What’s going on here?
The best theory offered to date is that best-selling adult coloring books such as “Secret Garden” and “Enchanted Forest” are all about easing stress and calming one’s inner child. From this perspective, coloring is all about regaining mindfulness and getting a digital detox. And, indeed, the best-selling Scottish illustrator and “ink evangelist” behind these books, Johanna Basford, recently told The Guardian: “I think it is really relaxing, to do something analogue, to unplug … Coloring books are also an easy way to flex our creative muscles in a way we likely haven’t since our good old paste-eating elementary school days.”
However, explaining the phenomenal success of coloring books for adults in such a way can’t also explain the strange evolution in reading tastes around the world, which has seen an explosion in the popularity of certain genres that might have been considered “childish” just a generation ago. After all, it’s not just coloring books that are hot — it’s graphic novels, comic books and especially, young adult titles such as “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games.” In 2014 alone, young adult titles represented the fastest-growing segment of the book market, as well as the fastest growing genre amongst all e-books. So here’s an alternative theory for why a coloring book is No. 1 on Amazon these days: our digital reading habits are breaking down what might once have been the embarrassment of reading certain kinds of books. In other words, the relatively anonymous experience of purchasing books online and reading them on e-readers is making it easier to consume certain types of content. Nobody really knows what you have on your e-reading device, and so you can experiment in ways that people won’t judge you for later. That assumption is borne out, to some degree, by looking at the data for young adult novels. It’s actually old adults, not young adults, who are purchasing these books in the greatest numbers. And e-book sales are up nearly 53 percent in the YA/Children’s book category. Adults, quite simply, are buying ebook versions of YA/Children’s books. And that leads to a positive feedback cycle, in which books purchased online and downloaded to e-readers — both from the comfort and anonymity of the bedroom – can give a boost to certain genres. That freedom to experiment is opening the floodgates for certain types of content to go mainstream — not just “young” content but also “mature” content. Would people really have read “50 Shades of Grey” in such high numbers if they had to hand over a physical copy of the book to a sales clerk to purchase at the nearest Barnes & Noble instead of purchasing online? “50 Shades of Grey” is now the best-selling book on the Amazon Kindle ever, selling over 1 million copies. Thanks to the e-book format, “50 Shades of Grey” has singlehandedly changed the way we consume pornography. In the case of the coloring books, of course, there are no e-books to download and no way to read them on a Kindle. But you still order them online, and that’s where the viral nature of the Internet comes into play, breaking down the sense of embarrassment that readers might have had about purchasing coloring books. Once an item starts trending online, it acquires its own form of momentum and a seal of approval from the crowd.
“Secret Garden” – which has gone on to sell over 1.4 million copies since it was published in March 2013 – isn’t your ordinary coloring book – it has become a mini-Internet sensation. Basford’s books have been mentioned by celebrities such as Zooey Deschanel, and due to their beautiful illustrations, often appear on Pinterest and Instagram. Once these pictures show up in social networks, it makes them easier to trend. And once readers see a coloring book trending online, it makes it safer for them to purchase it as well. It suddenly becomes “cool” rather than “embarrassing” to buy a coloring book.
Of course, there’s another, more depressing explanation for why coloring books have taken over the world. Maybe Google really is making us stupid — the endless Internet parade of silly cat photos, infantile comments and adolescent memes has dumbed us down. We’re all stuck in The Shallows, mindfully coloring books to counter the existential angst of living in a digital society. If that’s the case, get ready for a deluge of book genres from our childhood – pop-up books, fairy tales and maybe board books for adults. This could get fun.
The good news is that we now have the opportunity to sample more books than ever before, thanks to e-readers. And now comes signs that we’re reading and experimenting with our reading habits in ways never before possible. Whole new genres are potentially on the cusp of being created and discovered. So maybe it’s time to celebrate the rise of the adult coloring book. The big picture view is that we may be reading the books we want to read, not just the books that we think others want us to read.