This week, some Americans will pull out dusty recipe boxes with faded instructions from Mom on making stuffing. Many will Google “cranberry sauce.” Lots will turn to books like Thanksgiving 101 by Rick Rodgers for gravy recipes and ideas for side dishes. Others will flip through the pages of the final issue of Gourmet, with its turkey on the cover and tips on achieving turkey perfection inside.
But what Will Schwalbe and Katie Workman would really like Americans to do this week is go to Cookstr.com, where home cooks can access hundreds of recipes for Thanksgiving dishes from acclaimed cookbooks—for free.
Schwalbe (left), Cookstr founder and CEO and former editor-in-chief of Hyperion, calls Cookstr “a site that celebrates chefs and cookbook authors...” “...who've really been unsung heroes a lot of the time,” says Workman (below right), editor-in-chief and chief marketing officer, finishing Schwalbe's sentence. Workman, who left the family business, Workman Publishing, in 2006, continues, “All the food celebrities who have wonderful shows? That's great. But there are a lot of people who write really mean recipes, and just because they don't have a Food Network show means they haven't had the chance to get out there in that way.”
This month, Cookstr turns one year old. The site now features more than 4,000 recipes from some 350 cookbooks. Traffic's up—October saw more than 165,000 absolute unique visitors (counting each person who visited Cookstr in October at least once)—thanks to some smart viral marketing on Cookstr's part and a few partnerships with high-profile TV and Web outlets. And with the holidays approaching, Schwalbe and Workman are hoping more cooks than ever come to Cookstr for recipes for homemade turkey stock (from Rodgers's Thanksgiving 101, incidentally, which Morrow revised in 2007), green bean and lemon casserole (from Nigella Lawson's Feast, a 2004 title from Hyperion), oyster and cracked-pepper corn bread stuffing (from Diane Morgan's The Thanksgiving Table, a 2006 title from Chronicle), and much more.
“The whole point of this is to drive income for ourselves as partners, to drive income for publishers, to drive income for authors, to help monetize recipes,” says Schwalbe. Workman elaborates, explaining that Cookstr is interested in collecting recipes from cookbooks that have not previously existed online. “They've only been monetized as they have been part of a concrete book, and they've never been able to exist electronically and earn revenue. That's been a great frustration to publishers and to authors,” she says. Cookstr makes money for publishers by running ads on its site, which it began doing in late spring 2009. It's now starting to see income from the ads, and in the next reporting period, it will share some of that revenue with publishers that have provided content. Most of the ads are sold through an ad network, although Cookstr is starting to sell direct advertising itself.
Of course, the higher Cookstr's traffic, the more advertisers will be interested in the site. So how does Cookstr get people to its site, when there are countless places—recipe boxes, books and magazines, not to mention the Web—to find recipes?
Starting a Start-Up
First, Schwalbe and Workman have tried to give home cooks a good reason to spend time on Cookstr. They're obsessed with tagging, a process that is both thoughtful and time-consuming. Each recipe carries between 40 and 80 descriptive tags, so, for instance, a recipe for sugarcane-smoked turkey from Tom Fitzmorris's New Orleans Food (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2006) will satisfy a visitor seeking a gluten-free Thanksgiving turkey recipe. Cooks looking for a kid-friendly side dish that's inexpensive and can be made ahead of time will find such options as whipped sweet potatoes from Sheila Lukins's U.S.A. Cookbook (Workman, 1997) or braised rice and onions from a 40th anniversary edition of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Knopf, 2001). Cookstr employs an army of freelancers to tag its recipes, double-checking each one before it goes live.
