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The market for high end cookbooks


nathanm
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Sorry for three posts in a row, but I had three different thoughts.

Does anybody have figures they can disclose for the following sales volumes:

- Sales volume in the US of high end European cookbooks in the US (Ducasse, Adria....)? Note that these two are distributed offically in the US.

- Sales volume for cookbooks by high end US chefs (TFLC, Boloud, Ripert, Richard...)

- Worldwide sales of any specific high end European cookbooks?

- How many eGullet members are there?

I suspect that these numbers are either confidential, or more likely are not widely known outside the immediate circle of those involved, but perhaps somebody on eGullet knows.

Here is what I know:

Very few books have print runs less than 10,000 because it is not worth the set up to run presses for less than that. My impression is that most US cookbooks have a print run a bit higher than that at 20,000 to 30,000.

My guestimate is that 10,000 copies is the minimum worldwide sales necessary to break even from a typical expensive (>$100) European cookbook. A book like Ducasse's Grand Livre must have a break even that is more like 30,000 due to its immense size (which drives up the cost of production).

Nathan

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i reiterate: there is not enough talent yet. give it another century or even 2.

TK is the only one of the above listed that could produce a commercially viable product imo (period)

if i was a ceo of publishing co. and i was going to put up thousands, it would not be on trotter, kunz, etc.

keller would be the only one.

i suppose that's why i'm a baker and not a ceo of publishing company...

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nathanm, i think your expectations of print runs are a little off. i think 10,000 to 15,000 is much closer to the norm, especially now that it is so much easier to go back for reprints (except on art-heavy books). i know "french fry" had a first run in that range and we'd reprinted four times in the first couple of weeks (thank god).

furthermore, i think we're still operating from another fallacious assumption--that ducasse, adria, et al, are expecting to make money on those books. i really don't think that is the case.

and just out of curiosity, i'm wondering what you think could have been done better in the TFL cookbook?

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The chefs don't need to make money, but the publishers do.

These books cost $200K to $1M in production costs quite apart from the author's text (photos, illustrations, layout, pre-press, book design). This is my guess, but is consistent with other estimates.

Let's assume that the chef works for free, and their staff works for free (recipe testing, food cost for pictures etc.). Somebody - either the chef, or the publisher, still has to come up with the production costs.

I can see chefs working for free, or perhaps even eating a portion of the production costs, but it seems hard to believe that they could afford to pay the entire upfront cost. Maybe Ducasse could afford it but there are SO MANY of these high end European books.

So, I conclude that this European books are financially viable. More on TFLC in another post....

Nathan

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I am away from home, but as it so happens I have a copy of TFLC and also El Bulli 2003-2004 handy. So here are some stats.

TFLC has

325 pages (but with very wide margins)

uncoated paper

No detailed technique photos showing a dish in progress

No step-by-step photos

1 picture for every 2 pages (average)

$50 retail cost

ElBulli 2003 has

333 pages (with narrower margins)

Heavyweight coated paper (like an art book)

Many detailed technique photos

Many step-by-step photos

2 pictures per page (average)

No recipes

CD ROM included (which contains the recipes)

$175 retail (half of $350 2 volume set)

So, if you compare them on production cost basis it isn't even close. ElBulli has 4X the number of pictures (I did averages by selecting 30 pages at random and counting.) It is about the same number of pages in a raw count - a much longer book because recipes eat up pages, and they have been pulled out. I am not a fan of the idea of putting the recipes on CD ROM - I would prefer to have them in print. The CD ROM is very useful - but I would like to have the recipes appear both places.

However if you want to be fair about the comparison and add the recipes then the ElBulli book would be something like 500 pages (maybe more).

TFLC is a nice cookbook. If you have a limited budget then it is appealing.

The ironic thing is that TFL or Per Se are not "value for money" or price-point constrained restaurants. They are no-compromise, ultimate quality restaurants. But TFLC is NOT made to that philosophy. It is a "let's hit a price point" book. Perhaps a bit like Keller's brasserie style restaurant Bouchon.

