Cookbooks are great: You can splatter sauce on them, turn down the pages, write in the margins. However, a future in which many (if not all) books, including cookbooks, will be digital sprung into view two weeks ago. Apple’s iPad was unveiled, promising users the ability to look at full-color versions of books, whereas earlier e-readers, such as the Amazon Kindle, only displayed black-and-white text.

And how about that nasty fight between two major book publishers and Amazon over the price of e-books? Amazon wanted to continue pricing digital books lower than regular books ($9.99), but Macmillan leveraged its new partnership with Apple to get Amazon to raise e-book prices, and HarperCollins followed suit. All this tumult just goes to show that we’re clearly in the primordial stages of digital book publishing: Nobody knows what digital books will look like five years from now, or what the business model will be to support them. And one of the most interesting pieces of that mystery is the future of cookbooks.

On the face of it, the cookbook industry looks like it’s chugging away in blissful prosperity. Over the past two years, while the rest of the book publishing industry showed lackluster growth or decline, cookbook sales soared. The reason, presumably, is that in a slow economy people are cooking at home more. And yet free recipe sites like were blamed for the death of Gourmet magazine, the claim being that getting recipes for free online became commonplace. So why are people still paying for them in book form?

The healthy sales numbers are a little misleading. Cookbook publishing has been profoundly affected by digital media. And it’s about to be rocked even harder.

Here’s one way it’s changed: Before people could plug words into Google like chicken (the most popular food-search term), there existed an entire sector of cookbooks named things like 101 Great Chicken Recipes.

“We made a bundle off of single-topic books like Crêpes,” says Leslie Jonath, a former editor at Chronicle Books who does contract work for, “but we had to shift our strategy.”

The solution for Chronicle and other cookbook publishers: reposition the cookbook as, says Jonath, “coveted object.” The result: a new paradigm for cookbooks, like the recent Momofuku and Ad Hoc at Home, which are more like art books you’d show off on your coffee table. Publishers’ survival strategy lies in the idea that this type of cookbook gives you an escapist experience that’s quite separate from the workaday nature of an online recipe search.

“A friend of mine typifies where things are going,” says Will Schwalbe, founder and CEO of Cookstr, a site that offers free recipes from famous chefs. “The same day the $400 worth of gorgeous cookbooks he bought arrived, that evening he went to the Web for a recipe to cook that night. He goes through the cookbooks for inspiration and pleasure, but he goes to the Web to figure out what to cook that evening.”

But publishers can’t really survive on expensive books alone. They have to find a way to incorporate the digital marketplace into their approach. So far, they’ve used social networking sites like Scribd to promote an author or form communities of interest around a particular book. Lynn Andriani, senior editor at Publishers Weekly and author of the column Cooking the Books, suggests that cookbook publishers try an iTunes pricing approach, charging 99 cents per recipe download. If the cookbook author or series was famous enough, people would be willing to pay, suggests Andriani.

The problem is that, at the moment, publishing contracts with authors and authors’ agents often don’t permit publishers to chop up a book’s content and repurpose it in another form, like, say, an online recipe database.

“I would be a lot stricter about those kinds of rights,” says Katherine Cowles, a literary agent who represents high-end projects like Tartine, the cookbook from the famous bakery in San Francisco. “You have no control on how the production turns out. … My authors’ books are deeply considered: the design, the pacing, the photography, the concept-crafting—even the type of paper.”

Digital books have not yet developed a successful business model. Magazines and newspapers, and their digital versions (including, make money off selling advertising, but traditional book publishing has made money off selling the thing itself. Online, consumers are used to media—including recipes—being cheap or free.

“We’ve talked about creating a searchable database of all of [Joy of Cooking’s] recipes” that would be password-protected and subscription-based, says Joy editor Maggie Green, “but that’s still some years off.” (Scribner, which publishes the best-selling Joy of Cooking, is a division of Simon & Schuster, which, like, is owned by CBS.)

Green says there aren’t any immediate plans to offer Joy through Apple’s iBooks store. “Joy is not going to make any moves until things get figured out,” says Green. “We’re going through a huge seismic shift, and I think people are—afraid isn’t really the right word—but cautious to make sure they make the right move.”

Apple has indicated that it will let publishers set the price of their e-books, and it will take a 30 percent cut of the sale. Google is considering the same model for its proposed e-book store. Until the recent showdown with Amazon, customers were used to paying $9.99 or less for digital books. It will be interesting to see if, when confronted with an iBooks marketplace with prices closer to those of new print releases, consumers will buy.

If they do buy, they have a right to expect a different experience than reading a hard-copy version of the same book. After all, the iPad plays video and connects to the Internet. There is no reason why publishers couldn’t let readers see a video of the author showing how to make the recipe being read. Except for the fact that book publishers haven’t given any indication that they’re creating content like that. Yet.

Then there’s mobile. People now use their phones to check ingredients for a recipe while they’re in the grocery store, to find a restaurant, and to figure out how to substitute whole-wheat flour for white. To date, publishers have been slow to create applications for mobile devices. But they may be forced to re-evaluate their priorities.

And that’s where media as we know it really gets thrown for a loop: If book publishers start creating videos for their e-books, and meanwhile people are watching food TV on the same Internet-connected devices they’re using to view those e-books and also searching for recipes online on those devices, what’s the difference in the user’s mind between any of this content? At that point, it’s all just stuff you see on your screen.

Bruce Shaw of the Harvard Common Press said it best: He no longer calls himself a publisher, but rather a “content entrepreneur.”

And yet despite these monumental changes in the way recipes are being bought and sold and accessed, some things will never change. You still need to figure out what to make for dinner. And you’ll probably still plug the word chicken into Google.

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