We Go Back to Press, But How Many to Print? - Modernist Cuisine

We Go Back to Press, But How Many to Print?

MCMarch 11, 2011

Sales of the book have accelerated so much that we’re about to sell out of the first printing of Modernist Cuisine. As we prepare to order a second printing, we face a big question: how many more copies should we print?

Several crucial parameters go into this calculation. After we order the printing, it takes about four months to manufacture and ship them, so ordering now gets books from the second printing to us in June. That is not as early as we would like, but that’s how it goes.

At a minimum, we should order enough books to handle four months’ worth of sales; otherwise we would need to order a third printing the moment the second arrives. We need more than this, however, because customers will place new orders between mid-March and mid-June. Taking that into account, we ought to order at least as many as we expect to sell in seven months.

But seven months’ worth of books would run out in October 2011. We would have to rely on a third printing to cover the holiday season. That seems like a risky proposition. If we make a mistake, we could run short of books just when more and more people want them. Complicating matters further, in order for the third printing to arrive in October, we would have to order it in June. Although we’ll know more about the level of demand for Modernist Cuisine in June, we won’t know as much as we would like.

Together, all these factors create a pretty strong motivation for us to order enough books in the second printing to meet demand all the way through the holiday season and into January 2012. Doing that means ordering 10 months’ worth of books, and taking into account that those 10 months include holiday gift giving.

How many books is 10 months worth? That is the big question.

We have always believed that word-of-mouth communication would be critical to sales of Modernist Cuisine. The book is hard to describe, and it is a big enough purchasing decision that many people will need to hear from a friend or see the book in a friend’s kitchen before they buy it. It is hard to tell how well people like the book until people have experience with the book.

That process is just starting. So far, we only have experience with pre-orders. A few hundred copies of MC have been in people’s hands for perhaps a week. That is not enough copies (and not enough time) to get a good handle on how strongly the word-of-mouth buzz will build. We’re trying to get the first printing out as quickly as possible, and by the end of April we’ll see what happens when 6,000 books get into the market.

Unfortunately, a reputation takes time to spread by word of mouth. Customers may need to spend weeks dipping into MC enough to start recommending it to friends and acquaintances. It also takes time for word-of-mouth interest to translate into orders. The first printing will give us a good read on whether the person-to-person buzz around the book is going to be powerful or not, but it is unlikely that we’ll get that read until some point in May or June.

A countervailing factor is that the book is currently back-ordered. Some people don’t want to wait; rather than getting in line, they say “I’ll order when the book is in better supply.” That won’t happen anytime soon, so the volume of orders we see in April and May might not reflect the true demand.

When we faced the same decision for the first printing, we had exactly zero experience. Several publishing companies told me to print 2,000 copies. I wanted to make 10,000, but what at the time seemed to be wiser heads on the MC team prevailed, and we compromised at 6,000 copies. It seemed inconceivable that we could run out of 6,000 copies before we could get a second printing done, so it seemed safe.

In retrospect we clearly should have printed more, but hindsight is like that. It’s unfortunate that 4,000 people will have to wait a couple months longer than if I had followed my initial instinct, but it now seems that a second printing was inevitable regardless. Even more crucially, I would have no more data now to make that inevitable decision on the size of the second printing.

Over the course of the last couple weeks our ideas about how many copies to order for a second printing have increased as sales of the book have soared. Earlier this week, the book hit number 45 on Amazon’s ranked list of all books by sales; it reached number 6 in the cookbook category. But we still don’t have much of an idea of how this translates into sales across the year.

As one example, one could postulate that there are a fixed set of people who want the book, so they will order at a high rate, but once they all have their copies, orders will quickly dry up. I hope that isn’t true, but it is certainly possible. But even if it is true, what is that number? If the total possible market is 10,000, then I really have to worry about it. If the number is 100,000, that is a different story.

An even simpler model is to assume that the current rapid sales rate is driven by the publicity and media coverage surrounding the book. That effect is certainly real, and it is highly likely that the media interest will start to fade in another month or so. So maybe we shouldn’t order that many. On the other hand, while we know that press and broadcast coverage will diminish with time, we also know that it will be supplanted by word of mouth. I don’t know how to quantify the strength of that replacement.

Here’s another imponderable: how big a holiday sales spike should we expect? Normally, cookbooks are timed to come out in September or October precisely so they get a big boost from holiday gift sales. In our case, we started to ship nine months before the holiday season, so a lot of people who would be perfect candidates to get MC as a gift may well buy it for themselves, or get it for their birthday. So maybe we won’t get a big holiday boost. Or maybe we will get one, but it will be offset by a decline in late summer.

