Lisa McLean, with sons Declan (left) and Hayden, has ditched cookbooks for her iPad. Photo: Marco Del Grande MDG
In January, Crows Nest mum Lisa McLean threw out a dozen cookbooks that were, in her words, ''cluttering up the cupboards''. She next took the axe to her magazine collection binning, along with the Australian Women's Weekly book Meals From the Freezer, a stack of faded food glossies she no longer needed. Survivors like Donna Hay's No Time to Cook and Steve Manfredi's Seasonal shouldn't get too comfortable - there are more trips to the recycling bin to come.
McLean's cleanout may seem madness to a cookbook lover, even tragedy: the joy of cooking, after all, is partly in the bond you share with the butter-smeared and wrinkly spined tome that guides you. But McLean, 43, a long-time cookbook lover, has transferred her affections to two new objects: her slick and stain-free iPad and iPhone. The affair is one of convenience.
A regular cook for her husband, two children and four stepchildren - among them five insatiable teenage boys - family meals are about quantity and affordability. So, spotting a special on corn at Harris Farm, McLean whips out her iPhone, Googles ''corn recipes'' and finds a corn, lime rind and sage dish she can serve for dinner. Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion is just a pain to lug around.
High-school teacher Julia List still likes the pages. Photo: Rodger Cummins
She skips the rifling-through-books stage of planning monthly dinner parties, too. Instead, she heads to a website to find dishes such as maple-glazed salmon and cooks with her iPad propped up on the kitchen bench. As her recipe books gather dust, McLean plans to tell her sister-in-law to switch her annual Christmas gift of a subscription to Donna Hay with a subscription to the digital edition. ''I'd still accept a cookbook as a present,'' she says, ''but I wouldn't buy a cookbook now myself. I'd download something.''
McLean is the stuff of nightmares for Australian cookbook publishers: a cookbook lover who's stopped buying cookbooks. It seems she's not the only one who's stopped, or at least slowed down. The sector that saw sales grow 35 per cent between 2008 and 2010 registered a slowdown last year. Having leapt from 1.4 million cookbook sales in 2003 to 2.08 million in 2006 and 3.6 million in 2010 - on the back of heightened food interest and that MasterChef bump - Nielsen BookScan reports numbers dropped back to 3.386 million in 2011. We haven't lost our appetite completely: that fall is less than the 7.1 per cent drop in book sales across the board and it is a cookbook, Jamie's 30-Minute Meals, that topped the overall bestseller charts last year. Yet as a buyer from Melbourne book chain Readings says, ''Sales are still ridiculously strong, but they have flatlined''.
Bearing down on the upward curve is that usual suspect, the slouchy economy. There just aren't as many people in stores. And there aren't as many stores. In February last year, REDgroup Retail went into receivership and through the year closed its 169 Angus & Robertson and 29 Borders stores, leaving publishers with fewer shelves on which to place their books.
''It was basically a 20 per cent loss in the market overnight,'' says the food publisher at Murdoch Books, Sally Webb. All this as the rising popularity of online discount booksellers pushed prices down and one-time cookbook lovers like McLean headed into the digital ether for inspiration. As one publisher puts it, ''2011 was a pretty stressful year''.
And so, like the novel and newspaper before it, rumours of the cookbook's demise at the iPad-clutching hand of progress have been swirling. Like the novel and the newspaper, the rumours might have been exaggerated.
''The cookbook isn't dead,'' says the publishing director of illustrated books for Penguin, Julie Gibbs, ''but it is challenged.''
Arguably the biggest non-author name in Australian food publishing, Gibbs has been producing beautiful cookbooks at the pointy end of the market for 24 years: Stephanie Alexander is on her books and her office shelves exhibit lavish pre-Christmas titles from Penguin's Lantern imprint such as Dinner at Matt's by Matt Moran and Cumulus Inc. from in-demand Melbourne chef Andrew McConnell. Gibbs suggests cookbooks may be victims of their own popularity. ''There are too many publishing houses thinking, 'Oh, cookbooks sell, we'll start a list and get on that bandwagon.' There are too many books for the population that's being asked to look at them, choose them, buy them and take them home.''
