The cookbook vs. the recipe website

It is often repeated that the publishing house looks for innovation, but actually is unlikely to publish a product that is entirely new. Publishers prefer the tried and tested method, and do not want to risk publishing something that will not sell well enough or lead to a financial loss. I believe that a great way to understand and critique this process within publishing is through the analysis of the development of the cookery book. Throughout history, the cookery book has been able to adapt to subtle changes in audience and big developments in technology. Most recently, recipe books have developed into TV programmes, which have turned into YouTube channels, thus proving their versatile nature and ability to be moulded to fit new formats.

For the publisher and the author (most commonly, the celebrity chef), the cookbook industry is a lucrative one, but one which must be continuously adapted in order to make the consumer come back for more.

I do wonder why we continue to buy recipe books. Studies suggest that 40% of the recipe books in our homes go unused as we are intimidated by complex methods or unusual ingredients. We’re also forking out £15 or more to buy something that we can essentially get online for free. Of course, sometimes we want recipes which have unique or unexpected twists, and we might only be able to find these in a book by Heston Blumenthal for example, but, for the most part, anything we can imagine wanting to cook can be found on the internet.

If you search around for articles on the subject of the relevancy of the recipe book, you can find lots of items from around three or four years ago questioning why we still buy these books and contemplating whether or not they will soon become a thing of the past. Cookbooks might ‘eventually be wiped out by cooking apps, e-books and websites’, and will become ‘quirky art objects in the same sense that typewriters are today.’ Yet, three years later and the cookbook is still going strong. Chronicle, an American publishing house based in San Francisco, even claimed that its cookbook sales last year were ‘one of its best years ever’. It seems that the consumer or critic might be baffled by the ongoing popularity of the recipe book, but the publishers have confidence in their winning formula.

Photo of a stack of cookbooks

But why are recipe book sales still strong when recipe websites exist? I think the answer lies in the portrayal of lifestyle in these books. Jamie Oliver’s incredibly popular cook books and spin off television shows are not simply recipe collections, they suggest to the reader that we should cook outdoors, eat organic, and share our food often with our friends. Nigella Lawson’s books are the same, but show a different kind of lifestyle: our food should be indulgent and a little naughty, and we can take great pleasure from treating ourselves. The two chefs cook rather similar foods, but the audience does not care just about the informative ingredients and methods. Though we might not realise it, we buy these books to suit our moods and to be shown different ways of living.

We might use the BBC Good Food website to find utilitarian recipes to make something, but we will use recipe books for inspiration. We flick through recipe books for entertainment, just as we watch a TV cooking show without any intention of making the meals from it. Chefs these days often forgo stating measurements when cooking on TV, instead calling for a ‘splash’ or a ‘sprinkle’, as producers understand that we are watching these shows primarily for entertainment reasons.

The publishing house have managed to innovate the recipe book by creating TV tie-ins, including lifestyle inspiration, adding health advice to the instructions, and making images larger and glossier. They are essentially a printed combination of the recipe website and the food TV show and this is something which has not yet been replaced by another product. It seems that the recipe book is safe for now, and the publisher can relax, but what about in another three years time? I’ll be posting my thoughts on the problems the cookbook might face due to the rise of YouTube tomorrow.

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