A lot of people would say that for half the price of Per Se or TFL you can get a meal that is 80% as good. That is probably true - there are lots of restaurants that are $125 (before wine) that are very good. To get they they make compromises. But that isn't what TK is about - he is about ultimate quality for $250. Except when he made the book.

The other irony is that if you count on a per-page basis, ElBulli is probably the better value-for-money book - it is more expensive, but it gives you the CD ROM, the extra content and so forth. So it is not even like TFLC is better value for money - it is just cheaper and lower end.

Don't get me wrong - I like TFLC, its a good book. But it isn't a book that hopes to compete with ElBulli. It isn't even in the same league.

I happened to use ElBulli book because it is handy, but you don't need exotic cuisine. Compare the Paco Torreblanco (or other European) pastry books mentioned in this thread with a US-based pastry book and you'll see the same thing only even more so.

Edited by nathanm (log)

Nathan

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these are all fascinating points. I would love to see a breakdown of the economics on these books. but i do think one important clue can be found looking at the spines. Who published El Bulli? El Bulli Books. Who published Ducasse? "Les Editions d'Alain Ducasse". So is there no expectation of a profit? Or is it just that they can save so much money by not having a publisher take his bite? A combination of both?

A quick glance through the other French chef books I've got shows many more along the lines of TFLC--Michel Bras, Roellinger, Bocuse, verge, blanc, martin, and some of ducasse's other titles. that seems to me to indicate something more along the lines of the "monument" theory.

And I do know that Keller put out fine press editions of both TFLC and Bouchon, which he has given as Christmas gifts.

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ElBulli books is an "imprint" or "label". They get a larger % of royalties and are responsible for their own graphic design. But these books are still distributed by conventional publishers. In the Ducasse case it is Flammarion.

I do not belive that they would choose to spend $300K to $1M as a pure monument to ego. If it was only one guy, then perhaps...but there are LOTS of them.

Bras has a high end book. Veyrat has several very high end books ($400), as do most of the top French chefs. Same with Spaniards - Arzak, Santimaria, Romero....

It is true that there were a set of older books on the 3-star French chefs published by Robert Laffont that were cheap - paper, few pictures etc. These are the ones with the white covers. But that went out many years ago.

If you look at a list of European cookbooks from CHIPS or JB Prince you'll see this.

Pastry and bread books are particularly that way. See the ice cream book by Angelo Corvetto, or any book by Pierre Herme, or Oriol Baluger, or Torreblanco, or.... the list is very long.

There ARE cheap cookbooks on the European market - plenty of books on microwave meals, or using a bread machine etc. A few are by famous chefs doing mass market books for home chefs.

Better paper for a private edition of TFLC isn't the point. While paper quality is a bit of an issue, it is a small one. The key point is content - TFLC doesn't have it.

Nathan

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a revolutionary theory: maybe they're not publishing these books to "make money..."

Actually, very few if any professional chefs set out to make money with their books. The majority of cookbooks (say the recent Michael Mina or Michel Richard books) probably are a net loss to the chef IF you took into account all the time that goes into them. TFLC is a rare blockbuster - but for every one like that there are many others that return modest amounts of money to the chef - which if you took the time into account would not be worth it.

So, most cookbooks by a chef are about some sort of subsidy. However, there is a big difference between taking a bit of your time and actually going out of pocket by $300K to $1M. That is a VERY expensive hobby. Or very expensive advertising, or monument to ego.

I don't believe that every European chef that writes a book like this is spending that kind of money.

So, either the publisher is always operating at a loss - in which case they will stop. Or the chef is operating at a loss. There are SO MANY high end cookbooks that I don't believe they are all loss making to everybody.

A better assumption is that the books at LEAST break even in terms of production cost (setting aside what the chef/author's time). Some may lose a bit. Some may make a profit. But you can't have them all be losers - people would stop making them.

I believe that Europen chefs (and their publishers) expect to either break even or make a little money, by and large. Nothing else explains their behavior.

I wish that I had market data to support this. Maybe somebody on eGullet does....

