E-Cookbooks: Now We’re E-Cookin’?

books

First there was the music business, which shifted radically when people learned to download music digitally. Movies are up next, and like music, the challenge for the movie studios is to figure out how to get people to pay for movies that they’re downloading digitally. And the next frontier is print media: newspapers, magazines, and books.

A few of my friends are traditional journalists, the kind of that get paid to write for newspapers and magazines. Whenever people say that blogs are going to take over the news, I’m not so sure. Food bloggers can easily go into the kitchen and whip up a batch of brownies, but until political bloggers start paying their own way and going to the front lines of the war in Iraq, there is still an argument for conventional journalism. But still, in order to make it work, there needs to be a way to pay for it.

The publishing industry went into a tailspin the past few years, and is trying to find its footing. Books have rebounded but many magazines and newspapers are barely hanging on, and few good ones disappeared. Those that remain reduced their staff and payroll, and with the media asking bloggers and others to work for free, it doesn’t seem to me like a sustainable business model if you’re relying on free labor to keep afloat.

Thankfully, cookbooks have been a bright spot in publishing and few people want crack open a computer terminal and get cookin’. Cooking is a visceral activity and while a lot of cooking is following a recipe, the popularity of food television and blogs shows that somewhere in the mix, technology does intersect with the act of doing what we do to fulfill the most basic of our needs: To cook and to eat.

As an author who publishes books and maintains a blog with recipes, I’m happy I get to do both because I think they both fulfill different needs. (For example, no editor is going to let me publish a potato soup recipe with S&M overtones.) But I’m interested in the future of cookbooks and publishing am rather intrigued by some of the modern, and more efficient ways to reach and interact with cooks and bakers. The publishing industry isn’t quite there yet when it comes to “thinking outside of the box”, because their model has been entrenched for so long. But the time has come for new possibilities and some of the new e-readers and touch screen tablets that are on the horizon offer them.

Here are some of the options that are currently either in operation, or about to be launched in the near future.


qook

QOOQ

Introduced by an amazing video on their website that blazes across your screen, Qooq is the French entry is a tactile touch screen device, which costs €349 (and includes 500 recipes), and for a non-recurring monthly fee of €12.95 you can access to thousands of other recipes as well as chef videos and wine pairings. The touch screen allows cooks and readers to scan recipes and move elements around the pages.

The downside to this device is that you have to pay quite a bit for it, a machine that has limited capabilities. You can’t use it to surf the internet, and if it’s not in the Qooq library, you can’t have it. And how good are those recipes? Are they tested? But still, imagine if a publisher or television network was to offer a device like this to consumers at a discount, with the offer of downloading books and videos, as well as special “subscriber-only” presentations from their proprietary chefs and authors, they might have a hit on their hands.

vook

Vook

I hadn’t heard of the Vook a concept of a video-book, but during a recent conversation with Jaden, she brought it to my attention and I found it intriguing.

Right now there’s only a handful of books, but cookbook author Eric Gower has hopped on. His ‘cookvook’ costs $3.99 and contains 16 professionally-shot videos of him shopping in ethnic markets for ingredients, then making the dishes and demonstrating cooking techniques.

The advantage to these video cookbooks is that one don’t need to buy anything else; you can use your computer or iPhone, and the price is within reach. You can also take them with you to the market or when traveling. I found this interesting, personally, because I could imagine it’d be fun to take readers to where I buy chocolate, virtually, showing them how it’s made, then head to the kitchen to make a chocolate cake with it. Or head to the market and shop for berries, which might get churned up into Strawberry Ice Cream, using cream from my fromagerie, that we’ve visited together.

kindle.jpg

E-Readers

The most well-known is the Kindle, Amazon’s hand-held device, which is also available for the iPhone or your PC. And soon, the Mac. Other companies also have their own e-readers, most notably the Nook and the Sony Reader. These are all in the $250-$300 range.

