As January came to a close, the top-selling book on Amazon.com wasn’t the latest novel by James Patterson, Sandra Brown or John Grisham. That honor went to Swear Word Adult Coloring Book, a collection of 20 expletives presented in sleek cursive handwriting surrounded by a soothing scene of flowers, kittens, puppies and butterflies — all meant to be filled in with colored pencils.
At a given moment, nearly half of Amazon’s top 20 best-sellers are coloring books designed for adults, often referred to as “experienced colorists.” Popular offerings feature scenes and characters from “Game of Thrones,” Star Wars and “Dr. Who” and have made the books a publishing force. According to Nielsen BookScan, which collects data on roughly 85 percent of the print market, exponential increases in adult coloring book sales are a big reason why the number of paper books sold in the U.S. rose from 559 million in 2014 to 571 million in 2015.
“We love this particular trend — it’s creative, relaxing and easy,” says Linda-Marie Barrett, general manager of Malaprop’s Bookstore and Café. “Before the trend, we carried adult and children’s coloring books, but not as extensive a variety. The variety has improved tremendously since publishers recognized this was a hot phenomenon.”
Barrett and her colleagues have been aware of the growing corner of the industry since spring 2015, but last fall publishers came out with a flood of new offerings. “Our customers love the more intricate designs and those that are specifically addressing stress relief,” she says. “Coloring books that are closer to what you see for children — those portraying people, animals or landscapes — are less popular. Mandalas, flowers [and] geometric designs are hugely popular.”
Barrett adds that a cocktails and coloring book party at the store is in the works. It will add to an already strong set of social events offered by multiple Buncombe County Library branches. Enka-Candler Library manager Leisa Stamey started hearing about adult coloring books last summer. “My initial thought was ‘how wonderful!’ — mostly because as a teenager I loved to color, and had all sorts of fancy coloring books,” she says. “I was thrilled to see that they were making a comeback.”
Inspired by an article in Library Journal about a library coloring group, Stamey launched the Coloring Club for Adults in December. The goal of the program is to provide a quiet, relaxing atmosphere — aided by soft music — where adults may be creative, relax and connect with others over a shared interest. Coloring books, sheets printed off various websites and sets of markers and colored pencils are provided, but most attendees are veteran colorists who bring their own supplies. Newcomers remarked that they associated the activity with children, but once they started on a page, their self-consciousness disappeared.
“I think people want an outlet that doesn’t require any screen time,” says Stamey. “People want to unplug and de-stress.”
Fellow branch managers Carla Hollar (Swannanoa) and Regina Illig (Leicester) have since added their own programs. For the inaugural Coloring and Conversation in January, several coloring books, a large set of colored pencils, cookies and tea were provided by the Swannanoa branch’s Friends of the Library. “It was my idea of a way and a place for people to be able to come and spend an hour or so, with nothing else to do but concentrate on a fun activity,” Hollar says. The next Coloring and Conversation is Wednesday, Feb. 24, at 4 p.m.
Longtime colorist Illig’s busy life doesn’t afford much time for artwork. For others in a similar situation, she’s organized a group activity at her library on Friday, Feb. 12, from 6 to 8 p.m. Coloring pages and supplies will be provided by the branch’s Friends group, as well as coffee, cocoa and materials for making a vintage valentine. “It will motivate me to sit down and do this thing that I enjoy,” says Illig, who thinks the trend is here to stay. “Now that many adults feel they’ve been ‘given permission’ to use color in this way, the popularity of it will continue. They’ll discover the meditative, mindful qualities of ‘being in the moment.'”
Dr. Jonna Kwiatkowski, coordinator of the Mars Hill University art therapy program, echoes Illig’s reading. The associate professor of psychology says that the immersive properties of coloring creates an opportunity for people to focus on the present and distracts them from their worries. “Coloring is a very relatable task, so it allows people to feel competent,” she says. “This can be important to getting an accurate assessment of creativity or making people comfortable enough to engage in an arts-based therapy.”
In her work as a registered art therapist, Kwiatkowski’s faculty colleague Kelly Moore Spencer has used predesigned mandalas with clients to assist in decreasing anxiety or directing focus, but does not often use them as a stand-alone intervention. “It can offer a space where they can engage more openly in the therapeutic discussion,” Spencer says. “This is different than when clients generate their own art and are asked to reflect on the process and product that was created. However, in both cases, the art can serve as a catalyst for communication.”
Though she’s fascinated by the adult coloring book trend and somewhat surprised that it has not taken off before now, Spencer says she’s uncomfortable with the use of the term “art therapy” to describe adult coloring books. That label is being applied to titles of books and kits as well as an entire series published by Disney.
“Art therapists do not have ownership over the use of the terms ‘art’ and ‘therapy,’ but calling a coloring session by itself ‘art therapy’ is a conflation of a profession with a recreational activity,” Spencer says. “Registered art therapists have both a master’s degree and thousands of client-contact hours utilizing art therapy, which involves the use of specific psychotherapeutic techniques that are combined with art making. It is difficult for me to imagine that the challenging work and profound changes that I have witnessed with clients can be compared and labeled as the same thing as independently coloring in a coloring book.”
Still, Spencer has seen the benefits of adult coloring books among friends and colleagues and encourages people to seek out and participate in activities that resonate most with them. Her hope is that the trend will begin to introduce more people to the healing power of art, and that if more intervention is ever warranted, they’ll consider going to an art therapist to help guide them through a more in-depth experience.