Where Will You Put Your Copy?

Readers who preordered early have been so excited to finally receive their copies of Modernist Cuisine that they have been emailing us photos of the books in their kitchen, libraries, or living rooms. As the 6,000 sets from the first printing make their way to customers—more than 4,500 have already been delivered, and the rest are in various stages of distribution—the proud owners have a decision to make. Where do you put such a lovely and large five-volume set? (It’s clear where the sixth volume, the waterproof Kitchen Manual, belongs: in the kitchen!) The snapshots below show a few owners’ answers to that question, including a video from Seattle Food Geek. Send us your photo and we’ll add it to the slideshow.

If you preordered but are still waiting patiently for your copy to arrive, know that it is coming. We’ve received a handful of emails from customers who were told by Barnes & Noble that their order had been cancelled. Rest assured that we’re in touch with Barnes & Noble and other retailers who are selling the book so that they have the latest information about when the next shipments will arrive at their warehouses. B&N assures us that all who have ordered Modernist Cuisine so far will receive copies, and they are getting in touch directly with customers who received incorrect information. Most of the back ordered books will be shipped this month.

The remaining 2,000 or so orders that exceeded the first printing will be filled when copies arrive from the second printing, starting in July and continuing through the summer. As much as we’d love to tell you exactly when your book will arrive, we don’t have access to that information. All we can say is that, based on what we’re hearing from customers who now have the book, you’ll find it was worth the wait.

VIDEO: Seattle Food Geek Unboxes His Copy

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Modernist Cuisine Around the World

Taschen press releaseOur first priority in writing Modernist Cuisine was to complete the book in English. That’s my native tongue, and it also happens to be the world’s favorite second language. We planned from the start, however, on having MC translated into multiple languages. The effort involved in creating this book was too big to just leave it in one language, and the techniques in MC can be applied to any cuisine.

So I’m thrilled to announce that we now have a deal with Taschen, the international publisher of many strikingly beautiful and unique books, to create translated editions of Modernist Cuisine in many languages. Initially they intend to produce French, German, and Spanish editions, but we hope to see the book eventually appear in six or more languages. For more details, see the Taschen press release. Stay tuned for details on the release dates.

We are very excited about this development. Taschen is an incredible company that is driven by an incredible man. Benedikt Taschen immediately grasped the significance of Modernist Cuisine. It’s the first time that his company has taken on a cookbook.

The Cooking Lab (my company) will continue to publish the English edition. Learning about the publishing business has been fun, and we are very committed to continuing to publish our book in English. I think that Taschen will do a much better job in producing the translated editions than we would, given their long and successful experience in the book business.

Sales and Shipment Update

Here is the latest word on the shipments of Modernist Cuisine from the printer.


Somewhere between Vancouver and Toronto, there are 250 copies on a train. This is the first shipment to Amazon Canada, where Modernist Cuisine has been long awaited by Canadian customers, as well as a few people outside of Canada who ordered from Amazon Canada. These copies are expected to arrive by March 31 and will be shipped as soon as possible after that.

There are 500 copies on a train to an Amazon service center in Indiana, from where they will likely ship on April 4. Another 600 copies are due to arrive at an Amazon facility in Arizona on March 29.


The last ship left China today, which means that there are 4,130 copies of Modernist Cuisine across a series of nine boats bound for ports in the U.S. and Europe. A boat docks in New York City on March 31 and every few days after that. Some of the boats will not reach their destination for a couple more weeks, but by mid-April, all of the first printing should have shipped to customers.


Total orders for Modernist Cuisine now total about 7,600. The pace of orders has fluctuated a bit as major press pieces come out, but has remained pretty steady.

Second Printing

The second printing is happening! The presses are running today for Volume 1 and we are busy making minor corrections to the other volumes. They will all be in press by the end of the week.

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

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.

Waiting for Our Ship to Come In

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.

Demand for Modernist Cuisine Will Temporarily Outstrip Supply

In my previous post, I explained how I arrived at the decision to print 6,000 copies of Modernist Cuisine in the first press run. Initially, the plan was for all 6,000 copies to arrive at about the same time. They would be printed and assembled in China and then loaded into containers for the long trip across the Pacific. Then trucks would pick them up at ports of arrival in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere, and finally, the books would fan out to warehouses, both those of individual booksellers, like Amazon.com, and distributors, like Ingram.

Unfortunately, the printer ran into some delays in the binding part of the process. Although all of the books are now printed, binding is not yet complete on all of them. Chinese New Year has been another source of delay, like most businesses in China, our printer shuts down for two weeks surrounding this major holiday. A similar delay occurred last fall.

