Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything app was the first—and arguably most successful—cookbook app, released in 2010, the same year as the iPad, and hailed by Apple in 2013 as “groundbreaking.” The app was a collaboration between Wiley, which published Bittman’s book of the same name, and the developer Culinate. Today, though, the implication of digital innovation on the cookbook market is still a matter of vehemently held opinion.
Some publishers remain open to producing the occasional app if they think it has a chance of selling well. Others have backed away, citing low returns on high investment. It’s a similar story across the digital landscape, with the middle-ground functionality of enhanced e-books (somewhere between a straight e-book and an app) eliciting selective enthusiasm, if not an overwhelming groundswell of interest.
But even as the technology seems to have leveled off, publishers are finding new ways to work in the digital realm.
Harvard Common Press is redefining its influence in the food sphere by looking beyond the book. The 39-year-old independent press has scaled back its lists, a mix of cookbooks and parenting books, from 12–16 titles a year to eight titles in 2015, in order to focus on investing in a wide array of tech-heavy entrepreneurial projects—notably, recipe site Yummly and upscale-restaurant delivery site Caviar. Says publisher Bruce Shaw, “We have recipes, and we make money selling these as books and e-books. But how do we make more money?”
The answer, according to associate publisher Adam Salomone, is by “taking the knowledge we have around food—which is a heck of a lot broader than content and recipes”—and using that to help various tech partners. Beyond investing in Yummy and Caviar, Salomone cofounded the Bon Appétech conference, convening in San Francisco in April, to explore products and services that will “improve the food system.” He’s also looking to the advent of a gadget-rich “connected kitchen” to lead the company into the future: “The idea of a fridge that can order milk for you is not that far off.” From Netflix in your living room to Zappos in your closet to Uber in your travel itinerary, he says, “Tech touches our lives.”
And generally speaking, that holds true for cookbooks, too. As in other categories, the default, of course, is to release an e-book simultaneously with print. But e-books’ utility in generating increased revenue—not to mention the benefits for a publisher of splurging on the next-level bells and whistles of enhanced e-books or apps—remains up for debate.
For Rodale senior editor Dervla Kelly, the book’s the thing. “Our consumer seems most eager for a print copy,” she says, echoing a sentiment that gets repeated among many editors and publishers. “It’s an object people still want to hold.”
At Artisan, publisher Lia Ronnen sees e-books appealing to a different demographic than print does. “There are lots of young lifestyle-category readers who want to participate in this world” but may be disinclined to spend $30 on a cookbook, she says. Digital “is creating a greater democracy of access.” For example, Feeding the Fire: Recipes and Strategies for Better Barbecue and Grilling, by Joe Carroll and Nick Fauchald (May), retails for $29.95 in hardcover, with various online retailers discounting the $21.95 e-book to around $13. Even so, she maintains that print continues to be Artisan’s primary focus. “We’re hoping to sell 70,000 copies of a $40 book, and we do so regularly. Digital works alongside print for us.”
Clarkson Potter associate publisher Doris Cooper says she is “spending a huge amount” on content, recipes, and photos for a four-book print series based on Momofuku founder David Chang’s Lucky Peach magazine. The first one, Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes, by Peter Meehan and the editors of Lucky Peach, will be published in September, on the heels of Milk Bar Life (Apr.), by Christina Tosi, Chang’s pastry chef. “Our focus on the physical object is strong,” says Cooper, who asserts that print and tech don’t have to be mutually exclusive. “Lucky Peach readers are very tech oriented, but they value high-quality print, too—they’ve been collecting the magazines.”
Clarkson Potter is also going into its backlist e-book titles and updating them with the latest technology. “People don’t want to pinch and zoom anymore,” says Cooper. Still, “the specific percentage of sales is not that robust yet,” she says. “But if [e-books] are as good as they can be, we have every expectation that they will sell.” One exception to modest e-book sales is Ina Garten’s Make It Ahead (2014), which was the bestselling print cookbook of 2014 and is also selling very well in digital; the e-book, says executive editor Rica Allannic, features a combined recipe index for Garten’s cookbooks, so that a fan who owns them all “can figure out which one the chocolate cake recipe is in.”
Enhancements and Apps
The jury is also out on the viability of enhanced e-books. At the end of January, Grand Central Life & Style released an enhanced version of Mario Batali’s America Farm to Table, which pubbed a few months earlier. Extras include a digital recipe timer and emailable shopping lists, but the enhanced e-book also features copious photos, and a strong concept—namely, a popular chef celebrating farmers and their products, which feature in the book’s recipes.
“Enhanced,” says editorial director Karen Murgolo, “is a direction we want to go in more, when it makes the e-book even more helpful to the reader.” She says, though, that because resources are limited, “We’re going to look at each book on a case-by-case basis. Either the concept or the chef behind it will be what helps us make our decision.” Michael Ruhlman’s Egg (2014) is another example, she says, of a book that had “fun” features to enhance, like an interactive egg flowchart.
