Scare stories about a sudden shortage of pencils for adult coloring book fans say plenty about silly-season media obsessions with popular fads. But they also say plenty about the business of modern publishing – as well as onscreen and on-paper reading habits.
One actually slightly scary set of statistics about the current adult coloring fad is how much of current publishing performance and profits are actually driven by it. If publishers are striving hand over pencil-clutching fist to match demand, what’s been happening to their regular business meantime? Shelf Awareness quotes Nielsen BookScan to confirm that “sales in the coloring category are still soaring”. Data Guy was remarking as far back as December 2015 how much of that year’s “reported ‘nonfiction’ print growth – perhaps even all of it – can be attributed to sales of adult coloring books.”
Publishers are the catch-up followers, not the creators, of the modern marketing phenomena they benefit from. Fifty Shades of Grey was an off-the-wall hit from an online fan fiction background, and look how phenomenal that got. Johanna Basford likewise came out of left field to create a worldwide phenomenon, with her sales quoted as more than 16 million worldwide. Publishers were lucky that both such phenomena happened to be books, but they could just as well have been sneakers, trading cards, or any other popular fad. And publishers themselves often misfire grievously when it comes to capitalizing on such fads, let alone creating them.
Once again, this … ahem … underlines that publishers are actually pretty crap at what ought to be their core business disciplines: talent development and marketing. The existence of the bargain book and remainder chains, not to mention book stripping, show just how lousy they are at anticipating and adjusting themselves to audience demand. The best they have learned to do is the kind of supermarket shelf-packing FMCG approach foisted on them by James Patterson-style bestseller publishing. No wonder trad publishing is so jealous of the sales information that Amazon refuses to share, which could help close the yawning information gap in its processes.
Finally, as Chris Meadows hinted way back last year, and as others have … ahem … outlined in more detail, adult coloring books are often simply an antidote for those consumed by screen fatigue. There are few things more tactile and physical in tackling printed paper than actually coloring it in. For eyes strained by screen flicker and fingers tired of plastic, buttons, and touchscreen icons, coloring in pages are the perfect relief. The Sunday Telegraph quoted Johanna Basford saying: “People like coloring-in because they are fed up with digital. There is something nice about picking up a pencil and a pen. You are not going to get interrupted by Twitter, and there is also a childhood nostalgia element to it.”
Do I need to underline the adult-baby puerility of that kind of thinking? For one thing, if you’re spending your time coloring in a book, you are absolutely not spending your time reading it, e- or otherwise. Which does make you wonder whether all the printed-paper anti-ebook Luddites out there are actually that interested in the words on the page …
Meanwhile, I’ve got my own plans for the next big popular fad. Adult adult coloring books, with erotic line drawings to be penciled in in fifty shades of gray …