Friday, February 22, 2008

From The Times
February 21, 2008
Electronic readers will not cook book's goose

It has been a long day at work, but never mind - back at home in the evening, faced with the sight of a full pantry, obviously the first thought is to cook something new. For the weary, what could be better than mastering a roux, or gutting a fish - and there is no better place for a few minutes of self-education than the cookery book. Well, maybe, perhaps not: for most of us, week-night cooking amounts to demanding dishes such as pasta with pesto sauce, while the surprisingly large supply of cookery books remain on the shelf, looking regal in hardback, gathering dust. Yet enormous numbers of cookery books continue to be sold.

Think about the content for a moment. Coca-Cola may remain a secret recipe, but otherwise most recipes are hardly proprietary. It is easy to sit at a computer, type in the desired dish and the rest is straightforward. There are advantages: recipes can be compared, so it is easy to establish whether the absences of galangal, saffron or milk is crucial or not; sometimes there are reader reviews, too. So going online is much better, and, yet, still people buy cookery books in vast numbers.

Delia Smith's freshly published How to Cheat at Cooking sold just short of 49,000 copies in its first few days, topping the charts, and generating an estimated £500,000 at the tills. It is not even brand new, rather a new version of her 1972 debut. But never mind, it outsold Jordan's latest memoir and doubtless will continue to be one of the year's bestsellers. There is no obvious sign that the free availability of online recipes is diminishing sales, or even Delia's attempt to charge for her own via her Delia online website - a tribute to the strength of the printed medium which means that the Delia brand can resist the commercial impact of digitisation in a way that no rock star, including Amy Winehouse, can.

This enduring power of the cookery book is worth bearing in mind when Sony and Amazon, and doubtless others, eventually inflict their electronic book readers on the British public. Their arrival, probably this year, undoubtedly will be accompanied by excitable speculation about the death of the book, predictions about the inevitabilty of digital domination and the expectation of hard times that lie ahead for publishers. Ideally, all this discussion will appear in physical newspapers and magazines before the writer turns, later that day, to reading their hardback/paperback tome of the moment. Never mind, it is easy to overvalue the impact of new techology (those with long memories may recall an excitable discussion about virtual reality a decade and half ago).

Then there is the question of how many people want a electronic book reader. The Amazon Kindle costs $399, which probably will translate to a more expensive £299 whenever it launches in Britain. Sony's digital book reader is less expensive at $299, or £199. Yet that isn't cheap when you consider how much most people spend on books per head. On average people buy, or are given (and it's worth including children, because they get so many books) four books each year - 237.8 million were sold in Britain alone - and a heavy book buyer, in the view of HMV Group, the company behind Waterstone's, takes home about 12 anually.
More numbers: that heavy book buyer will spend about £90 a year (the average book sells for £7.57, according to Nielsen, which compiles these statistics), which puts the price of any electronic books reader into context. Nor is it possible to digitise the home book collection easily. The iPod is expensive too but the difference is that it is easy to digitise the home CD collection.
That means a consumer really has to want to buy a digital book reader. It might cost twice the annual book bill. So the only way that electronic readers will take hold among consumers is if they become a good way of reading other printed products, such as newspapers or magazines. Finally, going back to cookery books: this particular journey started out with the observation that many people own a cookery book or six but barely use them. They flourish despite the availability of all those recipes being online and even though those books are, by and large, unused.

Far more popular, of course, is watching Jamie Oliver banging on about organic food, or Gordon Ramsey sorting out another chaotic kitchen, now staple prime-time television viewing. Those celebrities, of course, help to drive the book sales, their personalities a key ingredient of the book itself. Buying a cookery book, therefore, is not even about reading; it is about a lifestyle, or more realistically a brand - and that is how to make serious money in advanced capitalism. And that brand-building is best done, not virally via the internet (who has yet heard of the chef discovered on Bebo?) but via good old-fashioned network telly. It is faintly reassuring that, in an era when people fear the ever-increasing power of the internet, the good, old-fashioned cookery book offers proof that there is a lot of life left in print.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree that Cookery books are a lifestyle choice in some cases. They are often beautifully produced display titles rather than functional titles. But I'd like to raise a few comments.

The idea of ebooks bring the new replacement for the printed book is obviously wrong. The Vinyl vs. CDs argument doesn't have any legs when it comes to books. The printed book is simply the best interface at the moment for reading. Ebooks, however, are another method by which to access and consume content. It's in publishers interest to create content in multiple formats (production costs being taken into account of course) so that the user has the opportunity to consume in the method of their choice.

Taking the recipe books example, browsing a recipe book for tonights meal is often a very visual experience, beautiful photography is not something ebook readers can deal with at the moment. But choosing a recipe is also tied in with other factors such as the foods in season, the items in your cupboard and what your local store has in stock. These are all issues which ebooks can actually be useful for, the digitised book can add value in the filtering process which the printed one cannot. You won't carry the Delia, Jamie and Gordon books to the supermarket, but if you had the recipes listed on your device then you have the opportunity to exploit their content in a more useful way.

An important lesson from the music industry is that access is king. The printed book will not disappear, but ignoring the ebook is not the answer. By providing an electronic edition, the publisher creates another opportunity for readers to access their titles. It has the potential to make their titles more useful to the reader, and therefore keeps the brand front and centre in the readers mind.