How Food Influencers Sharpen Their Brands: Print Cookbooks
Digital food creators are turning to cookbooks to continue their success in a social media landscape where short-form videos and witty voiceovers dominate.
TikTok star Nadia Caterina Munno, known as “The Pasta Queen,” published her first cookbook on Nov. 8 with Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books; as of Nov. 17, the book has reached the No. 5 position in the New York Times best-seller list in the advice and how-to category.
Chef Joshua Weissman, who has 7 million subscribers on YouTube and more than 6 million on TikTok, parleyed his online popularity into An Unapologetic Cookbook, which was published in Sept. 2021 with DK and nabbed a top spot on the New York Times best-seller list shortly after its debut in the same category for cookbooks, securing a spot in the list for a total of 9 weeks.
Joanne Lee Molinaro, TikTok creator (@thekoreanvegan), also released her own cookbook with Penguin Random House imprint Avery. She also won a coveted James Beard media prize . earlier this year.
Although traditional publishing houses have collaborated with online authors for books in a variety genres, including memoir, fiction, and non-fiction, the rapid rise in short-form content has prompted an increase of dealmaking beyond the screen according to agents and publishing executives who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter.
“I’ve been selling a lot of cookbooks and it’s been glorious,” Brandi Bowles, a literary agent at UTA, says. “There are many new buyers who suddenly seem like, ‘Oh! We’re doing cookbooks too.’ Everyone’s trying hard to catch up to this runaway train.”
It wasn’t so long ago that digital creators had trouble landing book deals with publishers. Ali Berman, partner and head of digital talent at UTA, remembers that when Bowles first joined the agency in 2017, the two faced several roadblocks in getting a digital creator a book deal, especially in the food space.
Berman, who represents Weissman says that publishers as a whole — regardless of whether they’re traditional print publishing or digital publishing — need to be open to new creative voices. “I would pick up the phone and call Brandi to say, ‘I have a client who wants to do a cookbook.’ She’d then tell me, ‘It’s going really hard [to obtain] that kind of book for people who are creating their content directly to their audience.’ It’s amazing to see how the ecosystem evolved and matured.
Bowles believes that the pandemic sparked a “gold rush” for cookbooks by digital creators. As publishing executives, who spend more time on TikTok during quarantines and are more familiar with the digital space and its rising stars, Bowles says the pandemic was a catalyst for a new generation of cookbook authors.
In the past year, HarperCollins — whose library of food authors now includes YouTube star Andrew Rea (Binging With Babish) and TikTok creator Tabitha Brown alongside chefs like Jose Andres and Jacques Pepin and established cookbook authors like Dorie Greenspan and Mark Bittman — said 35 percent of its cookbook acquisitions have come from digital talent. (HarperCollins union members have been on strike since Nov. 10, as they negotiate with leadership over benefits and pay. )
“It’s been somewhat slow,” Deborah Brody, editor and vp for HarperCollins Harvest, comments of the shift to digital talent in the food publishing industry. “It definitely started 15 years ago with food bloggers, but it’s much faster now.
People can build a platform much faster.
Digital food creators have turned to cookbooks as a way to express themselves and experiment with new recipes. “After working in video for so many years, I was amazed at how different this is. What can I do to provide real value? I’m a very flamboyant person. I throw my hands all over the place and I yell at people all the time in my videos. Weissman laughs, “How do I shout at people through books?” “I enjoyed the creative challenge and was less concerned about the sales at the beginning. It was a mystery to me how it would turn out.”
Danni rose , is the creator . She shares her Southern-inspired cooking on YouTube and TikTok. Initially, she was hesitant about working on a physical book, as she had previously had success with e-books and continued with her online content. Rose realized that she wanted to continue the tradition of recipe sharing with younger generations, and provide more space for underrepresented authors in traditional cookbook space.
Rose, who is represented UTA, said that she wanted to be able “to be able” to buy something for her daughter and grandchildren. It’s about inviting more people into this culinary space, especially Black people, to cook the cookbooks they have kind of pushed aside.
Rose will continue to make lifestyle videos and cooking videos online, but she would welcome the chance to write a cookbook and expand her career in a more traditional setting. (Rose’s Danni’s Juke Joint Comfort food will be released in September 2023. )
She says, “If you give us something we want to see again, eat, and read, we will definitely take part in it.” This is something new for me. I can publish an e-book that will sell well, but this one is going to be more interesting. It will be more difficult — it has been more difficult — and I like that.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.