More than just the recipes.

I’m just back from the Cookbook Conference in New York, where EYB’s Jane Kelly and I sat on panels and hobnobbed with cookbook authors, publishers, marketers, and others involved in food.  It was a good time, and a chance to meet with many people we work with but don’t often get to see, working from our New England fastnesses.

On the way back, I thought about what I’d learned, and it seemed to me that all the many conversations I had reminded me of one thing: for most people, cookbooks are way more than just their recipe content.  For me, of course, as a reviewer, it almost always comes down to the recipes and how they test in my kitchen.  Yet out there in the world of cookbook sales, many other factors are powerfully at work.  Here are my impressions, to be taken cum grano salis: 

Photography is more important than ever: in part thanks to food bloggers and the rise in quality of amateur photographers, abundant photography is getting to be a must in cookbooks.  I can’t tell you how many cookbooks I’ve seen that have an almost one-to-one ratio of photographs to recipes.  And there are those that offer shots of every step along the way.

Celebrities sell books: Duh, right? otherwise you wouldn’t see a cookbook a year from every Food Network star who trots across a kitchen set in an apron. What’s staggering are the numbers.   An Ina Garten [Barefoot Contessa] or Ree Drummond [Pioneer Woman] book might sell 100,000 copies a year or more.  What does a “normal” cookbook (the kind I typically review for the Globe) sell?  Well, a successful one might sell 10,000 copies in its entire lifetime (maybe even earning back its advance!).

Radio sells books:  I kind of knew this, having tracked the correlation between Amazon’s bestselling cookbooks list and the NPR cookbook roundup.  But it was interesting to hear authors repeating that sales of their books had shot up after a mention on the radio–perhaps moreso than on other media.

Brave new online world – not totally here yet, but coming: Being able to share one’s experience with a cookbook on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest is more and more integral to the act of cooking with it.  Recipe apps are on the rise, if not yet supplanting hard copies.  Stay tuned, though.  We’ll hear more and more about them every year, no doubt.

Diets make trends: One panelist quoted a bookseller who identifies cookbook trends by when he has to make room, and a label, for books dedicated to a subject: for example, when “Vegan” had to calve off from “Vegetarian”, and when “Gluten-Free” and most recently “Paleo” began demanding their own space.

Books you’ve never heard of sell as gifts: One author confided in me that books from retailers like Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma, with generic names like “Sauces” or “Pasta”, are printed and sold as gifts in the hundreds of thousands – though you may never see them on Amazon, and in many cases they don’t even have an ISBN!

Maybe these aren’t the books you see on your shelf – I know they’re not the ones I return to again and again.  But, as I like to say, it’s a big world, and there’s a lot of ways to be.  You know?

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One Comment

  • colin.purrington  on  February 13, 2013

    The lack of photographs in cookbooks has always puzzled me. There has been amazing food photography around for 50+ years, so I'm not sure the rise of the one-to-one, recipe-to-photo book is because everyone has a digital camera today (OK, some of us have a dozen). Isn't the publication of photographs itself easier? I also think that publishers have done the math and realized that people leaf through books and weigh not just the critical reviews but whether there is a photograph for every recipe. I have always wanted a photograph per recipe (I'm sure I'm not alone), even if I'm paying for a book that has 1/2 the number of recipes. I can cook out of the "How to cook everything" type of book, but photos and even crude sketches activate some basal neurons in the happy center of the brain.

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