Licensing has long played an important role in the cookbook category. While most of the action has been in brands and cooking shows that have been extended into licensed cookbooks, more recently quite a few characters and entertainment properties have entered the category, and those deals have resulted in some strong sales.

John Wiley, for example, has published three Sesame Street cookbooks since 2007, including “C” Is for Cooking, in English and Spanish editions. Nickelodeon has released Dora & Diego Let’s Cook (also in English and Spanish versions) and SpongeBob’s Kitchen Mission Cookbook.

Often children’s cookbooks are one element of a broader licensed publishing program. Chronicle has released a handful of Star Wars cookbooks since 1998, starting with Wookiee Cookies, among many other Star Wars titles. It expanded into cooking kits this spring with Wookiee Pies, Clone Scones, and Other Galactic Goodies. “We have a history of success with cooking kits on the kids’ and adults’ side,” said Ginee Seo, publishing director of Chronicle’s children’s group. “It makes sense to marry our licensed properties with an existing and successful format.” Next up is a Star Wars ice pop kit, Ice Sabers, for fall 2013.

Also in fall 2013, Chronicle will publish a cookie kit for the Olivia animated TV show. “We’re definitely looking for more licenses in this category,” Seo said. “Whenever we acquire a new license, it will be a piece of the program.” The company is in talks to add a cooking element to its Eric Carle program as it renegotiates that license.

Parragon has published cookbooks for Disney Princess and Winnie the Pooh as part of its greater Disney program. The books, released in 2011, feature recipes as well as interactive elements such as wipe-clean pages. And Publications International is starting to look at matching some of the licenses it holds through its children’s division with its expertise in cookbooks, publishing Sesame Street print cookbooks and integrating the property into its digital iCookbook.

Other licensed cookbooks for kids have included Tom & Jerry learn-to-cook partworks from De Agostini in Europe, licensed by Warner Bros.; a storybook-with-recipes from Penguin for Kung Fu Panda 2, licensed by DreamWorks; and a Hello Kitty digital cookbook from Castle Builders, licensed by Sanrio.

Adult Appeal

Chronicle teamed with HBO for True Blood: Eats, Drinks, and Bites from Bon Temps, coming out this fall. “It was about seeing the opportunity in a really immersive show,” said Lorena Jones, publishing director, food and drink, adding that the book was inspired, in part, by Grand Central’s Sopranos Family Cookbook (2002). “You have a cuisine that’s perennially popular, paired with a show where food and foodways are an important part of it. It’s very much in-world, but it’s also authentic bayou cooking.”

Chronicle also has tied in with TV cooking shows, publishing its first title for Bravo’s Top Chef in spring 2008. “Emerging home cooks were becoming more interesting to us,” explained Jones. “They have a sophisticated palate, but not necessarily the skills to cook. This is our biggest growth segment, and it’s a large part of the audience for Top Chef.”

Other cookbooks are inspired by unscripted TV series that are not specifically cooking related. Earlier this year, Ballantine acquired the rights to In the Kitchen with David: A Classic Comfort Food Cookbook by David Venable, host of QVC’s most popular show (see our Retail column). In 2013, Parragon is publishing a TLC cookbook, licensed by Discovery Communications, that reflects the network as a whole rather than a single show. The book’s recipes will include favorite dishes from TLC personalities across TLC’s schedule of cooking and noncooking programs.

Television series can have a short life span that makes them challenging for cookbooks. “TV is tricky,” said Jim Childs, president and publisher of Oxmoor House, which publishes branded cookbooks. “We invest a lot in the market launch and in supporting the brand, and we want to make sure they backlist and last a long time.”

On the other hand, as Jones pointed out, “A diverse list has everything, including these types of very frontlist-driven titles.”

It should be noted that not all entertainment tie-ins in the cookbook category are official. Smart Pop Books published The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook earlier this year, while Adams Media has released unsanctioned Harry Potter and Hunger Games titles.

Brand Strength

Despite the growth in entertainment properties, traditional brands account for the bulk of licensed cookbook titles. “It’s a foundational part of our program,” said Natalie Chapman, Wiley’s v-p and publisher, culinary, who reports that brands such as Better Homes & Gardens, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, and Weight Watchers account for about 50% of the company’s cookbook program.

Brands bring recognition and longevity. The Betty Crocker flagship title, for example, has been published since the 1950s and is among the bestselling cookbooks of all time. “There’s an enormous following of brand loyalists,” Chapman said. “It’s a real advantage in a market that is so competitive.”

Trust is another benefit of brand licensing. “Brands have thoroughly and rigorously tested and vetted recipes that users trust,” explained Jerry Croft, president of cooking and digital media at Publications International, which offers cookbooks tied to Crock-Pot (its biggest licensed program), Hershey, Kitchen-Aid, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Sunbeam, and many others. “We find the relationship with the brands to be really excellent. They know what they’re doing in their vertical area. Their brand equity is so important to them that they’re not going to release anything that’s not going to work for everyone.”

Oxmoor House’s entire cookbook program is branded, featuring Time Inc. properties such as Real Simple, Southern Living, Sunset, and MyRecipes, and outside brands including Gooseberry Patch, Lodge, and Weber. (The last is its most significant licensed line, with one title released per year since 2005, including Weber’s Real Grilling, whose sales have exceeded one million copies.) “It’s a diverse list that gives us everything from mass and trade paperbacks to nice higher-end, gift-oriented cookbooks,” said Childs.

Marketing Muscle

In some cases, publishers can capitalize directly on licensors’ marketing initiatives. “Companies like General Mills and Meredith have a savvy and sophisticated marketing machinery, strong social media outreach, state-of-the-art Web sites, and excellent relationships with retailers,” said Chapman. Wiley coordinated with Meredith to place books in the licensed Better Homes & Gardens departments at Wal-Mart, and worked with General Mills to build a microsite on last fall—featuring 80 videos and 400 recipes available only to book buyers—to support the 11th edition of the Betty Crocker Cookbook.

Parragon promoted Entenmann’s Big Book of Baking on QVC, with Entenmann’s master baker, Kathleen Robbins, appearing on one of the segments. It also secured placement for the books adjacent to the Entenmann’s Bake Shop sections in both Kroger and Wal-Mart. Meanwhile, it worked with Entenmann’s to distribute e-book editions to the company’s Facebook fans as well as direct sell-through channels. “We’re happy to look at digital content to drive sales and help generate engagement for the brand,” said Venetia Davie, Parragon’s v-p, new business development.

What are the biggest problems in licensed cookbook publishing? “Schedules, primarily,” said Jones. True Blood was in the middle of its TV season even as the book was being produced, and the title’s release was timed to the end of the season. At the same time, the number of approvals is greater, since the TV production team and various network executives are involved. “It’s a quick-moving process for all of us,” Jones reported.

Understanding and fitting in with the licensor’s core business is also important. “It’s the publisher’s job to be the brand steward in the book space,” explained Chapman. “You have to respect the brand equity and make sure the book reflects the brand equity.” In addition, the publisher must sometimes work hard to optimize the collaboration. “We think books are the most important thing in the world, but they think their products are the most important thing in the world,” Chapman said.

Licensors are increasingly interested in extending their properties into cookbooks, and publishers say they’re on the lookout for more licensing prospects as well. “We’re looking for opportunities, both with licensing agents who approach us and with properties we’re targeting that fit well with our core audience and values and mission, and work globally,” said Wendy Friedman, Parragon’s president, North America and Latin America. Added Childs: “I think brands are driving a lot of the positive growth in the category.”