Colouring books: Publishers everywhere ditching chapter and verse in favour of black outlines

Simon Usborne charts the rise of adult colouring books and the ‘Peter Pan’ market they’ve tapped into

Simon Usborne
Sunday 01 November 2015 16:43

There’s a line in the Bible that you always hear at weddings but which is becoming increasingly unsuitable in the modern age (even if it weren’t already as clichéd as confetti or nervous laughter about lawful impediments). You know the one – “When I became an adult, I put away childish things.” Well not any more, Jesus. Because if adults ever did put away childish things, they’re getting them out again – and colouring all over them.

Colouring books are leading a big trend for interactive books which is now reaching a peak in time for Christmas. For publishers they have become an unexpectedly lucrative sales hit, and part of a broader “Peter Pan” market for nostalgia. For the millions of us putting pen, pencil and paint to paper, they satisfy achievable artistic ambitions and offer escapist relaxation that many liken to meditation.

Last week Johanna Basford revealed the third title in an insanely successful trio of books without words. Lost Ocean features dozens of pages of intricate designs and patterns of sub-aquatic scenes in black ink. The rest is up to the “reader” – to add the colour and finish the book. The release follows the Scottish designer’s first books, Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest, which in little over two years have sold 1.8m copies in almost 30 countries. Basford’s publisher Virgin Books describes her as “the undisputed queen of the colouring book”, but she has competition from a Welsh rival. Millie Marotta’s Animal Kingdom, published by Batsford, has sold more than 320,000 copies in the UK alone since January. It’s the fourth best-selling book of the year and No 1 for 2015 at Amazon, where four of the top 10 titles are adult colouring books.

Johanna Basford has had hits with ‘Secret Garden’ and ‘Enchanted Forest’

Animal Kingdom has spent 20 weeks as the paperback non-fiction No 1 this year,” adds Kiera O’Brien at The Bookseller. Marotta is due to publish two new titles next year – “Only The Fast Diet and Dr Atkins’s New Diet Revolution have spent longer at the top since records began in 1998.”

The trend for colouring has bubbled up for about two years now but if it’s news to you, you may well be wondering what the hell is going on. How is it that books which don’t involve recipes, diets or the troubled life of a pubescent wizard – or any words at all – can sell in such dizzying numbers?

“It’s a bit mad, isn’t it,” Basford says from the publicity trail for Lost Ocean. “But I think everyone’s a bit screen-weary. We live in a digital world and I think people are craving a digital detox. Colouring books are a wonderful way to switch off, something analogue and creative and a chance to lose yourself in a creative task.”

A New Zealand-born designer takes an even more minimal approach. Thomas Pavitte asks readers to draw the whole thing and has turned dot-to-dot drawing into an art form. He started with an attempt to create a new Guinness world record by creating a giant rendering of the Mona Lisa. The poster-sized work has 6,239 dots, took a week to plot and nine hours to complete. Guinness rejected the record but Pavitte has since sold more than half a million dot-to-dot books for grown-ups.

“I’ve been really surprised by the huge range of people who’ve appreciated the books and that this has become a grown-up recreation,” he writes from his studio in Melbourne. “A lot of creative people feel drawn to the experience, and others who might feel that they don’t have an artistic bone in their body can pick up a pen and have something they can be proud of when it is completed.”

Success came as a surprise to Basford, too. Like Marotta, she was making a fair living as a commercial designer, bringing life to wine bottle labels and perfume packaging. She noticed that customers liked colouring-in her work, so in 2011 when a publisher asked her to make a children’s colouring book, she suggested doing one for adults instead.

“But then I almost didn’t take the first book deal because I didn’t think I could justify the time it would take,” she says. “I didn’t think it would ever make any money, but I worked evenings and weekends and when we printed 16,000 copies I thought my Mum would have to buy hundreds of them.”

As well as offering people the chance to colour in the lastest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, ‘Sherlock: The Mind Palace’ includes puzzles to solve in its images

The designer is now committed to the books full-time and concedes that while they offer an escape from screens, social media has been key to the success of books like hers. Artists post pictures of their complete work on Instagram, or at Basford’s own online gallery. “When I see my book on the shelf, it’s not finished,” she says. “It’s a collaboration and I love seeing the way people can take the same black-and-white picture but visualise it in completely different ways.”

Basford has identified a trend for coloured gel pens in parts of Asia, while in Brazil her collaborators favour pencils. Many use the inviting white space she leaves around her lined creations to embellish them as well as colour them in. “Many of these people are infinitely more talented and imaginative than I am,” she adds.

Publishers are racing to add colouring titles to big franchises. Grown-up fans can now colour scenes from Doctor Who or Game of Thrones. On 5 November, BBC Books is releasing a Sherlock book by Mike Collins, which features a lot of Benedict Cumberbatch. Like Basford’s works, the Sherlock book adds a layer of interaction with clues to be found hidden in the black lines.

The reported therapeutic benefits of this kind of activityt have inspired other publishers to create a niche within a niche. The Mindfulness Colouring Book by the French designer Emma Farrarons also features in the Amazon top 10 for the year so far. The south London colouring pioneers Michael O’Mara Books have a whole range of “art therapy” titles, as well as a colouring app for iPhones. Then there’s Black and White Publishing’s “F**k Up This Book ... and not your life”, which encourages its readers to fill its pages with doodles, lists and photographs as a kind of light-hearted remedy.

“The trend has also been a boon for bookshops,” says Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller. “Not only are these printed books but they’re books people like to see and feel before they buy.”

Thankfully, not everyone is taking it too seriously. Last week James Nunn, the illustrator who drew the panda on the grammar book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, another unexpected publishing hit, revealed a Jeremy Corbyn colouring book (“red pencil not included”). In dozens of scenes, the Labour leader appears as Moses, parting the Red Sea, and as a bearded Mona Lisa.

And now it’s your turn. Whip out the materials of your choice to finish our selection of artworks by some of the best creatives in an increasingly colourful field.

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