Given the costs of creating a print version, going directly online can have higher dividends
In June, Maria Hammonds took her digital cookbooks off her website. The blogger behind the Instagram account Deep Fried Honey and the recipe site of the same name had produced five e-books since 2018, which her readers could purchase online, paying through Paypal or Venmo, and receive their book via PDF download. For Hammonds, the books were a way to get paid for time-consuming labor and expensive production on a project that wasn’t even her primary job.
But once Hammonds was receiving enough ad revenue from the site to be adequately compensated, she took the books down. “I’m a communist. I was never in this for money,” Hammonds says. “I like for things to not be behind a paywall. Money is hard to come by, and I’m very particular with people spending it in any way to support me.” Since followers might worry they were losing access to recipes that appeared only in the books and not on her blog, she announced plans to transfer everything to the public website.
There was just one problem: A few weeks after she announced her decision to remove her cookbooks, there was a minor revolt in her email and social media inboxes. A recipe — baked spaghetti — had just gone viral, bringing in a wave of new readers who wanted the books before they disappeared, despite Hammonds’s warning they were paying for something that would soon be available for free. She begrudgingly put the books back up, at least until all the recipes were duplicated on the site.
This uproarious demand wouldn’t surprise any Patreon supporter, newsletter subscriber, or any other loyal subscriber in the new creator economy — but it might surprise a professional publisher. Digital cookbooks have been a hard sell for big publishing houses, despite the promise of Amazon’s Kindle and other e-readers. According to the NPD Group, a market research company that tracks book sales, Americans bought 2 million digital cookbooks in 2019 versus nearly 20 million print books. Those numbers both rose coming into 2021, to 3.6 million digital books and almost 23 million in print, but digital cookbook sales sagged through May, even as print sales continued upward.
There are some obvious reasons why e-cookbooks might struggle. As a culture, we romanticize the food-stained pages of a print cookbook, a physical totem that can be passed down through generations. There are also practical drawbacks to referencing an electronic device mid-recipe in a messy kitchen. Plus, cookbooks as a genre have been gravitating toward the coffee table, where they act as decorations as much as cooking guides.
“In general, illustrated books and books with structured lists and tables are less effective as digital titles,” says Brian O’Leary, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group. “Many [e-]readers are still e-Ink [a display technology that mimics ink on a page], not color, so cooking pictures are less appealing. And structured data like a list of ingredients can take up an entire screen while offering little context. Other genres with more or all text are a more natural fit for digital devices (so far).”
But where big publishers see poor returns, small independent creators see opportunities. Self-publishing in print has always had its advantages for writers: greater artistic freedom, direct engagement with audiences, the ability to speak directly to a community of readers without meddling editors, an affordable way to see their ideas come to fruition. Digital cookbooks are no different, and there are often huge advantages to producing a cookbook on a smaller scale, especially since DIYing a digital book has never been easier with plug-and-play graphic design software.
Independent recipe creators do face many of the same challenges as publishing houses in convincing readers to pay for digital downloads (plus a handful more hurdles unique to self-publishing). But for some, self-publishing digital cookbooks can be a significant source of income, at least enough to offset the costs of running a website and stocking a pantry. Since advertising networks typically require creators to hit minimum traffic goals before signing them on to sell ads against their content (anywhere from 10,000 page views up to 100,000), it can also be a first step toward monetizing a passion project along with virtual classes, YouTube videos, and product endorsements.
For author Karen Agom, who writes about Nigerian-American food on Nwa Bekee, a book was a personal financial goal. “I was working with a business coach and it was part of our plan to have a product,” Agom says of her first book, Revamp, which she published in 2021. “I wanted to have an opportunity to see how it did without further complicating it with looking for a distributor or having to physically mail copies myself.”
That doesn’t mean it was easy. Agom had to personally take on writing, editing, marketing, and selling her new book. As a small personal brand with a couple thousand followers, she was worried there wouldn’t be much demand for her product, especially a nonphysical good. But she quickly found success promoting her book to her established audience, who were more than happy to shell out for an ebook. “We live in a very progressive age, when digital goods are viable, and there’s a market for that.” She also provided instructions on printing the book should customers prefer a tangible product to a PDF.
With a book under her belt, Agom also feels better prepared to approach publishers about deals for follow-up works. “I think I’ve shown what I can do on my own. I’d be interested to see what a publishing company could offer that I could not,” she says. While her first book focused on adaptable recipes and meal prep to encourage healthy habits, one of Agom’s primary interests in the kitchen, she says her next book will focus on Nigerian and West African dishes. In negotiating a book deal, she would bring her established audience with her to the table.
For self-publishers, digital cookbooks are usually a wiser investment than print. Once food blogger and photographer Ksenia Prints decided to self-publish her 2016 book, Middle Eastern Small Plates, “it was obvious it needed to be electronic,” she says. Since many freelancers already host their own websites, they can produce e-cookbooks for just the cost of design, stripping out shipping and commerce platforms like Amazon that take a cut. A professional designer, like the one Prints worked with, might charge hundreds or a few thousand dollars, but she says many people DIY their books using graphic design tools like Canva. “I received requests to do a print addition, but looking at it, I wasn’t sure the cost justified the expense. I wasn’t sure I would get the ROI on that,” Prints says. “For people who grew up on print media, there’s something so magical about seeing your name in print and holding it in front of you. It’s nostalgia. But that’s not a real-life reason.”
Before she decided to self-publish, Prints pursued that dream, shopping around a proposal for a print book. But “I wasn’t very attracted to some of the proposals I was seeing from publishing houses,” she says. Unless authors bring a huge built-in audience from their websites, many publishing contracts require authors to shoulder the costs of promoting the work. “If the publishing house offers you enough of a package or support around those promotional costs, like a tour, then it becomes a bit more appealing. If you’re doing all the promotion yourself, you might as well self-publish,” Prints says. Publishers would also let her have some control over the content, but would command the structure of the book and the way it looked; they wanted to bring in another photographer or had specific requirements if Prints was to produce her own art. “You relinquished a lot of artistic freedom,” she says. “The approach is: A publishing house knows what works, they have limited budgets, and if you want to be published with them you need to accept that.”
From the outside, it may seem reasonable for publishers to dictate the terms of their investments. But the stakes are high for food writers, who often feel their recipes are delicate expressions of identity easily misconstrued by outside parties. While creative freedom is a common credo for self-published authors, it’s especially important for writers online today, when audience perceptions of authenticity can make or break a creator. Recipe authors work hard to establish authority with readers, and they risk that work by letting editors meddle in their recipes.
For example, in 2014, Amanda Ponzio-Mouttaki, the writer behind Maroc Mama (and an Eater contributor), produced her own digital book, My Moroccan Kitchen. She initially thought of the project as a stepping stone toward a book deal — until she had doubts. “If I work with a publisher then I’d need to have someone else telling me what could or couldn’t be included based on their target market and what they think people would want,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to adjust or adapt recipes to fit. For example, the [combination] of tagine and couscous I see all over Moroccan cookbooks when that just isn’t a thing.”
This concern isn’t just about creative liberties; it translates into dollars and cents. Ponzio-Mouttaki was able to convert blog fans into cookbook customers by leveraging the personal connections and trust she had built up. “I think that people are willing to pay when they are invested in you and can see that what you offer is worth it,” she says. With a publisher dictating content in the middle of that relationship, that bond could easily be broken and the value to audiences lost.
Agom echoes that idea, pointing out that digital cookbooks are especially valuable in communities built on trust. “People are not just looking for recipes. They’re looking for accountability,” she says. “We live in an age where we are overloaded with information. There isn’t a recipe out there that doesn’t exist for free. But because there is this inundation of information, people are overwhelmed. They don’t know if they’ve got a good source or not. If it’s a cultural dish, they may not be familiar with the ingredients or substitutes.”
Readers overwhelmed by the ocean of internet recipes can look to e-cookbooks for direction and curation. But there are also plenty of extremely online home cooks who don’t need help knowing what to make for dinner. They might purchase digital cookbooks because they feel more exclusive than mass-consumed free options, or more intentional and finite than regurgitated cooking trends. Others might derive virtuous satisfaction or see an ethical obligation to support the people who develop their diet. It means something to directly support creators.
Popular demand isn’t always as rosy as it appears, though. “People on the internet, especially if you’re a creative, think that they, as the audience, drive you. It’s kind of like going up to a teacher and saying, ‘I pay your taxes.’ There’s entitlement that comes with it,” Hammonds says. She also points out that a name on a digital cookbook isn’t a guarantee of credibility. “There’s just not a lot of integrity in this because it’s the internet. I know people are now looking at cooking on the internet like, let’s get rich, let’s make money, let’s get followers.” Without naming names, Hammonds says she’s seen people steal recipes from established bloggers to repurpose that content on newer platforms like TikTok where it seems unique. “These people get big on TikTok and others ask how to support them, so the next thing they do is compile all these stolen recipes into an ebook and sell it.”
While she personally tries to credit her sources and inspirations, Hammond casts some (justified) side-eye at the entire creator economy. “As people on the internet, y’all don’t know us. You can’t trust us blindly,” she says.
But even if intentions tend to break down in the muck of the internet, the desires driving the ecookbook world seem genuine. Independent authors want to serve their communities and make money on their own terms, and readers want to support creators. For Agom, it’s worked out so far. “It’s been a very symbiotic relationship with [readers] supporting me and me meeting their needs as well. That’s just how to be a good creator and entrepreneur,” she says. In this context, a self-published ecookbook can be a gateway, not only to exterior goals like financial success, but personal fulfillment as well. “It’s honestly been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done this year,” Agom says. “Most cooks aspire to get picked up by big publishers, but this process has been empowering, to know that I’m capable of achieving my dreams on my own until those opportunities come forward.”
Jennifer Luxton is a California-born, Seattle-based editorial illustrator and graphic journalist.