Some people on our team started out suggesting a second printing of 10,000 to 15,000. Now they are suggesting 20,000, whereas my instinct is that 25,000 is the right number. That’s probably what we will order, but I wonder whether I am thinking too small (again!).

One final factor is that book printing is a scale game: the more you print, the cheaper the cost per copy. The reason is that setting up the print run carries a high cost, which gets amortized across all the books in the run. Unfortunately, this effect is strongest at small print runs; once you get out to 20,000 copies, the incremental price drop becomes small for the next 5,000.

If anybody has thoughtful suggestions about many copies we should print, I’d be happy to take them. Just post them as comments here.

30 Responses to “We Go Back to Press, But How Many to Print?”

  1. Gavin Scott

    It’s an interesting optimization problem, so I’m glad it’s not mine ๐Ÿ™‚

    Random thoughts:

    You will of course have noted the jump in Amazon sales rank that occurred when you announced the book would be available in short supply, so clearly some of the current sales volume is people trying to make sure they don’t miss the boat and have to wait for months. Today’s blog entry probably will spike the sales graph a bit too.

    The scarcity issue also makes the book more desirable to own due to its rarity and resulting specialness (and some people may even be speculating that there will be an eBay opportunity in the lull between 1st and 2nd printings) so if the 2nd printing also sells out early that’s not entirely a bad thing as people might then be ready to pounce on the 3rd printing especially if it shows up in say November.

    I think it’s a mistake to think of MC as a “Cookbook” for marketing purposes. That’s like treating a Ferrari as a commuter vehicle. Sure, you could use it that way, but there is appeal also as an objet d’art and something people will want to own whether or not they really know how to use it. These customers who may never actually attempt any of the techniques MC describes may yet account for a substantial percentage of sales.

    I could definitely see MC becoming a very trendy Christmas Gift for any foodie type person.

    Can Amazon tell you the number of Wish Lists the book is on? This would seem like an interesting metric for predicting holiday sales, especially how this value evolves over the next few months.

    I really think you should plan on the possibility of a 3rd printing this year as I think you’ll have WAY more information in June or July than you do now, since the book is effectively still in pre-release.

    If you order enough in the 2nd printing to at least get you into the holiday season, then you might be able to delay the 3rd edition order to July for a November arrival rather than having to hit October.

    So I guess I would take everyone’s estimates of how many copies you’ll sell through the end of the year, then order something in the low to middle of this range for the 2nd printing and plan to supplement with a 3rd printing if things are looking better than the conservative estimate.

    For what it’s worth.


  2. Linda Perkins

    38,000 I know you probably can’t order that incrememt, but that’s what I think you will need.

    Every urban bookstore who wants to maintain any cred with it’s customers must shelve it for the holidays. With something of this scope, release date won’t affect that.

    Anyone who wants one who didn’t buy one will ask for one for Christmas. It is the perfect gift to give, it’s the perfect gift to receive. I can spend $500 and give you something that cost $10M to make. It’s a beautiful and meaningful gift.

    Libraries and schools will get them.

    You also have to factor in conspicuous consumption, and people buying them on speculation that they will be worth more later.

    You are going to get a bunch of exposure with the “Cooking MY Way Through Modernist Cuisine” bloggers that are going to pop up. I think there will be way more than one might normally expect because people will try to get your attention and impress you.

    There is such a movement in America to understand cooking. Cable is supporting a whole new cooking channel. I think many people are coming to it, and the people who have been watching food TV for awhile are moving up, first to things like Chow.com and eventually to eGullet. EGullet’s membership is surprisingly large., and I think it will continue to grow. The next step beyond that is culinary school or your book. Most people can’t quit their jobs and go to culinary school so your book is perfect. I think there is such a movement towards home cooks wanting to both appear expert and be expert.

    I don’t think this will be a typical bell curve scenario. More like Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

    I think eGullet, bloggers and your website will maintain word of mouth on the internet. I think culinary students and food professionals will get it or receive it as a gift. And I think word of mouth will be very sustaining.

    I think sales will be very strong. I am willing to gamble that there will be a secondary market for it at Christmas and have ordered two.

    Thank you for this book. Really.

