Dept. of Special Sales

Every year around this time our Quirk history titles find their way into a little mail-order catalog called Bas Bleu. It bills itself as a book catalog for discriminating women readers. We’d never heard of the catalog before our book started showing up in it; now we do run across a lot of (ahem, older) women friends and readers who tell us they first learned of our book in the pages of this catalog.

A few years ago, when Signing Their Lives Away first showed up in this catalog, I “subscribed” so I would always be up-to-date on when it came out. (The company mails about a million during the holiday season!) Recent editions have carried both of our Signer titles; the current one features both signer books and the new Stuff Every American Should Know, which came out this year. Here’s how the pages featuring our books look:

Here’s what I notice. Every time the catalog comes out, our titles get a slight bounce in sales at Amazon. Shockingly, a lot of catalog recipients don’t wait to buy from the catalog; they use it to showroom. Then they go buy whatever they like at Amazon. You can spot this effect clearly by inspecting the also-boughts for our Amazon books over the course of the Christmas season. Overnight they suddenly shift from the customary U.S. history fare to goofy trivia books unrelated to history, cat books, obscure historical romances, etc.

In the book biz accounts like Bas Bleu are called “special sales,” and encompass everything from catalog sales to gift shop sales, museum sales, etc. Basically, anything outside the realm of ordinary bookstores.

About three years ago, when I figured out that these types of stores could be important, I started researching ones that tied in with the signers of the Declaration of Independence. (Think: the gift shop at Monticello.) We must have printed and mailed about 200 to 300 letters to various historic sites and their gift shops, telling them about our book. I’d never done anything like that before, but I knew I had to do something. Our first signer book had done really well during its first month but returns were starting to pour in. Its moment in the sun was fading.

One or two people called me directly to order the book or ask about doing a book signing, but mostly, I never heard from the vast majority of people I’d sent the letters to. I had no idea if my plan had worked. Then one day we got a call from a business dude at Quirk, who asked: “What have you guys been doing to promote this book? We’re getting a lot of new accounts. Normally book sales drop off after the first year. Yours is growing.”


It used to be that whenever we passed by a bookstore, we’d run in to see if they carried our book. But we don’t do that anymore. I’d love to say that’s because we’ve over it, but mostly, it’s just depressing. You’ll have a huge B&N or BAM and they’ll have 1 copy of our book in the history section in a spot where, let’s just say, the book jacket is in little danger of ever being sun-damaged. Then we’ll visit a history site and they have stacks of our book and the booksellers there recognize us by name. That is weird, but for certain books cultivating such markets can really work.

Recently I learned that the Salvador Dali museum in Florida is carrying my children’s picture book on Fibonacci. Yes, the Fibonacci sequence is often embraced by artists. That got me thinking: art museums + Fibonacci = cha-ching?

I really think my time these days is better spent working on new books, but I am really tempted to start researching art museum gift shops. Let you know if I do.