Yes, one third of 2015’s best-selling books are adult coloring books. No, it doesn’t mean what you think it means.

There was great rejoicing by those who love print books when Nielsen released the chart at top. Not only were eBooks not taking over, but print book sales in the US were rising for the second straight year: 571 million sold as of early December 2015, compared to 559 million for all of 2014.

“Don’t start celebrating just yet” warned one columnist (the always insightful Mathew Ingram @mathewi): publishers were saying that one of the reasons print book sales were up was the popularity of books by YouTube celebrities and adult colouring books. And it’s true: if you look at the Amazon best-selling books of 2015 (updated daily!) or in the screenshot below, you can see that five out of the top 15 are indeed colouring books, with The Martian (my personal favourite geek book of the year) down in #16 place.

Amazon best sellers

Assuming normal seasonality, a lot of print books are going to get sold around Christmas in the US, so that the 2015 print number will likely be  590-600 million, or 30-40 million more than 2014. Just how much of that growth is due to (shudder) colouring books?

Less than you think. The book industry is very much UNLIKE the movie industry. As you can see from the chart below, the percentage of total North American (US and Canada) box office receipts from the top five films has been climbing for years. Over 42% in 2014, the top five contribution will likely be even higher in 2015 due to the record breaking performance of the newest Star Wars installment. In the movie business, it is “all about the blockbuster.”

Canaccord Genuity Movie Trend

That’s not the case for books. As above, there were 559 million print books sold in the US in 2014. The top selling book was The Fault in Our Stars, which sold 3.5 million copies across three versions (hardcover, trade paperback, and movie tie in paperback.) But if I add up the combined sales of the top TEN books (not top five, as in movies) they sold just over 11 million copies. Or about 2% of annual book sales.

The book market has its best-seller list. But the book market is so fragmented that even the most popular books don’t really have a significant impact on overall sales.

Yes, adult colouring books were bigger this year than last. And they did make up a portion of the best seller list. But based on the 2014 distribution of sales for best-sellers, I estimate that the five colouring titles that made it into the top 15 would have sold around 4 million copies.

Which is 0.7% of total print book sales for the year, or only about 10-13% of the 30-40 million additional unit sales that we will see in 2015.

I think I will go back to celebrating! Print books are alive and well, and things like colouring books are only a small part of the story.


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