A funny thing happened on the way to the recession: Americans stopped off in the kitchen for a snack. In the weeks following September 11, diet organization Jenny Craig saw its sales plummet; conversely, kitchenware retailer Williams-Sonoma is now projecting fourth-quarter earnings that will top its earlier forecast. "I've heard so many people say they've been eating themselves senseless," said Fran McCullough, editor of Houghton Mifflin's annual Best American Recipes series.
Apparently they've been cooking themselves senseless as well. Like all book sales, cookbook sales fell sharply after September 11. "For September and the first week and a half of October, we could have held a checkers tournament on the floor and never been disturbed," sighed Nach Waxman, owner of Kitchen Arts and Letters, a specialty cookbook store in New York City. But since then, sales of cookbooks have slowly returned to previous levels, taking into account an already weakening market. "Other channels, such as commercial fiction, are feeling a little more of a pinch, but the reps have told me that there have been terrific sales for cookbooks this fall," said Duncan DeGraff, Random House's northeast divisional sales director.
The future looks relatively bright, too. Said Susan Crittenden, manager and frontlist buyer for Powell's Books for Cooks in Portland, Ore., "I have great optimism for spring. People gotta eat."
Booksellers have not seen a marked spike in sales for a particular type of cookbook, although a few trends stand out. For one thing, holiday reunions of family and friends have taken on new import. Hyperion has shipped 310,000 copies of Back to the Table (Oct.) by Art Smith, Oprah Winfrey's personal chef. In November, Chronicle printed 20,000 copies of Diane Morgan's The Thanksgiving Table, and it sold out completely.
Perhaps because they recall the 1950s and more isolationist times, or maybe because stressed-out cooks want something quick to prepare, cookbooks that call for packaged foods are enjoying popularity. Hawley-Cooke, a three-store chain with over 50,000 square feet of space in the Louisville, Ky., area, reported that Chocolate from the Cake Mix Doctor (Workman, Oct.) has already sold 250 copies. Harvard Common Press also reported that they have sold through the 50,000-copy first printing of The Soup Mix Gourmet (Oct.), a book in which every recipe depends on either canned soup or a dried mix.
Cookbook buyers are turning to desserts for solace. Artisan's In the Sweet Kitchen just went back for a third printing, bringing the total to 46,000 copies in print for a book that only hit stores three months ago. Artisan publisher Ann Bramson credited sales to author Regan Daley's willingness to undertake a 13-city tour to promote the September release. "She has been valiant," said Bramson.
Readers may also be looking to big cooking projects for distraction. Ellen Rose, owner of the Cook's Library in Los Angeles, is selling books that offer complex desserts, such as Gale Gand's Just a Bite (Clarkson Potter, Oct.) and Claudia Fleming's The Last Course (Random House, Oct.).
However, Rose has not seen a greater than usual demand for "comfort food" books--such as Roy Finnamore and Molly Stevens's One Potato Two Potato (Houghton Mifflin, Oct.), with its entire chapter of mashed potato recipes. "People already have recipes that they go back to for comfort food," she speculated.
But the clear frontrunners in a season marked by ongoing war coverage are familiar authors who appear regularly on television. Borders cookbook buyer Scott Ferguson reported, "New books by established chefs and authors are doing well." Lidia's Italian-American Table (Knopf, Oct.), the accompaniment to Lidia Bastianich's PBS television series, went out with a 75,000-copy first printing. Online and catalogue cookbook seller Jessica's Biscuit expects to sell 2,000 copies through the Christmas season.
Another well-positioned television-related title is The Naked Chef Takes Off (Sept.) by Jamie Oliver, who hosts The Naked Chef on the Food Network. Hyperion editorial director Will Schwalbe noted that, with 80,000 copies shipped, the pace of sales is comparable to that for Oliver's first book (The Naked Chef), even though the house cancelled Oliver's tour, due to start the week of September 11.
But according to Ferguson, some big names found it a bit slippery going out of the gate. "Titles released right before September 11, like the latest from Emeril [Prime Time Emeril, Morrow], released on September 8, have had slow starts, probably related to limited media attention."
"Unknown authors are not getting the coverage they would have pre-September 11," agreed Beth Dickey, publicity manager at Broadway Books. This season, the house is depending on authors who already have a solid track record. The Minimalist Cooks Dinner, the latest effort from New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, whose How to Cook Everything won both James Beard and Julia Child awards, has benefited from its author's familiarity to serious cooks, despite its September 11 pub date. A relatively low price of $26 is an added attraction. Patricia Wells, whose name is indelibly associated with French cooking, is another author with a proven record; her sixth and latest, The Paris Cookbook (HarperCollins), is a top seller at several stores.
Spring Season Heavy in the Midlist
What can be expected in the first quarter of 2002? Editors and publishers claimed no decreases in print runs or any changes to their winter/spring 2002 lists since September 11, but booksellers smell fear. "Publishers are laying low and not expecting 2002 to be a great year, although our selling experience is the opposite," said David Strymish, buyer for Jessica's Biscuit. Waxman of Kitchen Arts and Letters commented, "The lists we've seen are really feeble."
Whatever the quality of forthcoming lists, some clusters are emerging. Grilling, which has been gaining speed over the last few springs, will be the focus of a number of books, such as Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby's Let the Flames Begin, out in June from Norton, and Dressed to Grill: Savvy Recipes for Girls Who Play with Fire from Chronicle in May.
And, just in time for a backlash to the holiday season's bacchanalian mood, winter and spring are heavy on diet and health books. One such April title is Knopf's The Healthy Kitchen by Andrew Weil and Rosie Daley. Daley's last book sold six million copies; Weil is the author of the bestselling Eight Weeks to Optimum Health and Eating Well for Optimum Health. Houghton will publish 50,000 copies of Cooking Thin with Chef Kathleen by Kathleen Daelemans in April.
But about the winter/spring lists, Strymish lamented, "I'm seeing hundreds of middle-of-the-road diet cookbooks. Two or three of them will sell, but I wouldn't want to guess which ones."
One title that did sell unexpectedly well for Jessica's Biscuit this year was Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. "Normally we'd sell 25 copies of that book in a year," reported Strymish, "but in October we announced we'd donate our profits on it for the month to the Red Cross, and we ended up selling 800 copies and donating almost $4,000."