With his trademark bowtie and button-down shirt, Christopher Kimball, founder of America’s Test Kitchen, doesn’t look like a gambler. Yet he publishes magazines without advertising, charges for recipes while his competitors give them away, and produces dependable cookbooks for the home cook in a Boston-based test kitchen rather than creative works by cooking celebrities. So far his gambles have paid off. In addition to the book operation, ATK publishes Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country magazines and has two of Public Television’s top-ranked cooking shows, America’s Test Kitchen, with 2.2 million weekly viewers, and Cook’s Country from America’s Test Kitchen, with 1.4 million.
“We had our best year ever in books,” said Kimball. “And I don’t mean e-books. Last year we made more money than we ever have in books, and we will do that again this year. Amazon’s up 100% for us, and we blew the doors off From Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens on QVC. We sold 22,000 books in three eight-minute airings.” While two-thirds of ATK’s sales are made direct to subscribers and TV viewers, Kimball said business is also strong at independents, Barnes & Noble, and Costco. ATK’s multi-channel approach allows the company to do initial printings of at least 70,000 to 80,000 copies.
ATK brought its book publishing operations in-house in 1999 following disappointing sales at Clarkson Potter for books on poultry and pasta. Kimball doesn’t regret the decision. The company’s first in-house book, The Best Recipe (later The New Best Recipe), has sold nearly three-quarters of a million copies and launched the Best Recipe series. The next closest seller, The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, has sold 616,000 copies.
But Kimball is taking another gamble and discontinuing the Best Recipe series and replacing it with a line of in-depth books more directly tied to the company’s 20-year-old flagship magazine. The series will launch in October with the 928-page Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook, a best of the best from the magazine. It’s ATK’s answer to Ruth Reichl’s The Gourmet Cookbook, and the press is going all out with a 125,000-copy first printing, a 15-city tour, TV and radio appearances, food blog tours, and meet-ups with bloggers, as well as direct mail and in-store promotions.
“I think big books and definitive books are a strategy. That’s not a book you want on your Kindle,” said Kimball, who predicted that “big cookbooks will have a big run on paper.” ATK does sell e-books, but they’re still a small percentage of the business. “Just because the technology exists doesn’t mean that people want it,” stated Kimball.
Even at close to a thousand pages, Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook has been considerably pared. “We actually started by asking how many pages can we get. We had to work backwards from that and decide how many recipes we needed. We wanted it to fairly represent the last 20 years,” explained Kimball. That worked out to 2,000 recipes (double the number in the Best Recipe titles) with the magazine’s essays condensed into brief descriptions of “Why this recipe works.” Also included are tips and the hand-drawn black-and-white illustrations for which the magazine is known. ATK plans on one Cook’s Illustrated book a year and is already looking ahead to 2012 with a book on the science of cooking planned.
ATK publishes about 10 cookbooks a year, not counting annuals, with a staff of 14 people in the book department and 45 test cooks. Reflecting his belief in the long-term viability of print, Kimball would like to add more books to the list. “Either we’re going to be in the music business, and we’re completely screwed,” he said, “or it will turn out cookbooks will really endure.” With Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook, he’s already placed his bet.