A manifesto for cookbooks in a digital age

A manifesto for cookbooks in a digital age

Print cookbooks "aren’t searchable, they take up lots of space, they can’t easily be wiped clean, and they are not easy to share with others," writes Matthew Cockerill. Having founded 1000 Cookbooks, he should know. And in his #FutureBook15 #manifesto, Cockerill chases us back into the kitchen, alarmed "that we may lose touch with our culinary heritage" if we don't cook more of what we eat. Some of us might prefer to leave those crucial flambé recipes to him, thanks. But engagement surely follows connectedness, no argument there. As Cockerill paraphrases the doughy Donne: "No cookbook is an island."—Porter Anderson

Conference update: We're closing bookings for FutureBook 2015 on Friday (27th November). Hurry to secure your seats for the event on the 4th of December at Mermaid London.

Five recommendations for cookbooks' digital future

Cookbook publishing goes back centuries, and so far has been surprisingly little altered by the digital transformation that has shaken up other areas of publishing. Cookbooks continue to see strong print sales, not least due to their popularity as gifts, and remain a bright spot on many publishers’ financial reports. Despite this, the limitations and inconvenience of physical books for practical use in the kitchen are clear—they aren’t searchable, they take up lots of space, they can’t easily be wiped clean, and they are not easy to share with others.

If cookbooks are to maintain their role in spreading culinary knowledge and inspiration, they must more fully embrace the possibilities of the digital world. Here are five recommendations for cookbook publishers to help ensure a healthy digital future:

1. Get online

We may love to peruse our cookbooks at leisure and admire the photography, but when it comes to day-to-day cooking, the convenience of online access is irresistible. A search on a phone or tablet instantly returns pages of results for any possible ingredient combination. Sure, many of the recipes have not been tested and the majority are simply not very good. Still, in the absence of a better alternative, we make do. For cookbooks to stay relevant, they can’t stay on the shelf - they need to be at people’s fingertips whether on the commute home, in the supermarket, or at the stove. That means being digital.

2. Play to your strengths

A great cookbook is more than just a disconnected set of recipes, it inspires with a combination of eloquence and creativity, opens up new frontiers, conveys underlying principles, provides context and cultural background, and demystifies intimidating topics.

With the right combination of business model and technology, cookbook publishers can continue to deliver on these values, while benefiting from the immediacy and practicality of online access.

3. Be connected

No cookbook is an island - chefs and authors borrow from and reference each other all the time. Following such references remains needlessly difficult, though. Anyone who has ever lost an hour (or several) on Wikipedia will know the experience of “falling down a rabbit hole” to discover new and unexpected worlds of knowledge. This sort of freewheeling exploration would transform the cookbook literature. Imagine how much more valuable classic reference works such as Niki Segnit’s Flavour Thesaurus or Harold McGee’s On Food & Cooking could be if they could be integrated to serve as road maps and guides to a wider universe of online culinary knowledge.

4. Be discoverable

Behind the scenes at Google, Microsoft and Facebook, machine-learning researchers are finding ways to deliver better and more relevant search results and recommendations by mining the “knowledge graph”.

The world of food is a richly interconnected “graph” of recipes, ingredients, authors, chefs, restaurants, places, events and mouth-watering pictures. With the right combination of smart algorithms together with human curation by experts who truly “get” food, we can not only help readers explore their existing interests, but also guide them towards new possibilities they didn’t even realize they would like.

5. Get people cooking

Internet-based food delivery startups light-heartedly suggest that home-cooking has had its day. Behind the humour, though, lurks a genuine risk that we may lose touch with our culinary heritage, and become disconnected from our understanding of food.

The millions subscribing to the Sorted Food YouTube channel, and millions more posting pictures of their culinary creations on Instagram make clear that, in the right circumstances, the Internet can stimulate rather than suppress the desire to cook.

Food, like music, is something we come back to, explore and rediscover. Technology can help us revisit the old favourites we grew up with, while also sampling the latest trends with the cool kids.

It’s finally time for the world of cookbooks to join the digital party.

This is an entry in our series of more than 30 "Five-Minute Manifestos" for The Future of the Book Business. In his article Those magnificent manifestos, The Bookseller editor Philip Jones revisited his call for the FutureBook community to reflect on five years of the digital dynamic, "to challenge the customs we have begun to adopt." The response has been robust, and we thank all our manifesto writers. See their articles here.

We're happy to announce that Emma Barnes and Alastair Horne have been chosen to present their manifestos at the FutureBook Conference. Their presentations are two high points in an engaging range of perspectives from many parts of the industry. 

Bookings close 27th November for our fifth-anniversary FutureBook Conference at the Mermaid in London, hurry. 

As we add more in this series, our most recently published #FutureBook15 manifestos are:

Main image - iStockphoto: Tulcarion