At Ten Speed, associate publisher Hannah Rahill says that although enhanced e-books do have a place in her program, apps may be where she’s seeing some of the greatest flexibility—after all, at the supermarket, an app is as accessible as the phone in your pocket. Tess Masters’s blog-to-book The Blender Girl (2014) spawned a pared-down app targeted to fill what Rahill calls a “hole in the smoothie app space,” for which 100 new recipes and photos were hatched. Although Rahill declines to offer exact figures, she says that the app proved so popular that Ten Speed and Masters developed a paperback from the app content, The Blender Girl Smoothies, to be released in June.
The indie gastronomy Modernist Cuisine lab set a high bar for apps in 2013, with its year-in-the-making Modernist Cuisine at Home, developed with Inkling. It features links to buy equipment, a digital recipe scaling tool, and videos showcasing techniques—videos being an addition some publishers hesitate to include in apps and enhanced e-books because of increased storage needs. “It was instrumental to showcase with video the key steps that are difficult to translate with photographs,” says Modernist Cuisine publisher and editorial director Stephanie Swane. “We storyboarded the ideas with the chefs, and we recorded and edited the videos in-house. The inclusion of video was an important reason why we decided to create an app, but we avoided the extra costs that most publishers incur when adding video.”
James Beard Award–winning author Michael Ruhlman also found a way around some of the costs associated with app creation when he devised the Ratio and Bread Baking Basics apps with Will Turnage, R/GA senior v-p of technology. Ruhlman’s wife, Donna, took the photographs, and Turnage bartered for design. “I invested a lot of time, not capital,” Ruhlman says. “We do it because it’s fun.” Nevertheless, he has no imminent plans to make any more apps.
Says Rux Martin, editorial director of her eponymous HMH imprint, “If you want functionality when you’re in a grocery store, there’s nothing better. But the question I have is, is it financially worth the number of hours that a company needs to spend on it?” Martin had a few successful forays into app development—notably, with Karen Tack and Alan Richardson’s Hello, Cupcake!—but in the end, she says, she found apps to be merely “an interesting experiment.”
Content Is Key
Artisan’s Ronnen points out that an over-saturated print cookbook market means curation of content has become increasingly important. “Over the past few years, some publishers have seen cookbooks selling in the fourth quarter and said, ‘Why aren’t I in the game?’ ” she says. “But not every chef with a restaurant needs a cookbook. It’s okay not to publish.”
Will Schwalbe, v-p of editorial development and content innovation at Macmillan and the founder of Cookstr, which Macmillan acquired in 2014, sees the necessity for curation online as well as in print, thanks to the glut of free recipes available. “People are not looking for more content” on recipe-based websites, he says, but rather, “more curation of content. On some sites, you type in the kind of recipe you want and get 27,000 results. But at Cookstr, the tagging is done by culinary school graduates,” which ensures that users get streamlined results. The kicker: Cookstr is helping cookbooks find an audience. “We’re adding hundreds of recipes a month that represent the best [publisher agnostic] cookbooks,” Schwalbe says, “to help buyers discover what’s new.”
Connecting with Readers
Upcoming lists teem with social media–savvy food writers. Genius Recipes, the first cookbook from Ten Speed’s new imprint, Food52 Works, will be published in April. The imprint is designed to mine what Rahill calls the “incredible database of content” from the Food52 site’s crowdsourced columns; two single-subject cookbooks will pub in the fall.
Rodale, in October, will release The Year of Cozy, by A Cozy Kitchen blogger Adrianna Adarme—anticipating success based in part on the recipe developer’s 78,000 Instagram followers. Adarme represents a new generation of blogger, what Kelly calls “a complete package,” who can both write recipes and take professional-quality photographs—and whose profusion on blogs is driving consumer desire to see more visuals in print.
“It used to be,” says Martin, that “the last thing you would want would be an author who could shoot their own book. That’s not the case anymore.” An example from her spring list she feels exemplifies the point is Maangchi’s Real Korean Cooking (May). “Given how popular Korean food is, there isn’t a comprehensive book on Korean cooking that’s not fusion and is possible to do in the home,” she says. Coupled with Maangchi’s popular blog and how-to YouTube channel, Martin sees this as the “perfect cross-pollination” from website to book.
Cross-pollination across various media is on the minds of a number of publishers. Rodale is aiming to push food and wellness content across platforms with Prevention magazine’s new EatClean site, which will also result in a book in September, Eat Clean, Stay Lean. It’s a way to bring food to a non-food magazine title while “tying back to the books brand,” says senior editor Dervla Kelly.
Ten Speed undertook what at first seemed a simple multichannel project, launching the online drinks mag Punch, which led to the 2014 release of Sherry by the site’s editor-in-chief, Talia Baiocchi. Punch has become a place where drinks masters can explore new topics, and this, says Rahill, is proving to be fertile ground for book ideas—such as Punch contributor and cocktail historian Robert Simonson’s The Modern Classics, currently slated for fall 2016. “It’s growing in a fascinating way,” she says. And as with many digital ventures, that way, perhaps surprisingly, is pointing back to print.
Lela Nargi is a journalist and author living in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Petits Propos Culinaires, and other culinary journals and magazines.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to Rica Allanic as publisher of Clarkson Potter. She is executive editor.
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