  3. Please be aware that a book of this nature is also prized as a first edition. One reason I am willing to pay the cost of this attractive tome is for bragging rights of having a ‘true’ first edition. I would not be willing to pay the same amount for the second edition. In my case, I would pull my pre-order if a first print-run cannot be filled. I would then wait for a better priced version to come to market. That being said, my recomendation is to format the second edition in a slightly different way that is still attactive but more affordable. This will also have the added advantage of placing a premium on the first edition as a valuable collectors item on the secondary market. I suggest, for what it’s worth, being careful with second print run because you do not know how many of the buyers are true ‘foodies’ and how many are collectors of fine books. I believe, past 10,000 copies, you will fine it a bit harder to fine buyers at current price if not a first edition. Good luck. regards, Scot

  4. potential buyers should deposit say 35% of purchase price so you will have a solid fixed base and indicate when they would want to receive their copy giving you more precise planning details

  5. I’m not sure if it is possible to get this information, but if you could find out how many immersion circulators/SVS have been sold in the past few years, it might give you a better idea of the market for MC for a number of reasons.

    1) Even though MC covers far more than sous vide, the press is strongly associating the book with that technique (see NYT). Word of mouth should counteract that to some extent but it will take time.

    2) There are only a handful of books on the market currently that deal with sous vide and none that I am aware of that cover it in such a systematic and definitive way.

    3) People who do sous vide at home are early adopters who are more likely to be interested in the other modernist techniques in the book.

    Hope this helps!

  6. Congratulations on such an incredible book!

    Still waiting patiently on my copy… I knew I should have ordered before the beginning of February. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’m not sure how much information you can get from Amazon, but I’d assume that they have unbelievably in-depth statistics around the percentage of people who purchase after viewing. Not just for MC specifically, but also for products with similar prices, subject matter, markets, etc. They should also have some pretty amazing statistics around the number of people who purchase based on expected ship date, and how that changes over time based on how close you get to ship date. They might also have data around what percentage of customers come back after something is “in stock” (i.e. don’t actually buy when they can’t get it right away, but check back and order when they can).

    It strikes me that the best way to model the seasonal demand might be to talk to the folks at The Fat Duck or El Bulli and see if they have any data about the seasonality of the demand for their books. Likely this approach is complicated because the TBFDC was originally released in Fall. Not quite in the same price region, but close enough that you’re looking at the same customers.

    I’d look at any data I could possibly get about the preorders. How many of them are scheduled to go to businesses versus individuals? I’d imagine the “business” orders will be pretty finite and easy to model – so you’d easily be able to work out how many copies you could expect to sell to that market going forward. For the individuals – someone, somewhere has market research data to tell you what fraction of a percentage of the population at large is likely to be a customer for the book.

    Scientist/Chef/Computer Geek

  7. Nathan,

    You should just print 20,000. Otherwise a lot of the interest is going to die down, and more people are just going to wait and see – even after the book is out on shelves. People can only wait so long. Trust your guts and be a testimony to your confidence in your product.


  8. This is an intriguing question, and for sure there is significant financial risk involved. It is clear that current sales are no indicator for future sales, although the fact that every last copy was sold before anyone held the physical book in its hand, is surely a good sign…

    Perhaps try it from the other side? What would the total market be? Some gutfeelings below, for what it’s worth:

    * 5-15% of McGee’s sold
    * 10% of upmarket restaurants
    * 20% of number of students, alumni and staff of food technology studies
    * 10x number of specialized cooking stores

    The realistic target geography would be US, Western Europe and Australia. Surely, getting these statistics will be tricky, but could help you to determine if the market is 5k, 25k or 100k copies.

    I would personally think the latter (i.e. 100.000 copies): I had several discussions about the book with people both in the US and Europe interested in food in general, and some in food science. Everybody of them already knew the book from the media coverage, and everyone was eager to hear my experiences from cooking from the book. As my copy was pre-ordered, and hasn’t shipped yet, I couldnt tell them yet… Nonetheless, surely when the book starts to be shipped out, many of these people can also be convinced to get their own copy…

    bottom line: order 25.000 for now, and decide on a third edition next spring.

    Regards, McM

  9. Stuart Millinship

    Since many of us pre ordered many months ago and have or are still waiting for our copies (Me in the UK – April 6th fingers crossed) shows that people want and are prepared to wait for the book.

    My gut feeling would be to let the original run sell out that will make it more “desired” and also prove it’s more than us kitchen geeks who want to get there hands on it. If the demand is there you should see it reflected in your coms

    Also if Amazon can give you advance sales figures then release for advance orders in June with a delivery mid December to get the holiday buyers. By August you would have a good idea of demand and put in your order for printing. If Amazon can give you stats on how pre orders (esp if for a second print run) translate into sales then it’s a no brainer.

    I must admit, I’m torn on how this book will sell (I’ve not seen a copy yet) is it just for those who already embrace science as part of cooking (That could be an initial surge of orders that dies out) or is it something that can bring science to to those who cook (And McGee while excellent is a bit heavy and dry for the cooks I’ve shown/given it to ) and is a real game changer.

