The secrets of a successful cookery book PR campaign

By   Hannah Bickerton 11 min read

whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books

Despite the temporary closure of bricks-and-mortar bookshops for months on end in 2020, you might be surprised to find that cookbook sales rose by 37%. But what does this indicate? Perhaps that it has become less important for authors to get their cookbooks into traditional retailers and media? Perhaps that a more thought-out, creative social media campaign has become the key to success? Or perhaps it’s having an existing engaged and loyal fanbase to support your book that really matters?

Fiona Smith, founder of PR agency Smith & Baxter, has worked on a wide range of food and cookery books throughout her career, from high-end books by the best chefs in the world such as Magnus Nilsson, Rene Redzepi, Ana Ros and Massimo Bottura, to books by brilliant home cooks and food writers such as Diana Henry, Ed Smith and whitefox’s very own Jane Lovett. With Fiona’s expert insight, we explore the ever evolving food & drink book publicity scene and what it takes to ensure your cookbook sells.

Why are people still buying cookbooks?

Whether you’re in the mood to make a tropical smoothie, prawn linguine, pastéis de natas, Victoria sponge or a buddha bowl, there are hundreds and thousands of free online recipes available at just the tap of a finger. It might be logical then to assume that with such technological advancement would come the death of the cookbook. However, they are actually more popular than ever, a staggering 21.5 million print cookbooks having been sold in 2020. This is because cookbooks have become so much more than a collection of recipes, evoking a sense of escapism through breathtaking photography, aesthetic design and fascinating stories about the author, ingredients and dishes. Readers are also more likely to trust the cookbook format, assuming that a recipe in print will probably be more reliable than one found online.

Cookbooks inspired by different locations and cultures are particularly intriguing, spurring a feeling of wanderlust in readers with their various aromas and tastes, while educating them on the origins of local delicacies through the author’s memories and tales of folklore. Such cookbooks desire to take readers on a journey, and are intended to be read away from the kitchen as much as they are used in it. British-Israeli chef, writer and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi is an example of an author who does this exceptionally well, his range of iconic cookbooks exploring the culinary traditions and bold flavours of the Middle East while continuously appearing on bestseller lists.

The cookery book is an experience, with many buying them in a similar fashion as they would do a coffee-table book. They’re a way of asserting the reader’s identity, a source of inspiration and pleasure, something to be treasured and passed down through generations, as well as a near-perfect gift for everyone from the cooking enthusiasts to the occasional baker. Fiona also highlights the important practical nature of cookbooks: ‘I think there is something special about having a book with you in the kitchen working through the pages. I cook from online recipes too, but I find it much easier having a book close by rather than a phone which you are constantly having to reboot.’ No one wants to be constantly tapping a device with doughy, sticky hands — a beautiful cookbook propped up on the counter just makes so much more sense, the marks and smudges over time only add to its character.

[Fiona Smith | Founder of Smith & Baxter Publicity]

An existing audience: celebrity chefs, cult classics & famous foodies

The author of a cookery book plays a vital role in its success. People like to be reassured that it is someone authentic, who can be trusted. Jane Grigson, Maura Laverty, Claudia Roden are just a few examples of cookbook authors who embody these qualities. Cooks seen on TV will often go on to publish books as they’ve already built up a relationship with their audience; if you take a look at the current market, a majority of books are by celebrity chefs or TV tie-ins, such as Nigella Lawson, the Hairy Bikers, Jamie Oliver and Gok Wan, as well as Great British Bake Off contestants — Nadiya Hussain, Liam Charles, Candice Brown and Kim-Joy, to name just a few. There are also a growing number of cookbooks being published by chefs known through their restaurants, bakeries, delicatessens and so on, as a way of building on the success of their brand, such as Gail’s, LEON, Dishoom and Jikoni.

Blog-to-book and influencer cookbooks are also becoming increasingly popular, with publishing a book often the next step after having built up a significant following online. Chefs can no longer rely on TV appearances to compete they’ll need the help of other platforms too if they really want to shift copies. DIY lifestyle guru Joanna Gaines’s Magnolia Table Volume 2: A Collection of Recipes for Gathering, for example, was the bestselling cookbook of 2020 according to the New York Times, despite Joanna having no claim to culinary fame or experience in the food & drink industry (though she does have over 13 million followers on Instagram alone).

So, how vital is it for the success of a cookbook publicity campaign that the author already has an established platform and fanbase? Well, we’d be lying if we said it didn’t have some major benefits. As Fiona points out, ‘it does help enormously to have a brand or a restaurant that is popular, but it doesn’t have to be a big brand. Black Axe Mangal’s book was a huge success and this is a tiny twenty-seater restaurant on the edge of Highbury Corner, London, but it has a cult following in the food world and a huge social media presence. The book was shared by everyone who bought it and it ended up being bought by people who had never even eaten there but wanted a slice of its highly maverick vision.’ Ultimately, your brand and following doesn’t have to be the largest, but a loyal fanbase can certainly make a difference to your cookbook publicity campaign. While the market is still very much populated by big celebrity chefs and restaurateurs, more independent cookery books such as Black Axe Mangal and whitefox’s The Bull & Last are carving out a space for themselves on bookshop shelves – even if it does mean being sandwiched between Jamie and Nigella.