Basically it comes down to this. Which is more surprising:

1. There is a viable market for high end cookbooks. US publishers ignore it because they are stuck on the mindset of have a low end, price point conscious approach. Which is the way the US restaurant market used to be - it has changed to allow TFL or Per Se to exist, but the publishers mindset is lagging behind.

2. There no viable market for high end cookbooks. Most or all of the high end European cookbooks lose money on their production costs.

For me, I find #1 more believable.

Nathan

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it's certainly an interesting topic. i did a piece on the el bulli book when it came out and looking back over it, they told me they printed 16,000 copies and they expected to sell half of that in Spain (that included their Catalan edition). predictably, no one wanted to talk specifics about the economics of it. but i quoted one new york book editor saying: "Everything is expensive in this book. It is a fabulous production job, but we would probably have to charge $200 for it. With that many color plates, we'd probably have to sell 50,000 copies and I don't think we could sell even 10,000."

that's just a for what it's worth.

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thanks for the dialogue everyone; i agree that it's fascinating...

nathanm, i think you're #1 is close to the truth. there is a market, however relatively minuscule (perhaps even easily targetable)

i still contest that those chefs above aren't worth the risk

you're #2 is not correct imo (with due repect) as we've already established that there is a market. you and i make up this market, and i know a lot more folks that make purchases like these as i'm sure you do as well. if the companies are losing money, that's their fault. it doesn't mean there's not a market. (am i off here?)

my above point about making money has more to do with accounting than ego if you catch my drift...i don't believe that all "for profit" businesses exist to "make money..."

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  • 2 weeks later...

Just a couple of thoughts. Regarding the high-end, the vast majority of 4-color plus hard-coverbook production (as well Museuem Exhibit catalogs)is done overseas. Ten Speed Press, who publishes, Mark Miller, Charlie Palmer, Charlie Trotter, and others, prints most if not all of over seas. I spent a considerable amount of time in commercial printing and the costs are frigging insane to print these domestically. I’m not even counting the cost of design and photography. Now some publishers have been approached from off-shore companies who will copy edit and actually do design assembly. Armed with a house style sheet and a recipe template, it’s not that far fetched to work with a cookbook. Paper stock is less expensive to produce in Asia. Even when they're shipping the pulp from the Pacific Northwest. They are not bound by enviornamental laws as some of ourdomestic paper mills. The cost surrounding the number of "color plates" is more about phography and styling. If a book is printed on the same stock or paper, it's usually printed on the same press. If the color is inserted in sections or signatures within the bulk of the text on a uncoated stock, then there are two presses involved and thus will kick up production costs. Paul Prudohomme's Lousianna Kitchen is an example of the latter while Charlie Trotter's Meat is an example of the former.

Typically the first printing is a break even or cost recovery situation. Most royalty contracts reflect this. $x amount on the first 17,000 $xx on items sold after.

As far as an ongoing presense of the domestic high end, I get a lot of my action from Art Culinaire. Technically not a book but a hard-back periodical, it has the look of a lavishly photographed European work. I have a full set of these these and it’s been wild watching some chefs morph from a targeted article to a full size book of their own.

But it really comes down to demand. There are some beautiful short-run Art books that you may find in specialty book stores and not at the malls.

1. There is a viable market for high end cookbooks. US publishers ignore it because they are stuck on the mindset of have a low end, price point conscious approach. Which is the way the US restaurant market used to be - it has changed to allow TFL or Per Se to exist, but the publishers mindset is lagging behind.

As I mentioned above, it's about break even points. The amount of discount that's given to huge online stores, chains, and Book-of-the-Month can be less than 50%. There was a time we had a distribution system of small volume or specialty book sellers, they're falling by the way side. They complain that folks come in, scope the books, and then order on line. There may be more of them in Europe to act as a support system for the high-end. Since the online-chain-book club is a huge buying block, they won't carry them no matter what the discount.

A lot of publishers got burnt in the 90's with high end Chef-Restaurant books. For a while it was like a culinary vanity press. Every chef felt they needed to have one to show the world they arrived. Publishers are in it to make money no matter how much they like your food or what you have to say about it.

