The Future of the Cookbook

by Adam on October 13, 2012

I authored this article earlier this year for the Publishers Weekly Soapbox column, and am rerunning the text below. It has been modified slightly to fit the digital medium.

I don’t pretend that by the end of this post, I’ll have the future of cookbook publishing figured out (though it has been discussed ad infinitum over the past 2-3 years, as if the answer itself were hidden in some dark back alley, tucked away behind all the returns). My work within the cookbook world affords me a particularly strong vantage point though to look at what’s come before and what’s coming down the road. We all know, as publishers, the opportunities and challenges the internet has afforded us (especially with food online). Instant access prompts both enormous gateways to consumer engagement, as well as the problem of free content being readily available (free recipes as an obvious example).

Before embarking on the task of trying to suss out this future we all seek, and how online plays a role, let me lay some groundrules that perhaps go without saying: 1) We are still publishers. The new world may mean doing some things differently, augmenting our current workflows, but it doesn’t mean throwing everything out that’s worked for so many years; 2) people continue to read books, in-print and online, even in the face of an enormous influx of content; and 3) consumers are more engaged than ever, whether with author or publisher brands. Readers are reaching out via social networks, participating in a variety of online cooking/reading communities in a way that they have never before.


Since everyone has their opinions about what could be to come in the future of cookbook publishing, let me start with where I don’t think it lies:

-It’s not in lower priced ebooks…the race to $0.99 is a short one, but the uphill climb to fair pricing on ebooks is steep and riddled with issues.

-Nor is it in ceding control of our ability to reach consumers, set our own terms or pricing, to retailers who have the direct-to-consumer relationships (or in ceding pricing control to consumer whims).

-I don’t think it’s all in the online world either, because regardless of whether it’s cooking in the kitchen, planting in the garden or using books to enrich our lives, there’s something very permanent about the printed word.

-I’m also not sure it’s in making our reading experiences overly complex, whether through gaming mechanics or over-the-top enhancements. Many much smarter minds have come before me saying that these mechanics in books are a feature-set in search of an audience, and I agree.


So where is it then? In a few areas, none of which haven’t been talked about before, and none which are beyond publishers’ ability to grasp:

-Content / Curation – Content curation spans two areas: the ability to identify and edit quality recipes and also the ability to arrange those recipes in an effective way so that a cookbook delivers value. That “curation in organization” is something that online recipes will never have, but publishers need to make that value clear to consumers. They also need to try and foster some of the serendipity of recipe browsing online that neither print nor ebooks currently allow.

-Community – Blogs and websites continue to grow online because of the ability to build community, both between the recipe creator and his/her audience, as well as members of the audience themselves. Cookbook authors and publishers need to find ways to make ecookbooks into immersive discussion touchpoints, or else unlock their content so that they can take advantage of community-sharing aspects.

-Narrative/Personality/Branding – Whatever you call it, nobody buys a cookbook just for the recipes. Whether it’s the stories about the recipe pedigree, the author’s own personal exploration of how he/she uses the recipes, or tying the recipes back to larger community narratives, a cookbook (and an author) that has a personality which readers can identify with will do much better than one that doesn’t in any form (I’d say this is why blogs that are popular do as well as they do, there’s a real voice behind them).

-Monetization – I think it goes without saying that recipe licensing is a lucrative path towards interim revenue streams with the right partners. And surprisingly, this channel is picking up for some publishers (perhaps it should come as no surprise that as megaliths in the online world start to look towards the kitchen, they see no need to reinvent the wheel; publishers should be the first players they call). I also believe publishers can and should find ways to monetize on the sub-cookbook level, by chunking content into new ebooks for example, or into proprietary platforms, as well as looking to recipes on their own sites as a way to drive advertising revenue (something we’ve been notoriously bad at, but can really take advantage of going forward).
Do I think there’s a future for cookbooks? Yes, certainly. But I don’t think it’s in standing back and letting others eat our lunch while we debate the merits of technological integration (or the lack of it). Publishers need to see themselves as tastemakers and players in the new online world.  Not just as content producers, but as curators, trend-setters, and even brands in their own rite. And most importantly, we need to do it now.  The future will come, and publishers have a role to play, but it’s all about what we make of it.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: