Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

10.19.12

Food Friday: Why Do We Buy Cookbooks?

Is there a future for the book-as-object?

I blogged earlier about The Knockoff Economy, and today the authors are talking about cookbooks.  You can't copyright a recipe--so why do cookbooks sell so well?   

A number of you provided explanations that we think comprise a major part of the answer.  You noted that cookbooks are often expensively designed and printed, and so are attractive as objects, not just as manuals of cookery. People like sumptuous things, and will pay to have them, especially when the copies lack the look and feel of the original.

And here’s where copyright comes in. As we’ve said, copyright doesn’t do much (if anything) to protect the recipes in a cookbook.  But it does protect the narrative that surrounds them,the illustrations that accompany them, and the design of the page – the “selection and arrangement” of design elements. And, often, the selection and arrangement of the recipes themselves – they can be copied singly, but not as a set (at least not if arranged in the same or a similar fashion).  As a result, recipes can be copied, but cookbooks cannot be copied wholesale.  This isn’t a lot of copyright protection, but it may be enough. Cookbooks are a low-IP industry, but they’re not a no-IP industry.

A couple of you also noted that cookbooks are status goods – i.e., they are useful sometimes not for the recipes they contain, but for what they tell your visitors about you (that you love Sicilian cuisine! And so you’re not quite as boring as you seem . . . ). In this way, cookbooks are like fashion goods – consumption of both is external (visible to others) and expressive ( sends a message that you want to communicate about your characteristics or social status).

This cries out for a "yes but", so let me offer it:  this is changing.  Fast.  Two years ago, the CEO of Sur la Table told me that their cookbook business was the only segment that was shrinking.  He blamed Amazon, and he knows his business better than I, so I assume that's a really big part of it.  But there's another part: food culture is moving online.  I own more cookbooks than anyone else I know--they occupy a medium size set of bookshelves right outside our kitchen.  But I'm actually using those cookbooks less and less.  

In part that's because I now cook with a few specialized appliances, like a sous vide machine and a Thermomix, and there are few print cookbooks with recipes that take advantage of their capabilities.  But mostly it's that online resources are getting better and better.

Famous recipes, from Marcella Hazan's pesto to the Cook's Illustrated low-temp eye of round, are now just a google search away, thanks to the very lack of copyright protection that they cite.  Epicurious's iPad app is way better than the website, or the Gourmet cookbook.  At least 50% of my cooking is now done off the internet.  And the rest is done out of my sizeable library of existing cookbooks.  I'm more apt to order something out of print, like Maida Heatter's dessert books, than a new cookbook whose recipes have almost certainly already been posted to some forum.  

So why are cookbook sales doing well?  My anecdotal take is that with a very few exceptions, they're given as gifts, especially by older cooks who are not that comfortable with the internet.  They're the Cadillac of kitchen gifts, by which I mean they have a demographic that is rapidly aging out.  The more that serious cooks rely on the internet, the less appealing cookbooks will be as a gift or display item.  

In any declining industry, there's going to be a moment when some segments are still doing okay.  That's not a signal that the industry is healthy; it's just a sign that these things take time.  

So while cookbook sales are doing really well right now, I suspect that in ten years, they'll be in precipitous decline.  Cooking from a tablet is actually easier than cooking from a book--and getting the recipes off the internet is a heck of a lot cheaper than buying and storing a book.