Once they established Cookstr as a worthwhile place for recipe seekers, Schwalbe and Workman moved on to developing partnerships that would drive traffic to the site. In March, Cookstr entered into a co-branding agreement with Bravo Media and Oxygen Media, in which BravoForFoodies.com and Oxygen.com began featuring Cookstr's recipes. The partnership considerably widened Cookstr's audience: Bravo and Oxygen have more than three million unique Web visitors per month combined. The Bravo alliance led to a Cookstr cameo on the hit show Top Chef earlier this fall, in which contestants had to cook dishes based on keywords that came up when they pulled a slot machine lever, much the way (viewers were told) Cookstr helps people find recipes based on keywords. The Top Chef appearance helped boost Cookstr's traffic considerably. Schwalbe said that within days of the episode, well over 30,000 visitors came to the site. Many have returned and registered for Cookstr's newsletter, “The Cookstr 10,” which delivers 10 themed recipes (soups, fall comfort foods, etc.) to recipients' inboxes weekly (sample, right). The newsletter has more than 18,000 subscribers, and the open rate and click-through rates are both about 40%—an impressive rate.
Another agreement, with Tina Brown's media site the Daily Beast, has set Cookstr as the main supplier of content for that site's food section, Hungry Beast. Visitors can only view recipes on Cookstr, so Cookstr gets more traffic. And a recent partnership with Knopf put Cookstr in front of viewers of the popular TV show Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home, advising them to visit julia.cookstr.com for recipes, episode clips, information on Julia Child and Jacques Pépin, and links to buy books and DVDs.
All these partnerships have helped boost site traffic, as has Cookstr's blog. “Once we hit our traffic numbers, the banner ad becomes really significant,” says Schwalbe. “We're well on our way there and are definitely on model, so that the financial scenario we initially envisioned when we approached publishers is proving out.”
Publishers and Authors Warm Up
“Publishers were quite rightly cautious,” says Schwalbe, on publishers' initial reaction when he and Workman approached them with the idea to post their content online at no charge. But, he says, because he and Workman both came from the business and “have the same goal—which is we want to sell cookbooks, we want to introduce people to cookbooks they don't know about,” publishers warmed to the idea. “As soon as publishers realized that Cookstr helps them (a) monetize recipes and (b) helps advertise and promote cookbooks, they got really excited,” he says.
One publisher with content on Cookstr is Morrow Cookbooks. Mary Ellen O'Neill, executive editor and editorial director of cookbooks, said putting recipes on Cookstr is a “great opportunity for some of our backlist and classic cookbook authors.” The publisher has 44 cookbooks and about 550 recipes on Cookstr and is also starting to put recipes from more of its new cookbooks on the site—between 13 and 23 recipes per book. “It's lovely for some of our authors who have platforms that are still growing,” says O'Neill.
Cookstr also deals directly with authors. Kristen Suzanne is one of the newest authors to get recipes on the site. She contacted Cookstr after hearing about them through an acquaintance. The raw food chef and author of 11 self-published cookbooks says, “To have a handful of recipes out there for free is something that I support.” Suzanne also posts recipes on her blog, KristensRaw.com. “I think it's smart for a chef to share some recipes so that prospective customers can sample before buying a book,” she says.
Every recipe on Cookstr offers viewers the option to buy the book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Indiebound, or Jessica's Biscuit, although Cookstr does not track sales. O'Neill admits, “It is a little hard to quantify sales. But I look at the big picture—impressions that are made on people's consciousness.”
Aside from giving Cookstr content, publishers are starting to pay for prominent coverage, too. Harper Studio sponsored a newsletter this fall for Mollie Katzen's new book, Get Cooking. What about an iTunes model, wherein users pay, for instance, 99 cents for a recipe? Schwalbe says that since the Web offers so many free recipes already, Cookstr needed its primary utility to be free. “That's not to say that we might not want to work out with publishers other kinds of arrangements in the future. But at its base, we wanted to compete.”
Cookstr 2.0 will feature threaded comments, which will let visitors carry on conversations with other users around topics. It will also introduce video generated by authors and publishers. Aside from those, goals for the next year are to get more recipes on the site and build traffic.
With food advertising rates holding up well compared to other industries, Schwalbe is optimistic that Cookstr will grow. “What we offer advertisers is really special, because it's quality curated content. Advertisers might not want to put their ads opposite user-generated content because they don't know what the heck it is. But we can guarantee them that because this stuff comes from cookbooks, this is just the best,” he says.
Workman's vision for the future is more to the point: “Cooking and eating are not fads, as it turns out.”