World’s grandest cookbook: foiled by Amazon

December 15, 2010, 8:57 PM UTC

by Patricia Sellers

Don’t plan on buying Nathan Myhrvold’s 2,400-page Modernist Cuisine for your beloved this Christmas.

The six-volume tome by Microsoft’s former chief technology officer was due out in December and is currently listed for $451.25 on But Myhrvold told me yesterday that a glitch waylaid the on-time delivery of his years-in-the-making labor of love.

Modernist Cuisine flunked Amazon’s package durability tests. Not once but three times.

Most Amazon customers don’t realize that the online retailer runs a “Frustration Free Packaging” certification program on many items that it sells. While ordinary books are shrink-wrapped and don’t have to go through the gamut of shake and puncture and drop tests, Myhrvold’s book is enclosed in an acrylic case and has had to pass Amazon’s durability muster.

The book is Myhrvold’s in-house creation — compiled in his vast “cooking lab” at his privately held Intellectual Ventures, where the main business is acquiring patents to solve global problems like malaria. (And as of last week, Intellectual Ventures’ business also involves filing lawsuits against tech companies that infringe on its patents.)

Myhrvold, a trained chef, opted to self-publish because, as he explained in August,  Amazon and other web platforms like Twitter and Facebook allow amateurs to distribute and market books virtually as easily as big-name publishers. Little did he imagine the stress that Amazon would impose, literally. His “Waterloo,” he told me when we met Monday in Manhattan, was Amazon’s “corner drop” test. Modernist Cuisine, which weighs about 48 pounds, failed again and again and again when it crashed into the floor on its corner.

Until…Monday, an email popped into Myhrvold’s BlackBerry. His book passed Amazon’s tests, finally.

Photo by Ryan Smith, courtesy of Intellectual Ventures

So now, Modernist Cuisine is ready to ship from its printer in China. Myhrvold hopes it will be ready for sale in the U.S. in March. Although he’s been warned that cargo ships traveling the China-U.S. route sink at the rate of once a month.

“The one ship a month is what somebody told me, but in looking it up, the number is likely much higher,” he emailed me yesterday, citing a 2006 USA Today article. “Besides a ship sinking, an even bigger issue is containers falling off of ships,” he added, noting that some believe that up to 10,000 containers fall off ships every year.

“At the 10,000 containers per year rate, that is more than one an hour! My book printing will fit in one container. What a cheery thought.

“Life is nothing without risk,” Myhrvold added. I suggested to him that a Fedex plane might be more reliable than cargo shipping. “Yeah,” the billionaire replied, “but shipping is cheaper than Fedex.”