In an age of entrepreneurs, Christopher Kimball stands out—and not just because of his bow tie, apron and rolled-up shirtsleeves. The founder of America's Test Kitchen, which includes Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country magazines, and host of public television's America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Country from America's Test Kitchen, Kimball has taken what might seem like a counterintuitive approach to publishing, relying on surveys and lots of testing.
Kimball's business models are also different; ATK's magazines depend on subscriptions and haven't carried advertising since Kimball relaunched Cook's Magazine (1980—1989) as Cook's Illustrated in 1993. On the book side, ATK is both publisher and author and surveys readers before testing the recipes it's looking for 60 to 75 times. Kimball compares the way ATK operates to the Food Network. “They design a show,” he says, “and then find someone to do it. I never publish a book unless we do a lot of survey work.”
When Kimball first started, that approach didn't necessarily assure success. Sales didn't hit expectations for ATK's first two books, on poultry and pasta, published by Clarkson Potter in the 1990s. Disappointed, Kimball told Potter's president, “Look, if we can't sell more than 10,000 copies, we're going to publish on our own.” By bringing the book publishing program in-house—ATK also handles its own distribution—Kimball was able to increase sales exponentially. The Best Recipe, the first book published under ATK's own imprint, has sold more than 700,000 copies in two editions since its publication in 1999, and a third collection, More Best Recipes, has just been released. Altogether the Best Recipe series, which includes books on 30-minute menus and light recipes, has sold over two million copies.
During ATK's early years, the publisher appeared on several of PW's lists of fast-growing small presses. But by 2005, its sales had already surpassed $10 million, the highest level to be included in the feature. Part of ATK's success is its multiplatform, multioutlet approach to retail that allows ATK to launch most of its books with initial print runs of 80,000 to 90,000. The company's outlets range from independents and chains to Costco, QVC, continuity book clubs and direct sales. Kimball declined to comment on the privately held company's book sales other than to note that books are “very profitable” and make up one-third of ATK's business. Overall, sales for the Brookline Village, Mass., company have held steady despite the difficult economy.
Kimball's 40 cooks—including a dozen devoted to cookbooks—prepare each dish dozens of times, spending 200 hours to deconstruct the recipe before putting it back together. “Eighty percent of what we do is figuring out what horrible things our readers are going to do with a recipe when they get it home. It's understanding the customer. They'll never follow the recipe exactly,” says Kimball.
Although many book recipes come from databases generated by the magazines and TV shows, sometimes it works the other way. “If we take a book recipe,” notes Kimball, “we'll go back to the kitchen and work on it more. We'll test it against four or five recipes and spend six weeks.”
ATK tests more than just recipes. It continues to perfect its platforms, whether it's launching its first paperback original with simpler instructions, like next spring's The Best Simple Recipes, or delivering digital content. As Kimball readily admits, “I'm a control freak about how our content gets distributed.” In March, his company was one of the first to develop a book specifically for the Kindle 2. Since then close to 40,000 people have downloaded The Cook's Illustrated How-to Cook Library, which was initially offered for free. “Amazon's done a great job for us,” says Kimball. Even so, he doesn't like the idea of a third party wedging itself between him and his customers and not passing along customer information. “Then you lose the gatekeeper role,” he notes.
As a known brand and content provider with four Web sites, ATK should be well positioned for the future. Still Kimball worries. “If you're not thinking about business 24 hours a day, you're going to be in trouble,” he says. “Everything speeded up a year and a half ago. The car's headed toward the cliff at 120 mph, and it's only 10 miles away.”
In the meantime, let's eat.