James Beard Foundation Going Digital With Cookbook Awards

By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid

The cookbook business just got a little more digital.

For the first time in its 26-year history, the James Beard Foundation will open up its cookbook awards to digital entries.

For the 2013 edition of the New York-based non-profit’s annual awards show, judges will consider print and digital cookbooks in each of the twelve categories – from “cookbook of the year” to “beverage” to “focus on health.” There will be no separate e-book category and it’s conceivable – though perhaps not likely – that all the winners could be e-cookbooks.

“The time has come to be on the forefront,” said Yvon Ros, who oversees the James Beard Foundation awards as director of sponsorship and special events. “We want to make sure that we’re giving everybody the opportunity to enter who should be getting the opportunity.”

The James Beard Foundation will formally announce the change in late June or July, according to Ros. The change was made on the recommendation of the book awards committee.

Digital entries will only be accepted in an e-format that does not require the purchase of a specific device and will likely be submitted to judges on flash drives, said Matthew Sartwell, chairman of the James Beard Foundation book awards committee and the manager of Kitchen Arts & Letters, a specialty bookstore that focuses on cookbooks in Manhattan. So, no iOS-only (read: Apple’s iPad) books will be legal to enter.

“We had been discussing this for three-to-four years because we knew it was a fast-growing area and we wanted to be early so that we could grow with it,” said Sartwell.

It is indeed the early days of digital cookbooks. According to a report by the New York Times, in the first quarter of 2011, about 6% of cookbook sales were digital – small but growing: that number increased to 8.5% in the second quarter.

Traditional cookbook publishers are diving in. Kansas City-based Andrews McMeel’s digital-first strategy is validated by the James Beard Foundation’s move to allow digital entries into its awards show, according to the company’s president and publisher Kirsty Melville.

“People are reading and experiencing books as e-books, so they [the foundation] should be putting a stake in the ground in that area,” said Melville.

By opening up the awards to digital entries, the show ensures that it will stay relevant, said Adam Salomone, associate publisher at The Harvard Common Press, which produces digital cookbooks. The Boston-based publisher would not enter a digital book into the James Beard Foundation awards, however.

“Digital should be considered and I’m all for it on a theoretical level,” said Salomone. “Any book where we would be considering entering the book in the first place, we would enter the physical book.”

Salomone touches on the challenge that the foundation will face when administering the awards this year. How exactly will the foundation ensure that digital books are considered fairly? How will print products be judged against digital ones? How will publishers ensure that judges see the best version of their work?

Melville has yet more questions, “Which version are you going to be talking about – on the iPad? Are you judging the format or the content? I’m really interested in what the criteria are.”

They haven’t yet been determined, said Sartwell, but those that apply to print books still apply to digital books. Submissions are accepted in the Fall until mid-December and consist of multiple copies of each book. Judges have to complete recipes from within the pages of the finalists. Each entry costs $100 and the award winners are announced at a gala in New York in May. The foundation got about 350 entries for last year’s awards.

Aside from the rule about judges not needing to buy a specific device to engage with the book, the only other rule that has been determined so far is that publishers can only enter one format of each book – either the print or the digital. The rest of the rules are still being hashed out but the mission of the organization remains the same.

“Our primary purpose is in recognizing good work and to encourage more of it,” said Sartwell.

Related: Are Digital Cookbooks Ready for the Next Level?

Write to Jeremy Greenfield

Old cookbook photo via Shutterstock

One thought on “James Beard Foundation Going Digital With Cookbook Awards

  1. John Grøtting

    I think they are making a serious mistake in requiring the books to be cross-platform. While I firmly believe that the future of the cookbook is digital, this will only be true on a device that can surpass the experience of print. Today, dedicated eReaders such as the Kindle can not do this. Why? Cookbooks are used differently than novels and the Kindle device supports the kind of interaction that is suited to a novel. Basically, a novel is a series of static pages that are intended to be read in a linear fashion. However, a cookbook as a reference work is intended to be scanned quickly. The manner in which we scan through a printed cookbook can not be surpassed on a Kindle. Beyond that, richer content (video and audio) and interactive tools specific to cooking are what will make a revolution in digital cookbooks. If we are limited to reproducing a print layout on a digital device, we will be left with a product that is inferior to print. Cookbooks have to be judged on the quality of their recipes, their editorial impact and the ability of the design to seduce us. However, once we add the dimension of digital to the product, then you need to look at the usability and user experience.

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