When Bobby Flay went down in flames on the Food Network’s Iron Chef program last Sunday, having been crushed by opponent Masaharu Morimoto in the gladiatorial cook-off, you might have thought the Mesa Grill honcho’s defeat would darken one of the culinary universe’s brightest stars. Not likely. What with Nina and Tim Zagat among the judges, the Food Network flogging Flay’s own program, and even Good Morning America co-host Charles Gibson getting in a plug (“I’ll put my money on Bobby Flay,” he averred on-air), you can almost imagine that the whole affair was manufactured to juice the Flay empire — including sales of Bobby Flay’s Boy Meets Grill, prominently featured on Amazon.com.
Call it cacophonous marketing. The Internet, cable television, a few well-placed editorial features, and word of mouth all fuel the buzz factory long known to the cookbook world. But as celebrity chefs and other branded projects take an increasing share of the 600 or so cookbooks on the market each year, it becomes ever clearer that cookbook publishing is the ideal solipsistic world. Cookbook writers, publishers, reviewers, retailers, and consumers seem ever more incestuously related, each washing the other’s hand. And, not unlike the Christian book market, solipsism pays off handsomely in sales.
“In the nonfiction world, what we’ve seen for years is that publishers want authors who have a platform, a visibility, and a constituency,” says agent Doe Coover. Sure, it’s a no-brainer to cultivate star authors as the days of sub-10,000-copy cookbooks rapidly yield to the sure culinary bet. But as agent Robin Straus adds, celebrity chefdom offers a unique, perhaps unprecedented, path to success: “You’re getting exposure in so many different arenas. People are writing about your restaurant in magazines. You become a personality. It’s not just about promoting a certain style of cuisine. People are buying a whole package.”
Witness the success of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, the culinary tell-all from the executive chef of New York brasserie Les Halles. According to Jeff Capshew, vp director of sales for Holtzbrinck, the book went out of the gates with a modest 15,000 first printing, but, riding the acclaim touched off by Bourdain’s related New Yorker article (“Don’t Eat Before Reading This”), not to mention his chef-auteur status, Confidential hit the Times list at #7 — making it Bloomsbury USA’s first NYT bestseller — and went promptly out of stock. Now back with a total of 85,000 copies in print, the book is #1 on Amazon’s cooking bestsellers and back on the Times list.
Clarkson Potter executive editor Pam Krauss, meanwhile, says Potter now publishes up to 30 cookbooks per year, aided by a strong relationship with the Food Network (including books by Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, and Ming Tsai, among other TVFN darlings). For example, Batali’s new cookbook, Holiday Food, will be featured in a Food Network holiday special based entirely on the book, which will air in that prime gift-buying time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Potter also published The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by East Hampton take-out maven Ina Garten, which built through tremendous word of mouth (foreword by Martha Stewart). While Krauss admits that red-hot restaurant culture has polarized the cookbook market — “There’s now a high-end market and a low-end market, while the midlist is becoming harder to sell than ever before.” — no one’s exactly complaining about Contessa’s hop over the 100,000-copy mark.
Then there are the corporate tie-ins. Clarkson Potter has been tapping the power of brands ever since publishing the Tabasco cookbook eight years ago, a work that has sold well over 100,000 copies and unlocked shelf space in special markets. Senior editor Katie Workman cautions that as spectacularly easy as they may appear, branded programs are harder to pull off than a good crème brulée. “You can’t slap a brand name on a book and expect it to sell,” she says. “You must partner in an intelligent way to make the sum greater than the parts.” As a case in point, Potter recently published its ninth cookbook with Pillsbury: the ring-bound Pillsbury Complete Cookbook, which Workman describes as “definitely the biggest cookbook launch we’ve ever had.” She recounts an array of cunning marketing stratagems forged with Pillsbury over the years, including email blasts reaching 250,000 people, slapping a book jacket on 80 million packages of Pillsbury cake-mix boxes, and packaging $10 worth of Pillsbury coupons into the cookbook itself. The book is also a featured item in the Pillsbury Doughboy premium store, which is promoted in advertising inserts hitting 40 million households. And Potter’s brand-powered program is expanding, with the help of a dedicated brand marketing associate who serves as a liaison with companies, backed by the support of all the divisions across Crown and Random House to create individualized marketing plans that will best reflect each book.
Of course, part of building a brand is knowing how to look good on the boob tube. “Authors who are media-genic are going to increase their chances ten-fold of being published and published successfully,” says publicist Lisa Ekus, who also notes that she gets twice as many bookings for authors who are media-trained. Interestingly, her base of clients has shifted from the large houses to the mid-sized or small houses, whose authors are reaching for the big chocolate cheesecake in the sky. “These people are getting increasingly savvy about what it takes to promote books and get them out there. The larger publishers, on the other hand, are letting it happen on a rote basis.”
