iCook: The Digital Age of Cookbooks

On a chilly Thursday night in October, a group of fabulous people met at the Historic Old Church in Southwest Portland to discuss food writing in the publishing world. Transmit Culture, a series of discussions centered on the various elements of publishing, gives Ooligan Press and writing students alike the opportunity to engage in an earnest dialogue with seasoned professionals of the industry. This particular panel discussion, focusing on food writing and publishing, was moderated by PSU’s Diana Abu-Jaber, professor of Creative Writing, and a former food writer. Panelists included Breanna Goodrow, senior designer at Timber Press, Marnie Hanel, a writer for The New York Times and Vanity Fair, and Greg Mowery, a cookbook publicist and founder of Greg Mowery Public Relations.

The panelists commented on the importance of photography and illustration in the food writing world. Greg Mowery said, “It’s an advantage that fiction just doesn’t have,” and he’s absolutely right. Cookbooks have become somewhat synonymous with picture-books for a variety of food enthusiasts. It wouldn’t seem quite right to open up a cookbook and solely be confronted with cold blocks of text; you might feel appalled by the book for its false advertising. You often pay not just for the writing, but also the photographs collectively in a cookbook. In fact, the appearance of a photo directly correlates to a person’s decision to spend their money on the recipe. Mowery continued, “It’s no longer a reference book. People want to create replicas of the pictures they see, they want to use it for more than instruction.”

Design is absolutely fundamental to the cookbook and food writing world. “It’s overtaking the traditional text,” confirmed Breanna Goodrow. As a senior designer for Timber Press, she notes that what customers want is not only a book full of food ideas, but a product that itself is beautiful. The demand for a design element seems to be reflective of the quality of the text; in a world where print photography is an expense that is often too difficult to come up with, what will this mean for the future of food writing?

Greg Mowery had some interesting insights about the digital future and what this means for cookbooks. The rise of tablets, smartphones, eBooks, and publishing platforms such as Cookbook Cafe, present a dimension to food writing and publishing that has yet to be fully tapped into.The transition of photography and design to the digital screen can be amplified and continually improved upon. Our culture of consumption has never been so ripe. Think about your last meal, chances are you probably posted a photo of it on Instagram. Think about the cookies you made for your girls night last week, you probably got the recipe off of the social networking site like Pinterest. Social and digital media have evolved in tandem with photography and the visual arts. The connection of food and the digital world are already inseparable; food and food publishing are specifically rooted in the concept of sharing. Not only does this concept make sense, but we can expect the evolution of foodie culture to exponentially continue along the digital surface because of that very fact. Photography is just as vibrant on the illuminated screen of an eBook or a tablet as it is on the glossy pages of a print book, and now it’s even more interactive to boot.

Publishers should not be threatened by the illusion of harm that the digital cookbook poses to print. The transition of cookbooks and food writing to the screen of a tablet or a laptop won’t render the print copy extinct, but it certainly will offer consumers an entirely different cooking and reading experience. Like other forms of writing, a print audience will remain steadfast.  As Mowery mentions, “Cookbooks are kitchen accessories and go-to-gifts that demand a beautiful physical print form, but the digital age ushers in an opportunity for publishers and writers to experiment as well.” Emerging trends such as quarterly magazines and regional cookbooks can benefit from the switch of print to digital, saving publisher and writers money, time, and even stress.  The world of cookbooks has never been so accessible, or exciting as it is now. Charge that iPad and dig in!

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