The big company behind the adult coloring book craze

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The popularity of adult coloring books exploded last year, with around 12 million books sold in 2015 for people looking for ways to unwind after work or satisfy their artistic side. In Washington, DC, a meetup group has 190 members, and weekly events often have waiting lists. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Hobby artists can be found coloring in airport lounges, doctor’s office waiting rooms, and while watching TV shows at home. They form coloring get-together groups in libraries and cafes so they can chat while doodling. Adult coloring books – a genre once considered little more than a novelty – have suddenly become big business, a bright spot in the bottom lines of publishers and retailers. Nielsen Bookscan estimates around 12 million were sold in 2015, a dramatic jump from the million sold the previous year.

It remains to be seen whether this is a passing fad. The new generation of books are usually filled with intricate black and white illustrations that are themselves art. While many find coloring to be a soothing distraction after hours of tapping, swiping, and staring at screens, some early adopters aren’t exactly hooked. Several reviewers on Amazon.com found the need to stay within the lines to be anything but soothing.

“Most of the pages are full of images that are so small I can barely see the details to color them in, causing more stress than if I hadn’t tried coloring in the first place,” wrote one. review of a popular coloring book. on Amazon.

As sales of adult coloring books have surged in the United States over the past year, experts say the catalyst for the craze has been the work of Scottish author Johanna Basford, whose title 2013’s “Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book” started burning bestseller lists with its detailed images of topiary and flowers, and its “Where’s Waldo” challenge to find hidden objects in the illustrations elaborated.

Basford and other authors have attracted legions of enthusiasts looking to relax, who see doodling a picture of a tree or animal as a low-key, low-stakes way to channel the imagination or to keep their hands busy while they let their minds wander.

“It’s nostalgic, and it’s kind of old school,” said Mary Amicucci, head of merchandising at Barnes & Noble. “It reminds people of their childhood.”

Nichola Payne colors at the Busboys and Poets reunion. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Indeed, Elizabeth Himeles, 26, said she chose coloring to tap into some of the creativity she used when she attended art camp as a child.

“I don’t have a lot of time in life to do big craft projects, and sometimes I just want to relax and not do something super active,” Himeles said.

Himeles said it was not unusual for her to spend up to two hours a week coloring, and sometimes up to four hours a week when she got together with a coloring group she organized in the Boston area.

“A lot of people who come to my meetings are really interested in the idea of ​​unplugging and being more mindful,” Himeles said.

It’s unclear whether the rise of adult coloring books has come at the expense of sales in other categories, but the impact of the craze can be seen in various sectors of the coloring industry. retail: Barnes & Noble said strong demand for adult coloring books and artist supplies provided a tailwind to the chain’s total sales over the past three quarters. Walmart, meanwhile, moved in November to add a section dedicated to adult coloring books in 2,000 of its stores. And Target began carrying adult coloring books in 1,300 stores in August and, within months, rolled them out to the rest of the chain. Initially, the big-box retailer only sold four titles in-store; this month it will be up to 40.

If you look at Amazon’s list of best-selling books, which is updated hourly, you’re almost certain to see several adult coloring book titles. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

“I’ve been in this business for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Kathleen Schmidt, vice president of Running Press, which rushed to publish four adult coloring books last year. when she saw the category grow. .

The popularity of adult coloring books has prompted retailers to move quickly to meet fan needs.

Craft retailer Michaels has expanded its assortment to more than 150 coloring books and promises more this year. Idalia Farrajota, senior vice president of merchandising at Michaels, said the store had developed exclusive titles to try to stay ahead of competitors and sought to expand beyond flora-rich designs and into wildlife by adding Harry Potter and Star Wars adult coloring books. to its range.

“It’s been difficult to keep up with the demand,” Farrajota said.

The fact that the trend emerged relatively quickly underscored the speed and agility with which retailers and others must act if they are to ride the wave of a trend in the digital age.

Take, for example, the story of Blue Star Coloring, a fledgling publishing startup. Gabe Coeli, its creative director, said the team released its first adult coloring book last March, initially thinking it would be a placeholder venture before pursuing others. publishing projects. That month, he only sold seven copies on Amazon of his first creation, titled “Stress Relieving Patterns.” By April it had sold 15,000 copies and by May the book had risen to the top of Amazon’s best-selling book list.

In 2015, the company sold over a million books, including “Stress Relieving Patterns” and subsequent titles that the team scrambled to put together when they realized they had a hit on their hands. .

“We didn’t know what we were about to. We didn’t realize there was this big movement,” Coeli said.


Coloring lovers meet at Busboys and Poets in the District. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

District’s Janine Klein said she has long been into coloring as a way to let off steam because, as a nanny, she often has coloring books handy. But she’s grateful for the new wave of adult titles, including one she bought for herself and several friends, titled “Unicorns Are Fools.”

“It helps not having to color in princesses or Disney characters,” Klein said.

But others are perplexed by adults taking inspiration from the kindergarten crowd. Robrt Pela, a writer who also runs a contemporary art gallery in Phoenix, Arizona, is among this group.

“I’m a snob. But I’m also an adult, someone who remembers when adults relaxed with bourbon, not Crayolas and a glimpse of My Little Pony,” he wrote in a February article in the Phoenix New Times. .

At Barnes & Noble, Walmart and Michaels, executives said growing interest in adult coloring books has also driven sales of a host of related art supplies. Indeed, Nielsen reports that total coloring pencil sales soared 26.3% in 2015, a sharp increase from the previous three years, when growth ranged from 1.3 to 7.2%.

This pattern is likely why Crayola, the children’s art supply giant owned by Hallmark Cards, decided late last year to launch “Color Escapes,” a line of coloring books and crayons. elegantly packaged that is aimed directly at adults.

It seems likely that the retail and publishing sectors will continue to look for ways to capitalize on the color craze in 2016. Amicucci said she believes it marks the start of a bigger trend. broad towards self-expression, and she said Barnes & Noble would invest in similar projects. categories such as painting, calligraphy and illustration.

Michaels, meanwhile, moved this holiday season to release coloring book-style note cards that Farrajota said you can “personalize and send to your best friend and wish her a happy birthday. Coloring isn’t just about the book anymore.

And Farrajota would know: In her office, she framed and hung her own coloring horse illustration on the wall.

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