These days, more and more books have accompanying Websites and smart authors even try to attract readers online before the book is even published. Sometimes they even try to enlist those potential readers into contributing to the book (for free). Brooklyn food writers Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs are crowdsourcing their next cookbook on a site that just launched in private beta called Food52 (it will open up on September 15, but you can sign up now for an invite at the site). Hesser is a food critic for the New York Times and an author of several cookbooks (including Cooking For Mr. Latte, The Cook And The Gardener, and the upcoming New York Times Cookbook). Stubbs is a freelance food writer and recipe tester.
The Food52 project will result in its own cookbook to be published by the Harper Studio (which is also publishing the Gary Vaynerchuk ten-book library). Each recipe in the book will come from the Food52 community. “We want it to be a cooking site where the users feel that they have a voice,” Hesser tells me in her first interview about the project.
The site and the book will appeal to anyone who ever wanted to write their own cookbook but never had the time. But it won’t be a free-for-all. Hesser and Stubbs will make editorial decisions with give-and-take from the site’s members. To guide the community, every week two themes will be presented which will act as a call for recipes. This week’s themes (they are really assignments) are “Your Best Grilled Pork Recipe” and “Your Best Watermelon Recipe.” Anyone can submit their favorite recipes, along with photos or videos. Then Hesser and Stubbs select the most promising ones, test them, and choose the best two for each theme. They present these back to the Food52 members, who get to vote which one will make it into the cookbook.
“There is a huge tradition of community cookbooks, but none of them are user vetted,” says Hesser. Users can take part in creating the cookbook by submitting their own recipes and helping to edit the submissions through comments, ratings, and votes. (Recipes can be flagged if someone tries to pass one off as their own that is actually from another cookbook). Anybody who submits a recipe selected as one of the two finalist recipes each week will get a free copy of the book along with cookware tailored to their recipe.
The iterative process should bring hardcore foodies and fans of the authors coming back every week. By the end of the 52 weeks, Hesser and Stubbs will not only have the recipes for their cookbook, but also a built-in and built-up audience already sold on the book. It won’t be just a cookbook, it will be an artifact of their participation.
The site itself is designed less to be a comprehensive cooking site than a highly curated one. In addition to the contests, there are editors’ picks. You can browse by recipes (organized both by category and most recent) or by cooks (contest winners, most active, and “cooks we admire”). Of course, there is also a blog on the site written by Hesser and Stubbs, although that is not front and center and the first entry is about the shoes they wear while cooking. Not terribly appetizing.
Beyond the first book, Hesser and Stubbs hope to make Food52 into a food destination site. “Hopefully we will do more books,” says Hesser, “this is a starting point for gathering our community.” Food52 is owned and operated by Hesser and Stubbs through a company they co-founded called Burnt Toast, LLC funded with proceeds from the book advance. With any luck, the site will be worth more than the book.