Plate to page: Never too many cookbooks

Ben Nielsen

Poh Ling Yeow: stands out from the crowd with her unpretentious cooking and an affable nature

Poh Ling Yeow: stands out from the crowd with her unpretentious cooking and an affable nature

A big hit in its day: a page from the Mary Frances Cookbook of 1912

A big hit in its day: a page from the Mary Frances Cookbook of 1912

A good cookbook doesn’t just assist with the preparation of food – it’s the Playboy of the kitchen. It can also be a travelogue, memoir and a utilitarian manual. For these collective qualities, the humble cookbook’s popularity seems to defy predictions of the death of the publishing industry.


“Cookbooks are still one of the strongest categories of publishing in Australia,” says Shona Martyn, publishing director of HarperCollins. “The proportion of cookbooks sold at Christmas and Mother’s Day reflects that cookbooks are a popular gift and the all-year-round sales show that people still buy for themselves.”

HarperCollins is the oldest publishing house in Australia and New Zealand, and is a leading player on the world stage. Its current online catalogue boasts an impressive 911 cookbooks, the most popular of which are sold internationally in English and foreign language translations.

“We publish for a broad range of readers in prices and formats appropriate to the book and the author. Our biggest author is Donna Hay but we also publish Valli Little’s Delicious cookbooks, Sally Wise, Bill Granger, Tetsuya, and the Monday Morning Cooking Club,” Ms Martyn says.

HarperCollins must experience consistent cookbook sales, as the publisher “would be unlikely to acquire an author unless we foresaw sales of more than 10,000 copies”.

Yet, according to Nielsen BookScan, the publishing industry suffered a significant decline during 2011-12, due to the digital revolution and slouching economy. This finding was mirrored in a recent IbisWorld report, which found bricks-and-mortar bookstores were likely to record an average annual revenue decline of 8.3 per cent over the past five years.

“I don’t fall for the fact that bookstores were crushed by online. They were crushed by mismanagement and by missing a few marks,” says Shawn Casey, director of The Cookery Book, the nation’s only exclusive wholesaler and retailer of cookbooks.

“But, I’ve got to bear in mind that fiction was affected – which is a big part of general bookshops – and that we’re a specialist.”

The Cookery Book’s biggest challenge is meeting demand. A former executive of John Wiley and Sons, Mr Casey works closely with “switched-on” publishers who deliver the latest cookbooks to the shelves faster than sites like Amazon can advertise the same stock online. There is more to the business than providing high-end products, though; it’s also about the ethos.

“I think knowledge is the critical factor, keeping people informed, keeping a finger on the pulse, and the systems we’ve got in place that make it an extremely viable business,” he says. “It’s a bit of a furphy that the industry is so depressed. Customers want to collect the book as it’s valuable – so what we’re seeing now is people throwing away Kindles and saying ‘I want books’.”

Australia maintains its hearty appetite for cookbooks because the genre fulfills more than a mundane need – it’s a cultural commodity. The nation’s first cookbook, The English and Australian Cookery Book: Cookery for the Many, as Well as for the Upper Ten Thousand was written by Edward Abbott in 1864. It shows the British legacy of “overcooked, bland food” as the starting point for colonial Australia’s culinary heritage. In the ensuing 150 years, cookbooks have become tangible, printed records of Australia’s changing identity.

But, in a modern world that’s saturated by food culture, is there a need for more cookbooks? Rosa Matto is one of few chefs without a cookbook to her name. Even though she has carved out a successful 35-year career as culinary teacher and television personality, she thinks “there is enough currency as it is”.

“The world doesn’t need another Italian cookbook, because that’s the sort of cookbook I’d write,” she says. “I’m not opposed to cookbooks, but I have a moratorium on buying them unless they are really different. You have to ask yourself, ‘how many recipes have I made from this book?’ ”

According to one publisher, a cookbook is considered successful if it’s used once or twice. These days, the consumption of food itself isn’t a measure of the cookbook’s quality. Instead, the defining factors are its ability to stand out on the coffee table or increase personal celebrity – characteristics that often come at the expense of well-written and thrice-tested recipes.

Shona Martyn says a bestselling HarperCollins cookbook must be “distinctive, attractive and easy to use, and the recipes must work.” It should also reflect the aesthetic and values of the author, qualities especially dear to the publisher’s latest author, Poh Ling Yeow, universally known as Poh.

“I’ve always told a story of living with two cultures, and my food is like that as well. I needed my book [the recently released Same Same But Different] to reflect how I cook at home and how Australians cook,” she says. “I wanted the recipes to be accessible – especially for people who are a bit intimidated about cooking in another culture.”

Even though Poh’s career was born of the first wave of food-related reality television, she stands out from the crowd with her unpretentious cooking and an affable nature that buoys the everyday cook. Same Same But Different also finds a niche as a proponent of taste and creativity.

“I built up these recipes, and I thought, ‘I’m going to tie these together in a really different way’. So, the recipes are paired by the same ingredients, texture or process,” she says. “I wanted to remind people of home, and I wanted it to be super practical. I just want people to be able to cook from my book every day of the week.”

Whether it’s Poh’s latest tempting collection, or a well-loved family treasure, no kitchen is complete without an annotated, splattered, dog-eared cookbook. As Shawn Casey says, cookbooks will never be out of fashion.

“The whole phenomenon is just enormous,” he adds. “I think the driving factor is that people want to learn, people want to do the right thing for themselves and their family, and people just want to cook good food.”

Books for cooks

Rosa Matto still remembers the joy of first reading Peter Conistis’ debut cookbook New Greek Cuisine. “It blew me away because the dishes were instantly recognisable as Greek, but had such a modern twist.”

“My favourite cookbook is How to be a Domestic Goddess [by Nigella Lawson],” says Poh Ling Yeow. “The Asian food that I’m known for is in my blood, but the thing I just love to do is bake.”

HarperCollins’ most popular cookbooks are by Australian food stylist Donna Hay; there is also a smart phone app, What’s For Dinner, to help out in the supermarket or kitchen.
“Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem has been a stunning success,” Shawn Casey says. “He’s a fabulous personality, the books are phenomenal, and customers love every one of his recipes.”