Who Buys Cookbooks and Why?

Share:Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on Tumblr
Women buyers still predominate cookbook buying. And look! She’s already got her credit card out.

If you’re a cookbook author or hoping to become one soon, do you know who would want to buy your cookbook and why?

Adam Solomone, associate publisher of Harvard Common Press, answered this question for attendees at the recent IACP conference, where he gave a slide presentation of data collected by Nielsen, in conjunction with several North American publishers. Answers came from a core group of 2500 cookbook purchasers, a subset of 80,000 book buyers, based on the the last book they bought.

Here are the top findings:

1. Sixty-five percent of all cookbook buyers are women. You’re probably not surprised. Most buyers are college-educated. About half read blogs and discuss cookbooks with others.

2. Thirty-three percent said they bought the cookbook on impulse, either by discovering it online or in a store. Another 24 percent said they bought it because they looked through it and liked it, which implies they saw a physical copy. Indeed, when asked how they discovered the book, the highest percentage said it was displayed in a bookstore (23%).

3. Buyers are most interested in general categories of cooking, baking, and food and health. Other categories of interest were

  • Kitchen gardening (31%)
  • Home entertaining (28%)
  • Canning and preserving (22%)
  • Urban farming (15 %) and
  • Table setting (14%).

Regarding which cuisines they like to cook, respondents want to make

  • American food (86%)
  • Italian food (70%)
  • Desserts (56%)
  • Seafood (48%)
  • Southwestern/Tex-Mex (42%) and
  • Mexican/Central American (39%) dishes.

Gluten free and vegan brought up the rear with 6 percent interest each.

4. These folks only buy a few cookbooks a year, and most are for themselves. Thirty-nine percent bought between one and three cookbooks in the last year. Only 12 percent bought four or more. While most buy cookbooks for themselves (70%), the remaining 30 percent are gift purchases, nearly twice the percentage of regular books bought as gifts.

5. Half said they cook at least once a week. They were not asked if they cook more often than that. The next largest group, 26 percent, said they cook once per month or less.

6. The top factor that influenced them to buy the cookbook was easy recipes (60%). Other reasons were:

  • Recipes match my and my family’s tastes (48%)
  • Variety of recipes (48%)
  • Step-by-step instructions (47%)
  • Ingredients are easy to find (47%)
  • Recipes are healthy (44%)
  • They wanted the cookbook for their collection (39%), and
  • The cookbook was a great value (37%).

Surprisingly, when asked if “lots of color photographs of food” were a buying factor, only 21 percent said photos influenced their purchase decision. So many authors panic when their book deals do not include photography — now they can relax. If you’re worried about good book reviews, only 5 percent said they mattered. And if you’re concerned about the jacket description or testimonials, only 3 percent said they mattered.

7. Print is not dead. When asked where they got ideas on what to cook, respondents said they still read cooking magazines (64%), other magazines (61%) and newspapers (58%). However, the majority (69%) discover and use recipes from free online sites (69%) and print cookbooks (65%).

8. They recognized top brands, but not necessarily the ones you think. Betty Crocker was the most recognized cookbook brand (44%), AARP magazine was the most recognized magazine (24%), and Allrecipes.com was the most recognized website (25%).

9. Most cookbook buyers use social media and read blogs. Some 49 percent said they read or used recipes from blogs. While 34 percent said they do not use a social media networking site, that means 66 percent do so. They like Facebook (62%). If they’re finding recipes on Facebook, that should make you nervous. See this post about Facebook pages that cut and paste rccipes.

10. Online cookbooks have a way to go. Only 16 percent of cookbooks bought are ebooks, and only 11 percent of respondents said they read cookbooks on mobile phones.

Caveats: This study was conducted in 2012, and the 2500 recipients could only select an answer that was already provided. Nielsen is undertaking a new study, related to this market data. For more information about the study, or if you’re interested in participating in the next one, contact Charles Friscia at Nielsen at Charles.Friscia@nielsen.com. 

What do you think of these findings? Are you surprised by any of them? Intrigued?

(Photo courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)


  1. says

    26% said they cook less than once a month?!! That’s scary.
    Even though I love my ereader, the heft of a good cookbook in my hand cannot be replaced so I’m still a sucker for cookbooks & buy often. However, I do try to justify my purchases (many years of Catholic guilt has been instilled in me) by cooking at least 4-5 things from each purchase.

    • diannejacob says

      You are way over the average in that regard, Amanda. The average cookbook buyer tries about 2 recipes. They must not be Catholic?

      I’m with you. I’m still not into electronic cookbooks.

