Cookbooks are selling like hotcakes

What’s behind this publishing phenomenon?

For generations, cookbooks have been a staple in every kitchen, yet with the influx of online recipes, many had been relegated to the back shelf. That changed in 2020 as more people began cooking and baking at home. Today, cookbooks are growing in popularity, and sales are sizzling. 

“I think your book sales reflect what’s going on in larger society,” says Jill Smith, director of DU’s Denver Publishing Institute (DPI), a four-week, graduate-level program offered each summer to help students launch their publishing careers.  

According to Smith, in 2020, book sales in general grew 8.2% year over year from 2019, and cookbook sales specifically grew 15%. “As a subset of that, bread cookbook sales grew 145%,” she notes. 

Rob Holden, a 2012 DPI graduate and national account manager for Penguin Random House (PRH), has noticed the same trend. Holden works with 50 client publishers at PRH and sells a wide range of titles and categories, including cookbooks. 

“We saw a steady and significant increase in sales as the year, and pandemic, dragged on,” he says. “We all know people turned to books in a big way in 2020, and cookbooks were no exception.” 

Although bread baking had soared during the pandemic, as evidence from book sales and social media posts, other cooking themes also grew in popularity, including cooking for two, gluten-free, vegan, Mediterranean and appliance-centered cooking (i.e. pressure cookers and slow cookers).  

Although recipes by the heaping spoonful can be found online, cooks often prefer books that offer a broad education.  

“Buying a cookbook means buying into an arc of recipes, whether that means you’re diving into a specific cuisine, learning how to better use certain equipment, exploring an approach, or seeking to improve skills that will be applicable elsewhere,” says Samantha Ronan, a 2010 DPI graduate and former assistant editor of books at America’s Test Kitchen.  

Plus, nothing beats the tactile experience of flipping through a cookbook. 

“Having a recipe on your computer or tablet is convenient, but owning a collection, thumbing through and flagging the pages that entice you, reading it for pleasure, having the book on display as part of a personal library—those are some of the reasons people still buy books,” Ronan adds.  

For those aspiring to write a cookbook, the first order of business is to decide who the audience is and how wide of a net they want to cast. Not all cookbooks are destined for a publishing house.

Read: 10 steps to crafting a family cookbook

“I think if you go to a publishing house, you can reach a wider audience because publishing houses have the sales and the marketing structure to [help] that book reach a wider audience,” says DPI’s Smith.  

“But, you know, self-published cookbooks serve a wonderful niche,” she adds, referring to cookbooks she has received from friends that contain family recipes and are made to celebrate a small group or community. (Learn how to publish your own cookbook in 10 easy steps.)  

“Whether self-publishing or going through a publishing house,” says PRH’s Holden, “it’s important to identify your target audience up front, and as far ahead of publication as possible. Hone in, and be as specific as you can here. Once you’ve identified that core target consumer, meet that consumer where they are.” This includes finding out where they shop, which social media they most often use and how they engage with it, and what news outlets and websites they frequent. 

“Above all, make sure your marketing is consumer-facing,” he adds. “Trade outlets are great and can drum up internal/industry interest, but there is no substitute for consumer-facing marketing.” 

In addition to marketing and tasty recipes, a key ingredient to successful cookbook sales is the presentation.  

“Having a beautiful and accurate photo of every recipe is also important,” Ronan says. “At ATK, the food stylists only work with the exact recipe as published right down to the sprinkling of parsley or dusting of powdered sugar, so the readers could have a sense of how their food would turn out.” 

Holden stresses the importance of photos and packaging and says that the cover treatment should match what customers of the content are looking for. And, it should be beautiful. 

“If that means hiring an outside photographer to shoot cover options, you’d be well served to spend the money on it,” says Holden. “Perhaps more so than with any other category [or] genre, the cover of a cookbook can make or break its success.” 

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