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Judith Rosen -- 1/17/00

Cooking up Sales

Not all bestsellers are made in bookstores, but fewer still are made with hardly any bricks-and-mortar presence at all. But one of Boston Common Press's first forays into trade book publishing, The Best Recipe, by the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine, has sold 25,000 copies in just three months and is #2 on the Amazon cookbook bestsellers list, even though the press is selling primarily to magazine subscribers, specialty stores like Williams-Sonoma and via an exclusive online selling arrangement with Amazon.com.

The book has proved to be both quirky and successful, like the magazine itself it comes from, which flaunts the current trend of sandwiching recipes between colorful lifestyle ads by carrying no advertising at all.

The 700 recipes included in the book have all been previously published in the magazine, which means that they have gone through extensive taste tests, as many as 38 in the case of crème caramel.

Cook's Illustrated has gone through trials of its own over the past 20 years. Originally called Cook's when it was founded by Christopher Kimball in 1980, the magazine was purchased by Condé Nast in 1989 only to see itself folded it into another of CN's cooking publications, Gourmet. When the rights to the name became available a few years later, Kimball and his partners, who had formed BCP in Brookline, Mass., in 1991, relaunched the magazine in 1993 as Cook's Illustrated, a no-frills bimonthly. Their goal was to create a Consumer Reports of food and kitchen products, from soy sauce to paring knives.

According to Kimball, president of BCP, "Cook's Illustrated has actually been more successful without advertising. We found the relationship between the readers and editors changed. The readers loved it, and the loyalty of the subscribers is very high."

That relationship has paid off in sales, not just for the magazine, but for spin-off books marketed exclusively to its 300,000 subscribers and 50,000 newsstand customers.

Only this year have the annual Cook's Illustrated Collector's Edition, which brings together a year's worth of issues, and the 20 single-topic how-tos begun to be sold through retail outlets as part of a concerted effort by BCP to move into the trade.

About a year ago, said Kimball, "We finally sat down and realized, 'We are book publishers.' " He and his partners saw the many similarities between book and magazine publishing, such as editing, marketing and design. In addition to publishing titles on its own, BCP sells book ideas to other houses, such as The Complete Book of Poultry, which will be published by Clarkson Potter in August, to be followed by a book on pasta in the spring.

Much of the staff's previous book experience comes from the writing side, as opposed to the publishing side. Kimball writes a weekly food column that is syndicated in 30 newspapers, including the New York Daily News, and is the author of Little, Brown's The Cook's Bible and The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook, as well as Multnomah's October release Dear Charlie: Letters to My Children. Senior editor John Willoughby and consulting food editor Jasper White have also written widely on food.

Kimball sees the staff's lack of book publishing experience as no deterrent. The key ingredients for success, he contends, involve selectivity and partnership. "We don't want [our titles] to be everywhere," he said. "We want to be in places where we can work out a better promotion arrangement. We don't want to have two books on a shelf in every store. We want to have twenty books on a table. That kind of partnership makes sense. We're less concerned with volume than we are with the margin for each sale. I see so many book publishers totally focused on units." For that reason, Kimball has decided for the time being not to work with wholesalers and only sell direct to the trade.

The Best Recipe is only an appetizer when it comes to BCP's expansion plans. After selling its Natural Health magazine two years ago and publishing the last Handcraft Illustrated in September, the company, which now publishes only Cook's Illustrated, is working on a variety of projects that fall under the America's Test Kitchen umbrella. Starting in March, the cooksillustrated.com Web site will be revamped as a subscription-based service, which will bring together its current site/bookstore with an online cooking school that it has been experimenting with through SmartPlanet. "Our goal," explained Kimball, "is to have a huge database. We want to be one-stop shopping for cooking." In June, the company will launch the America's Test Kitchen show on public television.

Plans are also underway for more America's Test Kitchen books. "There will be a sequel to The Best Recipe," said Kimball, "and there will be a whole new line of books a year from now that we're testing with our subscribers and with focus groups. We're trying to find books that reflect our approach--not just throw recipes out there." But Kimball's appetite for magazines remains keen, and he is already sampling two new ventures.

The 'Pause' That Refreshes?

