Eat Your Books home page: the first message is a sales pitch

Here is a problem we are all familiar with. Whether we have three or thirty-three recipe books, we always have trouble finding that elusive recipe that we cooked a couple of months ago – or was it a couple of years ago? Prolific cookery writers authors such as Nigel Slater have written so many books that the recipe you remember could be in any of them.

At this point we long for an index of recipes. Publishers aren’t particularly bothered. They have a publishing model based around the book. The book might be slightly more elaborate, for example, two or even three volumes, but why change a formula that works so well? Despite the downturn in book sales, cookery book sales have remained strong. The public has a seeminly infinite appetite (!) for books by established writers, and they are all happy to recommend each other.

Enter two new services (and thanks to Tony Tassell of the Financial Times for comparing them). One is Eat YourBooks, and the other, simply CKBK, which stands for Cookbook, of course. Tony Tassell describes the Eat Your Books directory as “a godsend for home cooks with an extensive library”. But unlike Mr Tassell, I’m not quite so convinced.

The two services have a slightly different business model. Eat Your Books doesn’t include any recipes. However, it seems to have indexed a vast number of cookery books, including all the classics I can think of (Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, et al).

CKBK home page: also starts with a sales pitch

CKBK, by contrast, has far fewer books, but includes the full recipe for everything included. Both services have a skeletel free service and a paid full version. For what it’s worth, both services have some impressive and very competent people behind them. But there is more to a service than a slick interface.  

Which one would you choose? Well, for me, CKBK is invalidated because it doesn’t include the classic titles I want to use – nothing by Elizabeth David or Jane Grigson. They claim to have 85,000 recipes, but many of these are from little-known titles, or the less familiar titles from well-known authors. This is clearly because of the difficulty gaining rights to the classic books – the publishers are reluctant to see their revenue disappearing elsewhere. Eat Your Books should be a clear winner, with nearly two million recipes searchable by author, by title, and by ingredient. But Eat Your Books fails the first principle of online products: if you are going to replace a human workflow, make it simpler, and complete the task in one click. This is what Eat Your Books fails to do. It tells you that Elizabeth David has a recipe for chicken breasts, and which book it is in, but you still then have to find the recipe in the book itself. It doesn’t even tell you the page number! So EYB solves half the problem – but leaves the user having to negotiate the book index. And, as anyone who as tried to use a cookery book index will know, that isn’t so simple.

Ravelry, showing users’ completed patterns

A further challenge to these services is that they are essentially subscription based. Both of them have some limited free functionatliy – Eat Your Books offers to index any five titles for you for nothing – but for any real use you will have to pay. Compared to a site such as the wonderful Ravelry, the knitting site, which I wrote about at another post, they are very expensive. Ravelry manages to generate an income from selling knitting patterns, while keeping the main service for users free. And knitting patterns, like recipes, are things that you as a user want to edit and to comment on. But to pay for a site, just so you can provide comments for others to read jars with me; I can’t see the value to these services, and I’m a pretty dedicated cook. Even Tony Tassell admits that “the investment is probably not warranted for occasional cooks”. Ravelry achieves the great feat in not being patronising; you feel the site exists for its users, while Eat Your Books, however slick it may be, feels like a heavily curated site trying to convince passive users of its importance (and cost). I don’t feel I would belong to the Eat Your Books community, in other words, although I might very well belong to the Ravelry world. The USP of Ravelry is how users can post photos of their completed patterns – good, bad, or indifferent, it is something they made and can share. That makes for a real community.

Incidentally, I think both these sites have not discovered what people really want from recipes. What I ultimately want to do is perhaps rather different to what either of these sites provide. I want to edit and reconstruct my own recipes, and to record what I have done. The result will be something different to anything I’ve read. That might require a rather different tool to either Eat Your Book or CKBK; but might create a much more genuine sense of community.

BBC Good Food: starts with a recipe

The real competition to both services is the raw internet. For passive recipe-hunters, there are thousands of recipes available free on the Web, complete with ingredients, nutritional value, and comments from users. BBC Good Food is just one of many sources, albeit one that seems to be prioritised in Google search results. Why bother paying with a service that requires two steps to find a spatchcock chicken recipe, when Google can get you to a recipe with one click? For better or worse, most recipes are freely available, and very easy to find.