Shopping in cookbook stores, those places dedicated solely to culinary books, is a pilgrimage of sorts for home cooks and chefs: Hours can disappear pulling books from the shelf and pouring over the labors of the writer. Most of these bookstores are owned by people who have an encyclopedic knowledge of books, both those currently for sale and those long gone from the shelves, and can quickly size up a customer’s appetite, steering them in the direction of a tried and true cookbook or toward a lesser-known culinary treasure.
Contrast that experience to the surge of endorphins elicited by hitting the golden “add to cart” and “proceed to checkout” buttons on Amazon: There, one of the pioneering consumer tracking and recommendations systems tailors specific suggestions for each user, with algorithms standing in for booksellers’ tastes. Add the fast shipping perks of Prime membership, and in less time than it takes to marinate meat or make a sourdough starter, the cookbook is in the kitchen.
Each model has its place, but it’s far from an equal playing field. Amazon — the second company ever to reach a $1 trillion market cap, with an annual revenue that’s bigger than the output of some small countries — has a clear advantage. But does it mean specialty cookbook store owners are throwing their arms up in surrender? Or are they studying the online giant and using the information to their advantage? Are the writers who create bestselling cookbooks any less immune to Amazon’s presence? When it comes to selling cookbooks, how do they manage the two realities?
“We feel their presence every day,” says Matt Sartwell, managing partner at Kitchen Arts & Letters in New York. The company doesn’t make book sales figures public, but in 2017 sales of products, including books, rose 26 percent to $118.5 billion. According to a December 2018 Wired report, 45 percent of all print sales in 2017 happened “through Amazon channels,” a cornering of the market that was up from 37 percent in 2015. And Amazon isn’t just a sales competitor: the online giant flexes its muscles in other ways. Sartwell, like all booksellers, purchases cookbooks from publishers at an average 40 percent discount, selling them at “cover price,” a margin meant to account for the overhead costs of operating a store. But Amazon’s near-constant discounts — which it can provide due to lower overhead, more generous purchasing deals with publishers, or its willingness to use a book or any product as a loss leader — is skewing consumers’ perception of the cost of books.
“Sometimes people return to the store angry and demand a refund after they found a cookbook selling for less on Amazon,” Sartwell says, “even though we’re selling it for the price on the cover set by the publisher.”
For obvious reasons, publishers aren’t clamoring to disclose how much sweeter the purchasing deal can be for Amazon, but industry insiders project its discount is 50 to 55 percent. Amazon’s sometimes crazy-low prices, which can be more than 60 percent off the cover price during sales, support the speculation. “They were selling [Samin Nosrat’s popular 2017 cookbook] Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat in late November for $12.60,” says Celia Sack, owner of San Francisco’s Omnivore Books, “when I was buying it from the publisher for $17.50.”
Amazon’s sales potential was irresistible in its early days, but over time, publisher deals set an unfortunate precedent. “A long time ago publishers gave the bulk of their business to the place where they had the least amount of margins,” Sartwell says. Amazon, not surprisingly, is fighting to keep its access to discounts, which it then passes along to consumers who increasingly expect to pay less than cover price. “Publishing executives have confided in me how difficult it is dealing with them, but won’t go on record for fear of retribution,” Sack says. (None responded to a request for an interview.)
And there’s been no shift in Bezos’s master plan to use books and merchandise as a means to collect data on consumer shopping habits. The real money is in targeting ads against recent purchases (Amazon’s “self-service” ad option allows companies, for example, to see who exactly has bought a vegan cookbook, and target a relevant ad to them), and in cloud computing on Amazon Web Services, which analysts some estimate is worth $400 billion on its own. When it comes to cookbooks, Amazon doesn’t even need to break even on the product; the data those sales provide is likely enough to make it “worth it” on their end. Now imagine what it’s like to compete with a giant who doesn’t have to worry about turning a reasonable profit.
For writers, there are pros and cons to dealing with Amazon. “Depending on the title, online sales of hardcover and e-books represent over 50 percent of all my book sales since 2006,” says Andrea Nguyen, author of seven cookbooks, including the just-released Vietnamese Food Any Day. “Amazon figures into that in a large way, but I don’t have specific numbers.” She points out that readers outside of metropolitan areas, without access to specialty stores, rely on Amazon: A Midwestern bookseller in a small town can’t devote as much space to cooking, and then there’s turnover to make shelf space for new cookbooks. “Cookbook writers need to think about the benefits of amplification and deliverability,” Nguyen says.
