Alta Editions' cookbook innovation recipe

Alta Editions' cookbook innovation recipe


Just when you thought we had innovation on every corner..."Cookbooks belong on line," Chris McBride tells us. "Not just on your shelf."

By the time we wrap up Friday's live #FutureChat on publishing innovation, we'll  have hit the deadline (5 p.m. London time) for making entries in The FutureBook Innovation Awards (#FBIA2014). If you've been thinking of entering, now would be good.

By Tuesday, more than 130 entries had been logged, according to my colleague Philip Jones at The Bookseller in his column. The shortlist is to be announced at Frankfurt Book Fair, and the 2014 winners will be named at our FutureBook Conference in London, 14 November.

"The most interesting section to judge this time around," Jones wrote, "will be the digital book categories, with publishers becoming more circumspect in how they invest in new product."

Chris McBride
Chris McBride

McBride may be pretty glad Jones said that.

Based in the States, his Alta Editions won't be eligible for our FutureBook Innovation Awards, but as Alta's ceo and publisher, he's determined to put across the reason he bought the company: cookbooks are ripe for digital innovation.

To that end, he's got a Kickstarter campaign under way to raise funds for his company's fourth Web app offering, Unconventional, a focus on three emerging chefs. And he'll soon relaunch -- "perhaps with slightly different branding," he notes -- with a subscription program aimed at pulling excellent chef-driven backlist works into the new light of a digital day.

Over the years I’ve filled my bookshelf with hundreds of cookbooks on a variety of topics ranging from Austrian cuisine to San Francisco’s beloved Zuni Café

That's McBride, writing at Medium about his experience with his own love of cookbooks. And he's hardly alone. As The Bookseller's John Lewis is reporting this week in Archer tops chart with fourth Clifton Chronicles tale

[Chef] Jamie Oliver maintained his position at the top of the Non-fiction hardback chart with Jamie's Comfort Food (Michael Joseph) selling 17,840 copies (for a new total of 26,241 copies), up 113% week on week but down 47% on last year's Save With Jamie, which had sold just over 49,000 copies at the same point last year.


Between print and a digital place

Despite the popularity of cookbooks, McBride notes in his Medium essay that the gradual decline of print is affecting even cookbooks in some publishing houses, even as he quotes the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) showing that the preference for print over digital in the cookbook space remains strong. "It's not hard to imagine," he writes, "that print cookbook sales may have peaked, or soon will."

The problem, as McBride sees it, is that too many efforts to digitise cookbooks are matter of merely replicating for an e-reader what's on the page of print cookbooks:

Dedicated e-readers like the Kindle Paperwhite are lousy kitchen companions and most Kindle Fire and Apple iBooks cookbooks look like PDF versions of the printed page. Most often they fail to take full advantage of the digital format, lacking interactive tips, step by step photos, video tutorials, and many other conveniences we take for granted on recipe websites, like browsing and searching for recipes across a collection. They’re also either literally or practically unusable on mobile.

And he knows something about mobile.

McBride says he wasn't always a foodie (though he confirms to me that he has, yes, eaten all of his life). He was with Fox Mobile Group when he began looking around for salable content directions.

"I was looking into markets and different segments of business" for Fox, and landed on cookbooks. Despite the fact that they often "lead very lonely lives," as he puts it, once they've been excitedly perused and then shelved, they're popular. Food is popular. Watch your Twitter stream at dinner time in your part of the world. 

"What I saw," he tells me, "is that there wasn't a lot of digital, cooking was attractive for this very reason. Also, four years ago" when he was doing his initial research, "the technology wasn't quite there yet but no one was pushing the envelope." The Fox division would be sold and renamed Freenet, and this past spring, McBride was able to buy it as Alta Editions.

And even in mild decline, "print has continued to do well," McBride concedes, in cookbooks. "It's one of the few bright spots in physical retail. But, as we all know, that may be changing rapidly." 

