Chronicle Books To Roll Out Cookbook-based Apps

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Lorena Jones became publishing director of Chronicle Books last fall, and she’s focusing on the newest part of her  job: developing dynamic digital content for mobile applications, enhanced e-boooks, and iPads.

The former publisher of Ten Speed, Jones worked at Ten Speed for 15 years. Now she’s going digital and embracing the learning curve.

“Five of us here are trying to learn all this stuff at warp speed,” she said. “We work super collaboratively.” Jones has done about a dozen deals since January, including six iPhone apps and 3 iPad apps. She calls the products “suites.”

She’s developing her talent pool, working with both established Chronicle authors and new writers excited about digital media. “I think of it like the Matrix. I think about what authors know in a 360 degree perspective. How can that knowledge be developed and expanded and rendered in video, audio, an interactive game or a quiz?”

All the big publishing houses are busy developing and producing electronic apps. Ten Speed, for example, made the app for David Lebovitz. Publishers are deciding how much they want to invest and experiment, said Jones. It’s an intriguing issue, since apps sell for just a few dollars compared to a hard-cover cookbook, which typically retail for $25-$35. Publishers need sales in the hundreds of thousands to make the investment add up.

For now, Chronicle is content to experiment. Some of the process is familiar, mirroring producing a book, Jones says. She gets involved at the acquisitions stage, determining whether a book has digital potential. She’s attracted to reference and tool-based books, so cookbooks are a natural. She decides whether the author is suited to the project, and maps out the deliverables and a production schedule.

At this point, since the technology is new, Chronicle plays a big part in imagining and producing the content. Chronicle produces app pieces in-house that cookbook authors have never heard of, she said, like  “a shopping cart with an aggregated shopping list, provided in an Excel spreadsheet.” It is used to create an interactive grocery shopping list, based on recipes the user selects.

For a recipe app, Jones might narrow down a cookbook to 35 essential recipes. Headnotes must be edited or recast for the screen. She identifies opportunities for additional learning moments, such as videos that appear as sidebars. She thinks about what would make more sense as a video versus text, such as whipping egg whites or making caramel.  She coaches the author on how to write a script for the audio in these videos, then the author records the media in a studio, with a producer.

What if writers have ideas for a digital content? “They just have to articulate their thoughts, not create a full-fledged proposal.”

I asked why techie authors should work with publishers versus try to create this content on their own as entrepreneurs. At this point  they get a lot of hand-holding, said Jones. She feels there is an advantage in Chronicle ‘s vendor relationships. I’d add that the publisher provides some marketing support, a distribution method, and Chronicle pays writers to create digital content.

So what do authors need to do to be attractive in this new medium? “Authors have to learn to work in the video medium,” Jones said.  While some can communicate well in audio, it’s not for everybody. But you don’t have to be Giada, she said. Not yet. “We’re not so focused on entertainment quality, more like PBS at this stage.”

What should food writers do to step up their skills? “Get familiar with the devices and the way people are consuming content on them,” she advised. “Everyone should have a smart phone where you can buy and use apps. Have access to an e-reader. We’re all going to know someone who has an iPad. Play around with them, see what you like about them. You will start having those thoughts: this part of what I know would make a great app. ”

What if you’re not interested in developing digital content? Jones is reassuring. “There’s always going to be a market for books, and the digital products we’re making are not replacements,” she said. “There are books that should not have digital products for them, particularly single subject or trendy books.” Asked for an example, she said she didn’t need an app based on 50 gingerbread cookies.

As for me, I just got my first smart phone and spent 15 minutes yesterday trying to type a Twitter message on the super-sensitive Apple keypad. I have a long way to go. I have yet to download the cooking and food apps and play with them, but I’ll get there.

What about you? Are you downloading apps and seeing how they work? Are you fantasizing about your own app or already working on one? Or are you thinking you’ll stick with just type for now? Let’s discuss.


  1. says

    Great article Dianne and so timely! I’ve had an iPhone for more than a year, have some of the food apps and now have an iPad which I’m using in my kitchen – and I’ve had a Kindle for more than a year as well. I like reading my news on the iPad and can see the benefit of having, say a food magazine to flip through, mark, cut/paste/flag/save recipes I want to make rather than print or keep stacks of magazines everywhere until I’m ready to use them. I still love my books/cookbooks but I also believe both can co-exist.

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks! That seems like a reasonable attitude, Debra. Lorena seems to think both can co-exist as well.