“When publicity drops off for one of my books, its presence on Amazon remains consistent,” says author Diana Henry. She’s written 10 cookbooks including How To Eat a Peach, which won the prestigious André Simon prize in the UK. Like Nguyen, she says Amazon accounts for “a lot” of her book sales.
Discounts, however, can have a significant impact on the royalty rates cookbook writers negotiate with publishers. Traditionally, royalty rates — an amount the author receives for every book sold, and considered separate from the flat fee (advance), given to produce the book — were based on the list price, the price on the cover set by the publisher. But that all changed because of Amazon’s discounting practices. Now net price is common, meaning the royalty is based on the actual selling price of the cookbook.
“As the author of a published book, my contract includes specific terms for changes in royalty rates when sold at discounts,” Sartwell says. Royalties and advances have a unique relationship: If an advance is high, odds are the royalty rate is lower, and vice versa. Most writers won’t collect royalties until after their book has “earned out” the advance. That leaves cookbook writers managing the delicate balance between the scale Amazon sales represent, which could potentially lead to more royalties, and the higher list price sales at cookbook stores.
The financial squeeze on publishers turns up under different guises. “It drives down advances and affects staff turnover,” says Robyn Eckhardt, writer of the cookbook Istanbul & Beyond. “I’ve been through several publicists.” Writers are forced to shoulder more responsibility for promotion and sales, and if their genius is at the stove and keyboard, wearing those hats can pose a challenge. “I want people to buy the books and use them, but I don’t want to flog them,” Henry says.
For now, the situation isn’t dire for cookbook stores. “Sales in the indie channel saw an almost 5 percent year-over-year increase in 2018 over 2017,” says American Booksellers Association’s senior strategy officer Dan Cullen. “There’s a compound annual growth rate of 5.4 percent over the past five years.” Sack says the figures from the ABA reflect those at Omnivore. “Independent booksellers are making a dent in the market,” says Paula Forbes, cookbook writer and producer of Stained Pages, a newsletter devoted to cookbooks (and former deputy editor at Eater.com).
The advantages cookbook stores have is that there are fewer of them, and they all work hard to distinguish their service. “Our high conversion rate comes from having informed opinions and getting excited about cookbooks for good reasons,” Sartwell says. Sack eagerly shared her 2018 success on Twitter, reporting the store sold $60,000 more in new cookbooks in 2018, compared to the previous year. Sack’s passion for antiquarian cookbooks is her edge, as are her skills at networking. “I work with Salesforce and the Jewish Community Center to host cookbook author events,” she says.
But Amazon has put muscle into mimicking these practices in their online space, with a vertical called Amazon Book Review. “Cookbooks are featured regularly on the Amazon Book Review blog,” says senior editor Siera Wilson. The blog, Omnivoracious, includes an Eating + Drinking section with author interviews and curated articles like “Cookbooks for Adventurous Eaters.” Among the “Celebrity Picks” are cookbook writers Dorie Greenspan and Christopher Kimball. Magnus Nilsson is interviewed in a January episode of Amazon Book Review podcast.
Aware of Amazon’s overwhelming online presence, many cookbook writers are thoughtful about how they link on their professional websites. Some create a link to the cookbook page on the publisher’s website, where multiple retailers are represented. And for the customers who buy according to their values and not price, some writers link to IndieBound, which connects to a local bookstore. “On Samin Nosrat’s website she has a link to Amazon, but there’s also a link to my site for signed copies,” says Sack. “It’s huge when an author gives a customer a reason to buy from us.”
At present, it appears independents and their customers have thrown a wrench into Amazon’s world-dominating ambitions. But Amazon is chameleon-like, and in testing convention, keeps everyone on their toes. Sack relishes rising to the challenges it presents: For all the innovation, Amazon has yet to crack the physical pleasure of leafing through a cookbook. When it comes to finding a recipe that speaks to you, “Look Inside” doesn’t cut it. Not to mention the joys of sharing a passion in the company of others. “Cooking is active, and stores serve as community hubs and event spaces,” says Forbes.
Nguyen echoes the sentiment. “Stores provide concierge service and allow for shopping in a tactile manner,” she says. When it comes to cookbooks, there lies the final frontier.
Deborah Reid is a Canadian writer and chef based in Toronto.
Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist living in Brooklyn.
Editor: Erin DeJesus