We were so excited to see the first bound copies of Modernist Cuisine in their beautiful acrylic cases that we couldn’t wait for them to cross the Pacific by boat. So we had a small number shipped to us by air, despite the eye-popping delivery cost involved when you ship a 49 lb / 22 kg package halfway around the world in an airplane.
It was worth it. Several of us gathered in my office as we opened the outer carton, then opened the inner carton, then removed the kitchen manual and elaborate padding, and then, at last, lifted out the case with the five major volumes inside. A chorus of “oooooh” went up in the room, and at that moment, the weight of what we have made really sank in. I don’t mean that just figurativelyModernist Cuisine is so massive you can almost feel its gravitational attraction. You don’t want to drop it on your toe!
Those of us in the room had seen the photos in these volumes and read the text over a hundred times during the past several years, as we developed the material from rough concept to final, proofread form. But it really does look different, and so much better, when finally printed on a state-of-the-art press and bound, largely by hand, into a high-quality book. Subtle details like the rounding of the spine (so that the books open flat), the extra-wide gamut of the photography, the exquisite sharpness of the text, and the silky feel of the varnished Japanese art paper all really add to the experience.
Since then, a few others have laid hands on the books, and many of them seem to have similar experiences. The very positive reception raises the question of whether our first printing will be large enough to satisfy the initial demand.
I’ve been asked many times how many copies we ordered for the first printing. My first impulse was to decline to answer; was this something that one talked about? Would it help or hurt sales of the book?
So I asked one of my publishing consultants what is normally done. “What do real’ publishers say about details like that?” He said, “Oh, that’s easy to answer. They lie!”
Apparently, it is a time-honored tradition among publishers to exaggerate any statistics associated with their books. In fact, it happens so frequently that there is a common phrase in the business: the “announced first printing,” which is the number that the publisher wants you to know. It may or may not be the actual number of first-run books.
The economics of printing reflect the fact that there is a lot of work up front getting the presses set up, making the plates for each color of ink, and so forth. For a small print run, those up-front costs can dominate the overall cost. The per-copy cost often drops dramatically as the number of books printed rises. As a result, a publisher commonly orders just 5,000 copies of a new hardcover book initially. That is enough to achieve a substantial economy of scale while hedging against the risk that customers won’t want that many. That said, some books are published with a first run of only 1,000 books or even fewer.
Also for most books, the first run is also the last run; that’s all of that given title that will ever be created. Books are sent back to press for second and subsequent print runs only if sales warrant. One commonly hears in publishing that about 40% of all books that are printed are pulped because nobody buys them. This partly reflects the economics of printing, but there are other business and marketing factors that often induce publishers to print too many books, as an industry insider explains here.
After thinking it over, I decided that the best thing for Modernist Cuisine is to be transparent and tell everybody what our print run really is. We ordered 6,000 copies of Modernist Cuisine.
We had a lot of internal debate about that number. About a year before the book came out, I took a bunch of printed pages to New York City and made the rounds of publishers. At that point, I hadn’t yet come to the decision to publish the book myself. One question that I asked about was print run. The answers that I received between 2,000 and 3,000 copies were one of the principal reasons that I eventually decided not to work with those publishers. If they thought that they could sell only that many books, then they probably would; the estimate would likely be self-fulfilling. I didn’t want to work with companies that had that little faith in the book.
Of course, I also realized that they might be right! Even so, a tentative approach to printing seemed like a bad idea, given the even bigger plunge I had already taken on writing the book. So my initial plan was to print 10,000 books in the first print run.
We ended up with a number in between, in part because every new book inevitably contains a number of typos. Despite our extensive proofreading, this is bound to be true for Modernist Cuisine as well. Given that it contains well over a million words, even a 99.999% accurate proofreading process will miss something like a dozen errors. Once the first copies are out, we and others will catch those mistakes. We might as well fix them on the second printing; otherwise there are that many more copies out there with the error.
Plus, warehousing the book costs money. We did a lot of spreadsheet analysis into how much it costs to warehouse various quantities of books for up to two years. Initial demand is now looking so strong that perhaps we didn’t need to worry about storing books (more on that in my next post), but it’s always important to ask the “what if” question before you leap, rather than after.
Does this mean that the first edition is 6,000 copies? Well, that depends on your definition, because there are no strict standards. Publishers use the term to mean the first typesetting of the book that includes the content. There can be multiple print runs within a single edition, including the first edition. Book collectors often do use the term “first edition” to mean “first print run.” Others, especially in the textbook business, reserve “edition” to mean a substantial revision to the content, as distinct from simply a reprinting with the typos fixed.
Our goal with Modernist Cuisine is to reach as many people as we can, so rest assured that we will continue to print the book by ordering new print runs as often as we need to.
Photos by Ryan Matthew Smith. Copyright 2011 Modernist Cuisine, LLC