Amazon: the driving force behind the steady proliferation of ebooks in the last few years and bane of traditional print publishing. A rather simplistic summation perhaps, but there is no doubt that the Kindle’s enormous popularity has changed the way people see books for good, providing a convenient, cheap and sustainable way of carrying your whole library with you.
However, a look at the Amazon UK Bestsellers chart reveals a surprising trend. Amongst the likes of Go Set a Watchman and Grey lie four adult colouring books. Millie Marotta’s Animal Kingdom holds second place, while Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest by Johanna Bashford are at six and eight respectively and The Mindfulness Colouring Book completes the list at ten. All four are paperbacks, and of course none are available in ebook.
So why are colouring books suddenly so popular? Well the books themselves are all beautifully designed, with intricate, detailed drawings of nature and life. Colouring books have usually been thought of as for children, and these adult ones play on the idea of nostalgia and a return to a simpler past. Enchanted Forest gives its readers (drawers?) the quests of finding all the animals inside the woods (including a lost penguin!) and discovering the secret symbols needed to unlock the castle door at the end. This sense of fun combines with the detailed, artistic line drawings to create the rather oxymoronic concept of the ‘adult colouring book.’
These books serve another purpose. The Mindfulness Colouring Book’s subtitle is ‘Anti-stress art therapy for busy people.’ From doctors to lawyers to busy parents, people find their brains constantly wired and at the mercy of emails and technology. Adult colouring books offer the chance to switch your brain off, unwind and focus on the present task of creating colour on page. Awareness of mental health issues is much more prevalent now, and there is no stigma in seeking the therapy of a simple colouring book. In fact, 24-year-old Lucy Fyles reviews adult colouring books from a mental health perspective on her blog.
Johanna Basford was clear on the appeal of her books: “I think it is really relaxing, to do something analogue, to unplug. And it’s creative. For many people, a blank sheet is very daunting; with a colouring book you just need to bring the colour. Also there’s a bit of nostalgia there. So many people have said to me that they used to do secret colouring in when their kids were in bed. Now it is socially acceptable, it’s a category of its own. These are books for adults. The art in my books is super intricate.”
A key feature of these books, particularly The Mindfulness Colouring Book, is how its small size and weight allow it to be carried around in your bag for when there’s a free moment (just like a kindle!) Furthermore, the ability to dip into whichever page you fancy allows a more flexible alternative to traditional linear print books.
This is part of a continuing trend for personalisation of books, most notable in Keri Smith’s This Is Not A Book and Wreck This Journal, as well as The Pointless Book by Youtube Vlogger Alfie Deyes. Now books are no longer just meant to be read, they are to be written on, drawn on, carried around on string, folded in two… It may not be quite what Roland Barthes had in mind when he wrote Death of the Author, but there is no doubt that these books are far more concerned with the reader’s contribution than the semi-blank canvas they provide. It is now no longer a choice between reading a print book or an e-book; print books are finding ways to exploit their physical form, offer fresh innovations to the industry and find their ways into the hands of people who don’t normally like reading. Whether it’s therapeutic colouring or creative destruction on offer, personalisation of books has breathed new life into the print form.