What he's watching for is the year when the holiday gift-book cycle "doesn't produce the results everybody expects." Meaning cookbooks aren't under the Christmas tree. "Then what happens?"

Well, what he hopes happens is that everybody turns on their iPad or laptop and finds a glowing new digital cookbook from Alta Editions with a bow on it. 

From AltaEditions.comFrom

Alta Editions' digital recipe

The three titles Alta has out so far are sold directly from the site. Laurent Gras' My Provence is sold at $9.99.

The Journey and The Journey, Part Two (each featuring four chefs) are sold at $3.99 each or as part of a $1.99 monthly subscription for "The Cooking Series." 

  • Here's a preview of a recipe for grilled butterflied leg of lamb with garlic, rosemary, and ancho chile, in the interactive format that McBride believes digital requires and enables.
  • At various points in the narrative, big-up images and/or videos are offered. In a preview of a recipe for chickpea polenta frites with sumac and feta, tips from Tavern on the Green executive chef Katy Sparks pop up each time you click on an underlined phrase.
  • Clicking on the "View Ingredients" button on a preview of a recipe for Maryland-style crab cakes gives you a pictorial representation of the ingredients. There's a similar display of the equipment needed for the recipe.

There are more elements of interactivity utilised in the development of these Web apps, and high-grade photography is a key element of them all. In fact, photography for the fourth book, Unconventional, McBride tells me, is much of what the Kickstarter effort will cover.

McBride's guess is that you're likelier to return to a digital cookbook of this kind, when you can bring it up on one of your devices and interact with it in the kitchen as you work. Rather than dashing back and forth to the computer somewhere and printing out a recipe -- or dumping more flour on that print cookbook. 

The subscription model

An ingredients display from
An ingredients display from

As we covered in our piece on the release of BISG's major study on publishing subscriptions, there are several main models being deployed in various places. 

As McBride works primarily with small- and mid-size publishers to gain backlist rights on various cookbooks he'd like to bring to an e-subscription library, he's talking "chunkable" and "shared pool."  

  • "Chunkable," in that the user can choose a chunk -- most likely  a single recipe or chapter from a book -- and pays a small amount for the use of that information. Full-book purchases are possible, of course, but as in the Safari model, extensively covered by Jones in this article, the key is to allow subscribers to access what "chunks" they want.
  • "Shared pool," in that rights-owners -- publishers or authors -- of books in the subscription library are paid from a pool into which the payments from various "chunks" go. 

Eventually, McBride would like to see Alta Editions produce three to four new titles of its own each year, alongside and possibly as part of the subscription library. There are six members of the team at Alta Editions, which to date is self-funding.

Where this goes

The "networked book" is not far from what McBride is working with.

"Readers of our online cookbook, The Journey," he writes at Medium can cook a recipe from chef Alex Raij "using their iPad or PC in their kitchen or using their mobile phone at a friend’s house.

"Anyone can find Alex’s recipes by searching on Google or browsing on Pinterest.

"Love one of Alex’s recipes? Share it with your friends on Facebook or send Alex an @reply to let her know."

In something of a brief manifesto, he leaves his readers with this summation of what he's doing: 

Even though the shift to digital is coming along more slowly with cookbooks than it has with other types of books, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. A world with only expensive print cookbooks on one hand and ad-supported free recipe websites and apps on the other isn’t a foregone conclusion. We believe there’s a third way, one where beautiful, important cookbooks are published in print and online, where home cooks can interact with recipes and authors, and where authors and publishers are paid fairly for digital use of their creative works.

Of course, in interview, my question is how do you keep from getting that marvelous sauce all over your laptop when you're cooking along with your Alta Editions Web-app cookbook?

Answer: You keep a towel on your shoulder, Porter.

The FutureBook basic

Registration now is open for The FutureBook Conference 2014 -- 14th November at Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster. (#FutureBook14)


The Bookseller Children's Conference 2014Seats are still available for The Bookseller Children's Conference, 25th September at Southbank Centre. (#kidsconf14)


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