes, hobbies for the stressed-out among us — coloring apologists like to tell us — who are relieving their anxiety by coloring fanciful pictures of strange animals and fairytale jungles.

And what prompts this post now is Monday’s piece from Digital Book World’s Kristine Hoang in which we learn that Sourcebooks’ strikingly successful franchise Put Me in the Story — personalized books for kids — has so far this year made 40 percent of its sales not in those children’s books but in the personalized coloring books it positions as being for adults.

These books’ advertising copy says that they’re “the first personalized coloring books for grown-ups,” no less, and none of us would doubt the ability of Sourcebooks’ indomitable CEO Dominque Raccah to get out ahead on this. At DBW, in the Launch Kids program, Raccah spoke of having identified eight “divisions” of potential expansion of the personalization motif. It looks like we’re seeing one here. What personalization means in this instance is that Keep Calm and Color On has the name of your friend or family member worked into some of the pages’ designs by the talented illustrator Katie Martin. Apparently, there’s something especially soothing about coloring in one’s own name.

Here’s the pitch:

Sourcebooks' Put Me in the Story coloring book "Keep Calm and Color On" features the work of illustrator Katie Martin.

Sourcebooks’ Put Me in the Story coloring book “Keep Calm and Color On” features the work of illustrator Katie Martin.

“Relax your mind and create something special with our new Keep Calm and Color On personalized coloring books.

“Crafted especially for stress relief and creative expression, our coloring books feature intricately designed patterns and sweet quotes.

“Personalize a coloring book for yourself or the coolest creative that you know.

“Amazing things happen when you think outside of the box and color between the lines!”

It’s a subtle, clever shift: unlike the effort of the kids’ books to place a kid’s identity “in the story,” there is no story here. Instead, there are inspirational aphorisms and busy designs to color. This is “Put Me in the Crayola Box.” And while these coloring books are announced on the site as being “personalized books for grown-ups,” the sales pages actually rate them for ages 8 to 14.

Who am I to throw “Burnt Sienna” (1903 to now) on such an approach? No need. Color all you want, and as far as personalization goes, Crayola will do that for you, too. Get that colorful name of yours emblazoned on your crayon box.

Where many of us can agree, I’m sure, is that revenue for publishing is a good thing, even when it’s pouring in from coloring books. If they’re personalized by Raccah’s folks at Put Me in the Story, all the better.

For the serious adult colorist in your life: Crayola's "Color Escapes" offers an updated color wheel in its tips on technique, complete with textured color samples and blending instructions for "Golden Yellow and Mango."

For the serious adult colorist in your life: Crayola’s “Color Escapes” offers an updated color wheel in its tips on technique, complete with textured color samples and blending instructions for “Golden Yellow and Mango.”

‘Reading’ Is Not a Color in the Box

Staying inside the lines of good judgment requires us to remember that the financial boost of adult coloring books’ popularity probably is doing little to nothing for reading; for literature; and for the cultural concept of an art and a business built on linguistic expression.

You’ll hear that coloring books might have a secondary effect of interesting someone in reading — in the case of the Pratchett outing, for example, that might be mildly true. You will also hear the argument that the money made on coloring books can be channeled into production of more writerly and readerly projects, much as the money from a blockbuster bestseller is used to help fund publication of less easily sold novels — let’s hope there’s some truth to that, too.

But when we see awards programs affected and industry statistics swayed, it’s good to remember that coloring books are to literature maybe approximately — probably not even as germane — what toy cars are to the auto industry.

In the bookish world, these coloring books are something on the same shelf, yes, but more akin to a flower vase than a story.

Because between “Madder Lake” (produced by Crayola from 1903 to 1935) and “Raw Umber” (1903 to 1990), there just isn’t a single color in that box called “Reading.”

I’ve used Wikpedia’s List of Crayola crayon colors for names of certain crayon hues and the years in which they’ve been in production.


About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.