The top four best selling books on Amazon.co.uk at this moment are all cook books. So it is perhaps surprising that while most independent bookshops are struggling, Books for Cooks – a bookshop dedicated to cooking – is thriving. Reena Pastakia sat down with co-owner Eric, to find out more.
By Reena Pastakia
Independent book stores are struggling to compete with online sellers. How has this impacted you?
I am struggling with online free postage; I am not struggling with the sales of the books. There is a new generation of customers – my little name for them is comfort customers – so they want books but they want them delivered – they do not want to carry them. Fifteen years ago we were going to have an online shop but then I realised that in time I would have become the front shop for someone else. So our website tells you where we are, what time we open, what time we close and that’s it. For anything else you have to come to the shop.
I understand that “the first name only club” e.g. Delia, Heston, Nigella, Gordon, Jamie, sell far more books than any other food books. What do you think non-celebrity food writers can do to narrow the gap?
My job is selling cookbooks and books by celebrity chefs are part of what I sell. They are not my best sellers because they are accessible everywhere. The celebrity chefs have tarnished their image a little because [they are] over published. It is starting to get over saturated with celebrity chefs. If a celebrity chef does a book without a supporting TV programme the book will not work. It’s not enough just having a good recipe people want a little bit more for their money – personality, nice wording, something interesting to read. That’s why Nigel [Slater] did so well because he always has wonderful wording through his text.
As people start to self publish using services like Lulu to print their own cookbooks, would you consider stocking these books?
I try to get more and more involved with self-published people because I do believe that with someone’s first book there is so much love, so much passion. So I try more and more to help them. We do better with those books than mainstream books. Mainstream books for me don’t really work because you can get them discounted anywhere. If I stock a product I will sell it at the full price or the recommended price. Even if I sell less at least I don’t feel guilty that someone is losing somewhere.
There seem to be cookbooks for every type of cuisine and diet. Have you noticed any gaps in the market?
There are no more gaps. Everything has been covered from food photography to eating for your type of blood or your type of fat or your type of shoe size or whatever. When people ask me about the latest trend I say the one I saw twenty years ago is coming back. We had a rush for cupcakes, the rush for macaroons and now we are getting the rush for éclairs.
Which is the most popular cook book you sell?
The most popular one for me is the one we are selling at the time. So anything we sell today I have to be clever enough to buy a little extra stock before we run out in case they don’t reprint. It is my job to find a book that has done very well over the years and that everyone has now but because they love the recipes and use it so much, when their book falls apart they will come and get another one.
There has been a big increase in food allergies in the last decade. Do you get a lot of people with allergies coming in asking for recipe books?
Yes, more and more. For every ten books, two are about food allergies. The process of making a book takes around 9 months; it’s like a baby! I always try to buy a very small quantity of these books because the information gets updated very fast. In terms of recipes for an allergy the latest publication is always the best.
I quite often get frustrated when recipes have skimpy instructions or have errors in them. How often do recipes that you test in the test kitchen fail?
We’ve had more problems with cakes, desserts and pastries because these recipes are a little bit more of a science. With savoury recipes we have flavour problems sometimes. Problems can arise due to editors having to fit a certain number of words in a page. Obviously the author can cook but that doesn’t mean the editor is capable of capturing what the author wants to say so sometimes it is lost in translation.
Books for Cooks
4 Blenheim Crescent, Notting Hill
London W11 1NN
Reena grew up thinking Indian cooking was a dark art where the quantities of spices required in each dish were innately known to a chosen few. It was only after she married an Englishman with a voracious appetite for Indian food that she started phoning home for cooking tips. She started her blog (coconutraita.com) in an attempt to document her family’s recipes and make Indian cooking accessible to all.