Are cookbooks resisting the digital age?

Are cookbooks resisting the digital age?

Cookbooks are an age-old significant part of the book industry with the first cookbook being published in 1750 BC. Three clay tablets created in Mesopotamia are believed to highlight 25 different stews etched on the front.

Three clay tablets created in Mesopotamia

The first cookbook to be comprised into a complete book was in the Late 4th or early 5th-century: The Roman text called Apicuis was filled with recipes for the wealthy class, as it contained exotic ingredients for that time, such as flamingo! 

The Apicius manuscript (ca. 900 AD) of the monastery of Fulda in Germany, which was acquired in 1929 by the New York Academy of Medicine

The first printed cookbook was published in Venice by Laurentius de Aquila and Sibylinus Umber in 1475. The cookbook, named De honesta voluptate et valetudine (‘On honorable pleasure and health’) was written by Bartolomeo Platina, who included a range of recipes from a professional chef, Maestro Martino de' Rossi of Como, whom he had encountered in the summer of 1463 at Albano. 

Of the modern era, amongst the top 50 most valuable (based on profit) authors since records began, are chefs such as Nigella Lawson, Delia Smith and of course Jamie Oliver, who in 2012 - at the peak of his career - was the second most valuable author of all time (UK sales) behind J.K. Rowling (according The Bookseller). Together, the four chefs account for 40 per cent of all the cook books sold in Britain since records began in 1998.

Perhaps to no surprise, physical cookbooks maintain their supreme reign over its digital counterpart, with digital cookbooks being a hard sell for big publishing houses, despite the promise of Amazon’s Kindle and other e-readers. Culturally, we romanticise the food-stained pages of a print cookbook, a sentimental item that can be passed down through generations. 

There are also practical drawbacks to referencing an electronic device mid-recipe in a messy kitchen: “In general, illustrated books and books with structured lists and tables are less effective as digital titles,” says Brian O’Leary, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group. “Many [e-]readers are still e-Ink [a display technology that mimics ink on a page], not colour, so cooking pictures are less appealing. And structured data like a list of ingredients can take up an entire screen while offering little context. Other genres with more or all text are a more natural fit for digital devices (so far).”

For self-publishers, digital cookbooks are usually a wiser investment than print. Food blogger and photographer Ksenia Prints decided to self-publish her 2016 book, Middle Eastern Small Plates, saying “it was obvious it needed to be electronic”. Since many freelancers already host their own websites, they can produce e-cookbooks for just the cost of design, thus avoiding shipping and commerce platforms like Amazon that take a cut.  

Retaining autonomy over the book's content has a different value to author chefs, their recipes are designed to the gram, their marketing may be done on social media (often very successfully) with the book simply serving the purpose of meeting the demand of their already established audience who want all of that specific chef’s recipes in one place in their kitchen. The need of a 3rd party providing marketing and promotion for many does not justify the cost.

A professional designer, like the one Prints worked with, might charge hundreds or a few thousand dollars, but she says many people DIY their books using graphic design tools like Canva. “I received requests to do a print addition, but looking at it, I wasn’t sure the cost justified the expense. I wasn’t sure I would get the ROI on that,” Prints says. “For people who grew up on print media, there’s something so magical about seeing your name in print and holding it in front of you. It’s nostalgia. But that’s not a real-life reason.”

So, do you think cookbooks are missing out on digitization or are they right in sticking to what they know with physical books? It’s all food for thought! 

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