It's nice to take a moment to reflect, especially both during and after the crush of the holidays. And booksellers are finding an eager audience for an unusual self-published book that promises a little relief. At least, that's been the case for booksellers in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area with The Pause, an inspirational book by local author Keith Gaddy Davis that has been snowballing in sales every holiday season since it was first published five years ago

Davis, a storyteller, licensed social worker as well as minister who speaks to corporate, mental health, correctional and faith communities, now has 32,500 copies of his book in print, self published through his own Clayton Paige Publishing Company.

And like many self-published authors, Davis has defied some conventional publishing wisdom with his project: His book is both too short (42 pages, mostly illustrations and little text) and too expensive (a $16.95 trade paperback) to have been considered an obvious consumer--or bookseller--buy.

But the attractions of the book are manifold, says Kris Nugent, manager at Anderson's in Naperville, Ill., one of a series of bookstores outside the Minneapolis/St. Paul area starting to pick up on the book.

Foremost is the appeal of Davis's story of how, running into a harried woman shopping for the holidays at a local mall, he is reminded of the best gift he ever received--an empty-box that contained a "pause" to slow down and reflect.

"It's a very simple story, but it gets to the heart of things, especially when you work retail!" said Nugent, who quickly sold a relatively last-minute 50-copy buy made for the holiday selling season.

Also attractive is the packaging of the book--photographic images of evergreen trees printed in dark burgundy and metallic cooper-colored inks on textured tan-colored paper, with the entire book encased in its own gift envelope.

Davis has expanded upon the gift idea by also producing a complete Pause set consisting of candle, mug, custom-blend Pause tea, music-accompanied audio of the story and, of course, that empty-yet-full Pause box.

So when's the big trade house deal coming? Davis has considered offers before, but he's just signed on with Downers Grove, Ill.-based literary agent Joseph Durepos, who is putting out a new pitch on the book. Stay tuned. --J.Q.

Pitching 'Tent' Pays Off for Picador

Thanks to ongoing promotional efforts to targeted groups to build word of mouth, Picador USA has turned its October 1998 trade paperback reprint of Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, a first novel that imagines the life of briefly mentioned Old Testament figure Dinah, daughter of Jacob, into one of the Holtzbrinck Group's most steady sellers.

The trade paperback has gone back to press five times with over 100,000 copies now in print, with sales continuing to grow weekly.

While the St. Martin's Press October 1997 hardcover release of the book sold in the respectable 11,000 “13,000-copy range with Diamant, previous writer of nonfiction on Jewish topics, given a small tour, Picador editor Diane Higgins quite rightly figured the trade paperback would be perfect format for reading groups to discover the book.

She first sent the trade paperback to a list of close to 500 Reform Rabbis nationwide; who recommended the book to their congregations, with these readers also passing on recommendations.

A second mailing went to 300 women ministers as well as over 250 independent reading group leaders across the country, who were no doubt instrumental in helping the book get a Book Sense nod. In addition, Picador sent copies to the community relations coordinators at Borders and Barnes & Noble stores that support reading groups.

A particularly key word-of-mouth builder was Mickey Perlman, the reading group guru who publishes What To Read: The Essential Guide for Reading Group Members and Other Book Lovers. She recommended The Red Tent as one of her favorite choices, often noting that the novel's red tent, where Dinah and other women meet in the novel, is like a book club itself.

The book has also reached a significant worldwide audience: to date it has been published in 11 countries.

This past fall Picador also offered booksellers discounts and promotional materials if they bought The Red Tent in quantities of 10 or more, making the book even more appealing as a book group reading selection. The house also created a printed reading group guide for The Red Tent and made it available through its Web site as well.

The year 2000 brings even more promo: The book will receive its first ever national advertising in a full page ad in an upcoming issue of the New York Times Book Review. And thanks to the growing popularity of her book, Diamant will do a new promotional tour, much more extensive than for her hardcover publication, through Florida and Chicago in February and March. A third promotional mailing will reach more than 100 female ministers in New England, where Diamant lives.

While Picador has targeted much of its promotions to the Jewish community, the book's success nationwide already underscores the breakout possibilities of good fiction about female relationships. That topic will further be explored by Diamant in an upcoming contemporary novel, to which SMP/Picador has an option. --J.Q.

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