Want to write a bestselling cookbook? First, get a show on TV, preferably the Food Network. A magazine with your name on it doesn't hurt. Nor does a line of cake mixes, linens, cookware or dog food. Being a comedian's wife or Oprah's diet guru is also good for sales. � Want to write a cookbook that wins awards? Be provocative and controversial. Be worldly, literary and topical. Be a great writer able to mine the zeitgeist of a cuisine (casseroles, baking) or the kitchen lore of your tribe (Southern storytellers, Jewish mamas, star chefs). � Don't expect much crossover, because rarely does a bestselling cookbook reap culinary-land's top awards. Of the 10 most-popular cookbooks of 2008, not one received a major award, and only a single title was even a finalist for coveted James Beard Foundation or International Association of Culinary Professional honors. � It's a phenomenon we see with movies, too. Last year's box office king was The Dark Knight, but Slumdog Millionaire took home the statues. The year before, No Country for Old Men won the Oscar for best movie, and the top box office draw was Spider-Man 3. � The chasm is even wider in cookbooks. In the awards race, last year's slam-dunk, best cookbook was Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes by Jennifer McLagan (Ten Speed Press). But it has only sold about 25,000 copies, utterly dwarfed by last year's bestselling cookbook. Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics by Ina Garten (Clarkson Potter) has sold nearly 650,000 copies. Martha Stewart's Cooking School was second, selling almost 318,000 copies, according to Publishers Weekly.
We love cookbooks
Even with its potential for critical acclaim, Fat was a tough sell for the author, says Ten Speed publisher Aaron Wehner.
"We had the proposal for a while and we were torn on it," he says. "We just wondered what the market would be. Ultimately, we went with our heart."
Still, they knew a book celebrating a roundly reviled — though secretly loved — ingredient could be a merchandising challenge, Wehner says. The usual Mother's Day, Valentine's Day and Christmas promotions just didn't fit.
Publisher Clarkson Potter didn't have that quandary with Back to Basics. Ina Garten's book was the perfect gift for any occasion, and it turned out to be a hot seller in December.
Clarkson published four of the top six cookbooks of 2008, by Garten, Stewart, Giada De Laurentiis and Rachael Ray.
"We call them the Big Four," says Clarkson editorial director Doris Cooper. "We owned last fall. and we were very proud of that."
But, Cooper explains, bestselling cookbook authors are not made overnight. The Big Four happened to be women who have had great sales over a long period of time.
"Each of them sell well out of the gate and have good backlist sales," she says.
What's good for Ten Speed, Clarkson Potter and other cookbook publishers is that consumers still love recipes between two covers, paperback or hardback. Despite the infinite number of recipes on the Internet, there is something about books that still appeals to cooks, even if they don't make any of the recipes. The photos and inspiration are often worth the price.
While other categories of books are falling, cookbook sales are up 4 percent in the first part of 2009 over the same period last year, according to Nielsen BookScan. Sales of all adult nonfiction are down 9 percent. However, there are fewer cookbooks being published.
"Cookbooks are benefiting from the lousy economy," Wehner says. "The price of a cookbook is a smaller indulgence."
Well, not always. Ten Speed is also the publisher of James Beard winner Alinea by Chicago chef Grant Achatz, which costs a whopping $50. Wehner admits Alinea may be more for "curling up with it; not necessarily for splattering on."
Worries about finances have pushed more people into the kitchen. That is spurring cookbook purchases and may be why a super home-spun book like The Taste of Home Cookbook sold 264,343 copies last year. It was the fourth-hottest cookbook of 2008.
Even authors are chasing the new austerity, Wehner says.
"Toward the end of last fall, I was getting two to three pitches a week on cooking for $5 a week," he says.
Sounds like a good idea now, but it may not be so attractive when the book hits the market in two years, the average length it takes a cookbook to go from acceptance to print. Chasing trends doesn't work for most cookbook publishers.
Are they any good?
There are popular cookbooks and there are acclaimed cookbooks, and which ones are better depend on the consumer.
Take, for example, Fat and Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics.
