When it comes to cookbooks, major New York publishers hungrily eyeing the bestseller list tend to snatch up celebrity chefs who have major TV shows. But the season's--indeed one of the year's--biggest cookbooks for Barnes & Noble proves that a familiar face, lush photo spreads and lots of media attention are not the only ingredients required for hitting the list. Fix-it and Forget-It Cookbook by Dawn J. Ranck and Phyllis Pellman Good, an accessible guide to crockpot cooking with black and white line drawings and more than 800 recipes contributed by home cooks across the country, has become a word-of-mouth phenomenon without any help from the media whatsoever.
"We did everything wrong by the usual standards for publishing a cookbook, except for the title," said Merle Good, the husband of one of the authors and the publisher of Good Books, a family-owned press based in Lancaster, Pa., that specializes in books on Amish and Mennonite cooking, crafts and culture. "We shipped the book mid-December last year, a month and a half late, because when we contacted our network of cooks asking for slow-cooker recipes, we got back three times as many as we'd thought we would. We tested them all, and there were so many good ones that we added another 100 pages to the book."
Based on orders from commissioned reps, Good Books shipped about 5,000 copies of the $13.95 trade paperback to bookstores. Without reviews or publicity, advertising or author appearances, the book took off at the major chains within weeks of hitting the shelves last January. Barnes & Noble cookbook buyer Lee Stern recalls that after a few weeks of watching sales, "I called Merle and asked, 'What's going on? Was the book on Oprah?' He said the book was selling fast, but it just seemed to be word of mouth. It's one of those rare books that doesn't seem to have a catalyst other than the title--which is one of the best titles of all time--and a great price."
Good attributes the book's success in part to the way chain bookstores with large cookbook sections create identifiable sections for appliance cooking, and sometimes even slow-cooker sections. "I think people went to the section looking for a slow-cooker cookbook, and ours stood out. It has an incredible range of recipes--breakfast foods, soups, dinners, desserts," he said, adding that although slow cooking has a negative stereotype from the '60s, people seem to be realizing it's great for vegetarian cooking as well as inexpensive cuts of meat.
The book, which has just passed the 300,000-copy sales mark, has been the #1 cookbook overall at Barnes & Noble since June, and a top-selling cookbook at Ingram all year. After Good Books made finished books available to independent bookstores via the Booksense Advance Access program, the book became a Booksense 76 pick for September/October. On November 18, it bounded onto the New York Times advice and how-to list at #11, and has remained at that level in the five weeks since. Stern noted that it's particularly remarkable that the book should break out when "so many heavy-hitting chefs had cookbooks out this fall." He compares Fix-it and Forget-it to last year's #1 cookbook for the chain, The Cake-Mix Doctor (Workman, 2000), and foresees an equally long shelf life that isn't restricted to a particular region or season.
Though it's selling very well at Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks and Borders, Good reported that Fix-it and Forget-it is just starting to catch on with other mass retailers. "Walmart just tested it in certain stores and it looks like they are going to take it national," he said. QVC has also just placed its first buy. Noting that the price clubs have yet to catch on, Good said, "I'm not sure we're at the peak of the sales yet."
There may also be room for more independent stores to join the bandwagon. Of the three major independent stores contacted by PW, one had sold only seven copies since September, one didn't carry the book at all, and one had a few copies but quickly scoffed at it as too downmarket to sell well with the store's clientele. However, a fourth bookstore owner, Rita Moran of Apple Valley Books in rural Winthrop, Maine, said it was the topselling cookbook this year in her store of 5,000 titles. "This is real people's food. It's like having a recipe swap with a bunch of friends. It blows the best-known crockery cookbook author, Mable Hoffman, out of the water," she said.
Though sales have far outpaced the 22-year-old press's next most successful title, The Best of Amish Cooking, which took about a decade to sell 300,000 copies, Good thinks he can handle the book's success: "We haven't run out of stock in last six months and we have plenty of books." Beyond the traditional winter months for slow cooking, Good is looking forward to a follow-up slow-cooker cookbook by the same authors next fall.