  2. says

    I attended this session, Dianne, and at first when Adam started reading out statistics I thought to myself “Oh no, this isn’t going to be either interesting or informative at all.” But I stuck around and am glad I did. When one actually thinks through these stats and puts them all together, they are quite interesting and absolutely useful when thinking about the ideas for cookbooks (or books about food) that are floating around in my head.

    When I think about what cookbooks I would actually want to write, I admit that I would write something that I as a cookbook buyer would want to purchase. I assume many cookbook writers do this? So having these stats actually helps my (our) focus a bit more clearly and sensibly.

    I am like Amanda in that I so prefer my books, whether novels or cookbooks, in book form, not as ebooks (although I might purchase Nancy Baggett’s). But then I use cookbook for reading pleasure, research and inspiration much more often than for actual cooking, although that has been changing lately. Thanks for getting this down in black and white!

    • diannejacob says

      Yes, definitely, people write books they would like to read. Sometimes that’s a bad thing, if their interests represent too small a group. But often we write to learn more about a subject that interests us.

      I also read cookbooks for pleasure. I think that is true of the respondents as well, since they don’t seem to cook all that often.

  3. says

    I was at this session too, and the other thing that surprised me about these findings was that most cookbook buyers don’t have children (it was more than half, I think) and that when they buy on impulse they’re 1.5 times more likely to buy a cookbook than any other type of book, even fiction. I suspect there’s an aspirational quality to the lure of a cookbook–how many times have people bought cookbooks (myself included) and then perhaps not used it immediately? I always find them useful, eventually; I sort of treat them as reference books.

    I have books I use regularly and have cooked a whole lot from (Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Every Day comes to mind; I think I’ve made 1/3 of those recipes since the book came out two years ago), and there are those that are great for reference, and for thumbing through, and research/context purposes for things I am interested in writing about in terms of cookbooks. Thanks for this recap!

    • diannejacob says

      Hi Carrie, thanks for adding these findings. Fascinating! I don’t know what to make of the childless statistic, other than perhaps these people have more time to cook. Re buying on impulse and aspiration, I bet many people buy them for pleasure and never cook out of it. We food writers are guilty of this as well. As you said, sometimes cookbooks are best as references.

      I guess the bottom line is that we don’t mind what people do with cookbooks, as long as they buy them!

  4. says

    It would be interesting to know the demographics of this survey, in particular, the ethnic breakdown of those surveyed. With current trend interests bursting towards ethnic foods and new flavors I was surprised that this category not even be included. It would also be interesting to get a pulse in the cookbook interests of the millennial group, if they have begun to purchase cookbooks and if there is any projection within that market. I found it curious since photography is so essential in food blogging, and many buyers read blogs, that the photography component did not seem to carry over in the survey. My question on that would be if cookbook sales actually match evenly with that answer. Very interesting and informative. Thank you Dianne.

    • diannejacob says

      Hmm. Good point, Peggy. Maybe the organizers will include this in the next survey. I too was surprised about the interest in American food. But then immigrants and people who grew up eating other kinds of food often want to learn to cook it.

      Wouldn’t it be great if someone with access to sales figures could figure out whether books with fewer photographs sell? I’d want to know that too.

  5. says

    I use an e-reader for a lot of my reading, but not cookbooks! I love to see them on my shelf, and make notes in the margins. To me, a cookbook needs a physical presence.

    I’m surprised at how many people said they cook once a month or less. But it doesn’t surprise me they they buy cookbooks; I admit I have some that I’ve only made 1 or 2 recipes from, and probably some that I haven’t used at all. I buy them as much for the reading experience as anything, although I think it would be a great project to cook my way through one or two.

    • diannejacob says

      Yes, that was interesting, considering that they are cookbook buyers. But then my father-in-law loved cooking shows and he never cooked anything. Perhaps the value of entertainment is higher than we think.

      I can’t imagine cooking my way through an entire cookbook, but as we know, people have done it and benefitted handsomely.

  6. says

    Like the colour photography stat. I’m reminded of the largely picture free books that I learned to cook from. Photography is a big expense that first time cookbook writers often have to assume. I also balk at the idea that the cost of photography can exceed the cost of writing.

    I wonder what publishers think of cookbooks with few to no photos?

    Thanks Dianne

    • diannejacob says

      It does seem the norm to want and get lots of photography. More and more publishers are making authors pay for it out of their advances. Certainly not every cookbook qualifies for them, but it seems to be standard now.

