Don't Worry About the Future of the Cookbook

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Is this the future of cookbooks? (Cross your fingers.)
Yesterday, the New York edition of Grub Street published a great essay by Hugh Merwin on the bright future of cookbooks, even as more and more readers are switching to e-readers and bookstores are flailing.

Cookbook sales are still strong, and while part of that reflects America's newfound passion for reading about food, part of that is because we still like to own the cookbooks we use. As Merwin writes:
"I think we will still see the big, expensive hardcovers for many years to come," says Michael Psaltis, a literary agent who represents TV-friendly chefs like Jose Garces and Top Chef's Richard Blais. "... [cookbooks] are seen as collector's items or art, and people want to own them, even if they'll never cook from them. These buyers aren't likely to buy an e-book version instead of the physical book that they cherish." In other words, cookbooks are able to transcend their roles as products and turn into objects worthy of affection.
Anyone who spends a lot of time looking for cookbooks in used bookstores and garage sales knows that the good ones are impossible to find -- people keep them around for decades. (By contrast, garage sales are infested with $1 microwave, heart-healthy cookbooks.) But glamour books aren't the only ones people want to buy. Merwin praises creative new books like Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz's Mission Street Food Cookbook, which combine recipes and narrative so that neither is separate from the other. Bonus: It's also good to look at.

But I'd also argue that the rise of the e-book isn't so bad, even when it comes to cookbooks. Cookbooks are going to make fantastic full-color, interactive e-books -- aka, ones you read on the iPad rather than a dedicated e-reader that's much easier to stare into for hours.

Just look, for example, at what Chronicle Books is able to do with its cooking apps for iPhone and iPad: Recipes link to shopping lists link to cooking videos, while preserving a unified, attractive design. That integration between text and video, I think, is going to make electronic cookbooks just as attractive to cooks as physical ones like Ferran Adria's new book.

And then there's the David Chang-McSweeney's collaboration, Lucky Peach. It's a quarterly magazine. It's an iPad app.* I want both.

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* McSweeney's publicist just assured me that the iPad app is belatedly going to launch soon.
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4 comments
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Lyndonpeck
Lyndonpeck

I tried to buy the MIssion Street Food cookbook from Amazon, and it seems to be out of print already. I hope that's not the future of cookbooks!

ermahays
ermahays

I just found a place called "Printapons" where I can get my fav. restaurant coupon for 90% off!! all you have to do is just print and take it.

jannabiel
jannabiel

I just found a place called "Printapons" where I can get my fav. restaurant coupon for 90% off!! all you have to do is just print and take it.

Joe
Joe

It's interesting that you claim dedicated e-readers are more comfortable to stare into for hours. I see this claim a lot and yet we know that people stare into televisions for hours with no apparent discomfort. My conclusion is that "more comfortable" is a marketing gimmick and has no bearing on actual physiology.

As for big format cookbooks continuing to be around for years, I think their life will be shorter. Dedicated e-readers, as you call them, cannot handle color or graphics, so they're limited for the type of experience illustrated cookbooks have provided. But iPad and iPad-like tablets are proliferating and publishers will find it cheaper to distribute electronic files than paper books, especially if they continue to charge as much for electrons as for molecules. 

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