Edited by marinade (log)

Jim Tarantino

Marinades, Rubs, Brines, Cures, & Glazes

Ten Speed Press

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thanks for the dialogue everyone; i agree that it's fascinating...

nathanm, i think you're #1 is close to the truth. there is a market, however relatively minuscule (perhaps even easily targetable)

i still contest that those chefs above aren't worth the risk

you're #2 is not correct imo (with due repect) as we've already established that there is a market. you and i make up this market, and i know a lot more folks that make purchases like these as i'm sure you do as well. if the companies are losing money, that's their fault. it doesn't mean there's not a market. (am i off here?)

I agree with both of these points! The only thing that I don't know is what is the size of the market for these books - a market clearly exists.

my above point about making money has more to do with accounting than ego if you catch my drift...i don't believe that all "for profit" businesses exist to "make money..."

Obviously, there is a certain amount of vanity and ego involved. A chef like Adria could probably make more money with a chain of restaurants like say Roy Yamaguchi (the Roy's restaurants, originally from Hawaii0, or the Wolfgang Puck empire. But he chooses not to. Most high end chefs have the same trade off - they could make more money with a chain of semi-fast food places in airports and malls (like Wolfgang Puck Cafe). But some folks just want to target the high end, for reasons that are not totally economic.

That said, high end restaurants (or pastry shops or bakeries) are financially viable, and to the extent that they are not they close. They couldn't be kept afloat with large losses.

Similarly, I think these high books clearly have a vanity / ego / professional pride aspect to them. The chefs could probably make more money doing something else. But there is (I assert) a viable market where the books at least break even for the chef, and make some money for the publishers.

Nathan

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I get a lot of my action from Art Culinaire. Technically not a book but a hard-back periodical, it has the look of a lavishly photographed European work. I have a full set of these these and it’s been wild watching some chefs morph from a targeted article to a full size book of their own.

AC is a really good example that shows high end books are possible in the US market. However, if you went to a typical magazine publisher and said "hey, let's do a hard cover magazine" they'd think you were crazy. But the AC guys seem to make it work....

The other points you make are good - overseas is where everybody prints.

Nathan

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i don't know what these are called in marketing lingo, but i'm sure there are benefits which occur (like pr) due to the release of a book that are relatively difficult to track/give credit to on a p/l.

my accounting stuff is a long shot. i do understand that complex businesses must be financially sound, but i've learned that things aren't always "as they seem." if a book causes a lot of folks to come to your restaurant but it doesn't "make money by itself," then you simply look at the end of the year p/l and if you made a profit then how much roi did the book yield. not an easy task it seems to me, but hey i'm a baker.

i do see the pride/ego stuff but i would tend to think that a lot of chefs (even ones with big egos) have enough sense (cents!) to keep that in check so that they don't lose out finacially on a endeavor like a book contract.

i don't buy AC and think that thuries blow it away. i haven't renewed my thuries in a long time but that the real deal folks.

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i do see the pride/ego stuff but i would tend to think that a lot of chefs (even ones with big egos) have enough sense (cents!) to keep that in check so that they don't lose out finacially on a endeavor like a book contract.

I once had a conversation with Jack Mc David at Jack's Firehouse about his doing a cookbook. He had some early Food TV exposure with Bobby Flay. The first thing he asked me was how long did it take (hours) to write my book. When I told him, he then said divide that by your royalties minus your expenses. He felt he could make more money selling BBQ at the ‘Cue competitions.

But getting back to the thread, not all Chef’s books are high-end even though they may look like it. There is some bench-mark work written by chefs domestically that contain bang for the buck credible information, I’m thinking of Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli among others. Not a color shot in any of the signatures yet it can hold its own as far as theory, technique, and recipes. Professional level, yet accessible.

On the other extreme, The Art of Aureole by Charlie Palmer has a high-end Euro design style look but its diagonal copy knocked out of a “negative” duotone of the recipe photo shot makes the work illegible. Palmer called the shots on this one. Nice eye candy if you are “looking” at type—not reading it.

