Adult Coloring Books

I must live a very sheltered life because until this morning, I never heard of adult coloring books.  If I had to guess, I would have supposed that this was a very minor niche in the publishing business and that it is dedicated to adults with learning disabilities.  To my amazement, it was in part due to the sales of adult coloring books that kept print book publishing out of the red in 2015.  {Print book sales increased in 2015 over 2014, largely due to Big Publishing’s victory over Amazon: it won the right to a larger say in the pricing of ebooks.  As ebook prices increased, readers turned to the print versions.  As a whole, in 2015, the industry experienced a decline in sales (down 4.1% from 5.82 to 5.58 billion dollars)}.

So, adult coloring books are a big thing currently.  Here is what Laura Marsh had to say in an article last December in New Republic:

“In 1962, Barbra Streisand channeled all the emotional turmoil and lyric despair of an abandoned lover into what must be the strangest four minutes of pop music ever written. “Crayons ready?” she croons, “Begin to color me.”  The opening lines of the song, “My Coloring Book,” refer to that year’s fevered interest in coloring books for adults, much like the trend that has taken off recently. “For those who fancy coloring books / As certain people do,” Streisand sings, before asking listeners to fill her sorrowful life with equally sorrowful hues. When the song came out, coloring books for adults permeated pop culture, as Mort Drucker’s JFK Coloring Book spent 14 weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list in 1962, and sales of adult coloring books reached $1 million. Today, coloring books are perhaps even more profitable: Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest were the two best-selling books on Amazon in April, responsible for some of the year’s recovery in print sales. (Basford has sold nearly 10 million coloring books since Secret Garden was published in 2013.) But their powerful appeal—enthusiasts say they are a “great way to de-stress” —has very little in common with adult coloring books from the 1960s. Where today’s titles offer consumers a neat package of therapy, escape and nostalgia, 1960s coloring books were both genuinely novel and subversive.

“The first adult coloring book, published in late 1961, mocked the conformism that dominated the post-war corporate workplace. Created by three admen in Chicago, the Executuve Coloring Book showed pictures of a businessman going through each stage in his day, as though teaching a child what daddy does at work. But the captions, which give instructions on how to color the image, are uniformly desolate. “This is my suit. Color it gray or I will lose my job,” reads a caption next to a picture of a man getting dressed for work. Another page shows men in bowler hats boarding their commuter train. “This is my train,” it reads. “It takes me to my office every day. You meet lots of interesting people on the train. Color them all gray.” The rare appearance of a non-gray color is even more disturbing: “This is my pill. It is round. It is pink. It makes me not care.”

From The Executive Coloring Book, 1961.Ad to the Bone

“The coloring books that followed managed to cover, between them, a selection of the decade’s neuroses: national security, the red scare, technology, sex, mental illness. Two popular books took aim at President Kennedy: Drucker’s JFK Coloring Book and Joe B. Nation’s New Frontier Coloring Book. There were coloring books that made fun of communists and coloring books that made fun of people who were scared of communists.  Krushchev’s Top Secret Coloring Book: Your First Red Reader caricatured Soviet leaders and life under communist rule, but was still deemed “objectionable” and banned in the United States Military. Meanwhile, the John Birch Society Coloring Book, which ridiculed conspiracy theorists and extremists, stretched the coloring book concept to its limits with a blank page, captioned: “How many Communists can you find in this picture? I can find 11. It takes practice.” In August 1963, the Washington Post reported on a doctor who proposed using a 12-page coloring booklet “as a diagnostic tool…to classify patients by their types of disorders” from schizophrenia to brain damage. The Post called it the ‘Psychotic’s Coloring Book’.”

Julia Felsenthal writing in the December 2015 issue of Vogue had this to say about more recent interest in adult coloring books:

“But, in spite of the fact that I do on occasion sketch and paint with watercolors, I’ve never once felt moved to pick up a coloring book and go to town. Nor did I imagine that people in my social sphere were doing so. Were those Instagram-famous coloring parties a total anomaly? Or were my other friends also secretly brandishing markers in their spare time?

“I posted the query to Facebook and the response—entirely from women—was surprisingly immediate and enthusiastic. “My aunt-in-law brought coloring books and fancy markers to Thanksgiving and I was all ‘pshhhh, really??’ ” wrote Dean, a designer in Chicago whose funky style I’ve long admired on social media. “Next thing I know, I’m suuuuper chill with a glass of wine, coloring a picture of a flower shop. It’s surprisingly kind of awesome.”

“Other ladies seemed to agree. “I do this,” an old colleague who works in video production admitted with a trace of sheepishness. A writer acquaintance raved about Chat Thérapie, a French, feline-themed coloring book she uses after dinner as a means to avoid screen-induced insomnia. A fashion-school grad explained that coloring-book patterns help her dream up jewelry designs. A mom of two avowed that the hobby keeps her sane. A friend in Austin described how coloring books have begun to appear at packed house parties, psychedelic concerts, and on camping trips. Another friend, a therapist, agreed with Beck that they’re best enjoyed while bingeing on TV.”

OK.  I get it.  But I don’t think I’ll enter the market any time soon.

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