Up Theirs

Christopher Kimball Publishes “Cook’s Illustrated” and can provide us with a valuable lesson.


Can Christopher Kimball say to mainstream publishing… “Up yours”?

Yesterday’s message looked at the growing cost of stress and desk rage.

One way to beat both is to write at home and self publish.


Writing at my Florida home. There is no Desk Rage here!  This is why Merri and I have loved to self publish for over 40 years.

The story of Christopher Kimball and Cook’s shows how profitable self publishing can be and why.

An October 2012 NY Times article entitled “Cooking Isn’t Creative, and It Isn’t Easy”  by Alex Halberstadt outlines Kimball’s success and how Kimball created his fortune by defying what mainstream publishing said “This cannot be done”.


A cover of Cook’s Illustrated.

The article begins:  Inside the renovated Le Bernardin in Midtown Manhattan, the pink flowers are as tall as dogwoods and the latticework walls give off a coppery, sci-fi sheen, and Christopher Kimball, the most influential home cook in America, prods a fork into an appetizer of Wagyu beef, langoustine and osetra caviar from China.

He pulls apart the cylinder and glances skeptically inside. “I’m happier eating at Di Fara,” he claims, meaning the slice parlor in an Orthodox Jewish section of Midwood, Brooklyn, that has been occasionally hounded by the city’s Health Department. “

“Just real pizza,” Kimball enthuses. “No duck sausage and crap.” It’s true that he appears out of place amid the restaurant’s boardroom-in-space décor; with his bow tie, suspenders and severely parted hair, Kimball looks like someone who might’ve sold homeowners’ insurance to Calvin Coolidge.

This NY Times article tells how Kimball began Cook’s Illustrated 19 years ago and continues to edit and publish every other month.

Then it explains how the magazine is “Timeless”.   Cooking in the United States has changed more in the last 25 years than in the preceding 50 ranging from  California nouvelle and Asian fusion, to the farm-to-table movement, Whole Foods and the gourmet supermarket, to convenience-store sushi.

Kimball has ignored all this new fancy stuff and focuses on preparing middlebrow American dishes at home with supermarket ingredients and omits everything glossy cooking magazines have come to be known for.

The article continues with a more interesting fact and says: There aren’t even ads.  From the start, readers latched onto Kimball’s strange magazine with crablike tenacity. Today, roughly three-quarters of subscribers renew, a rate that’s the envy of publishing.

In 2007, they signed up their one millionth subscriber, and over the years Kimball has supersized his idea into a franchise that includes 12 seasons of “America’s Test Kitchen,” the most-watched cooking show on public television; a second magazine, Cook’s Country (with its attendant show); reams of special issues and books; a battery of paid Web sites; a radio program; and even an online cooking school, and he has done it without discounting subscriptions or giving anything away or taking on a single advertiser.

One reason Kimball can say “Up Yours” to the establishment is that he understands his audience.

The article explains: At the core of C.I.’s M.O. are two intrepid observations Kimball has made about the innermost psychology of home cooks. Namely that they 1) are haunted by a fear of humiliation, and 2) will not follow a recipe to the letter, believing that slavishly following directions is an implicit admission that you cannot cook.

Success did not come automatically.  Kimball started a similar venture in the 1980s with seed money raised from his brother-in-law and a handful of investors. The venture folded in 1989.  It’s funny how much Merri just loves Cook’s and has been totally faithful to it from the beginning..she loves the look and feel of it and the beauty of the covers as well as the no nonsense articles.  She always has those around our kitchen in North Carolina…which lends a look of old fashioned food…just what I love also.

They key is Kimball did not give up nor lose belief in his purpose.

He tried again with a new venture (the magazine now) and the article says:  “When Chris called and said he was starting this black-and-white cooking magazine with no ads. This was a magazine-publishing model that was more common in Europe and based on subscription revenue instead of ads. His plan — if it panned out — would free him from not only the treadmill of ad sales but also the product placement and saccharine coverage advertisers expected.

Kimball then expanded from success to success as the article says:  His magazines and books have made him very rich — the company remains privately held, and while Kimball won’t disclose hard figures, he does admit, and not without pleasure, that annual revenues are well over $50 million.

Yet Kimball remains an introvert.  Like many self-invented people, Kimball is watchful and innately shy, and he relies on self-effacing jokes and bluster to mask an ever-present discomfort.

He remains willing to try new things and is not afraid to look bad.  Here is what the NYTimes says of his expansion into TV.   Watching the early episodes can be borderline painful. Everything about the first season looks as if a busload of graduate students in sociology occupied a TV station and decided to create programming.  “Those shows are pretty rough-looking,” he says. “I think what appealed to viewers was how real they were.”

This success has come because Kimball has focused on his reader, not the publishing industry.  Yet he also retains a unique freedom to enjoy the process.  The article outlines this and says: But we publish what our readers want, not what Christopher Kimball wants.

That, too, is the reason he offers for mostly shunning issues like nutrition, obesity and food politics. “I don’t think anyone picks up Cook’s Illustrated to be preached at,” he says (ignoring the rampant contradictions). He happens to have a point. According to reader surveys, the editorials — in which Kimball preaches on more existential subjects — remain C.I.’s least popular section. When I pressed him about the business logic of continuing to print them, he tried a few tenuous rationales, finally landing on, “This is my magazine, and I will print what I want.”

There you have it…. reduced stress… great income… the freedom to tell the establishment up yours…. by following a purpose and serving readers well.

Self publishing. There is nothing like it.


Back page of a Cook’s Illustrated.

Kimball is smart at the profit making level as well.  The magazine is in low cost to print black and white except for the first and last page….this is also in general a “no no” for magazines.


Inside back page of Cook’s Illustrated.

This allows the magazine to show the  recipes in each magazine in color but keeps printing costs at a minimum.

If you feel outraged at how the establishment is pressuring you… tell them or don’t tell them, just think…”Up Theirs”.  Follow you own purpose and start your own writing and self publishing now.


Join us at our next Mt. Dora, Fl. Writer’s Camp March 15-16-17, 2013.  For details click here.

Don’t wait until March.  Start learning now with our online course “Self Fulfilled – How to Write to Sell”.

NY Times article “Cooking Isn’t Creative”

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