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 …….