The major players riding that bandwagon are: Murdoch and Lantern, which continue to publish heavily at the high end ($50-$100); Hardie Grant (with big seller Margaret Fulton), pushing aggressively into the middle range ($20-$50); and Pan Macmillan, which entered the market last year with new lifestyle imprint Plum.
Encouraged by the past decade's sales, and our intense interest in food - Gibbs remembers when it was a challenge to get coriander in Sydney - just about every chef and his sous has a book out.
That's good news for consumers and mixed news for publishers. Climbing supply has met ripples in demand as shoppers cotton on to online bargain sites, and a high Australian dollar is shrinking price tags on imports. Local publishers have been forced to push prices down not only to get noticed but to compete with overseas titles. Webb says her team dropped a number of prices by between 10 per cent and 15 per cent last year - books produced with an expected sale price of $59.95 sold for $49.95.
Lower price points are being set earlier in the process - so production budgets can be properly hitched to a fixed final price - and Murdoch has reduced this year's list to just over 20 books, compared with 30 last year. Other publishers are also ''consolidating''. ''That's my reality,'' Webb says. ''I've got a smaller list of books that are expected to do better than a large list will do. We have to make the same amount of money or more from two-thirds of the number of books.''
Publishers are also carefully examining what worked and what didn't. It's obvious to most why Jamie's 30-Minute Meals sold 220,700 copies in Australia in 2011. Gibbs says it was simple: ''The words 'Jamie Oliver' plus '30 minutes'!'' But why was the debut book of Sydney patissier Adriano Zumbo a breakthrough hit with 60,000 sales worldwide while others tanked? Surely no one was actually going to make that infamous croque-en-bouche?
What makes a cookbook work depends on who you ask. The marketing manager at Murdoch, Mark Ashbridge, says ''author-led'' books are hot right now - Zumbo, Hay, Perry - while generic titles, such as ''best pizzas'', are cooling. A buyer from Melbourne independent chain Readings says being on-trend is the key. Thus, Brit-Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi's vegetarian tome, Plenty, sold an impressive 1000 copies in Readings stores last year, because vegetarianism is ''in''.
Vegetarian joins trends such as macarons, health, artisan, barbecue and foraging - led by interest in Danish world No. 1 restaurant, Noma - as bankable subjects. Personal vegie patches are in, too: Indira Naidoo's The Edible Balcony was a surprise breakthrough for Lantern, selling more than 10,000 copies and entering a second print run.
Gibbs says regardless of what's hot, the key ingredient is trust. It's why Lantern, Murdoch and, most famously, Australian Women's Weekly, brag that their recipes are thrice tested. ''That's the quintessential thing about cookbooks as a buyer, reader, cook - you only get one go,'' she says. ''If you cook a recipe out of a book and it's not successful, and you know that you've done the right thing by the recipe, then you're not going to go there again.''
Cookery's biggest sellers suggest simplicity is also important in reaching the masses. Of the top-10 non-fiction books in Australia last year, four were cookbooks: Jamie's 30-Minute Meals (220,700), Simple Dinners by Donna Hay (77,900), Fast, Fresh, Simple, also by Hay (59,300) and 4 Ingredients: Kids (51,100). Thirty minutes. Four ingredients. Fast. Fresh. And simple - times two.
McLean, who works as an integration strategist, says that while she's happy to experiment at dinner parties, it is these very qualities she looks for when Googling her more regular meals - and deciding which books to keep and which to chuck. ''I'm a mum with six children to feed and I work,'' she says. ''It's just about good quality food, prepared well, but in a time-convenient way.''
The i-range works with her lifestyle, and those developing apps are banking on their products being the best delivery method for fast, fresh and simple recipes. ''The thing about an app is that you can start with your ingredients,'' says AppBooks's Liam Campbell, who developed the iPhone app for Kim McCosker and Rachael Bermingham's popular 4 Ingredients book series. The 4 Ingredients app has a recipe builder for in-supermarket inspiration or looking through your pantry: simply enter four ingredients and the app tells you what to cook. Purchase in-app extras and you have more than 1300 edible possibilities in the palm of your hand. Campbell sees huge opportunities in the digital cookbook realm.
