It is an exciting time for Modernist Cuisine! Three ships left China last week carrying a total of almost 2,000 copies and headed for various ports. Each week, more boats will leave with more copies. By March 21, the last part of the first printing will have left China. So we are literally waiting for our ships to come in.
A natural question to ask is: when do those copies reach actual customers? The answer is complicated. It takes a ridiculous amount of time (from where I stand, anyway) to ship the books from their port of entry in the U.S. or Europe to the distribution centers that companies like Ingram and Amazon use to ship products to end customers and bookstores. Part of the problem is that those distribution centers have been located to minimize shipping time from the center to the customer. That sounds great, except that in this case we want to minimize the time from China to the customer.
If a book is in stock, then optimizing the time from the distribution center to the customer makes perfect sense. If a bookstore orders from Ingram, or a customer orders from Amazon, then they want their books quickly. Usually, the books are sitting in a warehouse, typically one situated in an area with good connections for UPS and FedEx, but also cheap real estate, so the cost of holding the books at the warehouse is not too high. Major cities have lots of customers, but hardly anybody places a distribution center in a major city; land is just too expensive. Fortunately, UPS, FedEx, and other shipping companies do a fantastic job of shipping within the U.S., so this system works.
Unfortunately for us, however, the distribution centers are typically located far from the coastal ports where boats from China dock. Shipping a load of 1,000 books from, say, Seattle to Indiana is a very slow process—the books go by train and then truck, on a journey that takes as many as 10 days to complete. That is much longer than the two or three days that UPS or FedEx typically require to ship books to customers.
So, why not use UPS and FedEx to ship to the distribution center? Well, it’s just too expensive. In fact, shipping this way would cost more than twice as much because companies like Ingram and Amazon have deals with UPS and FedEx that are vastly cheaper than a small company like ours can get. That is understandable, given the tremendous volume of goods that these giants move. In addition, the distribution centers have complicated logistics systems that make it easy for them to ship things. We don’t have anything like that at The Cooking Lab, especially in the port cities that we have been using.
Another solution is to send the books to closer ports—to New York, for example, rather than to Seattle or Los Angeles. Water is very slippery stuff, so it does not take much energy to move across the ocean. As a result, most of the cost of shipping by boat is in loading and off-loading. A few years ago, I compared the price of shipping a container from China to Seattle to the price of shipping the same container from Vancouver, B.C. to Seattle. At that time, the cost was $2,500 from China and $2,000 from Vancouver—even though Vancouver is only 150 miles away from Seattle.
The drawback to the many-ports approach is that boats are slow. Typically, they travel at a mere 23 knots (nautical miles per hour). That is the “made good” speed averaged over the trip, and it corresponds to 26 miles per hour (42 km/hour). The distances are vast. China to Seattle is 5,761 nautical miles, which takes 10 days and 10 hours at 23 knots. China to New York, on the other hand, is 11,061 nautical miles, or almost exactly twice as far. This voyage takes 20 days at 23 knots. Of course, the 23 knot figure is an average. Part of our first shipment did in fact go to New York, and it took a full 30 days, whereas our Seattle and Los Angeles shipments have been more like 11 days, in line with the estimate above.
In addition, there are always snafus. We had a situation where 150 copies of the book got misplaced at a distribution center for several weeks while we and the parties involved tried to find them. Those copies have now shipped, but they got delayed in the system for about three weeks. Yes, that is frustrating, but that sort of Catch-22 situation does happen in the real world.
So, the bottom line is that we are hoping that roughly 2,000 copies will ship to customers by late March, although that may slip into April. All of the rest of the copies should ship during April, but please note that I am saying should, not guaranteeing that they actually will.
There has been a lot of chatter online about Amazon changing shipping dates in their emails to customers. With all due respect to my friends there, I would not take the exact dates very seriously because neither they, nor we, know all of the variables.
Finally, I need to say again that the current shipping situation is due to unforeseen issues with production of the book. The original plan was that the first shipment would also be the last shipment, and we’d get 6,000 copies all at once. It didn’t work out that way, so we decided instead to ship as many books as we could, as soon as we could. I’m sorry that we’ve left people waiting for their copies, but in our defense, this is the first 2,400 page cookbook we’ve ever written. Come to think of it, it is the first cookbook of this scope that the printer has ever done, or for that matter, anybody has ever done. Some teething problems are inevitable when you push the edge of the envelope.
The production issues have all been resolved, but unfortunately there have been some delays. The good news is that everybody who orders, up through today, should get their books in April, or worst case scenario, in early May.
That brings up another issue. We are set to finalize the second printing, but that will not yield books until June. Very soon, people who order the book are going to wind up getting the second printing, not the first, which means that their copies will not arrive until June. It is entirely possible that we will experience some delays until enough of the second printing arrives to soak up the back orders that will arrive between the point that the first printing is sold out (any day now) and when the second printing arrives. Anyone ordering the book in the second half of March will probably have to wait until June to get the book. So I would not be surprised if Modernist Cuisine is on back order status until some point in July.
We hope to improve on this situation, so please don’t panic, but our philosophy of being transparent and open about shipping issues means that I do have to point out that they are a possibility.