This is the question nobody wanted to ask out loud at the Roger Smith Cookbook Conference, a gathering of cookbook writers, editors, publishers, agents, food bloggers and food historians that has just concluded in New York. But it was lurking during two days of panel discussions as the people in attendance tried to figure out whether cookbooks have a future – or whether other (digital) means of obtaining recipes, from blogs and ebooks to mobile apps and online video, are making cookbooks into a relic of the past.
Here are a few key points:
* Everyone’s getting recipes online, even people who still use cookbooks. Okay, we already knew that. But now it appears that the younger generation is bypassing ‘old’ new media like blogs and going directly to You Tube for recipes. In other words, video is the next big thing.
* You want to write a cookbook? Don’t expect to make money. The size of advances has plummeted as the book publishing industry suffers from online competition. And despite the fact that cookbooks have resisted better than other categories of books, fewer are selling than in the past. So profits decline right down the line – for publishers, agents, authors and booksellers.
* 24 percent of all cookbooks published today are ebooks, and that figure stands to increase as time goes on. This was from a study by Bowker Market Research that also found that cookbooks in the form of apps for phones and tablets were doing slightly better than ebook cookbooks in 2012.
Of course, this being a cookbook conference, the bottom line here was that we still love cookbooks. You can do with them what you cannot easily do with digital media – write in them, dog-ear them, read them from cover to cover, enjoy them as literary works, etc.
There is much, much more to report from the conference – information of interest to foodies everywhere! – and I plan to blog about it once I get back to Paris. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts on the matter. Please use the Comment form below.
And watch this space…
— Meg Bortin (aka The Everyday French Chef)
Just saw Delia Smith on the Graham Norton Show. Interesting model–she’s doing free online cooking lessons but also in conjunction re-releasing her out of print cook books.
Thanks to all of you for your comments. I couldn’t agree more that, at least for my generation, it’s hard to imagine cooking without cookbooks. The best are wonderful books, period. I recently received ‘Plenty’ by Yotam Ottolenghi, and it’s a beautiful artefact, with gorgeous photos, as well as a compendium of fabulous vegetarian recipes. But I’m afraid younger generations see things differently. While they might enjoy giving or receiving a cookbook as a gift, for daily cooking they use the Internet in one form or another. This was made clear by speaker after speaker at the conference. And I’m going to be investigating in the weeks ahead to see what’s possible beyond the printed word.
I read an article about Ottolenghi in the food edition of the New Yorker. It triggered memory of eating marvelous salads from his place in Islington during a business trip to London. For Christmas, I bought 3 of his cookbooks for my husband and 2 daughters to each give me for Christmas. Looking through them is a joy. The photos are beautiful and the recipes have inspired me on some new techniques, like roasting cauliflower.
In 2007, as I was searching for a publisher and an agent, I was told repeatedly that cookbook sales were down and that the only really popular books were celebrity cookbooks. Around the same time, however, I spoke with an editor at Chronicle books, who publishes beautifully photographed cookbooks (kind of like coffee table cookbooks), and he was positive about cookbook sales. Particularly, if it was a one-subject cookbook, such as ‘Salmon’ or ‘Chocolate’.
I think Linda’s comments are right on: perhaps too many are being published. In the meantime, I still think word of mouth counts for a lot and recipes are shared and traded in a variety of ways, including via blogs and emails.
TV cooking shows throw kind of curve ball into the cookbook discussion. As popular and entertaining as they are, they (from what I’ve read) do not inspire home cooking.
Apparently Bowker hasn’t yet released statistics for 2012, but in recent decades the number of cookbooks published in the United States has climbed steadily year by year. The figure for 2012 will probably exceed 2,000 titles. Sales of cookbooks have increased, too, even as sales in other genres have declined along with the economy. If publishers are unhappy at their sales figures for particular titles, perhaps the problem is that they’re publishing too many cookbooks.
I can imagine keeping a device like an iPad in the corner of the kitchen, where it would store many cookbooks and display them one page at a time. The device would allow you to add notes to recipes and search the whole collection at once. This would be a boon to people who change residences often or who live in tiny apartments.
But cookbooks on electronic devices would still be cookbooks, right? Random recipes from the Web are generally incomplete, unreliable, and out of context. People won’t stop wanting cookbooks that transport them to kitchens in another place or time or provide thorough instruction in a set of culinary methods, all in one author’s unique and authoritative voice.
I find myself buying fewer cookbooks and doing more searching online. I enjoy reading the comments folks make about recipes, the possible adaptations and what works and what doesn’t. I value this kind of feedback, which, unfortunately, the cook cannot get from a book.
In addition to recipes, the Internet’s info on “mystery ingredients” and how to prepare them is replacing classics like “The Joy of Cooking.”
I myself would not use an e-book cookbook. But I love the blogs, especially Meg’s, and print off the recipes that interest me. I keep the ones I use most frequently in a binder, my “custom cookbook,” likely the only one to be read from cover to cover.
I do like to give the beautiful hardcover special interest cookbooks as gifts.
In the UK the Christmas gift market accounts for a very large proportion of the bestselling books in the end-of-year charts. Along with celebrity biographies, most of these gifts are cookbooks by Nigella, Jamie, Nigel, Hugh and half a dozen others. There will always be a market for these illustrated heavyweight hardbacks. I think the lower-priced illustrated glossy cookbooks without a named author will suffer from online competition, and so will some paperbacks. Cookery books aren’t just a practical way of finding a recipe; they’re also a branch of travel writing for an armchair readership, as publishers realised long ago.