With Mark Bittman’s brand new How to Cook Everything app for the iPhone, we get the first inkling of what the future might look like for digital cookbooks (or at least cookbooks converted to apps).
Bittman's massive print cookbook is ideally-suited for a digital conversion: the entire heavy, unwieldy (more than 1,000 page) tome has been reconstituted into a portable and easy-to-use database comprised of some 2,000 recipes.
Browsing the recipe collection, which is here indexed by the type of dish, key ingredient, cooking technique, flavor, and speed of preparation, is less like reading a book and more like visiting a food website. The experience will be familiar to anyone who has browsed an online recipe database (say, epicurious, for example).
Because the original book is short on the long, florid headnotes (not necessarily a bad thing) of some cookbook-cum-foodoirs, there's not much lost on the reading experience in the transition from print to digital.
In addition to the recipes, there's also a shopping list function for easily adding the entire list of ingredients into a grocery list. While the shopping lists can be emailed, the recipes cannot. No surprise here, since the publisher likely wants to limit one's ability to reproduce the recipes, but that does present a limitation to sharing with friends or even oneself (you can't get the recipes off the device and onto your desktop computer, for example).
There’s also a large, illustrated section comprised of cooking basics, tips and techniques.
It lacks a good conversion tool for weights and measures. There is neither a basic table for sorting out how many ounces are in a quart, nor more sophisticated functionality for converting measurements from volume to weight or the U.S. standard system to metric. In a subsequent conversation with Mark Douglas at the online food magazine Culinate (which collaborated on production of the app with Bittman and publisher John Wiley & Sons, I was informed that these will likely be added in future software update. Also coming up is interactive functionality that will allow app owners to upload their own food photos into the app and view images taken by others.
The app currently retails for $1.99, but Culinate expects it will end up selling somewhere between $4.99 and $7.99. An iPad edition is currently in development, which will cost more (the price has not yet been set) and is due out in a month or so, pending Apple’s approval process for apps.
For people uncertain about the future of cookbooks in the digital age, the app gives some cause for optimism. The recipes are more searchable as an app than in print, the book is now obviously more portable, and the grocery list function is a nice addition.
But, imagine if the book not been turned into an app, but translated into a PDF-like “digital book” sold in the iBooks store. The result would have been pretty lackluster. This makes for an interesting development for anyone who thinks this new platform means a rise in self-publishing by authors. While cheaper than printing a book, of course, creating an effective cookbook app will still require a third party (whether a traditional publisher or a new player like Culinate) with the money and expertise to bring the app to fruition And is that so dissimilar from the existing relationship between authors and their audiences?