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30 July 2010

The future of cookery books: iPad or Kindle?

Amazon yesterday announced the launch of their new Kindle.  The claim is that this one is now smaller, lighter, faster and easier to read than the previous version.  Obviously it's up against the iPad.

As prices stand at the time of writing, £149 for the most expensive Kindle versus £429 for the cheapest iPad, the Kindle wins the day if you just want to read.  I know that there's a ton of stuff the iPad does that the Kindle doesn't, which is why many people I'm sure will see that £280 difference as a worthwhile opportunity cost for going for the iPad.  But, what if we're looking at it purely from the cookbook perspective?

What if all you're using your device for is a kitchen tool, so that you can save those sagging shelves and replace the books with some nice artwork or a swanky 3D TV?  What then is your best option?

I ask the question as someone who has a fetish for cookbooks.  I love reading them, the prose, the recipes, the method, the photos.  Going electronic feels very wrong. 

I'm not just a browser, I also regularly cook out of them.  My argument to Mrs S is that that justifies the fetish.  But if I'd just splashed out on a $421 tome even I would be a tad concerned about getting it smattered when cooking.  Of course, I'd still need the tactile pleasure of the book itself, so would probably be tempted to buy both the hard copy and the digital version.  I could see though that this might start to get rather expensive.

By blindly dismissing digital editions, I'd be tilting at proverbial windmills.  Publishing is hard at the best of times, but cookbooks are notoriously tough sellers.  It's only down to the success of the likes of the Nigellas and Jamies, that publishers can print the decent but less popular books.  So going digital, with its inherently lower costs is attractive.

The Kindle is a reading device and more or less that alone.  It is great if all you're doing is looking at text.  But cookbooks are usually so much more than text and the iPad is so much better suited to richer content.  For example, this video is a demo of what you could do with recipes online.  It was developed by William Hereford (and all the rights are his) "as a kind of experiment combining typeface typical of magazines with video which has been shot and edited to feel like a still photograph."



It's very beautiful, of that there is no doubt.  But I'm not sure it's how I would want to interact with a cookery book.  I like to read the long-form version, where I can see ingredients and method all in one place.  But if there was an option to see someone cook the dish, well that is a very attractive idea.  Imagine being able to watch Thomas Keller or Heston Blumenthal preparing every dish they wrote about. 

I crave a stage in a restaurant to learn from these chefs how to cook.  Without any kitchen experience, that's not happening soon.  But being able to watch, time and again, them cook all the dishes in their canon, well that is a a tasty proposition.  You would learn their knife techniques, you would see their methods, you would learn why the photos in the book rarely look like what you put on the plate.

This isn't just a pimped-up version of their TV programmes.  I'm suggesting a combination of a book with long-form recipes, but also the options to go into detail about how they make the dish.  They could chuck-in interviews with suppliers if they want, but I want to see them cooking. 

It would expensive for sure, the chef's time, the design, the production costs for the video and editing and coding, but - and here's the biblio-heresy - so much more valuable to me than a cookbook. There is the obvious question of just how much value would it be to me, what would I pay for it?  I suppose it depends who the chef is.  If it was Jamie, massively over-exposed, probably nothing.  If it was Blumenthal or Keller or David Chang at Momofuku, then quite a lot.  And I'd pay a premium for beautiful style like Hereford's video above, in the same way I did for The Big Fat Duck Cookbook.

The business model is interesting to consider. Would it follow the current cookbook model where the populist items cover the cost of the niche longtail? Or are the populist titles so over-exposed that consumers would have little interest in Jamie in yet another guise?

I'm guessing the economics will err towards the former. Tablet/mobile devices are undeniably popular and mainstream. People will use these devices to consume the sorts of things they previously consumed in hard copy or online. They'll keep watching and reading the one-name-wonders, they'll just be doing it through a new medium.

I assume there are chefs already beavering away in film studios, days on end spent making dishes they haven't made in years, as publishers get ready to ditch print entirely.  If my assumption is wrong, I'm sticking a sodding great copyright symbol on this post and holding the idea as my own. 

