While many people have heard of Jessica’s Biscuit, legions of others don’t know a thing about the online retailer. First things first: the site does not sell biscuits. It sells cookbooks—about 14,000 of them—online, at a discount, often at prices lower than Amazon. It was founded in 1980 by David Strymish and Mark Landau, when they placed a small cookbook ad in Gourmet. Despite the lukewarm response, Strymish and Landau stuck with it, photocopying 20 b&w catalogs, which they included in each order they mailed out. Today, Jessica’s Biscuit—named impulsively after the founders’ two dogs, Jessica and Biscuit—is also known as ecookbooks.com. It stocks nearly every in-print cookbook, and will locate out-of-print cookbooks at customers’ requests. And its prices are consistenly lower than Amazon’s. COO Steve Gans said, “It’s obviously difficult fighting off Amazon, but we’ve been able to do it by having an expertise and being dedicated only to cookbooks.”
Jessica’s Biscuit stocks a dizzying array of cookbooks, from brand new releases to award winners to more obscure titles (for instance, there are eight books listed under its “Alaskan Cooking” category). Books are priced low, with discounts dipping all the way to 75% on some books. Most new books come in just below Amazon’s prices (e.g., Serious Barbecue, a summer title from Hyperion, lists for $35, and is $21 at Jessica’s Biscuit and $22.30 at Amazon). How does the 18-employee, Newton, Mass., company do it? “We buy right,” said Gans. “We have 29 years of experience in cookbooks. David [Strymish, the CEO] knows cookbooks better than anyone. We make smart buying decisions.” It also offers deals where customers who spend $40 or more may choose either a free package of coffee or a free cookbook from a select list.
Strymish, whose father created the New England Mobile Book Fair in 1957, said he “underguesses” when it comes to ordering most books, and if he seems movement, he reacts quickly and uses his good relationships with vendors “to get them to put our order on top—which doesn’t necessarily happen.” A few recent examples are Cook Yourself Thin: Skinny Meals You Can Make in Minutes (“We didn’t have a clue on this. But it was obvious how quickly it took off”) and BabyCakes: Vegan, Gluten-Free, and (Mostly) Sugar-Free Recipes from New York's Most Talked-About Bakery (“we ran out like everyone else did. But we jumped on it quickly”).
Because it is privately held, the company won’t release sales figures. But Gans said, “It’s safe to say that we’re the leading company in the country that focuses just on cookbooks.” 90,000 people have opted in to its e-newsletter, which goes out two or three times weekly, and ships several hundred thousand orders a year.
Jessica’s Biscuit may be small compared to Amazon, but one place it excels is in its revenue-sharing deals. Content sites that want to have a cookbook store often pick Jessica’s Biscuit as an affiliate. The company is the official cookbook store for the Food Network, Gourmet, Cooking.com, BettyCrocker.com, Pillsbury.com and other companies.