At first glance, they seem similar: Slim volumes under 300 pages, ravishing color photos, Parisian sensibilities. Both authors spend quite a bit of time in the City of Light — Jennifer McLagan lives there part of the year —and it has influenced their cooking and style.
"I'm stunned and happy and luckily in the country where Champagne is made. It will still be cafe au lait for breakfast but tonight it will be Champagne, Champagne and more Champagne," McLagan, in Paris, wrote on her blog (www.jennifermclagan.blogspot.com) the morning after the James Beard awards were announced.
Upon closer look, the books are quite different. Back to Basics is friendly and encouraging; Fat is scholarly and provocative. McLagan, who is also a chef and food stylist, explores what fat means to our diets and palates. It is, she writes, "indispensable and delicious."
Then she provides a slate of recipes that most of us will never make, like Kugelhopf au Lard; Marrow Rice Pudding and Grapefruit Salad Dressing and Red Cabbage with Goose Fat. And yet, the first very long sentence will woo any lover of food and food writing: "I love fat, whether it's a slice of foie gras terrine, its layer of yellow fat melting at the edges; rich, soft marrow scooped hot from the bone; French butter from Normandy, redolent of herbs, flowers and cream; hot bacon fat; spiked with vinegar, wilting a plate of pungent greens into submission; a slice or two of fine ham eaten just as its fat begins to turn translucent from the warmth of the room, sweet, nutty and salty all at once; or a piece of crunchy pork crackling, delicious either hot or cold."
If that sentence gives you a hankering for a heavily marbled steak, Fat is your kind of book.
Back to Basics takes a different road. Garten plays the role of teacher, much like she does on her Food Network show. She takes us by the hand and shows us how to turn simple ingredients into Wild Mushroom Risotto, Brownie Pudding and Roasted Shrimp Cocktail. It's all very civilized and delicious.
Like McLagan, Garten writes a first sentence that describes her sensibilities. "People are always asking me what the new food trends are, but I have to admit that food trends don't really interest me." Get ready for the classics.
In a year when everyone is cooking again, there is room for both the practical and the dreamy.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached [email protected] or (727) 893-8586. Follow her on Twitter: @keelerstircrazy.
Top-selling cookbooks of 2008
1 Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics by Ina Garten (640,000 copies)
2 Martha Stewart's Cooking School (317,992)
3 Giada's Kitchen by Giada De Laurentiis (301,663)
4 The Taste of Home Cookbook (264,343)
5 The Best Life Cookbook by Bob Greene (245,000)
6 Yum-O! by Rachael Ray (243,470)
7 Paula Deen's Kitchen Wisdom and Recipe Journal (170,000)
8 Deceptively Delicious by Jessica Seinfeld (156,000)
9 Gorgeously Green by Sophie Uliano (129,000)
10 Joy's Life Diet by Joy Bauer (128,000)
Award-winning food books of 2008
Cookbook of the Year
James Beard: Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes by Jennifer McLagan (Ten Speed Press). Also honored in single subject categories from James Beard and International Association of Culinary Professionals, or IACP.
IACP: A16: Food & Wine by Nate Appleman and Shelley Lindgren (Ten Speed Press).
American cooking: Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook by Martha Hall Foose (Clarkson Potter). Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited by Arthur Schwartz (Ten Speed) won this category from IACP.
Baking: Bakewise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking by Shirley O. Corriher (Scribner). The IACP gave its baking award to The Art and Soul of Baking by Sur La Table and Cindy Mushet (Andrews McMeel Publishing).
Cooking from a professional point of view: Alinea by Grant Achatz (Achatz LLC/Ten Speed Press). A similar award from IACP went to Chanterelle: The Story and Recipes of a Restaurant Classic by Dave Waltuck and Andrew Friedman (Taunton).
General cooking: How to Cook Everything (Completely Revised Tenth Anniversary Edition) by Mark Bittman (John Wiley & Sons).
Healthy focus: The Food You Crave: Luscious Recipes for a Healthy Life by Ellie Krieger (Taunton). Also won a similar award from the IACP.
International: Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. Also won a similar award from the IACP.
Writing and literature: In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (Penguin). IACP honors in similar category went to Bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe (HarperCollins).
For complete lists of winners, go to jamesbeard.org or iacp.com.