So back to the start, if you're looking to make a decision on whether to buy an iPad or Kindle based on how you'd use it in the kitchen, the iPad wins out.  Not necessarily for what you can do with it today, but for the future potential.  I'm really quite excited. 


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I love books. Physical books. From battered, pulp fiction paperbacks to hard cover works of art with heavy weight paper and spot varnish...

So I've been a bit reluctant to consider e-books for the last few years.

However, we recently visited the Falklands for a month, with very limited luggage allowance and knowing that we'd have quite a bit of downtime.

So we picked up a pair of sony e-readers and loaded them up with lots of free books.

I warmed to them a lot! The page "turn" rate is a bit slow and was frustrating at first for someone who reads very fast, but I stopped noticing it too much after the first half a book and read 20 or more titles during the month.

BUT I would not really enjoy using it for cookery books, or indeed any books that contain photographs and illustrations.

For me, the traditional physical book remains my choice for cookery books!

Kavey, thanks for the comment.  I agree there's something beautifully tactile about books and I can't see that I'll stop buying them for cooking any time soon. I also agree that a straight e-reader like the Sony or Kindle are not well suited to the format.

But what I was really suggesting is something much richer.  So take Heston's Big Fat Duck Cookbook or Harold McGee's latest book, imagine them talking you through each of the steps (the former being a cookbook, the latter a reference guide).  Imagine hearing it from their voice, watching them do things with food that you can then do.  That to me seems very exciting.

I was discussing this with someone yesterday and a non food equivalent might be the Haynes Manual.  Imagine being able to watch, read, buy, discuss etc issues to do with your car.  It would be hard to see a richer learning experience.

What I find the most useful about my iPad in terms of recipes, is being able to store all the ones I find online in one database (I use Evernote). There is nothing worse than half remembering a recipe you saw somewhere online and never being able to find it again.

Personally I am not interested in video content much unless it's demonstrating a specific skill - most of the recipe apps I've downloaded (BBC Good Food, Nigella, Jamie) have involved these kinds of videos.. Knife skills, pasta making, etc. I don't want to see the entire recipe demonstrated, or if it is I want the full text as well.

I think I'd rather have a good iPad version of a food mag that I subscribe to, and is updated every month, using video for things like the videos Tim Hayward does for word of mouth. That I would pay good money for.

Thanks Erin for your comment.  I'd thought this was rather a whizz bang idea and since discussing it with a few people I've realised there are those who love it and others who don't, it's far more polarising than I expected.  To be clear, the bit I get excited about is watching Heston make snail porridge or Grant Achatz develop a meal.

Achatz is a good example of my thinking.  His book and website Mosaic were ahead of their time, both would have been much better suited to the iPad and together with video would have been exceptionally compelling.  Or to me at least. 

Tim will be delighted that you'd pay to see him ;)

An interesting post. As a keen reader and digital media lover I can see where people would be divided. As it stands I'm happy bring my laptop into the kitchen, bring up a good food blog and cook from there... It also means I can have Spotify on the go so I can listen to music at the same time! I may even have Facebook open too...

I was quite surprised to the the sheer cost of the '$421 tome' and the £83 Duck cookbook seemed a little extravagant but it just goes to show how much other people love their cooking, and their cookbooks.

Thanks for sharing!


John, thanks for your comment. I'm with you on bringing the laptop into the kitchen, one of the reasons I find the prospect of the iPadisation of cookery books quite interesting. I note that Amazon have opened their UK Kindle store (the food section is here). I'm pretty sceptical that the Kindle is the right delivery method for cookbooks.

It's definitely an area to watch though.

Personally I would probably go for some sort of tablet pc -- possibly an iPad -- over an ebook reader, but that's just me. Kindle has been doing well in the States but I think the iPad might be the overall winner.

I agree, I've only just seen this post, but I think it would be fantastic! Have been thinking about it for some time.

@msmarmitelover I know. Trish Deseine did something pretty good along
these lines, but otherwise haven't seen anything of note.

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