  2. Karen D says

    Wow! This just starts the wheels turning. Imagine how many things that we use as “hardware” that we could adapt to “software/apps” and what that would mean to marketing and creativity! I can see another chapter in your next edition already taking shape on the keyboard! I’d best get an iPhone or iPad so I can keep up…

    • diannejacob says

      Yes, I finally got caught up on blogging in the new edition, and now I am behind on apps! It’s hopeless. Glad it got you thinking, Karen.

  3. says

    It’s so nice to see that my tech background is suddenly coming in very handy! When I first started out in food writing, I thought it was a complete contradiction to my decade working in IT and programming. Turns out it’s a perfect pair. :)

    Re: applications themselves, I’ve had an iPhone for years now and I’m only partially into cooking apps. There are a few I use regularly – Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, a gluten free foods app, and a kitchen calculator app. I have David’s app and it’s very well done, though I go to it more for inspiration than anything else.

    For me, an app needs to be more than recipes and/or a shopping list feature. It needs to offer something that I’d need to reference regularly, such as the calculator or the app that reminds me what foods are safe to eat.

    • diannejacob says

      That’s a good point, otherwise I guess it’s more of a novelty item. Although I guess we all have many cookbooks that we don’t go to regularly.

      David’s app is not a cookbook — I should have mentioned that.

      And yes, how lucky for you that all that techiness has its place. Although having worked with geeks (and being married to one), I must say that they tend to see the world as filled with people as geek-centric as they are. Kind of like people who love to cook who think everyone else knows what they know. You seem to combine the best of both, Stephanie.

      • says

        Thanks for the shout-out about my app. Yes, as you mentioned, it’s not a cookbook or just a collection of recipes; it’s photos, appearances, social media streams, blog links, my books, in addition to the recipes. I tend to think about it as another facet of what I do, which includes my books and the blog, as Stephanie rightly pointed out. It’s a free app to download, and while the publisher was wise (and kind) enough to set it up, I’ve been considering what other directions it should take in the future.

        Lorena and other forward-thinking publishers are wise to get on the stick with these things, but the big question is how to support them in the long-run. It seems to me that Mark Bittman’s app is for a different audience than his book; which benefits everyone. In the long run, it will be interesting to see how this evolves.

        • diannejacob says

          Yours is quite different than the average cookbook app, and it makes sense that it is free, as it is a promotional tool for you, your blog and books.

          I’m curious about why you think Bittman’s app is for a different audience than his book. I would think they are the same.

          Yes, I’m not sure how support will work. I didn’t ask Lorena about promotion. Maybe that’s another post.

          • says

            Scrolling through an app is different than leafing through a book. I think it’s just a visceral thing and there will always be people that want a book with paper pages, and then there’s the others that appreciate the celerity and brevity of an app. And those are two different kinds of cooks, which is why the book was a hit as a bound book and will likely be a hit as an app. I just think people cooking from apps have a different mindset.

          • diannejacob says

            I defer to your knowledge, oh Wise One, because I am just now downloading apps and starting to use them. We old-school print people are slow learners.

          • Lyndsay says

            Wow is all I can say. I don’t necessarily like to consider myself an old-school print person- I use the internet for recipes, research, etc. daily. Previously scheduled my work and personal life, checked email and read books on my hand held, to name a few things, but I gave it up when I did a career change to culinary 6 years ago.

            I struggle to stay on top of the daily changing tech world. Seems all this forces us to be glued to our iPhone/equivalent, or computer, While the apps and direction things are moving is kindof fun/exciting, I’m curious to hear other people’s thoughts on my comments. Isn’t all this really making our lives more crazy? What am I missing?

          • diannejacob says

            It may be crazy, but it’s where the world is headed. Amazon just announced it sold more books on Kindle than it did in print in the second quarter.

  4. says

    Publishers need sales in the hundreds of thousands to make a profit?? I don’t think so. If it sells for $9.99, and it sells 100k copies, that’s a million in revenue, on what, a $10k investment? $20k? $30k if you’re going all out? So to break even, she’s saying that CB is laying out something north of $500k to make a simple cooking app? These numbers make no sense.

    • diannejacob says

      Hi Eric,

      I came up with these numbers, not Lorena. That was my own editorial comment. First of all, I assume the apps will sell for half or less than $9.99, so that’s only $.5 million in gross revenue, based on those numbers. Factor in the employees who work on the app, the studio time, the equipment, the small fee they pay the writer (I’m just sayin’), and…hey, it still sounds like a pretty good return on investment — but who knows how many copies CB will sell? Maybe they’d be happy if the app sold only 10,000 copies.

  5. says

    Eric’s question is a great one. I would love to hear more from the publisher about their targets and the kind of return they require to make this profitable. Doesn’t the iTunes store also take a massive % of any profits?