At first met with skepticism, people of all ages are flocking to e-readers now that they’ve become sleeker and sexier. And Amazon has made them incredibly easy to use. A friend told me his elderly dad loves his Kindle! I was one of those people, initially thinking, “I don’t want to read a book on a screen.” But like the other devices mentioned, if they had the capability of adding a video and color element, the possibilities increase dramatically. Imagine a textbook of world history, accompanied by videos of moments in time like elections and wars? Or in the food realm, a recipe for Pad Thai, accompanied by a trip to the Asian supermarket where the guide shows you what the ingredients are, with snippets of how they’re made and used.

I think these will change as the technology evolves and predict the next generation will include video and touch screen commands. The great thing is that they’ve made it very simple and fairly economical to access a wide library of books. For cookbooks, I can see downloading recipes and books, but as they stand now, I’m not sure bringing a black-and-white electronic tablet into the kitchen is how people want to cook.

iphones

iPhone Applications

iPhone applications like the one for Simply Recipes, Ratio, and 101Cookbooks, allow you to bring the recipes in to the store with you, when you’re doing your shopping and access recipes. The cost is free, or nominal, and a big advantage is portability.

You can access recipes and tips from your favorite food blogs and magazines in a snap with the touch screen and connectivity to the internet. There are also recipe applications where you can download thousands of recipes for just a few bucks. Like other downloadable recipe sources, one needs to be mindful of where are the recipes coming from, and are they tested? With a trusted food magazine or website behind them, with apps like the ones above, you at least you know there is a real person behind them who likely tried and tested the recipe numerous times before publishing it.

The biggest advantage to the iPhone is that with an estimated nearly 50 million people owning the device, who’ve made it an integral part of their lives, meaning there’s enormous potential for a great many cooks and authors to connect.

joojoo

Tablets and the iPad

Th hottest of these is the iPad, a tablet-like device from Apple. But others, like JooJoo, have gotten a bit of a jump-start on them. They’re only taking pre-orders on the JooJoo, but this tablet is full of interactive elements and features a touch screen as well as video capabilities. Another interesting device is the Courier from Microsoft, which looks like a book. And interestingly, you can write notes in it like a paper notebook.

ipad

The iPad is similar to the JooJoo and doesn’t rely on proprietary information, as in, pre-loaded recipes like the Qooq. So conceivably you could download a video recipe file from a number of sources; magazines, websites, and blogs, and use them with these devices.


The good news about all these devices is they mean that there are many forward-thinking folks out there, looking for alternative ways of disseminating information. And usually once these technologies take hold, their cost reduces significantly and makes them more accessible to the masses. (My €5 USB key holds four times the information of my first computer.) And just as self-publishing options offer the opportunity for anyone to get exposure, these devices might open the door for some of the new voices out there.

On the flip side, information has to come from somewhere and the people that provide content, from musicians to writers and journalists, need to be compensated for their efforts. Variety means choice, but quality content is an important consideration, too.

So what are your thoughts. Do you own one of these devices and use it as a cooking reference? Will subscription-based capabilities in these machines save the newspaper and magazine industry? Would you subscribe if it was a fee-based model, or do you prefer an advertiser-driven that might be free?

Or are you holding out, waiting for the next big thing? And if so, what kind of features would you like to see in a device or application? Or are you simply one of those people that will never let share their kitchen with anything but a regular printed cookbook? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

113 comments

  • With the e-cookbooks, finding recipes is much easier. Also, book-keeping becomes easier as you don’t have to keep and maintain piles of those books. Audio-visuals allow you to prepare the dish while the recipe is spoken off.

  • I have used recipe software for many years (MasterCook – now extinct) and I also use Evernote and Jamespot.com for clipping recipes from blogs. When it comes time to cook, though, I usually print the recipe.
    I own a Kindle, but I don’t use it for cookbooks. I’d rather buy the print version.

  • Yeah, it looks kind of nice and all, but what happens when I spill water or food all over my high tech device? I am that kind of klutzy, and I bet that would be a bunch of money right out the window. I think the print version is better for that at least.

  • Hi David (or other readers!), you mentioned that one of the benefits of ebooks and iPhone apps is that we can take our recipes with us to the grocery store. Do you know if there is an app or something similar on the horizon that would act as a produce buying/storage guide? I think it would be handy, especially if, for example, if I couldn’t find the monalisa potatoes you referenced in your Potato Leek Soup recipe when I went shopping and wanted to select a substitute. Thanks!