[Foyles bookshop, Southbank, London]

How cookbook publicity campaigns have evolved

In 2019, Pinch of Nom: 100 slimming home-style recipes became the UK’s fastest-selling non-fiction book of all time, selling 210,506 copies within the first three days of its release. Originating from one of the UK’s most-visited food blogs of the same name, authors Kay Featherstone and Kate Allinson beat the likes of Mary Berry, Nigel Slater and Jamie Oliver, and have since gone on to publish three more cookbooks and a range of food planners. The key to their success wasn’t from appearing in traditional media like so many famous TV chefs, but building a huge online presence and engaged audience.

Times are certainly changing. However, Fiona argues that traditional media is still important for an effective cookbook campaign: ‘Traditional print still sells, e.g. BBC Good Food is still the place you want to be in print and online — that is an audience who wants to cook. Newspapers and first extracts still have a big impact, too. But then you have so many more stages after that: online food sites can reach millions, blogs, influencers and a social media campaign all of its own. Some need to be planned well in advance, while the more immediate short-term digital campaign happens at publication.’

So, what is it that really makes the difference between a successful cookbook and one that’s not? It’s a difficult question to answer, as every cookbook is unique. For some, a traditional media campaign will work best, for example, whitefox author Jane Lovett’s book, the Get Ahead Cookbook had a wide range of strong traditional media coverage, including a first extract in The Sunday Times, a second extract in the Telegraph and features in BBC Good Food. This publicity helped her to effectively reach her audience and resulted in it becoming a strong seller, which Amazon then price promoted — a real win-win.

On the other hand, Fiona highlights that cult hits like Black Axe Mangal and The Pitt Cue Co. Cookbook, both of whom already had a loyal following prior to publication, ‘gained very good media both in print and online, but that, combined with the thousands of stories and posts that people shared when they received their book, made something people would have thought to be too niche to sell well.’ It’s also important to note that both books were of an exceptional quality in content and design, their stunning covers working visually to capture people’s attention every time a photo was posted of them. Balance between all these elements is key to a successful cookbook campaign; building an online presence, creating a high-quality book and getting it noticed in both traditional and digital media is vital.

Cookbook promotion & making the most of your platform

Even if you’ve already established a strong online presence, promoting your own cookbook is most likely new territory for you. On asking Fiona what PR advice she’d offer to cookbook authors wanting to promote their book effectively, she said: ‘Connect with your audience and social media followers, get them engaged early on with the book – get them to buy into the idea and feel part of it. I have known some authors who ask their followers to help choose the cover design, to contribute recipes and feel part of the process.’ It’s also important to intersperse promotional content with normal posts so you don’t come across as inauthentic, and to show you genuinely care about what your readers have to say about your cookbook by sharing and resharing their posts. Foster a community with your audience and other cookbook authors rather than going straight for the hard sell.

If you aren’t already, try to schedule most of your content in advance to ensure consistency, and plan your posts so your audience feels a sense of variety. Updates and behind-the-scenes shots of the production of your cookbook weaved into your usual content will help to build anticipation and showcase the blood, sweat and tears going into the creation of something truly special for your audience. Sneak peeks of photos and recipes featured in your cookbook will also help to trigger excitement as the publication date draws closer but make sure not to give too much away too soon no one likes a spoiler! For example, you might want to reveal a snippet of the cover design early on in the campaign and then share a few recipes for your audience to try in the week before publication.

If you want to tease your followers a little bit more you could run a giveaway across your social media platforms, providing a few lucky winners with the chance to get their copy early. Not only will this help to increase your following and encourage sales from those who didn’t win, you’ll also be able to see which of the social networks is most active, what time your followers are online and so on, providing you with useful statistics which you can then use to improve your overall social media strategy. If you’re choosing a winner from the comments on a post, engage them with a question that will stimulate conversation and allow you to get to know your followers even better — ask them what their favourite ingredient is, their go-to dinner-party recipes, the dish they cook the most for their loved ones. The possibilities are endless.

How whitefox can help

If you want your cookbook campaign to be a success, everything boils down to three main factors: an existing loyal fanbase, a high-quality cookbook with an authentic voice, and a range of traditional and digital media PR opportunities. If you’ve got the first, whitefox can help you with the rest.

whitefox is a creative publishing agency working with the very best in the industry from around the world to create beautifully bespoke books. Unlike traditional publishers, we won’t take two years to produce your cookbook. Instead, we work efficiently and to the very highest standard to create your cookbook exactly how and when you want it. Timing is everything, but so is quality. Both will be fundamental to getting your cookbook noticed online and on shelves, and ultimately driving sales.

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Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.