Some of the pro-level books I've scanned at Kitchen Arts and Letters (on the back wall) do carry a pricing structure as though they were membership fees. Lots of them read like technical journals, not food porn. Then some of the pro-baking books I’ve grabbed out of there really do glisten graphically. On the other hand I’ve gotten some pretty books that were like a bad blind date with too much makeup.

Jim Tarantino

Marinades, Rubs, Brines, Cures, & Glazes

Ten Speed Press

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  • 1 month later...

I am just back from Geneva --- I visited FNAC and was crushed by the prices ... And was wondering why. This thread has been very useful, however, I would like to point out there are contradictions galore in the market.

The publisher ("editeur") Albin Michel is/was fairly low priced. I bought a copy of Bernard Loiseau's "Mes recettes de terroit" for 21 Euros. I also bought a copy of Alain Dutournier's "Ma Cuisine" for about the same price (139 FF, when they existed). Both of these are in paperback.

I disagree also, with the comment about paper and bindings. I found several expensive books with flimsy bindings and moderately coated paper.

However, I guess the summary of the respondents here is to "suck it up" and just pay.

Sigh.

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Not all European books are expensive, even if there are great chefs involved.

The key issue is that there is a high end portion of the market that is willing to spend more money on a cookbook. European authors and publishers actively cater to that high end market by producing cookbooks with more expensive production values, and list prices to match.

In the US publisher and authors act like that portion of the market just does not exist.

Of course there is also a low end section of the cookbook market in Europe, which is very similar to the US cookbook market. Indeed, most cookbooks (by say number sold) are undoubtedly in that category.

I don't doubt that there are some expensive books that cheat or chisel on the production values like paper and so forth. That always happens.

Nathan

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  • 2 years later...

European books are more expensive because the knowledge in them is more valuable. They CAN charge more.

I doubt that would be the case if you compare Charlie Trotter with, for example, Jamie Oliver. After all, Oliver is just as "European" as Ducasse.

I hate to say it, but theres nothing in Thomas Keller's books of interest to me. Same goes for every other book I've seen by American chefs.

If this is the feedback you give to American chefs, I would shudder what you think of Simon Gault of NZ or Neil Perry of Australia.

Edited by johung (log)
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Not all European books are expensive, even if there are great chefs involved.

The key issue is that there is a high end portion of the market that is willing to spend more money on a cookbook. European authors and publishers actively cater to that high end market by producing cookbooks with more expensive production values, and list prices to match.

In the US publisher and authors act like that portion of the market just does not exist.

Of course there is also a low end section of the cookbook market in Europe, which is very similar to the US cookbook market. Indeed, most cookbooks (by say number sold) are undoubtedly in that category.

I don't doubt that there are some expensive books that cheat or chisel on the production values like paper and so forth. That always happens.

I think it is a little relatively speaking. For example, Donny Hay's books are pretty low end by English-speaking countries' standards, yet I saw them sold in Hong Kong's bookshops as if they were regarded on the same level as the premium cookbooks written by Alain Ducasse. In fact the price tag (HK$600) is pretty dear even for the middle class Chinese in HK - where the most expensive Chinese-language premium cookbooks rarely sell for more than HK$350.

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Not all European books are expensive, even if there are great chefs involved.

The key issue is that there is a high end portion of the market that is willing to spend more money on a cookbook. European authors and publishers actively cater to that high end market by producing cookbooks with more expensive production values, and list prices to match.

...

Well, "Up to a point, Lord Copper..." :hmmm:

Yes, there is a VERY tiny sliver of the market for VERY expensive cookbooks.

But consider what that market is, and who might be buying them.

IMHO, most of these very expensive books are produced as high-end 'art books' as souvenirs for very high-end restaurants. These restaurants are very expensive and their souvenirs simply can't let the image down.

Hence they are indeed expensively produced - using the best available materials, technology, etc.

Just like the restaurant's product.

