‘A big following doesn’t make you a food writer’: What makes a hit cookbook in 2024?

It’s essentially a tiny hole on a golf course and you hit 1,000 balls hoping that one will go in.” Kitty Coles, the recipe writer and food stylist, is describing to me the landscape of modern cookbook publishing, a field dominated by buzzwords such as “30-minute”, “gluten-free” and “air-frying”. Much like in the world of fiction books, a few bestsellers carry the entire industry. “If you’re a small-time author, it’s such a big competition,” she continues. “You have to stick with your guns and go with it, though, rather than think about what everyone else will like.”

But what makes a cookbook sell in 2024? Is it TV fame? A pre-existing Instagram following? The words “Pinch of Nom” slapped on it? It is, after all, impossible to discuss today’s bestselling cookbooks without mentioning the Pinch of Nom empire. Created by partners Kate Allinson and Kay Featherstone, the brand began as a Facebook group, then a website, then a cookbook phenomenon – their first book of simple slimming recipes sold more than 210,000 copies in its first week of publication alone. To put that into perspective, Jamie Oliver’s 2005 book Jamie’s Italy sold 154,000 copies in its first week.

Eleanor Maxfield, publisher at Quarto, believes the pair’s success is down to their gradual curation of a close-knit community of fans – and it’s this that has transformed how much of the publishing industry thinks of cookbooks. “They have a strong Facebook following, and you wouldn’t think of it as being bigger than Instagram, but it can be a lot more engaged and personal,” she says. “They’re impressive in the way that they speak to their audience. They give them what they want, and the books keep selling.” Maxfield also draws comparisons to the profit-making cookbook series Bored of Lunch, which drives sales through its bold covers and cosy branding.

But are big sales the only measure of success? For Tom Jackson, whose debut cookbook Cool Pasta came out in March, to “do well” means different things to different people. “For the accountant it’s [all about] sales, but it’s also about raising your profile to open other doors.” Jackson tells me that an online presence will speed up the prospect of a book deal. “They’re happening a lot earlier in people’s careers than they used to, and I think that’s because of the rise of big social media followings.”

Big followings, though, don’t necessarily translate to cookbook hall-of-fame status. Coles believes a problem with cookbooks from newer voices is that they are too London-centric – esoteric ingredients take centre stage, despite many readers outside the capital potentially not having access to them. “A popular cookbook is cooking for Sue from Swindon, who only has a Tesco near her and maybe a Polish shop. You want her – as well as Fred in Hackney – to be able to cook your recipes.”

In the introduction to her debut cookbook, Make More with Less – in which she shares ways to use up everyday leftovers – Coles writes that you won’t find recipes inside with à la mode ingredients such as harissa, nduja or miso. “I’m still banging on about onions and leeks,” she says. “I’ve probably written over 1,000 recipes and worked on 50 cookbooks, and every single one I’m fighting around London trying to buy these ingredients.”

Ella Chappell, senior commissioning editor at Nourish Books, says that the industry is all about novelty right now – niche ideas and undiscovered food communities. Take the success of Pasta Grannies. “Social media has allowed these undiscovered people – grannies in the hills of southern Italy – to have more reach than they ever had in history,” she says. “You don’t need to be a classically trained chef, you can just share recipes which have been passed down from generations. People value that authenticity.”

I don’t think the rise in social media will be the death of cookbooks. I’ll read a cookbook for inspiration and then I’ll find a technique in a video and that might convert to what I’ll be cooking later that day

Tom Jackson

Eve Marleau, commissioning editor at Hardie Grant, tells me that while TV chefs will always sell due to their familiarity, the industry has moved on somewhat, eager to find new voices who can offer everyday accessibility. But she’s also noticed the rise in books that do the opposite – expensive, attractive items made as much for coffee table glam as they are for recipes. “In recent years there’s been more value placed on aesthetics, which has created additional longevity,” says Marleau. “Years ago you’d find cookbooks in a bookshop, but now you’re seeing them in places like Oliver Bonas and COS. Tate Modern even has a whole cookbook section. It’s encouraging, and testament to how expansive cookbooks can be.”

But are cookbooks really considered an essential purchase at a time in which people are more cash-strapped than ever? With an expanding glut of recipes to be found for free online, it’s tempting to pause before proceeding to the checkout. If I like the look of a recipe on Instagram, I’ll “save” it, so it’s stored for when I plan my meals. But when it comes to actually recreating these recipes – many of which are delivered via rapidly paced videos – it can be far from relaxing. “It’s stressful,” says Chappell. “You need that space away from the internet so you can do it at your own pace. And you don’t have to touch your phone with greasy fingers.”

Free recipes also present big problems for those working in cookbooks, Coles tells me. “I’m sort of stuck because it’s the way I’ve always made money,” she says. Before a recipe site like Mob started a premium tier for paid subscribers, “they were literally generating free content,” she adds. “I found that hard because I’m trying to make a living out of it. Why would people pay for cookbooks that I create when they can just access free content online?”

A celebrity chef like Jamie Oliver may be a household name, but he’s been usurped on the book front by the likes of Pinch of Nom (Getty Images)

For Coles’s own recipes, she never shares them with her 68,000-strong online following – instead she presents beautiful imagery of her food, then encourages viewers to buy her book to find out the methods behind them. “If I was giving away recipes for the last three years, then what would be the point in buying my book?” she laughs. “Imagine if a clothing company was giving away free clothes and then suddenly [said] ‘we’ve got this new collection where you have to buy it.’ It’s an interesting point in food writing at the moment.”

Jackson, however, argues that it’s not as cut and dry as “cookbook versus internet”. “These days you’ll find the two go hand in hand. A book will be released, and it’ll be accompanied by a video series. I don’t think the rise in social media will be the death of cookbooks. I’ll read a cookbook for inspiration and then I’ll find a technique in a video and that might convert to what I’ll be cooking later that day.” Digital and print can co-exist rather than operate against one another, Jackson says, helping recipe makers navigate a saturated market, and bolster brand identity.

And fundamentally, the cookbook still exists as a status symbol for a food writer. “It’s still the dream, whether you work in social media or kitchens,” says Jackson. “It still has a huge weight from decades of cookery writing. Those tomes that your mum had on her shelf – there’s a romance to them that I think will take a long time to disappear. I don’t know what that looks like in 10 or 20 years, but ticking off that box is a huge milestone for me.”

Kitty Coles’s ‘Make More with Less’ and Tom Jackson’s ‘Cool Pasta’ are among the cookbooks that have hit shelves in recent months (Hardie Grant)

However, sustainability issues remain: with so many titles printed each year and so few making it big, not to mention spiralling production costs (food and props for shoots and shipping costs have shot up in recent years), what does the future hold for cookbooks? “We just need 10 to come out a year and it’ll be amazing,” jokes Coles. “I do feel like it should be a smaller, special thing. There are definitely a few I’ve worked on for people who have six million followers, but the recipes don’t work because a big following doesn’t mean you’re a great recipe writer – it’s a whole other job. I don’t think cookbooks should be so fluid and expected from everyone.”

Maxfield believes people will always cherish and respect printed books, with a feeling of nostalgia similar to the revival of vinyl. But it isn’t a market stuck in the past, either. “It’s not a case of everybody buying old books,” she says. “There’s brilliant, fresh new talent coming out every day, across all generations. In terms of the demand and the ways forward it can go, it’s really exciting.”

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