The bells have been tolling for hardback books for years, but for cookbooks--suffering from the proliferation of online recipe databases--it has been more of a clanging gong. In fact, in June 2012, webzine Slate declared the "impending extinction" of cookbooks.
Not so fast. The smart set has turned out to be publishers who bet that the generation that expects everything for free online would pay top dollar to learn how to make dinner special. "Young people are excited about being involved in food," says Daniel Halpern, co-founder of Ecco, which recently launched a food imprint run by chef, author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain.
The demand reflects a broadening of our food culture, spurred by the rise of food TV. "There is passion, interest, energy," Halpern says. "I've been doing this since the 1970s. This is not a fad. People have to eat, and now they want to eat well."
It took discerning consumers a few years of swimming through the ocean of mediocre-to-bad online recipes before they became frustrated with "free," according to Bill LeBlond, editorial director of food and drink at independent publisher Chronicle Books. Now they are eagerly snapping up well-curated, smartly illustrated recipe collections by celebrated chefs, food innovators and a handful of popular young bloggers. Among the hottest topics are vegetables and the Paleo Diet.
The big news is what is happening at the top of the hardback-cookbook market.
Cookbooks have become "objects of desire," says Aaron Wehner, publisher of Ten Speed Press, an imprint of The Crown Publishing Group/Penguin Random House, and a leader in the cookbook revival. The more beautiful the book, the better the sales. "Our approach is to lavish attention on the visual," Wehner says. "We are investing more in the photography, design and finish of our books."
Ten Speed has been on a roll for a decade, but the "last two or three years have been super strong," he says. Without providing numbers, Chronicle claims 2013 is one of its best years ever for cookbook sales.
Indeed, at press time, 14 of the year's 25 bestselling cookbooks were hardbacks priced at $20 or higher that sold more than 30,000 copies each, according to Nielsen BookScan. This year's bestseller, Barefoot Contessa Foolproof by Ina Garten ($35; Clarkson Potter/Random House), had topped sales of 132,000 at press time.
Paperback cookbooks with spare illustrations are not faring as well as the unapologetically sophisticated hardcover tomes. Wiley, once a leader in paperback cookbooks, stopped publishing them last year, leaving more room for the highbrow Ecco imprint. Other publishers have cut back their cookbook releases dramatically.
Elissa Altman, editor-at-large for cookbooks at health and wellness publisher Rodale Books, says she has listened for some time to the gnashing of teeth over Epicurious.com and the proliferation of food bloggers but "never bought it. Things were changing, not dying." With the internet providing a steady stream of attractive everyday food fare, the bottom dropped out of the market for mundane books. And that wasn't a bad thing, Altman says--it forced book publishers who want to stay in business to "step up to the plate."
Gradually, publishers have realized that there are new opportunities in cookbooks and food books in general.
"We have become a food-focused culture. The smallest town in Kentucky has a new cafe serving local food to food groupies," Altman says. "It is an absolutely bigger audience that is getting bigger and bigger."