    The price is very high, and a barrier a lot of people with think twice before buying. Better to under print and keep demand and desirability going than overprint and have large (and very heavy) stock unsold.

    All the best, can’t wait for my copy to arrive

    Ermintrude on eGullet

  10. Phil Louden

    I appreciate your open dialog regarding book printing. The only suggestion I would offer is I am a casual serious home cook….and I want this series of books! I have seen nothing but positive articles/reviews for your book and have been fascinated by your attention to detail and the small samples I have seen. The photography is creative and amazing. I really believe you would have no problem selling 25000 copies. I know selling the entire volume as one is important but if you were really that far off on your print order, you could sell the volumes as individual books or smaller sets…not optimal I know. I really look forward to owning these books someday. You have a transformational book here. Very Respectfully, Phil

  11. Jonthan

    There’s a chance you’re thinking a bit too small. If MC is as influential as many are believing it will be, than I think it’d be a good idea to think beyond this years holiday sales. If you believe that the buzz will continue to spread beyond this years sales, and if printing more books will mean that prices drop a bit, that makes ownership of MC even more attractive to people for whom it was previously cost prohibitive.

  12. Philip Leedy

    Hello Nathan,

    Your current dilemma regarding quick sales and re-order of a second printing might be simplified by placing a survey of those with real intent of purchase. It may clarify the numbers a bit. With social media sites and twitter connecting a vast multitude, word of good or bad products or their unavailability spread like wild fire. The amazing and never before possible connectivity of the citizens of Egypt seem proof that our media environment has abilities far beyond that of was thought possible only a few years ago.

    Another option is to give those who will have to wait a discounted price or added bonus with a down payment to filter the window shoppers from your true customers.

    If the set-up cost amorยญtization fades as you reach 20,000, could you split the second printing into two shops with the same company, possibly discounting some of the second set-up, while placing two separate orders of 10-15,000 units? If you can print the “dual run”, it might also benefit logistically in lower shipping rates to the distribution warehouses of your partner’s and yourself. Amazon has multiple warehouses throughout the country to facilitate quicker ship dates and cheaper postage in general. This lower cost of shipping might also offset the cost of having two set-up charges. I do not know if this is an available option as I am not in the print industry. I do know someone that was and can inquire as to what his opinion is.

    I am buying this set in early April, if still available, but was under the impression from NPR that it would be made available in a few days. If there are others with this same incorrect understanding that the book had not yet started sales, you will likely sell the remaining stock in short order.

    I am definitely a member of the Greater Geekdom and would normally not be interested in a set of cook books at this price level, but this is something entirely different you’ve created here. I understand technical data and procedure, but cooking with books prior to these can become more alchemical throwing a pinch of this or that without knowing its function. I had heard of the Modernist Cuisine project on NPR some time back and have been awaiting its release.

    Six months ago I started working for myself. If there were a chapter on cooking up about ten clones, my greatest concerns would be resolved……keeping the current customers happy while taking on a great number of new ones without sacrificing quality. In my industry, you are only as good as your last service call and loosing a customer costs thousands a week in potential.

    I hope that you find the answers you’re looking for, as I believe this to be a solid product with the possibility of being overwhelmingly successful. It’s arrival could also help with those who want to start new businesses in the food industry. If your books are as good as they appear to be, they could have a side benefit of creating jobs.

    Thank you for all your hard work on this vast project.

  13. I think you will sell 75,000 over the next 18-24 months; 15,000 each run should work to balance demand with the asset of elusivity. My algorithm is esoteric, but it has worked in the past.

  14. I would order a print of print of 50,000 to 75,000, but would keep that number private, and allude publicly that you expected to sell out and that anyone hoping for a Christmas gift would be wise to order now. Once that rush was finished, you’d have, I’m sure, a better grasp of when and whether you’d need a pre-Christmas order.

    Have you thought about taking a page from the recent publication of Jung’s RED BOOK ? Yes, it was less expensive than MC, but it’s still a $200 behemoth, and one with, I’d imagine, a much smaller anticipated audience: nearly everyone cooks, but not everyone is into esoteric psychologists. It came out in 2009, with an original run of 5,000, and within a few weeks was into its fifth printing. The publishers at Norton, and / or those at the Philemon Foundation, which produced the work, might have some valuable input.

  15. Jocelyn m

    Forgive me if this has been belabored elsewhere… but electronic formats of this book would be a huge savings to you from the publishing side. I would gladly set my kindle aside for a searchable color epub of MC.

