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Aviary, Chicago's Coolest Cocktail Bar, Is Kickstarting a Cookbook

The sister bar to Alinea is self-publishing its first book

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All images via Aviary Cocktail Book/Kickstarter

The team behind the Aviary — sister bar to Alinea, arguably Chicago’s most important restaurant — is going to publish a cookbook. Chef Grant Achatz and his business partner Nick Kokonas announced the book on Twitter and in a release to press this morning. The catch? The team is raising funds in order to self-publish this, their third book, on Kickstarter.

The Aviary Cocktail Book is part of a collaboration with Allen and Sarah Hemberger, designers by trade and Alinea nerds on the side. A year after the Alinea cookbook was published in 2008 the Hembergers launched The Alinea Project, a website and book documenting Allen’s adventure into making every single recipe in the Alinea cookbook. According to a release, six months ago the pair moved to Chicago to begin working for the Alinea Group. It sounds like the Aviary book will be the first of what could become an ongoing Alinea Group print business.

At first, the Aviary book seems like an odd project to put on Kickstarter, the crowd-funding site known for drumming up interest and funding for niche projects that might not otherwise find traditional financing. Not only do they run a successful multi-award-winning restaurant group that is famous the world over, but Achatz and Kokonas have published books before: Achatz published his first cookbook in 2008 with Ten Speed Press, and in 2012 Avery Press published Life on the Line, a memoir of Achatz’s diagnosis and eventual triumph over tongue cancer. It’s highly unlikely a publisher would have turned down the opportunity to print the Aviary cookbook.

Kokonas says it wasn’t a lack of interest from the publishing world that led the team to launch their Kickstarter. It was the economics of book publishing. “Our goal was to bypass that,” Kokonas wrote in an email. Based on his experience, a cookbook deal can earn a nationally-known chef or restaurant a $200,000 to $300,000 advance. That sounds like a lot but that amount has to cover the costs of a photographer, any graphic design work, recipe testing, and other incidental costs. “If done well, that will eat up most, if not all, of the advance,” Kokonas says.

Depending on the deal, the author can also get a cut of the cover price per book but this is usually against the advance, meaning if they get 10 percent of a book priced at $50, they make $5 per book. But that also means they need to sell over 30,000 copies before they start earning any money on top of the advance. Specific sales data is hard to come by, but most cookbooks sell fewer than 10,000 copies. These glossy, award-winning books then, for most (but not all) chefs and restaurateurs, are little more than “good publicity,” as the team writes on their Kickstarter page.

Exactly 30 minutes after Kokonas announced the project on Twitter, the number of backers to the project went from 18 to over 200; and the dollar amount raised went from almost $1,200 to over $12,000. The project has a goal to raise $50,000; It’s clear it will meet that goal.

Cutting out the publisher’s cut gives Kokonas and team the ability to expand their (comparatively modest) budget for things like photography, print quality, design, and recipe testing, and allows them more time to produce the book; the publication date has been set for July 2018. According to Kokonas, the goal is to “eliminate the middleman entirely.”

But what about distribution? Based on initial interest and the Alinea team’s previous publishing experience, Kokonas believes this book won’t need a major publishing house’s powerful distribution channels to work. “Between direct channels and Amazon, we can cover most book sales without worrying about standard distribution,” Kokonas says.

The team has already drafted and partially designed a book of 100 of Aviary’s recipes. It also sounds like they’ve taken a page from the Modernist Cuisine team and, per the Kickstarter page, “assembled a unique, dedicated kitchen studio in which our chefs and designers can work side-by-side to capture the production of these recipes in a way no other beverage book has done before.”

Just as he set out to do with restaurant reservations and his proprietary Tock platform, Kokonas is fully aiming to disrupt cookbook publishing with this project. “We will do our best to document how we do all of this so other restaurants and chefs can simply skip the publishers,” he writes. “It's akin to a music deal — those have largely died — these will, too. Let's give them a shove over the tracks.”

Update 5/12/17: Since it debuted, the Kickstarter has raised over $195,200. This week, Kokonas took to Medium to explain his decision to self-publish. The biggest takeaway from his lengthy screed: Kokonas thinks traditional publishers offer cookbook authors a bad deal. On the deal for the Alinea cookbook, he says:

At $30 wholesale to us and a cost of $3.83 [per book] to them, a sale of 5,000 copies to us, the authors, would net them a $130,850 profit. It was at this point that I got actually angry. The publisher was taking no risk at all.

The Aviary Cocktail Book [Kickstarter]
All Aviary Coverage [ECHI]
All Cookbook Coverage [E]

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