They are often rather ostentatiously obvious - such as being on physically large pages and with gold/silver page edging, etc.

This market segment is both tiny and mainly for coffee-table decoration to signpost that the owner eats at the most expensive restaurants.

Its only a tiny fraction of this tiny market that is accounted for by rival chefs and restauranteurs hoping to learn a few tricks.

It would be a mistake to think that its the Intellectual Property contained therein that determines the selling price of Ducasse's Grand Livre and Blumenthal's Big Fat Duck Cookbook.

Both are currently available in the UK at prices EXACTLY in line with mainstream hardback cookbooks (£26 to £16 roughly, and multiply by about 1.6 to convert to US $). And containing exactly the same IP as the mega expensive ones. These normal-priced editions are also normal-sized and they aren't ostentatiously presented - but they provide hard and incontrovertible evidence that it is NOT the IP justifying the price.

Its just an exclusive product for that sliver of the market demanding ostentatious exclusivity.

Krug? The '98 Clos du Mesnil?

"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch ... you must first invent the universe." - Carl Sagan

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Just a suggestion. If you can afford high end books, please consider a donation to egullet, where you are able to discuss high end books.

*****

"Did you see what Julia Child did to that chicken?" ... Howard Borden on "Bob Newhart"

*****

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I agree with dougal, most of these are a bit of a trophy thing. ElBulli doesn't even have the recipes printed in it? Didn't know that, but that really makes it just a food photography book, a nice memento to take home or buy later if one ate there. But a cook book that has all recipes on a CD is a rather strange thing that I'm not sure I'd buy. (not that I'd think I could replicate many of the recipes anyway). Maybe they should edit things down a bit and publish a book with wonderful photos AND recipes, just not all recipes but a good selection. I'd be interested in that.

I own the big Big Fat Duck cookbook, and I bought it solely as an art book, as the illustrator is one of my favorite artists for many years. Were it not for the illustrations, I'd not have bought it.

Some of the books mentioned in this thread are most likely rather small print runs too, which makes higher prices necessary. I have no idea how many BFD books were printed, but aside of the price, the size alone makes it rather impractical for most. I have the new "cheap" edition too, to actually eventually use. I'd never dream of taking the original anywhere close to the kitchen.

I'd think that most people balk at anything above $30 for "just a cook book", and $50 seems to be the upper limit for most. And most probably don't care about fancy paper vs just good paper, let alone gold or silver gilding on the edges. Adds little to nothing to what a book is essentially about, the content. And aside of the ElBulli books, it seems that most are eventually published in a more reasonably priced edition for the rest of us.

Just look at Ad Hoc at Home, Thomas Keller's last book. List is $50, most people buy them at heavy discounts, it had a print run of supposedly more than 100.000 and it's just about sold out everywhere.

(I can't understand the statements that Thomas Keller's and other American chefs are basically useless and a book with no printed recipes is useful. I don't have a computer in the kitchen and would have to print any recipe myself? On my own paper? After paying that much for the book?

Luckily we all have different tastes and priorities, or we'd all be fighting over the same single ONE cook book ever published :laugh: )

Also, I'm in Germany and Austria at least once a year and always check the cookbook section in every bookstore I come across. And occasionally in Italy (though I don't speak Italian and thus don't buy the books) And I find most books there to be smaller, often paperback, and certainly not more expensive than here. Usually they are cheaper with less photos and simple paper. I have a bunch of them. And poking around on amazon.de, I find lots of books that are rather cheap, not many that would cost a lot of money.

At least in Germany it's still illegal to sell books below cover price too. I'm sure publishers here know that most people buy books via amazon etc, and keep that in mind when they price books. Hey, a $50 book for $31.50 is such a good deal, just have to get it! That does not work in Germany.

Just my impressions of course, but I was actually surprised by the lack of "coffee table" style books in the stores. There were a few and a couple piles on bargain tables, but nothing like what I see here at just about any store. I had hoped for more.

"And don't forget music - music in the kitchen is an essential ingredient!"

- Thomas Keller

Diablo Kitchen, my food blog

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