  16. Retail Math so simple – expected the unexpected.

    In my experience don’t over think and use your intuition. Order 25,000 units.

    Chasing orders is a great problem to have than having too much inventory. It creates the demand and establishes a marketing/PR conversation too.

    After your 2nd printing, I would establish a flow plan so orders are being written 4-6 times per year and inventory is cycling in and out. After this first holiday season, you can plan next year much better.

    In negotiating with the factory or two, negotiate cost per unit on annual projections not each run. You are also able to purchase paper up front and establish a set price but then you are committed.

    Have Fun!!!

  17. Is it possible that many of the initial orders came from institutional buyers such as newspapers, magazines, restaurant chains and well-healed libraries? I am not a statistician, but I’m sure that such a tendency would skew the numbers.

    In the meantime, I’ll have to lick my chops for waiting too long. I never expected the first printing to sell out. Congratulations!

  18. You had better get your act together or these will be selling for $50 on bargain shelves and the whole thing will be seen as a joke and the buzz you had created will be history. If you are unable to provide and ship the book for those waiting who have their money down you had better think of another career. Get the original orders delivered!!!

  19. Patrick

    Having collaborated with some amazing people on this book, perhaps some of them could give insight into a good number. It seems this book is being purchased by the same number of people as those who bought the El Bulli books, Fat Duck, Culinary Chronicles and others in the high genre. This is a combination cookbook and investment if the print run stays limited. It may even have wider appeal based on the breakthrough factor and unique information afforded the reader. Perhaps you could contact these guys and extrapolate a number from there. I am also assuming that a paperback will either never hit the market or will be held off for four years to maintain strong sales. Finally, I would assume that there will not be a second edition, but rather a new volume covering new ideas and concepts not released in this collection.
    Hope my random thoughts help. Can’t wait for the book, been waiting since October. Good luck and thank you for advancing the science of cooking, wished I could join you!

  20. Having ordered mine as a gift whose timeframe wasn’t be able to be reached unfortunately, I am one of those rare few who cancelled. That is not to say I am not planning on purchasing – in fact, I am planning on ordering 9 copies for friends and family next November to make holiday shopping easy (if you are one of the nine, and you know who you are, quiet please). No make that ten… I forgot myself there. Why not now…

    a) price point, I just did something similar last xmas, and am recovering from that splurge (Sous Vide machines).

    b) I am somewhat hoping that there is a errata revision for printing two or three. Maybe not, but tit would be a rare thing indeed were that true.

  21. I review books for the Charleston Gazette occasionally, and I am reading with interest your goals for this book, and discussions of its intended audience. How could one even begin to review this? Could this help an ordinary person cooking for a family? I think it must certainly be a permanent reference part of every public library. I think you definitely need your own show on the Cooking Channel, for a start. I would watch it. In my mind, this is presently a mysterious project, very cutting edge (and I say that as a person who owns the expensive Fat Duck cookbook). The visuals I’ve seen so far are STUNNERS. A magazine editors dream!

  22. It is an exponential growth problem!
    Just fit your 6,000 sales figure into the formula.
    You need to consider international sales for professional and pro-consumer markets. MC will also become standard culinary text books worldwide.
    When you have demand outstripping supply, just keep the printing press running 24/7.
    The problem is simply just how fast they can print.
    I am very optimistic on MC sales.

  23. is the question really the number of books to print or should the question be: how can we globally market this product so that as many people as possible are interested in this and want to buy it? much as Pepsi decided it was not competing with the soft drink market but with the total amount of fluids consumed by a human being (including water and milk).

    instead of polling for a magical number to print why don’t you co-create innovative marketing strategies with your core community of already-converts?

    i’m writing in from Malaysia and am interested in this but it does seem inaccessible at the moment: so many months away, will the price drop if i wait, will there be a cool marketing offer with my platinum credit card points, etc.

    but mostly, thank you for creating this staggering object of beauty.

  24. i made a pre-order on bookdepository.com in november and now they’ve refunded my money and told me that the book is unavailable to them till further notice ๐Ÿ™

  25. Heh, it’s good to see we’re all agreed ๐Ÿ˜‰ It is a given that the balance between demand and supply needs to both generate and satisfy demand, but the question is how easily you can experiment within the print runs you have in mind. It isn’t a bad idea to conceal your hand, but sales are likely to peak over the next month or two, so I wouldn’t play hard to get too enthusiastically.

  26. Kellie

    I pre ordered the book weeks ago, are there any ideas of when the next printing will begin to ship to those who bought the item?