By Adam Rowe for Forbes
In 2015, adult colouring books became the dark horse of the publishing industry, as a surprising surge in sales boosted major players’ revenues. In 2016, there was no end in sight. In 2017, the bottom fell out of the adult colouring book market and, this year, the trend is officially dead.
So it seems, at least. It’s possible that adults still enjoying colouring as much as ever, but independent publishers — whose sales numbers aren’t reported with the same rigour as those of traditional publishers — have cornered the market. Here’s a dive into the timeline of the adult colouring trend, as told through the cottage industry of articles covering the phenomenon.
A July 2015 New Yorker article described the early stage of the adult colouring renaissance, noting a connection to the popularity of other infantilising activities like adult summer camps and adult preschool. The trend was picking up, even if the numbers hadn’t come out yet: Dover decreed August 2, 2015, as the first National Colouring Book Day, and Bantam Books and George R.R. Martin teamed up on a Game of Thrones-themed colouring book. In December, Business Insider profiled a self-publishing colouring book creator who had earned $329,000 in Amazon royalties in 2015 alone, by selling her books via Createspace — noting that colouring books were at the time holding five out of the top 10 spots on Amazon’s hourly-updated bestsellers list.
The colouring book sales spike continued across 2016, to much media attention as numbers came to light: Nielsen Bookscan estimated 12 million colouring books sold in 2015, up from a paltry one million the year before. The hot takes were entertaining: America’s obsession was a cry for help, while studies showed colouring exercises reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety. Retailers doubled down on art supplies and colouring books. The Canadian company Newbourne Media LP released a music CD/colouring book combination product. Adult nonfiction books across the industry sold 12% better in the first half of 2016 than the same period in 2015, and Publishers Weekly credited colouring books.
In 2017 the cracks began to show. Barnes and Nobles’ third-quarter profits, released in March 2017, revealed sales were under expectations, though still strong, and the decline in colouring book (as well as Adele album) sales was responsible for “nearly one-third of the sales decline.” By August, the trend was declared dead.
But did interest in adult colouring books really wane, or was it diverted away from traditional publishers and towards the retailer to rule all retailers, Amazon? The evidence lies in a slide from a 2016 presentation by Author Earnings, one of the more authoritative analysts in the murky world of book data. A chart breaking down online book sales by genre shows that about 60% of crafts/hobbies/games books in 2016 were being sold by non-traditional publishers (indie self-publishers as well as Amazon imprints). That’s a huge percentage, second only to the formidable romance genre, and it indicates that in 2016, the year that Barnes and Noble’s third-quarter colouring book profits began levelling off, most online craft book sales went to Amazon and self-publishers.
In other words, book publishers might have lost their colouring book market share to the same retail giant who endangered their industry in the first place.
Author Earnings hasn’t offered comparable data in 2017 or 2018, and major industry databanks like Bookscan don’t track Amazon’s data, so it’s impossible to say for sure whether the colouring book craze is really over or whether faster-adapting colouring book self-publishers have used Amazon as a channel to scoop up the majority of what was once traditional publishers’ cash cow. But as publishers turn to the digital audiobook as the next popular format (sales are up 32.1% in Q1 2018!), they should be wary of Amazon’s growing interest in audiobooks.