The good news is that the first shipment of books has left China and is now steaming its way across the Pacific. It is due to arrive at the port of Seattle on February 19. As soon as the books clear customs, they will be trucked to the nearest distribution centers. If you have pre-purchased a book, depending on the bookseller and how long ago you put in your order, your set might be on its way to you in the last week of February or the first week of March. This is actually ahead of schedule!

The bad news is that this first shipment contains only 500 books. The next shipment, which should be larger, is due to arrive on March 17. After that, books are due to arrive every week or two through early May.

As of this morning, 2,721 copies have been pre-ordered through various booksellers, so unfortunately, the first shipment will fulfill only some of those pre-orders. Please bear with us; we will catch up as the books come in.

The old-school publishing way to handle this matter would be to hold all of the books until enough have arrived to fulfill every order placed to date. I actually had people suggest that to me! I was horrified. Some people put in their order way back in August. They were first in line, so it only seems fair that they should get their books first.

Apparently, holding books is the conventional wisdom in publishing because publishers consider the bookstore, not the reader, to be the customer. Publishers take great pains to avoid looking like they are giving advantage to one store over another. So if a shortage develops, the publisher typically delays release until it can give every store its allocation of books on the same day.

That strikes me as just plain silly. It is a simple fact that some stores (both the online variety as well as those made of bricks and mortar) have been accepting pre-orders for Modernist Cuisine for months now. Why shouldn’t they get precedence?

Our allocation strategy is to send each store or distributor a prorated share of the shipments based on the number of orders they have taken. That seems fair to both customers and stores. This allocation scheme means that if you order Modernist Cuisine today, you’ll get it at roughly the same time no matter whom you order from. But if you ordered it months ago, you’ll get it before people who order it now.

This isn’t an exact science, of course. Some distributors have longer delays than others in moving new books through their system. Some distribution centers are farther than others from Seattle, and not all vendors use the same delivery services. I can’t control those variables, so the scheme is as fair as I know how to make it.

There is one small loophole to “roughly the same time” that requires a bit of an explanation. Most books are basically sold on consignment, meaning that stores retain the right to retain any books they stock that do not sell. Books that come back from retail outlets are usually remaindered because they become worn from being handled while on display.

For this very reason, expensive art books are almost invariably sold to bookstores on a non-returnable basis. As a result, most bookstores can’t afford to stock them, the cost of carrying the inventory is just too high. Instead, the store takes one copy to put out for display rather than sale; then it takes orders from customers. This is the way that most brick-and-mortar bookstores are handling Modernist Cuisine. I suspect, however, that a few stores have taken the plunge and bought some copies on spec. They will likely have bought through our distributors, so I can’t say whether they bought copies to fulfill customer orders or to place for sale on on their shelves.

So it may be possible to find a copy of Modernist Cuisine for sale in a bookstore, even if it is back ordered online. Then again, it may not. We’ll just have to find out.

The reason I bother to mention all of this is that the possibility of a shortage of Modernist Cuisine looms in our future. Normally speaking, pre-orders don’t add up to much; people tend to wait for reviews and hear the buzz via word of mouth before they decide to buy a book. In our case, pre-orders are already approaching half of our initial print run. They are running well ahead of my expectations and those of the publishing experts that I have consulted.

Frankly, we have no idea how to extrapolate from our amazing pre-order rate to total sales of the book. It seems likely, however, that in the months ahead, people will continue to order the book at least at the current rate that they have been ordering, and possibly at a much quicker pace. If the latter occurs (there is, of course, no guarantee), then we may find ourselves sold out of the first print run before we can fulfill the last pre-orders. Customers ordering at the tail end of the pre-order period could then see a delay of a few weeks to perhaps a few months before their books arrive.

We’re trying to figure out ways around this issue. We’re now working on ordering a second print run, and talking to our printer about accelerating their shipping schedule. We’ll keep you posted on our progress.

As the First Books Arrive by Air, We Ponder: Did We Print Enough?

The 49 lb. box on a dollyWe 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!

Cracking the sealThose 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.

Lifting off the outer cartonSince 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.

Opening the kitchen manualThe 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.

Lifting up the top layer of paddingAlso 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.

Removing the inner cartonAfter 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 Unwrapping the main caseto 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.

Sliding volume 5 out of the caseOf 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 Perusing volume 4to 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 The colored edges of the pages make it easy to find a particular chapter 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

The cutaways look fantastic in print