  • It’s an interesting time, that’s for sure. Considering that our last decade was the time when the world became Internet savvy, it will be interesting to see how far this new decade will bring us in this new decade. The naughts were for Facebook, Twitter, & Blogs…What new technology will we see in the next 10?

    What a great round up, David. Thanks for getting me up to date with what’s happening in the E world.

  • I write a food blog and adore reading yours (and others.) However, there’s gravy splashed on the pages of my 1973 BETTY CROCKER from when I cooked my first Thanksgiving dinner. My SILVER PALATE has notes in the margins from what year and for what occasion I made each recipe (daughter’s baptismal party; son’s wedding rehearsal dinner.) I learned to make bread from James Beard, though I knew Julia Child’s recipe for French bread wasn’t going to find improvement any time soon and didn’t try to find it. I have a galley kitchen with a tiny desk that is usually covered with cookbooks and, if I put my laptop on it, the cord has to hang over the edge of a counter precariously near my biggest gas burner, terribly necessary at 6500 ft altitude. I think recipes (at eye level, taped on my cabinets, too) are recipes….videos with tours of Asian markets are great, but they’re kind of more food entertainment or education. Cookbooks, or recipes, even on the net, are much for affordable, and perhaps quickier and easier for everyone at a time when many people have given up cooking or baking. When kids come over to help me bake cookies or stollen, I can send the recipe home for nothing.
    Thanks for a great job tackling this top; I appreciate it.

  • While I do love the idea that I can take an iPhone to the grocery store to refer to a recipe (I’m a new user–I didn’t know that), I concur with everything Alyce said about actual ‘books.’ I can still reach my mother through her collection of cookbooks including the ones she gave me and wrote loving notes to me on the dedication pages.

    My husband gives me cookbook Christmas presents every year, and writes notes to me in the book with the date. I admit I give him a short list to select from; this year’s was “The Sweet Life In Paris.” I recently discovered this author, website and blog. I subscribe to Fine Cooking (and save the paper magazines), use the internet to find recipes in the FC magazines and other sites for the fun and variety, and still buy cookbooks! Prior to Sweet Life, I personally purchased “Quick & Easy Chinese” McDermott, delicious sauces, and “Cooking Up A Storm” Times-Picayune of New Orleans, a great read and recipes.

    Please do not stop writing cookbooks. Thank you from a new admirer. Alexandra

  • One of the themes that keeps coming up here is that people like the hear (or more likely, read) the author’s ‘voice’ in a real cookbook. That’s why I think that although one can easily find a recipe on the internet (good or bad), a physical book has the distinction of the author’s voice. Food blogs have those as well, hence their popularity.

    Some of the negatives that people associate with e-cookbooks, I think, are when we compare these to actual cookbooks, which I’m coming to see are probably going to co-exist together for a while. Just like the internet and cookbooks are doing now. I like having both; on the blog, I can put in as many step-by-step photos as I want, which helps readers, but in books, with the costs associated with photography, printing, and shipping, photography jacks up the price of books substantially for those reasons.

    Some mentioned that e-books can’t take something spilled on them like a regular book, but what if you could hang it on the wall and it has a stain-resistant screen that you could touch with floury hands, then clean later? Or a voice that told you what you do, so you didn’t have to read it? (And could be programmable,like Julia Child telling you, “David…fold in the whites now!”)

    Another option could be voice-activation where you could pause a recipe while you washed your hands, or whatever. Plus I do like the idea of videos embedded alongside recipes for readers that need or want additional information or techniques demonstrated.

  • I love reading food blogs, and once upon a time, I enjoyed reading a physical newspaper.

    I’d be willing to pay (gulp), for subscription services, rather than be hounded and ‘flashed’ by advertisers, spyware, malicious code, plus the dime-a-dozen wannabees. Let me choose what I want, when I want it. Heck, let me bundle up my own package and pay a clearinghouse for my choices.

    Oh, and always offer me a paperback! I want to bend the edges of those pages so I can start back at where I was when my e-reader notified me that David Lebovitz updated his site. AND don’t forget, I need a hard copy of (his/yours), latest works. I plan on having grandchildren. They will find it necessary to locate the page we spilled the vanilla on when we were baking our special treat.

