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KeepRecipes creates an iTunes for cookbooks

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Online community cooking portal KeepRecipes launched an “iTunes for recipes” on Friday, in hopes of building an online marketplace for culinary ideas where cooks and gastronomic publishers can buy and sell individual digital recipe cards and eventually whole cookbooks.

KeepRecipes is starting out small. It has signed deals to distribute the contents of five cookbooks from two publishers, Gooseberry Patch’s 101 Recipes and Harvard Common Press’ Not Your Mother’s cookbook series. The site is also hosting individual recipes from seven famous chefs and authors, including Masaharu Morimoto of Iron Chef fame and New York Times food columnist and cookbook writer Mark Bittman, giving the portal’s members access to 1,000 different dishes, priced at 99 cents each. But CEO and founder Phil Michaelson said he is hoping he can build off that small core of cuisine, proving to publishers that there is money to be made distributing their cookbooks online and convincing consumers that some online recipes are worth paying for.

The comparison to iTunes isn’t just a gimmick. It is uncanny how closely KeepRecipes is following Apple’s (s aapl) music distribution model, all the way down to direct integration with the iPhone. The recipes are bought and stored through KeepRecipes’ online portal, where they can be sorted and searched, organized into collections — recipe playlists, if you will — and shared with up to five friends in the KeepRecipes community. A mobile app allows members to access their collections through the iPhone.

What’s more, those paid recipes become part of the members’ overall digital recipe collection within the portal. Michaelson said KeepRecipes is trying to do away with the concept of the digital cookbook as just another e-book, trapped in between electronic covers. Instead, the portal aims to help its members build a comprehensive digital cooking library — a task I can tell you from experience is almost impossible to do — by bringing in recipes from multiple sources.

“We want to provide a place where you can keep all of your recipes in one spot, whether it’s your family recipe, a web recipe or premium content,” Michaelson said.

Recipes found online can be grabbed through KeepRecipes’ bookmarklet or by entering its URL through the website. You can enter your own recipes manually, and you can “keep” any nonpaid recipe in your friends’ collections. Just as customers can annotate, comment and add pictures to their own recipes, they can do the same for the ones they have paid for.

The remaining obstacle to building a complete digital cooking library is integrating the thousands of recipes that sit bound on our bookshelves. But Michaelson is working on that problem as well. KeepRecipes is working with its publishers to allow members to download the digital contents of their physical books for a fee of $5 per cookbook.

If you read my post earlier this month on why digital recipes need to emulate digital music, this idea might sound eerily familiar. I thought I was being pretty creative at the time, but it turns out Michaelson and his developers have been developing that concept since KeepRecipes’ inception. Michaelson has already found solutions for problems that I merely posed, such as how to deal with digital rights management and controlling distribution.

In fact, KeepRecipes seems to have all the tools in place to make a comprehensive online recipe library possible. What it lacks is scale. That is understandable, considering KeepRecipes only launched in August, has only 10,000 members — of which about 15 percent are active — and is still in its early stages of funding. For a company of that size to have attracted the attention of even small publishing houses is impressive.

Michaelson said he has found cookbook publishers are eager to go online, but many of them see the inherent limitations of the e-book format, which is why they are working with KeepRecipes. Publishers are also concerned that once they make their cookbooks more digitally accessible, their recipes will escape into the wilds of Internet, where they won’t be able to charge for them. “They are very intrigued by the idea of a social portal and sharing on Facebook and Twitter,” Michaelson said. “But they’re also fearful of a total loss of control.”

9 Responses to “KeepRecipes creates an iTunes for cookbooks”

  1. I love the idea of KeepRecipes. BUT…as someone with many printed cookbooks that I often use for reference, I don’t see myself paying $5 per to download. EatYourBooks is my index.

  2. siblysarkar01

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  3. Nicholas

    Recipes are such a strange concept to the most proficient cooks. As an avid home chef, I view many recipes for an understanding of concepts and flavors, and wing it in the kitchen. Rarely, have I ever followed a recipe.

    I am unsure as to what is salable here. Will Marcella Hazan sell a recipe in the market? I doubt it, because she actively sells complete books! In fact a fantastic model may be to create different models around such books!

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Nicholas,

      I agree with you in part. I worked as a cook before I became a writer and I like to approach cooking in more free-form ways. Recipes often serve as a guide or a means of generating new ideas for different combinations of ingredients in classic dishes.

      But I still rely heavily on recipes especially if I’m cooking something for the first time, and I think the vast majority of people do. As for chefs not being willing to sell single recipes, you may be right, but I think they might be making a mistake if they take that attitude. Look at music. That industry was album oriented for decades, but iTunes revived the single. Album sales certainly didn’t go away, but selling individual tracks is now a big revenue source for musicians and labels. A small cookbook author that only sold 10,000 cookbooks might see an individual recipe go viral bringing in a huge new revenue stream while also driving people to buy the whole cookbook.

      I definitely agree with you that the business model needs to encompass whole cookbooks not just their individual recipes. Larousse Gastronomique would be worthless if you only stripped out its individual recipes since its greatest value is as culinary encyclopedia and reference. The same for Master the Art and innumerable other cookbooks. Ideally I’d like to be able to access a cookbook as a whole in a digital format, but I’d also like to have access to the individual components separately. There’s both an art and practical side to cooking, don’t you think?

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Karl,

      I suspect we’ll see subscription models emerge as well. Sites like Cook’s Illustrated already have behind-the-paywall models. They just need to be expanded beyond the content of a single book, publisher or Website. If I could pay a monthly subscription to access every recipe ever written, I would definitely by that service.

      • Phil Michaelson

        Us too! We’ve already designed an application that is much more social than iTunes.

        And as to the content and business model, we’d love to truly have everything available in one spot, for a monthly subscription. We just need to get the publishers on board.


  4. I am having a ball with IA (iBooksAuthor). There is so much you can easily do that I need to write a tutorial on how to rip off web recipes with one click and a drag/drop. You can create your own custom cookbook and then carry the iPad with you into the kitchen.

    The more I use IA the simpler it becomes to create really neat stuff in a heartbeat even if it is just for my own use. iBooks Two are so simple to create and so different from the previous generation, everyone with a new Mac should try them. Think outside the BOX and use all your Mac tricks. They all work in one way or another with IA.

    Share with those who don’t have an iPad.

    And don’t get me started on the PDFs that you can export to.

    These are not like your Daddy’s PDFs!