I put Eat Your Books up on Monday as a Things We Love feature. Shortly after, co founder Jane Kelly made contact and she sounded so fabulous I felt we needed to know more, so we did a quick email interview from her base in Boston USA.
Jane, what made you start Eat Your Books? Did you have giant cookery library you were not using?
I owned a lot of cookbooks but I would cook the same recipes over and over as I knew where they were in my cookbooks. If I wanted to make something new I would go online when I wanted to find a recipe quickly – it was easier to search online. But it frustrated me that I had better recipes in my cookbooks, if only I could find them. I decided to create a database of the recipes in my cookbooks and when I mentioned it to a friend she asked me to share it as she had the same frustration. A lightbulb went on and I realized there are people all over the world with this issue. My sister Fiona (who lives in Auckland) came on board and we created the business together.
What did you both do before you set up EYB?
My background was in television. I worked in London for Virgin for 15 years before I moved to the USA. Fiona worked for Microsoft in the UK, USA and New Zealand. We both took some time out from our careers when our children were small – we have two children each, all now out in the world at college or working. We started working on EYB 7 years ago and launched it 5 years ago.
You are both grown ups (Jane 58, Fiona 56), do you feel your lifetime experience is helping you make wiser decisions?
Absolutely. Having both worked many years for large successful companies, Fiona and I have a good understanding of what makes a business work. We have a board, do monthly management accounts, know the importance of customer service, staff training and quality control. We are constantly reviewing where the business is going and how to make it better. I think a lot of people have a good business idea and they think the world will beat a path to their door and it will be a huge success. But it doesn’t necessarily follow which is why so many start-ups fail. We were realistic on how much work would be involved (I had worked on 3 start-ups for Virgin) and what a commitment it would be in terms of time and money.
Having now used the site, I am ashamed to admit I have 85 cookery books, I’m sure I’m not the only one…why do you think we can’t resist a cookery book?
You are definitely not the only one with a large cookbook collection – in fact the Bookshelves of many EYB members would make yours seem tiny. And don’t be ashamed – a cookbook collection is a wonderful thing (and at least other people get to share the results of your cooking, unlike a shoe collection). I have over 1,500 myself – ridiculous, I know! Cookbooks are much more than just a collection of recipes – an introduction to a new country, history or cuisine, stories of someone’s life and travels, an education about new ingredients and cooking techniques, gorgeous photos to drool over, and last, but by no means least, great recipes that you can enjoy cooking and your friends and family will appreciate eating.
My youngest son never uses my vast collection of books, he just googles a recipe, do you think cookery books are moribund with the digital generation?
My 19 year-old daughter is the same. Though she does now search the online recipe collection on EYB rather than Googling. Because our 167,000 online recipes are from cookbooks, magazines and the top blogs, our curated collection has much better recipes than random Google results.
Apparently cookbook sales are holding up much better than a lot of other areas of print books. eBooks just can’t compare to the beauty of a printed cookbook and most people don’t want electronics on their kitchen counter. Most eBooks don’t have the functionality that would add value – there’s no search engine, instruction videos, shopping list, etc. And each eBook is completely separate so any functionality is limited to one book, not all your collection. That’s where EYB is a bridge between print and digital – a recipe search engine, repository for notes, a shopping list, etc – but across all your recipes, whether print (books and magazines), digital, online and personal recipes.
Younger cooks do assume that everything should be free that’s online. And there are huge numbers of free recipes available online, many of them very good. But how do you know what’s good and what has been properly tested? The recipes in a cookbook are from an author you know and trust. And as I mentioned earlier, a cookbook has much more than just recipes. Writers like Yotam Ottolenghi and Nigella Lawson have a voice and an authority that cooks will pay for. A good example of why free recipes don’t affect cookbook sales are Ottolenghi’s books Plenty and Plenty More. Those recipes have been published in The Guardian and most of them are available on www.theguardian.com. But people buy the books anyway – it doesn’t matter that they can get the identical recipes for free online, they want to own the book. 73% of the recipes in Plenty have Recipe Online links for the full recipe for free on EYB but it is the #1 cookbook owned by our members.
How do you imagine the site growing? Will you be the first global cookery community do you think? Do cooks want to talk to each other (via your forum)?
There are lots of features we would like to add but we’re a small company and self-funded so we can’t do everything at once. One feature we hope to add soon is allowing members to upload their own photos of recipes they cook. We would also like to develop the social networking side of the site. In the longer term we would like to host digital books so members can access complete recipes directly from their search results – useful when you are at work or in the supermarket. Our membership is growing fast and that will help the community side of the site. Our membership is mainly in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand so I think it probably is the first global cooking community. It helps that Fiona and I are British but I live in the USA and Fiona lives in New Zealand (and was born in Australia). We have a very international outlook!
TWR readers have been buying cookery books for a long time, why should they join EYB?
I think anyone who owns more than 20 or so cookbooks knows what a pain it is to pull down all your books to find a recipe, looking through all the indexes. And the back of the book index does not list every ingredient or category. Because EYB is a database you can search by any combination of ingredients (right down to herbs and spices), recipe types, ethnicity, special diet, occasions, seasons, etc. In seconds you can have a list of every recipe you have in your books for a vegetarian Indian curry containing potatoes but not aubergines (there are over 500 of those recipes in the EYB Library!). Or you want a list of every chocolate cake that Nigella has created then you can quickly find all those recipes in her books – there are 90 of them. Or you have a bunch of a herb that’s wasting away, or have half a jar of something to use up – use EYB to find all the recipes in your books using that ingredient. You use your cookbooks far more, you plan your shopping more efficiently, waste fewer ingredients and cook many more recipes when you use EYB. And although we have been talking mainly about cookbooks, we also index the recipes in loads of food magazines – most of the UK magazines but also from around the world. We index the best food blogs and websites and you can index your own personal family recipes and clippings. So you end up with one search engine for every recipe you own.
Soooo, I’ve been using the site now all week and I can thoroughly recommend it. It took me just 35 mins to upload all 85 books and yesterday lunchtime I made winter coleslaw from a Skye Gyngell book I’d almost forgotten I had. Jane and Fiona have kindly offered all TWR readers a 3 month free trial membership to the website, just use the code TWR15. Do it, I think you’ll love it.