    ;)

  • Great post, David. I’m waiting for the perfect device to come along. I love cookbooks, and my collection continues to grow (Omnivore Books is my Achilles heel). But I also have a clip file of recipes from the web, magazines, etc. It can be a challenge to remember where a particular recipe came from.

    When I’m menu planning or otherwise dreaming about food, I want the rich tactile and visual experience of a cookbook. When I’m actually cooking, I want something that doesn’t take up valuable counter space and I don’t have to worry about getting messy.

    I’ve been using Evernote on my iPhone for the past six months. I put all of my shopping lists in here, but also a good number of the recipes I use each week. If the recipe comes from the web, I can easily copy and paste the recipe into my notes. Since most magazine recipes are also available online, this works as well. For cookbook recipes, I use Evernote to take a photo of the cookbook spread and I can title and tag the note so it’s easy to find. Far from a perfect solution, but it’s working pretty well. The notebook is accessible from any computer and my phone, which is nice.

  • Thanks for a very thoughtful look into the question of how technology might change cookbooks and how we use them. It’s too early know the answer of course, but here’s what I’ve realized so far are the pros and cons of cookbooks on the kindle:

    Pros:
    * The size and weight of cookbooks make them not so travel friendly. I’m a New Yorker and do alot of reading on buses and subways. Kindle saves my poor shoulder from hauling cookbooks in my bag (something I’ve done plenty).
    * Books don’t take up room on the shelf. Again, blame New York, where small apartment = limited shelf space.
    * Recipes at the ready. Say your at the supermarket and suddenly decide you want to make goulash. What do you need? Luckily you have the book in your purse….

    Con:
    * Very limited selection. And I mean very. With novels, Amazon makes sure all the latest releases are available in kindle format. With cookbooks, not so much. The selection is littered with obscure publications, many that look self-published from the 70s.
    * Can’t browse through a kindle like you do a cookbook. Search terms make it easy to finding something specific but if you’re looking for inspiration and ideas, like I often do, it’s better to scan a real bookshelf.
    * For now, kindle presents everything as text. Granted it’s crisp customizable text but it’s still just text. No layout, no sidebars, nothing. If a printed recipe includes boxes and sidesbars and other design elements that allow you to more easily look at a recipe on a single page, kindle will translate that all that into multiple pages of straight text.

    So bottom line: love my kindle for regular reading but still buying (mostly) print cookbooks.

    By the way, great cookbooks available on kindle:
    * Paris Sweets by Dorie Greenspan. The spine on my printed book broke within 1 week (so upset). Glad to have a version that won’t fall apart.
    * Bakewise by Shirley Corriher. A big book I’m happy not to lug around as it’s also not a quick reading and I’d be lugging for weeks. But to use as a reference book, a print copy would be better.
    * Sweet Life in Paris – Really, Not trying to kiss up. But since the book is half prose, half recipes, no fancy layouts, this works great on kindle.

  • The article was helpful and I learned some things, but I’m still confused. I have written a supportive cookbook for parents of newly diagnosed young children with gluten intolerance. It’s for a very specific niche and meant for fairly novice cooks. There are 75 wonderful color food photos. And an accompanying 32 page story book with illustrations for the kids themselves. I do believe it would be better in print, but I can’t seem to arrange it. Too expensive for me to self publish, and probably too expensive for publishing houses to produce. What about digital publishing for use on a full screen computer?

    I welcome comments from anyone with useful thoughts. Thanks, Barb

  • I agree with all you said about the advantages and disadvantages, but you left one thing out: spillage. One tipped over measuring cup (oil!) and you could wipe out your investment–and database–for quite some time. I’m guessing smartphone and tablet apps are handy dandy for shopping and inspiration, but in the actual kitchen, the reluctance to bring expensive electronics near the flames and liquids kicks in. Plus, cooking is so tactile, can a sleek reader propped up against a dishtowel (do they even sell stands for these things?) replace a sauce-stained favorite with hard-earned marginalia scribbled on its venerated pages? Not in my book!