How Food Influencers Sharpen Their Brands: Print Cookbooks

Joshua Weissman Merch

In a social-media landscape where short-form videos, witty voiceovers and camera-friendly personas tend to reign supreme, digital food creators have turned to a far 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 with Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books; as of Nov. 17, the book has reached the No. 5 spot in the New York Times best seller list in the advice, how-to and miscellaneous category.

Chef Joshua Weissman, who has 7 million subscribers on YouTube and more than 6 million on TikTok, parleyed his online popularity into An Unapologetic Cookbook, which was published in Sept. 2021 with DK and nabbed a top spot on the New York Times best-seller list shortly after its debut in the same category for cookbooks, securing a spot in 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, earlier this year, nabbed a coveted James Beard media award.

Though traditional publishing houses have worked with online creators for books across a variety of genres, including memoir and fiction, the rapid rise of short-form content has spurred an increase in dealmaking beyond the screen, according to agents and publishing executives who spoke with The Hollywood Reporter.

“I’ve been selling a lot of cookbooks and it’s been glorious,” Brandi Bowles, a literary agent at UTA, says. “There’re several new buyers who are suddenly like, ‘Oh, we’re doing cookbooks too.’ Everyone’s trying to catch up to this runaway train.”

But it wasn’t that long ago when digital creators had a difficult time landing book deals with publishing houses. Ali Berman, partner and head of digital talent at UTA, remembers that when Bowles first joined the agency in 2017, the two faced several roadblocks in getting a digital creator a book deal, especially in the food space.

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

For Bowles, the pandemic kickstarted a gold rush of sorts for cookbooks from digital creators as publishing executives — themselves spending more time on TikTok and other social platforms watching content during quarantines — were becoming “more comfortable” with the digital space and its rising stars.

In the past year, HarperCollins — whose library of food authors now includes 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 its cookbook acquisitions have come from digital talent. (HarperCollins union members have been on strike since Nov. 10, as they negotiate with leadership over benefits and pay.)

“It’s been somewhat gradual,” Deborah Brody, the editorial director and vp of HarperCollins’ Harvest imprint, says of the food publishing industry’s shift toward digital talent. “It definitely started 15 years ago with food bloggers, but it’s much faster now. People can build a platform much more quickly.”

Digital food creators, in turn, have seen cookbooks as another medium to experiment and flex their creative muscles. “After doing video for so long, I was like, this is so different. What am I going to do to really provide value? I’m such a flamboyant person; I throw my hands everywhere and I’m, like, yelling 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 the sales up front. I did not know how it was going to do.”

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