The cookbook craze has lots of people singing

Cookbooks always sell well in December, but last year they flew off the shelves.

Ina. Rachel. Nigella. Jamie. Ruth. These culinary personalities have become the new "friends" of today's home cooks, who often refer to them by their first names, just as fans of public television's "The French Chef" did when they first fell for Julia.

But unlike in Julia's Child's early career, when she was a lone pioneer in a new medium for cooking, today there are numerous TV cooking shows with multiple personalities slicing and dicing around the clock. Coupled with media-saturated, big-budget, coast-to-coast book tours, such visibility has thrust today's chefs and cookbook authors into homes like never before, cultivating huge followings akin to those of a megawatt rock star like Bono or Sting.

The proof is in the holiday pudding: Cookbooks flew off shelves this past season, according to Publisher's Weekly, indicating that hardly a holiday wish list was penned without including a cookbook or two.

"We had an extraordinary season," reports Steven Gans, CEO of Jessica's Biscuit, a leading seller of cookbooks.

In addition to "The Gourmet Cookbook," which includes more than 1,000 recipes, edited by Ruth Reichl, editor in chief of Gourmet magazine (450,000 copies are already in print), other holiday hotties at Jessica's Biscuit were the luxurious "Bouchon," by chef and restaurant owner Thomas Keller, and "Barefoot in Paris," by Ina Garten, the doyenne of entertaining, who writes the Barefoot Contessa series. Of course, adds Mr. Gans, anything by Rachel Ray, the warm, down-to-earth host of three Food Network shows, always sells well.

"This holiday season cookbook sales were focused on personalities and brand names," says Maria Hoffman, buyer for Barnes & Noble's website. Some of these personalities aren't known for how well they flip an omelet or roast a duck - for instance, Maya Angelou, Pat Conroy, and Adriana Trigiani. But that doesn't matter as long as they have a name, says Ms. Hoffman. "People like to go home and try the recipes of someone they know."

The only books that gathered dust on shelves during the holiday period were those related to the low-carb diet.

Some see the recent cookbook boom as simply part of exploding interest in all things culinary. "Cooking and all things related are hotter than ever," says Kimberly Yorio, co-founder of YC Inc., a New York public relations firm specializing in cookbooks.

Worldwide, sales have increased at a steady 5 percent each year. About 24,000 new titles are being published annually, which is double that of 10 years ago.

So, what's fueling all this interest?

Edouard Cointreau, president of the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, in Madrid, attributes the cookbook boom to four factors: First, the success of TV food programs. Second, increased awareness of and interest in nutrition and health. Third, "food has a strong comforting role in a world increasingly perceived as dangerous." Finally, new book production technology has made producing a cookbook increasingly easier, quicker, and cheaper.

More than any other factor, the phenomenon of TV cooking has radically changed the world of cookbooks, all agree. Some say this isn't necessarily a good thing. "Today cookbooks get published because of who you are, not what you know," says David Strymish, owner of Jessica's Biscuit.

One person who's not complaining about the TV phenomenon is Rebecca Brooks, president of the Brooks Group, a New York public relations firm that represents Rachel Ray, the current darling of TV cooking. Ms. Ray's book, "Cooking 'Round the Clock: 30-Minute Meals," which has made The New York Times bestseller list for about a month, sold "tremendously well" during the holidays, says Ms. Brooks. "Rachel is the girl next door, she's very modest, but she also has a real gift. And learning to cook well-balanced meals in 30 minutes is something everyone wants."

Whether they want to cook in 30 minutes or 40, with frozen or fresh corn, one thing's for certain: People are indeed cooking more, and cracking open those cookbooks.

Cooking teacher Meredith Deeds can attest to that: "My classes in Cleveland used to be consistently full, but I've noticed, as have cooking teachers everywhere, that numbers are down now that people are learning the basics from TV and cookbooks."

So she is publishing two cookbooks of her own.

"It wasn't easy breaking in to a field full of celebrities," says Ms. Deeds, who hired a public relations firm to help get her proposals accepted. "If you have a platform, you are golden, but if not, you have to be flexible and really pugnacious to get anywhere in this field."

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