Modernist Cuisine, the 2,438-page, $625 cookbook on avant-garde cuisine that comes out next month, is in a league of its own when it comes to recipes (you think Ina Garten’s latest has Astronaut Ramen, a dish in which everything is freeze-dried, even the edible cup?). But the book also breaks many traditional publishing rules. No bound galleys mass mailed to the media. No pre-pub buzz at BEA. And certainly no remainders selling at The Strand. Unsurprisingly, author Nathan Myhrvold and his collaborators had trouble finding a traditional publisher who was willing to go out on such a limb—so naturally, they self-published the book. PW talked with Wayt Gibbs, editor-in-chief, about the process.
Why publish this as a book—why not a digital encyclopedia that can be searched and linked?
Nathan gets asked that all the time because he is associated with technology and the digital world. We considered that option. But a big part of Modernist Cuisine is the photography. It’s as much a visual experience as a literary reading experience. Readers will see it’s really unusual as a book, because it has these really large cutaway photos, and step-by-step techniques almost always have lots of illustrations that go with them that really help make clear what the food is supposed to look like. Those aspects would not be the same if it were digital. Of course tablets didn’t even exist when we started this project in 2006. And it’s meant to be cooked from. It’s printed on waterproof paper and it’s bound for the explicit purpose of taking it into the kitchen. You want something that will lie flat and be easy to read. For all of its strengths, digital technology can’t quite deliver. As for the search and links, we tried to take that and apply it in the print book. There are thousands of cross-references in the book. We invested in a 60-page index and hired two of the best indexers in the business, Deborah Patton and Alexandra Nickerson.
As of February 15, more than 2,700 copies had been preordered, already approaching half of your initial print run of 6,000 copies. What do you make of the enthusiastic response so far?
Some of it is mysterious to us! But it’s ahead of our expectations, which were set by our conversations with people in the industry. Had we listened to what we thought was sage advice, we would have printed many fewer copies. The price would’ve been lower and the situation we find ourselves in—there’s already a shortage of books—would’ve been that much worse. We’ve been pretty amazed by the breadth of demand and interest among the mass media. We knew that if we did our jobs right professional cooks and the media that are aimed at professionals would see this as a must-buy. But we didn’t really know what the level of interest would be among foodies, and then beyond foodies to people who are just interested in the science of everyday life, and beyond that to people who are interested in photography and other aspects of the book.
What do you say to detractors who take issue with the book’s price point?
Certainly it’s priced much higher than the American cookbook world is used to. In Europe, cookbooks that cost 100 euros or more are quite common, but in the U.S. it’s really not the rule. Unfortunately, it’s a real limiting factor on what a cookbook can be—it can only be a certain size, it can only have so many photographs, etc. From the beginning, Modernist Cuisine was a mission-driven project. It’s not one book. It’s six very large books with a beautiful case to hold them. It involved a huge investment. It’s really a unique product in that regard and it’s expensive to make. It’s also a tremendous value proposition. People seem to get that right away. What would you pay for dinner at Alinea or dinner at elBulli? A dinner for two there is going to run you more than this book. This book is hundreds of dinners, years of cooking.
It sounds like you learned a lot about the way the publishing business works in this process. What business practice were you most surprised at?
We were surprised and frankly a bit dismayed by how little flexibility mainstream publishers have in dealing with situations like ours, where the author is capitalizing the project and it’s a capital-intensive project and really needs to have control over the quality of the product all the way through printing. This reduces the amount of work that the publisher has to do, especially if the author has a platform that ensures a certain degree of publicity. The publisher isn’t going to have to work as hard as they normally would to sell people on the project. We would’ve been happy to not have to deal with all of the technical details involved in prepress, manufacturing, shipping, and distribution. It probably reflects too much traditionalism or lack of innovation in publishing, and it also probably reflects an inherent fear of high risk, high payoff projects.
This calls to mind The Alinea Cookbook, which Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas published in partnership with Ten Speed Press while still retaining a lot of control over the book.
I spoke with Grant and Nick about their book before it had come out. Their publisher was one we had approached because Grant and Nick had had a pretty good experience. The response to The Alinea Cookbook was so much greater than the publisher had anticipated. Maybe it has to do with this being seen as an avant-garde cuisine that’s unproven in the market. For authors like Grant and Nathan, who have faith in what they’re doing, the conventional publishing world maybe doesn’t seem like it’s quite prepared to handle it the right way.