Cookbooks may be one of digital publishing’s most fascinating case studies—after all, foodie culture has exploded over the last decade, and food and cooking-related content has surged online—much of it free—from recipes, to blogs and other media. Yet, despite all the free online recipes and content, cookbook sales are growing—up nearly 5% over last year. What’s driving the strength of cookbook publishing? On Tuesday, a PW panel examined the cookbook market. Moderated by PW senior editor Lynn Andriani, who covers the culinary scene and writes the magazine’s free Cooking the Books e-newsletter, panelists included Clarkson Potter editor Doris Cooper, EatYourBooks.com’s Jane Kelly, Cookstr’s Will Schwalbe, and Bruce Shaw from the Harvard Common Press.
Schwalbe, former Hyperion editor-in-chief who left to launch Cookstr in 2008 with Katie Workman, kicked off the event with a telling anecdote. Preparing for a weekend away with a “friend with some means,” he said, the friend purchased roughly $500 worth of cookbooks and had them shipped to his country house. After a day spent lovingly thumbing through the books, it came time to pick something for dinner. At this point, they went online to get a recipe. But this use of the Internet wasn’t “a shift in behavior,” Schwalbe noted. After all, they bought the books, and thoroughly enjoyed them. “It was additive.”
The anecdote nicely set up a discussion about the basic unit of consumption for cookbook lovers in the digital world: recipes, or books? Might putting recipes online "cannibalize" books sales? All the panelists agreed that physical cookbooks fulfill a consumer desire that isn't fulfilled on a cooking web site, and books remain popular, especially as gifts. Cooper, however, said she was somewhat wary about putting too many recipes from Clarkson Potter books online, and said the publisher carefully considers how many recipes to post, not wanting those people who would pay $35 for a book to "feel gypped." She also stressed that the books she publishes are more than just recipes, but are about "a great voice." She also praised the web, however, especially for its community-building power, as cooking and eating, the panelists agreed, are quintessential communal activities.
Kelly and Schwalbe suggested that putting recipes from their books online wasn't a problem for publishers, in fact, posting recipes more likely serves to drive interest. Schwalbe noted that two of the bestselling cookbook authors, Martha Stewart and Racheal Ray, offer thousands of recipes online. The competition for publishers, rather, comes from the sheer amount of free content online, from amateur cooks to fledgling recipe sites. Shaw agreed, and at one point noted that even in just the last 12 months the number of online recipe sites has grown, and these sites have become more and more sophisticated. He suggested that while cookbooks are doing well now, publishers will surely need to find a way to monetize their recipes, or they'll face trouble. Schwalbe, whose Cookstr venture is designed to do just that, noted that in the digital age there are virtually no incremental costs to "versioning" content online. "Somebody will pay something for anything," he said, urging publishers to examine the full spectrum of sales available, not just for books, and not just small, micropayments for recipes, but also what consumers would pay "an enormous amount for."
Andriani then asked the panelists whether consumers, with so much free content, are willing to pay for recipes, and how the panelists felt about the industry’s prospects going forward? There was some skepticism about a subscription model, though panelists agreed that Chris Kimball was a notable success. Price would also be an important factor. How much is a single, disaggregated recipe worth? Schwalbe, however, was unequivocally upbeat, believing in a world where Internet communities continue to drive food culture, and online food culture drives opportunities for publishers, including cookbook sales. Kelly too urged publishers to think beyond the book, citing the music industry's shift from albums to singles.
The first question from the audience then pulled the state of digital play in the cookbook world into sharp focus. Schwalbe's former boss at Hyperion, Bob Miller, now at Workman, asked about apps. Cooper was less than bullish, noting that Clarkson Potter was having an outstanding year without an app. At this point, she said, apps are costly to develop, time-consuming, and she noted, publishers have simply not yet figured out how to properly monetize them. Schwalbe was also cautious about the app-driven market, suggesting that an app-based model for cookbooks could detract from the community aspect of the Web, the medium's very strength. Citing the recent Wired article “The Web Is Dead,” he suggested that turning books into apps can preclude the kind of discoverability and other activities that makes the Internet so useful, such as sharing. The panel agreed, however, that apps did make sense for some works, and cited bestselling author Mark Bittman, whose How to Cook Everything app has gotten excellent fedback and has been successful.
The panel was the last installment of PW's breakfast series on the future of publishing for 2010. A new slate of events and topics for 2011 will be announced shortly, and a video of the cookook panel will be available for purchase on the PW site in the near future.