Beyond Rachael Ray: Food Network Stars Aren’t the Only Way Publishers Can Cook Up Success

The debate’s still out on whether America’s officially in a recession, but with food prices rising faster today than they have any time in the past seventeen years, customers may be cutting back on restaurant meals and cooking at home instead. What cookbook will they pick up? Will they pick one up at all?

About 2,400 cookbooks were published in 2007, according to Simba, down from 3,123 in 2006 and 2,525 in 2005. The tightening market means a focus on books that are guaranteed to sell well. In December 2007, the Wall Street Journal quoted Michael Norris of Simba saying that publishing companies would rather bring out one book by a Food Network star than fifty by unknown authors. Furthermore, the massive number of recipes available free online makes it easy to avoid buying a book at all. Judith Dern, PR Manager at Allrecipes, reports that the number of cooks who get all their recipes from the Internet has grown by 1100% over the past five years. Allrecipes receives six million unique visitors per month and offers 52,000 recipes. Epicurious has three million unique visitors per month and offers 35,000 recipes culled from Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines and 22,000 submitted by members. Both sites make it easy for visitors to search by ingredient, method, prep time, and dietary consideration. With that competition, how can a cookbook written by a non-celebrity, non- Food-Network-star chef succeed?

“There is no doubt that the cookbooks that sell the highest number of copies in general are by well-known, iconic figures who have major distribution on TV,” says Rux Martin, Executive Editor of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “The really big sales come from the authors whose name everyone knows. That said, many of the people whose books do best for me go against the general wisdom that you have to have a TV show.”

And since Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl is starting an Oprah-style Book of the Month cookbook club in June—and has chosen HMH’s Fish Without a Doubt, by Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore (previously an editor at Clarkson Potter) as her first pick—cookbooks are poised to gain momentum in coming months.

Here are some recommendations for success in cookbooks, even when Giada’s not on your list.

The recipes actually have to work.

If you want people to reach for your books over and over, the recipes have to be reliable every time. “We are a brand that people know and trust and rely upon,” says Jack Bishop, Executive Editor of Cook’s Illustrated. “Our process of going through as many iterations of testing as we need in order to get to the best recipe is a powerful selling proposition. It applies to all of our books.” Martin says the books that have done best for her “are incredibly useful books for the home cook with recipes that work and work and work. What these people have is solid reputations for great recipes. I choose very, very, very carefully.

“Nothing will kill a book faster,” says Lisa Ekus-Saffer, founder of The Lisa Ekus Group, a PR firm and literary agency for the culinary industry, “than recipes that don’t work.”

Have an online component.

“We’ve created about two hundred original videos within the past year,” says Bishop. “All of the recipes in Cook’s Illustrated are now taped, so you can go to the website after you read the issue and see how we make the dish. We also have technique videos that are enormously popular.” Most of Cook’s Illustrated’s websites offer some free content and require paid subscription for the rest. “We use our websites and weekly e-mail newsletters to promo new books and give sample content from them,” says Bishop. “We always feature some free content when a new book comes out. Hopefully, people like what they see and buy the book.”

Running Press has a separate site, Running Press Cooks!, especially for its cookbooks. The site includes author profiles, cookbook excerpts, and sample recipes; cookbooks are divided by topics like “Chocolate,” “Quick & Easy,” and “Regional” for simplified browsing. The site receives 4,000 visitors a day.

Reach out to your audience. That means authors, too!

In 2006, Richard Perry, President and Publisher of the Portland, Oregon–based Collectors Press [ed.'s note: As of 2009, Collectors Press's website no longer exists and we are not sure what happened to the company] sorted through mounds of vintage cookbooks and old family recipes to come up with the content for The Good Home Cookbook: More than 1,000 Classic American Recipes. Collectors Press then sent press releases across the country asking for recipe testers and received more than 2,500 responses. “We created a successful network of recipe testers,” says Perry, “who also became buyers and a referral service.” Similarly, the “Friends of Cooks Illustrated” program allows readers to sign up to test recipes pre-publication.

“Authors these days have to be partners with their publishers to do their marketing and PR,” says Ekus-Saffer. “If they don’t, the books usually languish. Authors have to cross-network tremendously.” Particularly successful authors parlay their knowledge of food, their cooking experience, and their contacts into visibility for their books by appearing at culinary world events like the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Conference, teaching cooking classes, and doing demos.

“You want to make sure that as many people as possible get to know who your author is. Our authors go on extensive tours,” says Suzanne Rafer, Executive Editor and Director of Cookbook Publishing at Workman. “That’s where we put our money. We start as soon as possible.” Rafer cautions that “bookstore events are very tough if you don’t have a name. It’s embarrassing to sit in a bookstore with your chips and dip or whatever you’ve made, and a pile of books, and have nobody interested.” Instead, she suggests other types of food events: “For instance, restaurants and bookstores getting together and sponsoring a meal from the cookbook, with the author there to talk about the food” and the bookstore providing copies of the cookbook for signing. Authors can also teach guest classes at cooking schools around the country.

If it’s not four-color, the interior has to be bigger or better.

“We’re best known for [encyclopedic] tomes,” says Bishop, “and a scientific, technical approach to recipe development, and that style’s been very powerful for us. We’re trying new formats for different audiences, but we have sold hundreds of thousands of copies of The New Best Recipe, which doesn’t even have color inserts.”

“We came out with a book in 2006, Starting with Ingredients, that has 1,000 pages,” says Diana von Glahn, Editor at Running Press. “There’s no way we could have afforded to make that book four-color. It had to be two-color, and it had to be printed domestically because it had so many pages. It would always be nice to have four-color, but customers find the concept strong enough without it.”

Find a partner.

When they published the Great Big Butter Cookbook in 2007, Running Press teamed up with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. “What we’re doing is pairing up with somebody who has their own marketing muscle,” says von Glahn.“We’re trying to create a book that will appeal to people. They’re trying to sell their product. It’s the best of both worlds.”

“Restaurant-driven books are definitely waning,” says Ekus- Saffer. An exception is if a restaurant has a massive number of visitors. Last year, she worked on Andrews McMeel’s Berghoff Family Cookbook; the family-owned Berghoff Restaurant in Chicago has 1,600 customers a day. “The restaurant was part of the publisher’s first printing,” says Ekus-Saffer. “They initially took in several thousand books. If you have venues that can sell a lot of books, you have a built-in buying audience.”

It’s the economy, stupid!

“We haven’t seen many budget-focused cookbooks in recent years,” says Carl Raymond, formerly Adult Publishing Director at DK and now a personal chef and culinary editorial consultant who will receive his diploma from the Institute of Culinary Education in June. “But now even people who never had to think about these things before have to find ways to cook meals less expensively.” Perry sees books on “how to utilize what you have on hand” as a growth area, as well as “books where gardening meets cooking—how to grow and how to cook your own food.”

Budgeting? Gardening? Can victory gardens be far behind? “I think we’re going to see cookbooks doing better,” says Martin. “Going out to dinner is going to become a greater luxury than buying a book.”

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