Cookstr Is Fuckstrd
When I set out to write this post I was planning to list all the reasons why the New York Times's article on the not-yet-launched recipe website Cookstr was an astonishingly boring crock of journalistic bullshit. There was the "Hey, site founder Will Schwalbe co-wrote a book with a Times editor" angle. Perhaps most importantly: the "This site has not launched yet, so there's actually nothing to talk about" angle.
But then I realized that, you know, it turns out there actually is something to talk about. Which is that Cookstr, while well intentioned, is going to bomb. Flamingly. Hiroshimically.
Here's why the site is going to fail:
One: There is no emphasis on user interactivity.
Cookstr, which will list only recipes from published cookbooks, is going to be supported entirely by ad revenue. Nothing — but nothing — drives pageviews like user interactivity, and pageviews are what drive the ad dollars. People don't like to passively consume the contents of the Internet — they like to get intensely opinionated about it, bitching and moaning.
The Times article notes that Cookstr is going out of its way to distinguish itself from entirely user-driven sites like Allrecipes.com, and also (meaninglessly) draws a line between the food-magazine-originated content on Epicurious and the food-book-originated content Cookstr will provide. (A brief digression: I would totally pick the former over the latter. Book publishers don't have rigorously monitored test kitchens like magazine publishers do — instead, they have contractual clauses demanding 300 recipes from one person by a certain date. Which recipes do you think will have a higher success rate?)
But what makes Epicurious work for Conde Nast is the massive user-interactivity component — the 1197 comments (and counting) on the recipe for Double Chocolate Layer Cake has made Epicurious way more money than even a full scan of The Joy of Cooking possibly could. On top of that, the folks behind Epicurious recently rolled out a section of the website devoted entirely to user-uploaded recipes. This tells us that that's where the pageviews/money is, and Cookstr doesn't seem to have realized that yet.
Two: The big names involved are too big, the small names too small.
I don't need yet another freaking website to give me Mario Batali's recipes. I already have his website, his other website, his restaurants' websites, the Food Network's website, and the websites of every single show he's ever been on. If I don't already own all his cookbooks, this marginal addition to his online oeuvre isn't going to send me running to Amazon to plonk them into my shopping cart.
On the other side of the spectrum, smaller-scale cookbook authors like Mollie Katzen aren't going to draw traffic, because the number of people who both are familiar with her and know how to use the Internet number approximately seventy-three. Yes, they are all slavishly devoted to her — but there are only seventy-three of them, and they already own all of her cookbooks anyway.
Three: People don't buy cookbooks anymore.
Cookbooks are terrific, I love them, I have a million of them, but 99.999% of America doesn't buy cookbooks anymore. No, wait! The Times piece explicitly says "Cookbooks remain stalwart performers in publishing. Last year books in the food and entertaining category sold 13.9 million copies"! Clearly I'm wrong.
Nope. No one buys cookbooks anymore — people buy brands. They buy a Rachael Ray or a Martha Stewart cookbook not because the recipes are so freaking awesome (they're not), but because they've bought into the brand that is Rachael Ray or Martha Stewart (neither of whom is participating in Cookstr, by the way). Any recipe they need that isn't in one of their TV celebrity cookbooks, they get on the Internet. From a site like Cookstr? No. From a site like Allrecipes or Epicurious, because these give them interactivity (see above).
And four: Publishers and authors won't get anything out of it, and they're going to pull their material.
The whole schtick here is that publishers are giving Cookstr their content for free, because they're expecting the recipe readers to fall so in love with the recipe that they click through and buy the cookbook it came from. The problem is that no one buys shit they can already get for free.
The only other way to generate revenue for the publishers is the rev-share deal—so after the ad network and its salespeople get their cut, and Cookstr gets its cut, the publishers are only going to get a tiny percentage of whatever money banner ads are going to pull in.
Some publishers, desperate for revenue, are going to give it a shot. But after a while of seeing little or no uptick in cookbook sales, and getting minimal earnings from the rev-share deal, they're going to pull out, chasing after the next big money opportunity. Notice that the Times piece did not use the word, exclusive.
Cookstr is well-intentioned — it's not a bad-guy website — and for that, I'd love to be proven wrong and see it succeed mightily. But it doesn't look like that's going to happen. Face it, from the outset, Cookstr is fuckstrd.