  7. says

    Add me to the list of people shocked that 26% of cookbook buyers cook once/month or less! Thanks so much for sharing this summary, Diane – as someone who is just transitioning from amateur to professional food writer, it’s been immensely helpful to have well-informed sources like yourself sharing “insider” information like this. :)

    I was looking at the IACP membership options a while back and found myself waffling about the benefits of joining. I’d love to hear your (and others’) thoughts on the benefits of membership for bloggers, food witers, and recipe developers early on in their careers.

    • diannejacob says

      That statistic just goes to show you that people don’t necessarily cook out of cookbooks, which we already knew. That’s okay. I have many cookbooks in that category, and I enjoy looking through them and getting ideas or simply learning.

      I am a big supporter of IACP. I have met people who have become dear friends over the years, I have found new clients, and I love the access to many accomplished people. It is not unusual to see luminaries like Jacques Pepin wandering the halls with an official bag over his shoulder, and Julia Child came for years. I always learn something in the sessions, and I return to work feeling inspired.

  8. says

    Hi Dianne, I wrote an article on “Why We Collect Cookbooks” not long ago and I was stating that I just cannot buy the ereader. I want that hard copy so I can just go curl up on the sofa before I turn in or if I need a break during the day I can put my feet up and read my book. It is so much more personal to me. I guess the Kindle books or whatever are a great thing but for me nothing can replace the hardcopy of any book. I just love them. I was looking at some of my favorites and noticed that I have so many from the 1950’s. Must have been a great year. I am surprised by a few of the answers but like he said the answers were already there. I was SHOCKED about the cooking once or less a month also. I think they are very wrong about the amount of photo’s in a book. That is why Pinterest is doing so well. It goes without saying “you eat with your eyes first” those photo’s are extremely important. It makes a big impact on whether I buy a certain cookbook or not. Way back when….yes, I am that old you didn’t have much choice in cookbooks, most were without pictures and only had penciled illustrations. Horrible! Now we have the freedom to research every book and know what it is all about. I just got a sweet friend of mine’s cookbook/ memoir. It is really her memoir with a few recipes thrown in but I love it. The name of it is NOT QUITE NIGELLA by Lorraine Elliott. I can’t wait to read it. I look forward to your blog and thank you for an incredible article. I do hope that you will have follow ups in the future. Thanks for sharing.

    • diannejacob says

      Yes, I’m with you. I don’t like reading on the screen. I’m old fashioned, I guess.

      Regarding number of photos and how often people cooked, yes, those are two of the stats that surprised commenters here the most. It certainly does not account for the interest in Pinterest. But it does explain why many people never cook out of the cookbooks they buy, or try only 1 or 2 recipes.

  9. says

    I’m reeling at some of the responses to the survey – especially “26 percent, said they cook once per month or less.” I’m surprised, though, that none of the questions mentioned anything about the presence, or lack, of back story or anecdotes on the recipes. For me, a cookbook needs to have at least a small story with each recipe about how the author chose it or when the author first ate the dish. If a book is merely a set of ingredients with a set of stark instructions, I’m really not likely to buy it.

    Photos of the final dishes are a nice bonus, but images, whether they are good drawings or photos, are essential for tricky techniques.

    (copied and pasted from my response to a link to this article on FB)

    • diannejacob says

      Hi Elizabeth, thanks for posting this.

      It is kind of funny that people cook once a month yet buy cookbooks, I agree. We just have to conclude that they’re not going to make most of the recipes. That’s okay with me. A sale is a sale.

      You make a good point about the narrative. It would be good to know whether the respondents might pick a cookbook based on the stories.

      Regarding images, I don’t think they asked about illustrations, since so few books have them.

  10. says

    Interesting survey. Count me in the 12% who buy 4 or more as I collect all kinds of cookbooks. Who knows…I might even be in a class by myself as I loose count of how many I buy. I research what books are due to come out and always have a “wish list” ready to place an online order. Not only do I buy new cookbooks, I’m always on the lookout for cookbooks at thrift stores and garage sales. Guess you could say I’m a cookbook fanatic. I have 9 bookshelves full to the top with books laying on top of books – I need a cookbook wing added on!

    I like photos in cookbooks, but there doesn’t have to be one of every recipe. One factor that influences my purchase is to have the recipe on one page or continue on the facing page. If I have to flip a page to continue reading a lot of recipes, I probably won’t buy the book. The font and print color is important to me as occasionally some will be hard to read. Also, I’m not a fan of cookbooks where the ingredients are in all caps.

    • diannejacob says

      Oh yes, I’m probably in the “buy 4 or more” category per year as well, Robin. I can’t help myself either. I do sell a fair number of books to my local used bookstore and I have a credit there, which helps.

      A cookbook wing! That’s a good one.

      All caps for the ingredients list is a really dumb idea, I agree. Too hard to read.

