How has the digital revolution affected cookbooks?

With the rise of digital publishing the traditional sense of a print cookbook has changed. Like its fiction-filled counterpart the cookery section of the publishing industry has widely expanded into the digital world but not in the ways expected.

Following the general development in digital publishing the food and drink section has been greatly affected, but surprisingly not through the creation of ebooks. Cookbook publishing can accredit its evolution in part to the rise of blogging and social media and their use by food writers and their consumers.

How chefs are using the digital age to their advantage

Celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson have altered the image of food writers; chefs are no longer solely accessible through their books.

They’re utilizing social media and television appearances to promote their work and manipulate their careers, providing their publishers with record sales.

Oliver started his television career with The Naked Chef in 1999 which had three tie-in books, one of which, Happy Days with the Naked Chef, topped the Christmas charts. According to The Bookseller, ‘Oliver has scored five Christmas number ones over the years, including three consecutive festive chart toppers from 2010 to 2012 with Jamie’s 30-minute Meals, Jamie’s Great Britain and Jamie’s 15-minute Meals.’ All of his bestselling cookbooks have had corresponding television programs.

Jamie Oliver uses his social media to promote work and connect with readers. Source: The Drum

Jamie Oliver uses his social media to promote work and connect with readers. Source: The Drum

Although he had a successful career as a television chef and a food writer before his move to social media, once his online marketing kicked off with his Twitter and Instagram accounts in 2009 Oliver’s book sales grew dramatically. It was only a year after his social media marketing began that he broke the bestseller records. His website proudly announced that, ‘His 2010 book, Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals, became Jamie’s first million-selling book in the UK as well as being the fastest-selling non-fiction book since records began.’ Subi Gnanaseharam, social media manager for The Jamie Oliver Group, commented on the impact social media marketing was having on the company, ‘Social media is really helping us and making us smarter as well in terms of what we’re producing, where we’re going and where we want to go as a brand.’

It’s not just social media making a difference

Food blogs and review sites have also had a notable effect on the food publishing industry. The opportunity that amateur food fanatics have to turn themselves into restaurant reviewers or food writers has helped transform the consumers into producers. Commissioning editors are now looking to successful food blogs to find their next book pitch.

Blog turned book author Jack Monroe. Source: A Girl Called Jack

Blog turned book author Jack Monroe. Source: A Girl Called Jack

One of the better well-known examples is food blogger Jack Monroe, whose blog A Girl Called Jack was so popular she’s published two books since its creation. Another example of a thriving blog turned book author is Molly Wizenberg who wrote the cookbook Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, as well as a memoir and now has a restaurant and a column in Bon Apetit magazine.

How do these changes translate in sales statistics?

Although food publishing has moved into the digital world through the use of social media and websites the ecookbook sales are surprisingly lacking. The original estimates were that all book publishing would transfer to digital formats, including the food and drink section. TechCrunch writer John Biggs created a timeline displaying the future for print books, he predicted that ‘they’re not going to make it past this decade’ and that ‘generally all publishing will exist digitally.’

Book user poll shows preference to ebook or print. Source: BISG

Book user poll shows preference to ebook or print. Source: BISG

Yet cookbooks are one of the few areas of publishing to maintain strong print sales, as their books have been selling better than any other non-fiction genre. According to research by the Book Industry Study Group in 2012 ebooks made up 26% of adult fiction purchases as opposed to 3% of cookery sales. The BISG also found that 50% of fiction and non-fiction readers said they preferred ebooks whilst 60% of cookbook readers favoured print. However L.V Anderson, associate editor for Slate, believes that the rise in print sales is only temporary in the long run. In 2012 she stated that, ‘Cookbooks may indeed outlast other print books, but they will eventually go extinct.’ The reasoning behind her opinion was the possibilities that ebooks held, ‘print cookbooks offer nothing that apps, ebooks, and websites can’t.’

Why print is selling better than digital

Cookbooks have the opportunity to be well suited to digital formats and most popular titles are available in ebook form. So why are the print books for this section still outselling their digital counterparts? Unfortunately ebooks are not yet making use of all the functions that are expected from such advanced technology.

Some, such as Oliver’s 30 Minute Meals, do provide helpful additions like shopping list apps or how-to videos but these are in the minority. Chris McBride, publisher of Alta Editions, says the problem is that, ‘Dedicated e-readers like the Kindle Paperwhite are lousy kitchen companions and most Kindle Fire and Apple iBooks cookbooks look like PDF versions of the printed page.’ Unfortunately publishing houses aren’t taking advantage of the potential for digital cookbooks; they are simply reproducing the content of the print versions in digital form.

Messy fingers and e-readers don't mix. Source: The Guardian

Messy fingers and e-readers don’t mix. Source: The Guardian

There is also a question of how user friendly they are. Whilst ebooks do have a lot of attributes their e-readers still have a limited size. Meaning that if a reader wanted to scroll down, move to the next page or zoom in whilst cooking they would most likely need to clean their hands or risk damaging the e-reader. With one user complaining that ‘I’m forever jabbing at the screen with squash-covered fingers’ and ‘having to wash my hands every few minutes to scroll to the next stage.’ Whereas the modern cookbook is on average a much larger size and a lot easier to wipe down if it gets a little messy.

Technology is making print books more attractive

Whilst ebook sales continue to struggle the print cookbook is evolving and attracting new readers. The aesthetic demand of cookbooks has been transformed by image based social media such as Instagram and Pinterest. Consumers are becoming more interested in the illustrative parts to their recipe books. Aaron Wehner from Ten Speed Press explained that,

‘Our approach is to lavish attention on the visual, we are investing more in the photography, design and finish of our books.’

As print cookbooks evolve so do the way consumers perceive and use them. The modern day cookbook is no longer treated as a reference to keep in the kitchen. These beautifully illustrated, stylishly designed books are seen as luxury items. They make fantastic gifts and can be proudly displayed on a coffee table or bookshelf. When Dale Berning Sawa reviewed Mexico: The Cookbook by Margarita Carrillo Arronte for the Guardian one of the virtues he praised was the book’s appearance, ‘this is by far the prettiest book to have landed on Cookworm’s desk.’

But you can’t beat nostalgia

Annotated cookbooks get passed through the generations. Source: The Clothes Make the Girl

Annotated cookbooks get passed through the generations. Source: The Clothes Make the Girl

It’s not just the new designs that are helping print sales stay ahead of digital. Consumers are favouring prints cookbooks for sentimental reasons. They can be seen as an inheritance; old family copies that have notes scribbled in the margins can be handed down through the generations. In an article revealing the extent of marginalia in cookbooks The New York Times claims that they are ‘possibly the most annotated form of literature.’ This is something that can’t be replicated in an ebook as it’s not yet possible to annotate a digital copy.

What to expect for the future of cookbooks

Food writing is hugely on trend right now and is becoming ever more popular through the use of bloggers, book reviewers and amateur photo journalism. Documenting how they eat, and cook, through social media is becoming part of the consumer’s lifestyle. Because of this trend the demand for cookbooks is rising and publishers are getting more opportunities to reach their target audiences.

Many different publishing professionals have predicted the future for cookbooks but their opinions have been varied and in some cases contradictory. The digital revolution has made its mark on the publishing world and those effects are continuing to spread. However until publishers start taking advantage of the potential for ecookbooks social media marketing seems to be having the biggest impact on the food publishing world.

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