I don’t pretend that by the end of this article we’ll have the future of cookbook publishing figured out, but we all know, as publishers, the opportunities and challenges of the Internet. Instant access prompts enormous gateways to consumer engagement as well as the problem of readily available free content (free recipes as an obvious example).
As for how online plays a role, here are some ground rules: (1) We are still publishers. The new world may mean doing some things differently, but it doesn’t mean throwing everything out that’s worked for so many years; (2) people continue to read books, in print and online, even in the face of an enormous influx of content; and (3) consumers are more engaged than ever with author or publisher brands. Readers are reaching out via social networks, participating in online cooking/reading communities in a way that they never have before.
Here’s where I think the future of cookbooks does not lie:
● Lower priced e-books. The race to 99 cents is a short one, but the uphill climb to fair pricing on e-books is steep and riddled with problems.
● Ceding control of our ability to reach consumers and set our own pricing, to retailers who have the direct-to-consumer relationships, or ceding pricing control to consumer whims.
● In the online world only, because whether it’s cooking in the kitchen, planting in the garden, or enriching our lives, there’s something very permanent about the printed word.
● Making the reading experience overly complex, whether through gaming mechanics or over-the-top enhancements. Many much smarter minds have come before me saying that these mechanics in books are a feature in search of an audience, and I agree.
So where are we then? That is to say, upon what will the future and health of cookbooks depend?
● Content. The ability to identify and edit quality recipes and also to arrange those recipes in an effective way so that a cookbook delivers value. Online recipes will never have that organization, but publishers need to make that value clear to consumers and foster some of the serendipity of recipe browsing online that neither print nor e-books currently allow
● Community. Blogs and Web sites continue to grow online because of the ability to build community between the recipe creator and audience members. Cookbook authors and publishers need to find ways to make e-cookbooks into immersive discussion points or to unlock their content so that they can take advantage of community-sharing aspects.
● Narrative/Personality. Nobody buys a cookbook just for the recipes. A cookbook (and an author) with a personality readers can identify with will do much better than one without. I’d say this is why blogs are popular; there’s a real voice behind them.
● Monetization. Recipe licensing is a lucrative path toward interim revenue streams with the right partners. And surprisingly, this channel is picking up at the Harvard Common Press. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that as big names in the online world start to look toward the kitchen, they see no need to reinvent the wheel; publishers are the first players they call. Publishers should find ways to monetize on the subcookbook level, whether with individual recipes or by chunking of content into new e-books, as well as looking to recipes on their own sites as a way to drive advertising revenue—something we’ve been notoriously bad at, but can really take advantage of in the future.
There’s certainly a future for cookbooks. But it’s not in standing back and letting others eat our lunch while we debate the merits of what’s come before and what’s still to come. Publishers need to see themselves as tastemakers and players in the new online world. Not just as content producers but as curators, trend-setters, and brands in their own right. And we need to do it now. The future will come, and it’s all about what we make of it.
Adam Salomone oversees digital and online strategy at the Harvard Common Press and is putting together, through the press, a conference in New York City in 2012 on the future of cookbook publishing.