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How Food Influencers Sharpen Their Brands: Print cookbooks

In a social media landscape where short videos, witty voiceovers and camera-friendly personas reign supreme, digital food makers have turned to a much more traditional medium to continue their success: cookbooks.

TikTok star Nadia Caterina Munno, known as “The Pasta Queen,” published her first cookbook on Nov. 8 at Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books; as of November 17, the book has reached the number 5 spot in the New York Times bestseller list in the category advice, how-to and miscellaneous.

Chef Joshua Weissman, who has 7 million subscribers on YouTube and over 6 million on TikTok, has increased his online popularity in An unashamed cookbook, which was published in September 2021 with DK and achieved a top position on the New York Times bestseller list shortly after debuting in the same category for cookbooks, securing a spot on the list for a total of 9 weeks.

The following month, TikTok creator Joanne Lee Molinaro (@thekoreanvegan) also debuted her own cookbook with Penguin Random House imprint Avery and bagged a coveted James Beard media award earlier this year.

While traditional publishers have partnered with online creators for books in a variety of genres, including memoir and fiction, the meteoric rise of short content has led to an increase in off-screen deal making, according to publishing agents and executives working with The Hollywood Reporter.

“I’ve sold a lot of cookbooks and it’s been fantastic,” says Brandi Bowles, a literary agent at UTA. “There are several new buyers who suddenly say, ‘Oh, we do cookbooks too.’ Everyone is trying to catch up with this runaway train.”

But it’s not that long ago that digital creators struggled to secure book deals with publishers. Ali Berman, the head of digital talent at UTA, recalls that when Bowles first joined the agency in 2017, the two encountered several obstacles in getting a digital creator a book deal, especially in the food space.

“Publishers as a whole — whether that be traditional print publishing or video publishing — had to wake up to other kinds of creative voices,” says Berman, who represents Weissman. “I’d pick up the phone and call Brandi and say, ‘I’ve got a client and they want to do a cookbook,’ and she’d [say]’It’s going to be very difficult [to get] that type of book for this space for people who create their own content and program it directly for their audience.’ Cookbooks used to be hard, and then you move on to today, and it’s just amazing to see how the ecosystem has evolved and matured.

For Bowles, the pandemic created something of a gold rush for cookbooks from digital creators, as publishing executives — who themselves spent more time on TikTok and other social platforms to view content during quarantines — became “more comfortable” with the digital space and are rising stars.

In the past year, HarperCollins – whose library of food authors now features YouTube star Andrew Rea (Binging With Babish) and TikTok creator Tabitha Brown, alongside chefs like José Andres and Jacques Pépin and established cookbook authors like Dorie Greenspan and Mark Bittman, said 35 percent of cookbooks purchased come from digital talent. (HarperCollins union members have been on strike since Nov. 10 as they negotiate benefits and pay with leaders.)

“It’s been kind of gradual,” Deborah Brody, the editor-in-chief and VP of HarperCollins’ Harvest imprint, says. of the shift from food publishing to digital talent. “It started at least 15 years ago with food bloggers, but it is now much faster. People can build a platform much faster.”

In turn, digital food creators saw cookbooks as another medium to experiment and flex their creative muscles. “After making video for so long, I thought: this is so different. What am I going to do to provide real value? I am such a flamboyant person; I throw my hands all over the place and I scream all the time [in my videos]. How do I yell at people through a book?” Weissman jokes. “I liked the creative challenge and was less focused on sales beforehand. I didn’t know how it would go.”

Creator Danni Rose, who shares her Southern homestyle cooking on YouTube and TikTok, says she was initially hesitant to work on a physical cookbook as she had found success releasing e-books and continuing her online content . But Rose quickly realized she wanted to reintroduce and continue the tradition of recipe sharing for younger generations and make more room for underrepresented creators in the traditional cookbook space.

“I wanted something for my daughter and my grandchildren to be able to go to a store, pick it up, and look at it like I did with the other books my mom used to suggest to me,” Rose, who is represented by UTA’s Bowles, says. “It’s about inviting more people, especially black people, to cookbooks in this culinary space that they’ve sort of pushed out of their minds.”

While Rose won’t stop making cooking and lifestyle videos online, she welcomes the chance to take on a cookbook and advance her career in a more traditional way. (Rose’s tome Danni’s Juke Joint Comfort Food is scheduled for a September 2023 release.)

“If you give us something that we want to see and eat and read again, we’ll definitely participate,” she says. “This is something different for me. I can put out an e-book that we know will do well, but I have a feeling this is going to be a little more curious. It’s getting more challenging – it’s been more challenging – and I like that.

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