Cookbook Popularity: Innovation vs. Mass Appeal

Photo by miss julie

In today's St. Petersburg Times, Janet Keeler takes a panoramic look at the state of cookbook publishing. Cookbook sales are up 4% despite an overall industry decline of 9%, which has everyone happy. But Keeler's concerned that there's a jarring dissonance between the books that win awards, and the books that rake in the money.

Take, for example, the IACP- and Beard-award-winning Fat, by Jennifer McLagan (reviewed on EMD). Despite its universal acclaim and heavy laureling, it's sold only 25,000 copies since publication. Compare that to Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics, a nice enough book that critics went "eh" over, but which sold a staggering 650,000 copies — making it 2008's bestselling cookbook. Of the two books, Keeler says:

At first glance, they seem similar: Slim volumes under 300 pages, ravishing color photos, Parisian sensibilities. Both authors spend quite a bit of time in the City of Light — Jennifer McLagan lives there part of the year —and it has influenced their cooking and style ... Upon closer look, the books are quite different. Back to Basics is friendly and encouraging; Fat is scholarly and provocative.

The divide between the popular and the acclaimed isn't really anything new these days — if anything, we believe cookbooks and the culinary world have become more egalitarian, not less. (We certainly disagree with Keeler's assertion that Fat offers up "a slate of recipes that most of us will never make," since the level of difficulty is about on par with the dishes Garten delivers in her book.) But we don't think that this divide always merits bridging. Keeler's thesis seems to agree with this — noting the overall rise in sales, she says "there is room for both the practical and the dreamy" in the world of cookbooks.

We think that's an understatement: not only is there room for both types, but there's a need for them. Books like Under Pressure and Alinea (which its publisher disappointingly tells Keeler is a book for "curling up with ...not necessarily for splattering on") read more like do-it-yourself science experiments than roadmaps to a 30-minute dinner, they expand the culinary horizon for professionals and passionate amateurs in ways that will most likely trickle down to the home chef within a decade.

All of this is to say that publishers shouldn't measure a cookbook's success only by its contribution to the bottom line. The Gap might outsell Prada, Ford Tauruses might be more common on the road than Ferraris — but the avant-garde, the exploratory, and the innovative are what pave the way for progress on a more attainable scale. Books like Fat change the landscape, which is an invaluable quality that defies accounting.

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