Like a lot of people who enjoy cooking I have a cookbook collection that I love. Over the years I’ve filled my bookshelf with hundreds of cookbooks on a variety of topics ranging from Austrian cuisine to San Francisco’s beloved Zuni Café. Nestled among the classics and curiosities are chef-driven masterworks and epic compendiums. Some were gifts, but most were books I purchased because I was excited to read and cook from them.
How frequently do I pull any of these cookbooks off the shelf? Considering their value, not often enough. And I’m not alone. Most people I know only reference a handful of their cookbooks regularly, if at all. After the honeymoon phase when an exciting new cookbook is thoroughly leafed through and a few appealing dishes are chosen to cook and enjoy, most cookbooks go on to lead very lonely lives.
As all things print continue to migrate to digital, does this mean, as some have suggested, that print cookbooks are doomed to share the same fate as the eight-track? Not according to several leading cookbook publishers. Reports indicate that 2013 was a strong year for cookbook sales. San Francisco-based Chronicle Books even claimed that 2013 was one of its best years ever for cookbooks. Regrettably for publishers this continued success with print hasn’t yet translated to strong e-books sales.
The reasons might seem obvious. Paging through a beautifully designed cookbook dense with rich color photography is in many ways a superior experience to swiping through its Kindle or iBooks equivalent. A stack of well worn cookbooks near the kitchen lets you know you’re in the company of a serious cook. And as we’re reminded each holiday season print cookbooks make excellent gifts. For these and other often sentimental reasons it should come as no surprise that most book buyers continue to prefer print over e-book cookbooks.
For their part the major e-book formats do have some advantages over print cookbooks—they’re easy to carry around, they don’t take up shelf space and they’re searchable—but they also suffer from limitations. 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. Most often they fail to take full advantage of the digital format, lacking interactive tips, step by step photos, video tutorials, and many other conveniences we take for granted on recipe websites, like browsing and searching for recipes across a collection. They’re also either literally or practically unusable on mobile.
So it should come as no surprise that nearly all cooks these days, both casual and serious, look to the internet for recipes and cooking instruction. The sheer convenience of having countless free recipes (many in fact cribbed from cookbooks) available on your computer, tablet and mobile phone is hard to compete with.
There’s no denying that software is eating the world. Things are just coming along a little more slowly in the cookbook business. When will the tide turn? The news may be rosy in some quarters, but it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Wiley, a leading global publisher, stopped publishing cookbooks last year and several other mid-market publishers have cut back on cookbook releases.
Unyielding pressure from Amazon coupled with declining bookstore sales and the continuing loss of shelf space will keep many cookbook publishers on the defensive. Given these factors, along with rapidly changing media habits, it’s not hard to imagine that print cookbook sales may have peaked, or soon will.
It is possible that Google, Amazon or Apple will commit to improving the user experience for digital cookbooks, but there’s little evidence of this happening today. So with weak sales of cookbook e-books and little sign of digital innovation from the major players, where does that leave the future of cookbooks?
At Alta Editions we believe the answer is online. The web represents a hugely exciting opportunity for cookbooks for two main reasons: control over design and accessibility. Simply put, the web allows digital cookbooks to be beautiful, accessible from any device, and easy to discover and share.
As an example, readers of our online cookbook, The Journey, can cook Alta chef author Alex Raij’s delicious Pollo en Adobo recipe using their iPad or PC in their kitchen or using their mobile phone at a friend’s house. Anyone can find Alex’s recipes by searching on Google or browsing on Pinterest. Love one of Alex’s recipes? Share it with your friends on Facebook or send Alex an @reply to let her know.
Even though the shift to digital is coming along more slowly with cookbooks than it has with other types of books, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. A world with only expensive print cookbooks on one hand and ad-supported free recipe websites and apps on the other isn’t a foregone conclusion. We believe there’s a third way, one where beautiful, important cookbooks are published in print and online, where home cooks can interact with recipes and authors, and where authors and publishers are paid fairly for digital use of their creative works.
We’re working with a group of forward thinking cookbook publishers to bring you an exciting new online cookbook service this fall with unlimited access to hundreds of premium cookbooks. In the mean time we’re working hard to complete our most innovative online cookbook to date. Learn how you can help and find out about some great rewards on our “Unconventional” Kickstarter project page.