KeepRecipes creates an iTunes for cookbooks

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 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.”

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