    • diannejacob says

      Here’s what Lorena said in an email to me: “The short answer to Eric’s question may be an unsatisfying one: the ROI expectations will be different for every publisher, based on how each company views the investment (Is it an investment in promotion and sales instead of spending on industry or consumer advertising? Or in expanding revenue? Or both?) iTunes’ does not take a massive cut (at least not at this point in time). Authors can monitor that by perusing the iTunes terms for developers.”

  6. says

    Dainne –

    Timely as always. My friend Pat, who wrote The Asian Grandmother’s Cookbook just produced a great app on asian ingredients called Asian Ingredients 101. It really got me thinking about what kind of apps I was looking for. I have an iTouch and I use Bitman’s app, Martha Stewart Everday (you get a recipe idea everyday,) a couple of grocery list apps which I use regularly, Epicurious (although limited recipes), Food Network (again limited recipes, more of a TV listing), and Open Table to look for book reservations. I also have Food Spotting but in Cleveland there isn’t alot to see so might work better in other locations. I love my Kindle on my iTouch and read fiction on it. Still want a hard copy reference for food and non fiction. I think at $.99 a pop it would take a while to make your million although I amsure production costs are much less than full blown software and hard cover books.

    • diannejacob says

      Good for Pat! I didn’t know about her app.

      You use a lot of apps, Lisa. Kindle, it seems to me, is more for books previously published in print. Maybe that will change soon.

  7. says

    Love this topic and loved your exchange with David on how audiences differ from ap to ap and from cookbook to ap. But what I have to add is more practical. I’ve tried a few grocery shopping iPhone aps and most of them annoy me because of the rigid way you have to make lists and the aps’ lack of crossover from device to device. But is fantastic. I keep running lists for multiple grocery stores (Whole Foods, Safeway, Trader Joe’s) and can work off of my iPhone or desktop. It’s also really easy to reorganize a list once I’ve made it, a feature missing from other aps I’ve tried. The site permits e-nagging: It will email my husband reminders and task lists (i.e., “Please bring me a huge yogurt from Fraiche and a chocolate chip cookie. Thanks! Love you.”) And the family access means my husband doesn’t have to remember the grocery list when he goes to the store. He just opens his Cozi ap and checks off the boxes as he forages. I am in no way affiliated with Cozi, just impressed with its efficient use of multiple technologies. And the e-nagging is pretty brilliant.

  8. says

    Hi Dianne: I’m a longtime lurker and this is my first comment. I think as an author or personality in the food world, it’s definitely to one’s advantage to get involved in apps and mobile content. I run a food blog in Mexico City and offer food tours here, and I’ve pushed around some vague ideas of doing an iPhone app related to Mexican food.

    So many people are looking to their phones/readers for content these days, it seems like a no-brainer that I’d want to get involved somehow. The question is figuring out a way repurpose and/or amplify the content into something useful and user-friendly. (Many apps still suck at being intuitive, as Melissa mentioned above.) I love the idea behind David’s app because he’s branched out from recipes to include blog links and social media streams. (Going to go download his app now, actually.)

    As far as my app usage goes, I’m a big fan of apps that simplify my life. I use iTransNYC when I’m visiting New York, to help me get around on the subway. The Tip Calculator app is a godsend. I also recently downloaded WholeFoods’ Recipe app and picked out three dishes I’d like to make in the next few weeks. I don’t think the apps make my life crazier at all — they’re actually quite helpful.

    • diannejacob says

      So the question is how to move forward, Lesley, and with or without a publisher. I’ll tackle this subject again soon from an entrepreneurial standpoint.

      Thanks for commenting! I hope you will do it again soon.

  9. says

    I just put up a post of my favorite iPhone food apps on my blog.
    I agree with Stephanie’s comment that apps need to offer more then recipes and shopping lists, though having an expansive recipe database like Epicurious on my phone is wonderful. I like Ruhlman’s Ratio app, I think he took full advantage of the platform- though adding more photos would have improved the experience.
    My favorite apps are the ones that help me make smarter choices about the foods I buy like the Seafood Watch Guide or Center for Food Safety Shopper’s Guide to help stay away from Genetically Modified Foods.

    Though I find these apps helpful they will never replace a well-made cookbook. I treasure my cookbook collection, especially the ones that offer a cultural or historical context. I will not be “curling up in bed” with a good app anytime soon.

    • diannejacob says

      I’m with you! No curling up in bed with an app. But they are moving in and may become the major way we look at what to do with food.

      Great post about apps. Thanks for letting me know.

      Interesting that most of the comments here are on which apps people use, not on whether they would ever write one.