Yes, Virginia, there is a Martha Stewart, but you won't be seeing her this Christmas. Since her recent insider trading scandal, Stewart has canceled her annual CBS Christmas special and won't appear in Kmart's holiday ads, although her voice will be featured. For those who are wondering if her invisibility during these crucial book-buying months will give an up-and-comer a chance to break out, here's a survey of the contenders.
Leading the pack is Sandra Lee, author of Semi-Homemade Cooking (Talk/Miramax, Oct.). In her first cookbook, Lee subverts her classical culinary training with recipes that rely on gussied up packaged goods, such as a raspberry trifle made with Sara Lee pound cake, jam and pre-fab pudding. Although Stewart would probably turn up her nose at such quick-fix recipes, Lee is clearly taking a cue from Workman's The Cake Mix Doctor (in its 25th printing since November 1999, with 1.2 million copies in print).
Lee has also absorbed some lessons from Stewart's multimedia model, although she has taken a reverse course. Where Stewart expanded from books to magazine publishing, a TV show, and then a mail-order business and branded product line at Kmart, Lee got her start by hawking curtain kits on the QVC shopping channel in 1994. (The kits now move at a rate of 21,000 units per minute when she's on the air.) In the years since, she has developed other patented homemaking products, which have been carried in stores like Target and Wal-Mart. Lee also has a lifestyle magazine, although it's on the Web, not in a glossy format that would rival Martha Stewart Living.
Her cookbook is the initial venture in a multimedia partnership with Talk/Miramax that was negotiated by Tina Brown before she left the company. Public relations firm Hilsinger·Mendelson is promoting the book and helping to establish the Semi-Homemade brand. That's just the first part of Miramax's long-range plan for Lee, which includes more books, as well as television and merchandise, although Miramax declined to provide further details.
But Lee is not alone in striving to become chief lifestyle maven. There's also Colin Cowie, who began his career as a celebrity wedding planner and now hosts Everyday Elegance on the Women's Entertainment network. He's also been filling some of Stewart's cancelled spots on The Early Show. Cowie has just published his fifth and latest book, the tongue-twisting Dinner After Dark: Sexy, Sumptuous Supper Soirees (Clarkson Potter, Oct.). And with five collections for Lenox china under his belt, he's also looking for a retail partner for his own lifestyle product line.
Another contender is Katie Brown, who hosts her own show on the Style Network and just published Katie Brown Decorates (HarperCollins, Oct. 22), the follow-up to Katie Brown Entertains (HarperCollins, 2000). Targeting a Generation X audience, Brown makes regular appearances on Good Morning America and offers recipes and decorating tips on her Web site, www.katiebrownworkshop.com.
When it comes to book sales, however, Lee is clearly in the lead. Talk/Miramax shipped the 100,000-copy first printing of Lee's Semi-Homemade Cooking to chains like Target in addition to conventional bookstores and has returned to press for 25,000 more. Brown's and Cowie's books, meanwhile, had first printings of roughly 20,000 and 30,000 copies, respectively.
Although Lee doesn't have her own TV vehicle, she's making an impact with four holiday appearances on Today, as well as The View and Entertainment Tonight. Ample press coverage has appeared in Newsweek, Redbook, Reader's Digest and Parade with more forthcoming in the New York Times, People and US Weekly.
That kind of publicity doesn't happen by accident, yet Lee remained coy about challenging Stewart's position. "Martha is Martha. There's no replacing Martha," she insisted. But whether she admits it or not, this self-avowed fan of Cheez Whiz and Bisquick sure seems to be trying.