A Rant About Cookbooks and Cookbook Publishers

Recently, I’ve heard a lot of cookbook writers complaining about the Internet in general and food blogs in particular. The complaints run along the lines of: “They’re reposting our recipes without our permission and hurting our sales!” and “They’re just throwing up awful, untested recipes so people will make bad food instead of turning to good sources like our cookbooks!”

First let me say that I love cookbooks, and I prefer to cook out of them than to cook recipes that I’ve found online. I find it a lot easier to open a cookbook on my kitchen counter than to print out a recipe or risk getting melted butter on my computer. I turn to food blogs for good writing, gorgeous photos, ideas and tips. And the occasional unusual recipe that I haven’t seen anywhere else. If a food blogger I like adapts a recipe from a cookbook they like, I’m actually more likely to remember and buy that cookbook.

The Internet is nothing more than a gigantic recipe exchange, and recipe exchanges have existed for as long as there has been cooking. Instead of passing down recipes orally or writing them on index cards, we now type them into our computers. All that’s changed is the technology, which makes it easier to share and access recipes. Cookbook writers and publishers have absolutely no hope of controlling or limiting an activity that cooks have been engaging in forever, so they should just stop fretting about it.

But I have a real beef with cookbook writers and publishers — probably the publishers more than the writers. Last time I walked into the cookbook section of a bookstore, I was overwhelmed. There were just so many cookbooks, most of them newly published. I believe it takes a lot of time and expense to write a cookbook. You have to test all the recipes, which probably means hiring assistants, and you have to have photos to be at all competitive, another big expense. How do they hope to make any money when the outlay is so high and the market is so glutted?

I actually like to cook out of my cookbooks. And I only cook so many meals for which I need recipes. So I can expect to consume one or two new cookbooks per year. Even cookbook addicts can only buy so many. Maybe sales aren’t good not because of the Internet but because there’s so much competition in the cookbook section for what really can’t be that huge a market of cookbook buyers.

It’s gotten so I won’t even consider buying a cookbook unless it’s highly recommended by a source I trust. There are so many cookbooks out there, I’m not going to waste my money on poor ones any more. I have also instituted other criteria in order to winnow down my choices:

  • unique, interesting recipes — I don’t need another frittata or risotto recipe at this point
  • thorough, well-written recipes — I want lots of notes on how long the recipe takes, what I can make ahead, what to do with leftovers, and how to vary or adapt the recipe
  • emphasis on seasonal, healthy, fresh ingredients — because that’s what I like to cook
  • beautiful photographs — because I also like to browse through my cookbooks

So my advice to all those hand-wringers out there who are worried that food blogs are making it impossible to sell cookbooks: Try publishing fewer cookbooks! Is it really necessary for every celebrity chef to have a new cookbook out every year? Rachael Ray‘s section alone contains more recipes than anyone can possibly hope to cook (and her cookbooks aren’t even all that good). Try concentrating on quality rather than quantity, focus on promoting those high-quality cookbooks, and actually work with food bloggers, who are a big part of your market that you really shouldn’t alienate.

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3 thoughts on “A Rant About Cookbooks and Cookbook Publishers

  1. pam 30 October 2009 at 12:46 pm

    Whenever I post a recipe from a cookbook, I always post a link to Amazon. I think they should consider it good word of mouth!

  2. Joe Gannon 11 November 2009 at 7:55 pm

    I collect cookbooks, but pretty gave up with the new breeds. Most of the cookbooks I see are written by celebrity chefs who have the strength of TV or restaurant behind them. Of course there are some chefs that I do admire and buy their cookbooks. But only if its well written, has good pictures and some helpful info included with the recipes.

    Otherwise I simply refuse to buy cookbooks or magazines. I find the recipes and themes dull or uninspiring, bolstered by their brand status. Instead, I scour the Web for older books. I’d rather read James Beard or Craig Claiborne any day.

    As far as cooks copying their recipes. Thats a joke. Where do these cookbook authors come up with their recipes in the first place? Give me a break, they will take a dish in any cases and add ingredients to make it their own. So they have a lot of nerve accusing amateur cooks of stealing their show .Many have no creativity. As an example, a roasted cauliflower dish using 1/3 cup of oil? Is that healthy? Instead you need to be creative.

    On the other hand, I personally never copy a recipe unless I get permission. Bloggers who don’t should be ashamed of themselves. Period. Remember their is such thing as copyright. So I can see their point if they copy. However, if you adapt the recipe, rewrite it and improve it, I see it as your own recipe.

  3. Shannon 12 November 2009 at 8:38 am

    Joe: Great comments. Some of my best workhorses in the kitchen are the old classic cookbooks. I am really enjoying cooking from Patricia Wells’ and Marcella Hazan’s books right now. It’s not hard to be cynical about all these celebrity chefs.

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