Would you cook from your iPhone?

A new iPhone app could help create a life for cookbooks in a digital age.

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    On the iPhone, $1.99 will buy a $35 cookbook.
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Never mind whether the Kindle and iPad will kill print books. How about the iPhone?

That was my first thought after seeing the new app for Mark Bittman’s “How To Cook Everything,” a valuable kitchen guide often described as a modern “Joy of Cooking”. The app promises quick searches, shopping lists that can easily be built from recipes, recipe timers, features such as quick dinner picks… and those are just the useful digital toys. The shocker, for me, was that the $1.99 app includes the entire $35 cookbook.

I emailed Mark Douglas, co-founder of Culinate, which co-developed the app, to ask how and why they would offer an enhanced book but charge just a fraction of the cover price. He answered that, with most iTunes prices locked into the 99-cent to $2.99 range, it seemed too risky to charge substantially more for such a new experiment. Better to draw sales first, in their minds, getting a relatively high ranking in the Apple store, and at least breaking through the 200,000+ other offerings on the one store’s virtual shelf.

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The $1.99 price is an aggressive introductory price, Douglas said, and eventually will rise to “where we think it can be sustained,” around $7.99.

As much as I like thumbing through my stained and dog-eared cookbooks, an introductory price-savings of more than 90% would be enough for me to choose the phone-screen over the page. Even $7.99 doesn’t sound bad compared to $35. I’d miss the visual and tactile benefits of print, but I could find some solace in searches and shopping lists.

Bittman told a Slashfood writer, though, that he thought the app would complement the book rather than replace it.

"You'll use the app for searches and at the store, stuff like that. But chances are, when you go into the kitchen, you'll bring the book in with you, not your phone."

Well, maybe. Another interesting take came from The Food Section, which said that the app “gives some optimism” for people concerned about the future of cookbooks in the digital age.

“The recipes are more searchable as an app than in print, the book is now obviously more portable, and the grocery list function is a nice addition,” the site’s review said.

But, imagine if the book not been turned into an app, but translated into a PDF-like "digital book" sold in the iBooks store. The result would have been pretty lackluster. This makes for an interesting development for anyone who thinks this new platform means a rise in self-publishing by authors. While cheaper than printing a book, of course, creating an effective cookbook app will still require a third party (whether a traditional publisher or a new player like Culinate) with the money and expertise to bring the app to fruition. And is that so dissimilar from the existing relationship between authors and their audiences?

Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com.

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