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April 10, 2008 11:52 AM

Cookbooks, the Food Network, and Famous Guy's wives

Posted by Nancy Leson


Kevin Rochlin e-mailed me with this query:

"After browsing in bookstores and making a rough estimate of the books
covered in The Good Cook flyer (the cookbook equivalent to a record club) it
seems that 90% of cookbooks out there are either by Martha Stewart or Food
Network
stars. While I am a fan of many of the shows, I don't consider the
majority of them cooking experts and do not really have an interest in their
recipes. Do you think that the number of cookbooks by non Food Network
authors is still the same but overshadowed by FN, or has the FN taken over
the industry?"

In a word, Kevin? Yes. I do think the Food Network has taken over the industry, and there's a reason:

Names sell books. We're a nation addicted to TV. The Food Network's the big name in food focused television and celebrity sells. With so many people turning to the internet for recipes, the old-fashioned print cookbook is getting harder to sell. So the publishing houses go for the gold. And the "gold" has a name (and a face) like Rachael, Giada, Alton and Ina.

Julia Moskin of the New York Times touches on this subject in a 2006 story. She said:

"Of the top 10 best-selling cookbooks of 2006 (according to Nielsen BookScan), not one was written by a professional chef, and all have a decidedly nonprofessional focus. Four of the top 10 are by Ms. Ray, the quick-recipe queen; and four are by former caterers: Giada De Laurentiis, who has two of them; Ina Garten; and Amy Sedaris (although by her own report, Ms. Sedaris's entire professional repertory consisted of cheese balls and cupcakes)."

And I liked Jonathan Beecher Field's take on the cookbook industry in Salon, in which he poses this valid question:

"But how many braising cookbooks, or even cupcake cookbooks, does one cook need? How many cookbooks at all? With the proliferation of clearinghouse Web sites like Epicurious.com, not to mention the enormous number of food blogs that spring up daily, any recipe you can think of is no farther away than the nearest computer."

If that's not enough to explain why we're seeing a rise in food TV star cookbooks, here's a word from the trenches, via my friend Jean Galton, a Seattle-based food writer, recipe developer and food stylist who's written or co-written five cookbooks over the course of her 20-year food-writing career. "I haven't been pitching cookbooks at all over the last couple years. I just stopped," she said. Why? Because the last time her agent shopped her latest cookbook proposal, "He came back and said he couldn't sell it." And when she asked him why he told her: "Because you're not a celebrity and you don't have a platform."

"For God's sake!" Jean told me, "Billy Joel's wife has a cookbook out, and she's what -- a model?"

The famous-guy/cookbook-author connection pissed off North Carolina-based freelance columnist Celia Rivenbark, too, but for a different reason. Here's part of her diatribe, which is well worth reading in full:

"Singer Billy Joel's wife was sitting on Oprah's couch the other day chatting about her happy life, and I just wanted to smack her with my spatula. She's perky and gorgeous and young enough to still have her wisdom teeth from the looks of it. But that's not why I wanted to stick her head in the oven. It's because, get this, she's written a cookbook. . . .This on the heels of the other Wealthiest Man Alive, Jerry Seinfeld's younger, hottie wife writing one, too, and hawking it on `Oprah.'"

Yo, Celia, listen to this story from Jean, about Jessica Seinfeld's cookbook: Jean has a friend who co-wrote another kid-centric cookbook. The authors killed themselves to make the deadline on their huge book, complete with 250 recipes, but they got in it on time as promised. And that's when the publisher told them their book was going to be put on hold because Jessica Seinfeld's book had to be published first.

Am I the only one who thinks there's something wrong with that?

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Listen to Nancy at 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. during Morning Edition, at 4:40 p.m. during All Things Considered and again the following Saturday at 8:30 a.m. during Weekend Edition on KPLU 88.5.

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