At Really Big Coloring Books, Profits Trump Political Ideology
Ted Cruz to the Future, a coloring book starring the Republican junior senator from Texas, is now in its seventh week as Amazon.com’s best-selling coloring book. The text-heavy item, intended for children of all ages, retails for $5.39 and covers topics ranging from Cruz’s “defense of the partial-birth abortion ban” to his thoughts on the “approaching Obama Care disaster.” Games include a maze to help Cruz get to the U.S. Capitol. “It’s a hot property,” says Wayne Bell, founder of the book’s publisher, Really Big Coloring Books. “In our office we don’t say merry Christmas anymore, we say ‘merry Cruzmas.’ ”
St. Louis-based RBCB has done its best to maximize profits by creating coloring books for customers on both sides of the partisan divide. Its catalog features titles such as The Tea Party Coloring Book for Kids and We Shall Never Forget 9/11: The Kids’ Book of Freedom, in which children can color in, for example, an illustration of the smoking, soon-to-collapse Twin Towers. RBCB also offers America’s Leaders: Obama-Biden 2012; Occupy, a slim explanation of the movement; and Being Gay Is Okay, which includes cutout trading cards of famous gay people such as Elton John and Rachel Maddow. “You’ve gotta be flexible in the print business,” Bell says. “It’s about America. It’s not about us.”
Bell, 54, stumbled into the coloring book world during college. His family’s print shop churned out forms for the U.S. government and various companies. One day in 1981, on his grandmother’s suggestion, Bell used waste paper from the shop to design a coloring book about Noah’s ark. It sold 5,000 copies that year. In 1988 he trademarked Really Big Coloring Books—named for its large-format books—and went into publishing full time.
Until 2008, RBCB focused on what is still its bread and butter: standard Crayola fare such as horses, dinosaurs, and ABCs. Then, during the presidential race, parents and teachers began flooding its site, searching for Obama books. “They were all typing in Obama, Obama, Obama, Obama, every day,” Bell says. To capitalize on the demand, he published his first “cultural events” title, President Obama: A Coloring & Activity Book. “We sold them by the 18-wheeler-load, literally,” Bell recalls. “We got six figures in less than 30 days, and the book was being sold for $3.99. … That’s when I realized, there’s something to this.”
Cultural events books now make up 7 percent of RBCB’s business. Bell, who has 18 employees, chooses most topics himself and sends researchers to gather materials from government websites, federal public records, and news outlets. “We try and get our facts square and straight as possible, even though a lot of people don’t agree with them,” he says. The idea for Ted Cruz to the Future hit Bell while watching TV. “Everyone was giving him a hard time, and I thought, ‘That man could use a coloring book.’ ”(Before going to press, RBCB never contacts or seeks permission from subjects such as Cruz.) RBCB won’t disclose its revenue, but Bell says that it sells millions of books each year and that 2013 was its best year yet.
Bell, himself a Cruz fan, isn’t bothered that liberals buy his Cruz book to give away as ironic presents, and he revels in controversy. Last year, RBCB sent a box of Being Gay Is Okay books to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We just said, ‘You don’t have to beat up them gay people in Russia,’ ” he says. “I wrote the note myself.”
Several of RBCB’s coloring books are quite intense. One, The True Faces of Evil—Terror, lets kids color in scenes of rescue workers climbing through the rubble of the Twin Towers and “radical Islamic Muslim extremists who simply want to murder innocent civilians.” The book comes with terrorist trading cards. (It includes the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Julian Assange, and Lee Boyd Malvo, the “Beltway Sniper.”) Bell says the books, intended for children ages 6 and up, help parents educate their kids and address controversial topics. “We told the entire story, the 18 hours of 9/11, start to finish,” he says. “We showed what happened to Osama bin Laden at the very end, hiding behind the skirt tails of one of his wives. We put it out there—and nobody else would ever do that.”
Harold Koplewicz, president of the Child Mind Institute, a children’s mental-health-care treatment center in New York, says such graphic images are not appropriate for children under 12. Those younger than 6, he says, can’t grasp such material, and scare easily. Children ages 6 to 12 tend to see everything as black and white, and “these are not black-and-white issues,” Koplewicz says. “If anything, [these images] will make kids uptight—and if kids are uptight and anxious, they don’t learn.” Bell admits that kids should not be left to “color alone,” but he says parents will know when their children are ready.
Over the years, Bell has been accused of racism, bigotry, and Islamophobia, though he says he would never print a book promoting racism. After receiving death threats in 2010, RBCB installed 24-hour video surveillance at his offices. Still, Bell says he loves his job: “We’re taking coloring books in a new direction. They’re almost like newspapers for kids.”