‘Instant Mega Word of Mouth’
In particular, Ekus says, the publishing community lacks savvy about web-based promotions: “The Internet is a critical place for reaching your niche audience. And it hasn’t been embraced nearly as seriously as it should be.” Her office has been partnering with websites such as the Jessica’s Biscuit e-commerce emporium (www.ecookbooks.com) to deliver promotional materials through their newsletters. Ekus’s Internet campaigns also include press-kit mailings to editors at 150 choice food websites, plus distribution of electronic press materials to 50 sites, from which webmasters can extract recipes, author bios, and jacket images for use as instant content. Finally, extremely targeted “opt-in emails” with a recipe and press release are beamed to a list of 18,000 consumers who have signed up for mailings on food-related subjects.
And then there’s the big banana of Internet book sites. “What’s very clear is how Amazon has changed the nature of the business,” says Houghton Mifflin senior editor Rux Martin. “They’ve revolutionized the way cookbooks are publicized, the way they’re sold, and the way publishing houses can get a quick indication of how publicity efforts are influencing sales.” Martin cites Pam Anderson’s The Perfect Recipe, which had respectable advance sales but was plucked from mid-level obscurity by an Amazon top pick. “Suddenly that kicked off a chain of events including everything from QVC to the major chains,” Martin explains, bringing sales up to 120,000 copies. “In the second or third season we’ve had this groundswell of fascination for the book. That’s something that would not have happened if we had to rely on the chains alone. Amazon is a kind of instant mega word of mouth.”
Larry Chilnick, cookbook consultant and packager, confirms the Amazon phenomenon: After a weekend on QVC and a Monday morning Fox appearance, he says, one of his books popped from an Amazon ranking of 17,000 to 104, prompting sales of 380 books that week at brick-and-mortar B&N stores as well. Now, prior to an author’s television appearance, Chilnick calls Amazon, who then discounts the book another 10 percent. Incidentally, during a stint as a buyer for QVC, Chilnick also found that a large share of sales go to armchair chefs. “There’s a gigantic market of cookbook collectors,” he says. “Half of the people buy cookbooks because they’re collectors.” And speaking of QVC, that home shopping conglomerate has had so much success selling cookbooks that it has launched its own QVC Publishing line, which will put out about eight cookbooks per year, promoted via direct marketing and distributed by CDS in bookstores, as well as online at iqvc.com.
As for food-related websites, there’s StarChefs.com — which now links to Amazon but is developing its own co-branded bookstore, and has 15,000 pages of content, much of it cookbook-related — and OneBigTable.com, the site founded by Molly O’Neill and Arthur Samuelson. Other sites of note include Kitchenlink.com, Epicurious.com, and Cooking.com. But if you’re looking for star-chef synergy, look no further than Ming.com, the site for Blue Ginger author Ming Tsai, which is replete with links to “Ming’s Pantrys,” where you can order ingredients featured in his cookbooks and on his Food Network hit, East Meets West, plus links to the Ming Tsai Signature Series Kyocera Ceramic Knives, Ming’s Gadgets, and of course, Ming’s Cookbook. Ming, who has said that he considers his website his second restaurant, was also recently featured on the National Turkey Federation’s website (“I think turkey is completely underutilized,” Ming told the turkey trade) and, if all of that weren’t enough, has been given top billing on an exclusive Amazon monthly feature called Chef’s Bookshelf, where he plugs his favorite cookbooks.
In the emerging trend department, Jim Leff, food writer and “alpha hound” at the culinary site Chowhound.com, notes that the food-related content flourishing on the web is bound to find its way into print. “There’s going to be a big trend going backwards from websites to publishing,” Leff says. “I can take content from my site and use print-on-demand to put it into traditional distribution channels.” For example, he says that a restaurant guide he published has gotten staler by the week, but could be updated regularly via POD. He envisions packaging original content from his site and, perhaps backed by some of the venture capital he’s seeking, selling it to people too busy to read on the web. “We’ll take advantage of the immediacy of POD to preserve the immediacy and currency of our content,” he says.
It’s an intriguing prospect, particularly given the tight market for non-celebrity book projects. As Chilnick notes, “Dealing with the chains is very difficult right now. A few people control the entire cookbook area.” In fact, B&N was so unresponsive to one of Chilnick’s titles that he eventually stormed the corporate headquarters with galleys in hand. “I convinced Steve Riggio’s secretary to come out to the lobby,” Chilnick says, “and I pitched her.” Chilnick’s other insider tip for failsafe cookbook publishing? “I always look to what Williams-Sonoma are doing,” he says. “You know you’re close to a trend if they’re publishing it, because I’m sure they use market research.”