It's a given these days that many people who cook go to the Web for recipes. Even people who work in cookbook publishing will Google "gazpacho" now and then, or "key lime pie." It's so easy to find a recipe, jot down a shopping list and pick up what you need at the farmer's market on the way home. Sure, it'd be nice to check your favorite recipe, but often that recipe is miles away, on a shelf, far from where you need it. It's practically irrelevant. Meanwhile, Web recipes are free and easy. How can cookbook publishers compete?

Cookbook publishers can compete—if they recognize the power of the Web itself to add value to their content. For years, publishers have tried to figure out how to steer potential buyers to their Web sites, in an effort to nudge readers into buying their books. But unless you're publishing a work by a superstar TV chef, that's not so easy. Publishers must look beyond mere Internet marketing and turn their eye toward repurposing—and enhancing—their content for the Web. Content is everything, and appropriate Web tools can handily increase its value.

E-cookbooks, as we know them so far, are better suited to narrative texts having a clear beginning, middle and end. (With the exception of Julie Powell, author of Julie & Julia, no one cooks recipes chronologically as they appear in the book.) Instead, cookbook users want librarylike content that's accessible and searchable. Ideally, the recipes should function as building blocks for shopping lists, menus, meal plans and so on. Think of recipes and their various elements (ingredients; instructions) as reference materials that can be searched, catalogued, summarized, sliced and diced—all jobs that Web tools can do well.

Imagine a sophisticated online infrastructure that allows electronic versions of recipes to be previewed and sold at a very affordable cost to users as they wish to buy them. Or if a cook buys a book, she also might get an electronic version of the recipes, which she can access from work, home, Mom's house in Ohio or via her cell phone or iPod while she's in the store.

With such a model, recipes that have been relegated to the cookbook shelf come out into the world and become useful in myriad ways, and cookbooks that have been relegated to the publisher's backlist can find new readers. These recipes, legally obtained and copyright preserved, can also direct would-be buyers to printed books, which offer their own substantial satisfaction.

Where to start with such a repurposing of content? Out-of-print works are a great place. Last month in this space, Chris Anderson of The Long Tail fame addressed that very subject: "If the publishing industry can create a simple, cheap way to make [out-of-print] books available to be scanned and searched while protecting the interests of authors and publishers, we'll all be better off." New works fit nicely into the model, too.

Publishers are reluctant to loosen their grip on content. But as Kate Wittenberg, director of the Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia University, suggested earlier this summer in the Chronicle of Higher Education, it's time for academic publishers (and others who publish reference works in particular) to embrace new partnerships in the information sector. She writes, "The old model of working in a publishing industry that operates independently from other sectors of the information community is no longer effective. The concept of competing with those other industries and players for dominance in the user market has become not only pointless but also destructive."

Americans love media, and if publishers embrace the notion that they can sell both books and online content, and that neither takes away from the other, they can eat their gazpacho or their key lime pie—and have it, too.

Author Information
Kim Carlson is cofounder of Culinate, which is building a Web platform that allows publishers to make the most of their new and out-of-print cookbook content.