  11. says

    I find it hard to believe that more people are not interested in other international flavors outside of Italian or Mexican. With the increase in the amount of ethnic foods found in mainstream grocery stores, it only makes sense that international foods should also be reflected in cookbook interests. And what does “American food” actually mean? Who are these 2500 people they surveyed?

    • diannejacob says

      It is odd, I agree. But those are the favorites, year after year. Perhaps it is not that people are uninterested in ethnic food, just that they don’t want to cook it. Doing so might require going to specialty supermarkets, cooking with unfamiliar ingredients, learning new techniques, etc. Perhaps they are happier eating it in restaurants.

  12. says

    My husband happens to be as much of a cookbook fanatic as I am, if not more! I do find it hard to believe that only 21% of people are influenced by lots of color photographs of the food in the cookbooks. While I prefer a hard copy of a cookbook, I do love the color photos that are included in the cooking magazines and the beautiful step by step photos included in the cooking blogs. There have been times the pictures alone make me want to drop everything and run to the market to buy the necessary ingredients and get cooking.

    • diannejacob says

      Yes, that was a surprising statistic about the photos. We’re always told that we’re a visually based society now and images are so important, and that statistic contradicts that notion.

  13. says

    I was at this IACP session and was glad I went. It was an eye opener. But I am amazed at the “cooks only once a month” statistic. Well, I won’t judge, as one who does home cooking 99% of the time, it is not easy. Thanks to Adam and his fellow panelists Judith and Sally for sharing these with us. Thanks for this info, Dianne. It was great to see you and be at your session, too!

    • diannejacob says

      Thank you Betty Ann. “Cooks once a month” is kind of funny — I mean, how many cookbooks do these people need then?

      BTW, I’m in the same boat as you, cooking 99 percent of the time.

  14. Sue Vickers-Thompson says

    I collect cookery books here in the UK and have approximately 5000, buying several every month, much to the pain of my bank manager! My husband encourages me….. One of the things that I love about American books is the memoir genre, which we don’t have over here to the same extent. I really love to read the “back story” to chefs, cooks and recipes.One of the best books over here, though, is Nigella Lawson’s “How to Eat”, which has neither photos nor illustrations! Would be interesting to see how a UK survey would come out – we have a plethora of food magazines (yes, I buy those too) and several food shows per year. I cook about twice a week – less often than I used to but I have ME so become tired rather quickly.
    Thanks for the article – fascinating!


    • diannejacob says

      Interesting that you don’t have food memoir to the same extent. I have read lots of cookbooks that are memoir-ish though, so maybe that’s the best way to go about it. Definitely it’s easier than getting a memoir published in the US also.

      Regarding your buying habit, how fortunate that your husband encourages you. I hope no debt is involved!

  15. Liz Morlidge says

    Hi! I have never seen this blog until today, but I would like to comment, as cookbook collecting is an interest of mine. Here are two reasons why I have gotten turned off by photography in cookbooks:
    1. Cookbooks with photos are usually printed on glossy paper. I like to write and underline in any cookbook that I will actually use, and glossy paper makes writing and later erasing more difficult (and almost impossible in some cases).
    2. I have gotten really tired of photos that look nothing like the real dish after cooking. I should know better, but have found myself doubting my abilities when the photo has gorgeous (raw!) vegetable pieces, for example, and my finished dish is a brown pile of sauteed ones. I have come to distrust food photos, so they are not that helpful to me.
    This looks like an interesting blog. Thanks, Liz

    • diannejacob says

      What great comments! It’s nice to hear from a consumer versus all of us other food writers. Re your second point, it is true that some photographers/food stylists/bloggers sometimes photograph dishes before they are finished cooking, because the food is more colorful. Thanks Liz.

  16. K.J.McIntyre says

    Granted, I refer to Web recipes to best utilize what’s in my frig/pantry. But I read cookbooks for general inspiration, seasonal ideas and menu planning. Probably bought six+ cookbooks in last 6 mos. For most likely to ogle & never cook from: Manresa; Best seasonal inspiration & always bookmarked (& best cover) Notes from the Larder by Nigel Slater; Best for inspiration: The Pleasure of Cooking for One by Judith Jones (emphasis on pleasure & also bookmarked). @McIntyreKJ

    • diannejacob says

      You are way over the average number of cookbooks purchased by this group! As are most of my blog readers, I suspect. And me. We are a hopeless bunch, I’m afraid, but publishers do love us.

  17. Sandra Levy says

    I love to cook & try new recipes! I like to take notes in the books. I like to keep the book. E-books are not the same for cooking.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *