Sales of You Can Count on a Monster, which uses vibrant, monster-themed geometrical designs to introduce prime and composite numbers, had been humming along since the picture book’s February 2010 release by A K Peters, a Natick, Mass.-based science and technology publisher. Recently, the sales volume increased dramatically after the book, written and illustrated by Brown University math professor Richard Evan Schwartz, was serendipitously spotlighted on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition on January 22, when host Scott Simon interviewed Keith Devlin, the show’s “Math Guy,” who shared his enthusiasm for the book.
Schwartz first conceived You Can Count on a Monster eight years ago, as a fifth-birthday present for his daughter. “I made her a little flip book to teach her prime numbers,” he says. “I gave each prime monster-like number little smiling faces, while the rest of the numbers were frowning. She’s a smart kid, and I wanted her to figure out why. And then a bit later, I began to draw on the computer and got a bit carried away. I made the pictures in color, and gradually they got fancier, and the idea came to me of using composite pictures to factor the numbers.”
Schwartz, who creates comic books and posters “for fun,” then turned the monster numbers pictures into posters, and about a year and a half ago picked up on his wife’s suggestion that he turn the concept into a book. Over the years, the author has had papers included in Experimental Mathematics, a quarterly journal published by A K Peters. He submitted his children’s book idea to the company’s founders and publishers, Alice and Klaus Peters. “I was going to self-publish the book, but I sent it to them on a whim, since I know that they are genuinely interested in getting mathematics out there,” says Schwartz. “Still, I wasn’t really expecting them to say yes, but they quickly agreed to publish it.”
The Peters, veteran publishers who have held editorial positions at such companies as Springer-Verlag, Birkhauser Boston, and Academic Press, founded A K Peters in 1992. Their company, which has a backlist of more than 300 titles, was acquired last year by CRC Press, a division of the Taylor & Francis Group.
The publishers were indeed keen on Schwartz’s book, and signed it up as the first picture book ever released under the A K Peters imprint (the house has published several biographies of scientists for middle school-age readers). “We were both entranced by this book, which is so cool and interesting, both from a math point of view and from an educational point of view,” Alice Peters explains. And, Klaus adds, “Though we are not a children’s publisher, we are somewhat eclectic, and decided we’d make an investment in You Can Count on a Monster and see if it would fly.”
Fly it did after the NPR mention, a week after Klaus Peters showed the book to Devlin at a conference. The commentator was sufficiently impressed that he queried his producer about featuring the book on Weekend Edition, and the segment aired on the show the following Saturday. “We had a few days notice about the show and gave our marketing people a heads-up, but of course there wasn’t time to reprint the book beforehand,” Klaus says.
Sales “exploded” after the broadcast, he says. “Before that Saturday, we had sold roughly 3000 copies of the book. On Monday morning, we had 15,000 new orders.” The book went on to appear in the #3 slot on the March 3 Indie Bestseller Children’s Interest list. After a quick reprinting, You Can Count on a Monster now has 45,000 copies in print, approximately 25,000 of which have been sold, according to Klaus.
“I was totally amazed,” says Schwartz of the response to the Weekend Edition spot. “I heard the day before that the book would be mentioned on NPR, and thought that might kick sales up a bit, but to see the book climb to the number one sales ranking on Amazon within hours—and stay there for a few days—was totally unexpected.”
Schwartz doesn’t rule out creating additional children’s books, though he notes “my main line is doing math research. That sometimes comes slowly, so this was a nice diversion. I’ve always enjoyed writing short stories and making art posters, and this book was another way for me to take a break. Seeing the book doing so well has been really exciting—but a bit distracting!”
You Can Count on Monsters by Richard Evan Schwartz. A K Peters (Taylor & Francis Group, dist.), $24.95 paper ISBN 978-1-56881-578-7