He is building a database of all 4 Ingredients' recipes from which niche ebooks can be quickly produced and sees a day when people may be able to log in to the database and create their own physical books. Pick and choose your recipes, even add some of your own family recipes, and simply press print (after entering your credit card details, of course.)
But Campbell has the luxury of working with daring self-publishers. The major imprints see ebooks and apps as part of the evolution of the cookbook - and an opportunity rather than an existential threat - but they are reluctant to evolve too quickly. ''With apps, we're at a little bit of a wait-and-see moment,'' says Murdoch's Ashbridge, citing cost and general uncertainty about how large or valuable the market is just now. The 4 Ingredients app has been downloaded 44,000 times since launching in April 2009, but the book series has sold 5 million copies. Murdoch has committed to hundreds of ebooks this year, but even those, with video and audio, are expensive to produce.
At Lantern, Gibbs says: ''What you're doing is trying to put a TV series and a book into one product. When those costs come down, we'll be able to do even more of it.''
But if iPad-swiping McLean is keeping publishers up at night, there's news to lull them to easier rest: Dymocks reports that 2011 pre-Christmas sales were up 25 per cent on the year before, and 2012 is already a better year for cookbooks in their stores. And then there's Colleen Gillespie.
Gillespie, 50, works for a car-rental company at Sydney Airport and cooks for her teenage son and husband each night at their home in Chifley. Long attached to her Women's Weekly Favourites cookbook, which hasn't steered her wrong for 20 years - save for one disastrously soupy bombe Alaska in the early 1990s - she got an iPad last Christmas. Like Mclean, she uses it to Google recipes; back from a trip to Bali, she quickly tracked down a good nasi goreng recipe after sifting through reader comments and star ratings. And she likes using the app Photo Cookbook, which has pictures of all ingredients and stages of a recipe. But Gillespie won't be clearing out her bookshelves any time soon. ''I can't give up the book just yet,'' she says. ''It's just the flicking of those pages that gets me. There is still something very nostalgic about cookbooks.''
Melbourne high school teacher Julia List, 28, is also cause for cookbook optimism. The tech-savvy Gen Y iPhone owner has coeliac disease and cooks for herself most nights. But she rarely Googles a recipe and never brings her devices into the kitchen. She collects books, everything from Beyond the Great Wall, a ''very political cookbook'' that features recipes from China's outlying regions, to an heirloom edition of The Joy of Cooking that contains a diagram showing the correct way to skin a squirrel.
It's the connection to her books that keeps List hitting the book stores. ''Cookbooks are beautiful objects when you get them,'' she says. ''And later, there's something about opening that favourite recipe and finding the pages stuck together and that bit of pastry on it from last time.''
It's this tactile connection with cookbooks, their beauty, new or well-used, that publishers say distinguishes physical books from a Google search or an app. For Gibbs, at Lantern, the joy of a cookbook is in the holistic experience it provides. ''If you buy one of our cookbooks you're buying a curated, carefully edited, shaped and structured experience,'' she says. ''You're not Googling a recipe. We take you to a place of vicarious enjoyment and, hopefully, real-life enjoyment.''
But the last word on the state and future of the cookbook must go to Australian cookery's grande dame, Margaret Fulton, still a hot seller after more than 40 years. At 87, Fulton has written 20 books, with more to come, and her ubiquitous The Margaret Fulton Cookbook has sold more than 1.5 million copies since its release in 1968. She even has an app, though she says the technology can make you lazy - ''Maybe I'm just old-fashioned''.
Surveying the current landscape, Fulton says there are too many cookbooks - ''Enough to fill 10 houses!'' - but that there will always be an appetite for quality tomes. ''What makes a cookery book great is knowing that the author really cares,'' she says.
''Donna Hay once told me that when she was at school she made her little brother sit in front of her in the kitchen as she pretended to be me. Any book that comes from a basis of loving something like that, those are the books I would go for.''