I recently picked up a copy of Mediterranean Cooking. It’s an attractive book, with a pretty plate of pesto pasta on its cover and recipes that seem solid inside — each with their own full-sized photo. As I flipped through it, I thought about how it was the kind of cookbook I’d maybe like to cook with. Upon taking a closer look, I found the book was missing something major: an author.
At first, I didn’t believe such a nice-looking cookbook could be authorless. I looked even closer at the cover, searched for a name on the title page, and then flipped to find author information on the back dust jacket. No author name in sight. Just an anonymous cookbook packed full of creditless recipes. I wondered: Who wrote the introduction? Who created these recipes? Who gets credit for the cookbook’s success?
It’s certainly not a party of one in the Authorless Cookbook Club. I’ve noticed more and more authorless cookbooks cropping up. They usually deal with a trending food issue or ingredient. In fact, the market is now flooded with such titles: The Clean Eating Cookbook & Diet, Allergy-free Cooking for Kids, The Candida Free Cookbook, and all sorts of “Fill-in-the-blank for Beginners” books about canning and preserving, fermentation, juicing, the paleo diet, green smoothies, and edible wild plants.
If these topics and titles read like a list of top search terms, it’s no surprise, since that’s pretty much where the ideas for these books came from. Authorless titles are often the book publishing version of linkbait — created based on perceived consumer interest, and often sold much cheaper than authored titles. One publishing company, Callisto Media, even crows about this on its website:
We understand what consumers will buy, and create content that captures revenue locked in the Long Tail. We harness the power of Big Data, with explosive results.
Callisto utilizes proprietary algorithms to mine big data for topics of consumer interest and produces non-fiction titles which enable readers to lead healthier, more fulfilled lives.
The company has 14 different presses under its umbrella — with names like Rockridge Press, Althea Press, Mendocino Press, Calistoga Press, and Shasta Press — and it releases titles such as Paleo for Beginners and The Juicing Diet. These books are written by freelance ghostwriters, which the company hires through ads placed on sites like Mediabistro and Craigslist. According to Callisto Media’s ad on Mediabistro, writers are paid from $3,000-$4,000 to turn around a book (30,000-40,000 words) in 2-3 weeks. The urgent sounding ad requires writers to send “topics you could start writing a book about tomorrow” with their application. Once his or her work is done, the writer’s name appears nowhere near the final book, and the name of the press occupies the author slot on Amazon instead.
After looking into the byline-free books published by Callisto Media, I grew more skeptical of Mediterranean Cooking, and was curious to see who was credited on the book’s Amazon page. To my surprise, an author appeared for the Amazon entry: Pamela Clark, who heads a world-famous test kitchen for the magazine Australian Women’s Weekly.
According to Amazon, Clark has “authored” over 10 cookbooks since September 2013 — including Tapas, Salads, Decorating Cakes, Pizzas, Big Book of Kids’ Birthday Cakes, and The Afternoon Tea Collection. How was it possible for one person to write more than half a dozen cookbooks in less than a year? I wanted to know, so I called the books’ publisher to find out.
“We’re stretching it a bit to call her the author.”
“Pamela Clark is the author quote-unquote, but she really runs the test kitchen,” said Denise McGann, editorial director at Sterling Publishing. “We’re stretching it a bit to call her the author.”
According to McGann, Sterling Publishing has an agreement with Australian Women’s Weekly. Sterling has access to their content and republishes the same books for the American market, as well as generates ideas for new ones based on the test kitchen’s recipe library. Instead of taking 12 to 16 months to release a cookbook from scratch, they are able to get the entire production together and finished in just over six months. It was a reasonable enough explanation. Still, I wondered why Pamela Clark deserved her name on the Amazon page, but not on the book itself.
“We really do not promote Pamela Clark as an author. She’s really kind of a placeholder. She’s the head of the test kitchen, so she’s technically not the recipe author. On this occasion, we did not use her name,” said McGann, explaining why I couldn’t find any byline on the newly released Mediterranean Cooking book, “but the marketing people prefer we do.”
Perhaps the marketing team believes that cookbook readers prefer cookbooks with authors? If that’s the case, maybe that’s because, without a name attached to the book, there’s no author available for cooks at home to trust. With books written about topics that carry certain health and safety concerns — such as canning and preserving, specific diets, or juicing — this is especially troubling. There are many risks involved that require proper guidelines be provided to readers, as well as an available source to credit for the information.
According to Amazon reviews I’ve read, it looks like I’m not a lone skeptic of the quality inside these cookbooks:
“Problem #1: There is no author or even editor(s) listed anywhere. There are none listed in the book. There are none listed on the publisher’s website,” wrote Laura B. about Essential Oils for Beginners, one of Callisto Media’s books. “If there is a book about herbs, essential oils, or anything regarding my health, I want to know WHO is giving me the information.”
“I wonder if the author, who intelligently (I hope) declined a byline, understands the reality of people who have to go to work on a bus, or already has to carry other items, like a tool box or a briefcase,” wrote J. Michael Gorday about The Clean Eating Cookbook & Diet.
“Immediately, I noticed that there were no safety warnings mentioned in this book’s introduction whatsoever, nor claims cited,” Micah wrote about The Juicing Diet. “Their careless attitude that suggests ‘juicing is good for everyone’ spits in the face of scientific reason.”
There are, of course, many other reviewers who apparently feel more positively about these books. But it’s been well documented that Callisto Media has paid for numerous good book reviews on different sites, which leaves me to wonder how many of them are actually genuine and organic.
Consumers aren’t the only ones that seem unconvinced by byline-free cookbooks. Other cookbook authors and reviewers are, too.
“I do wonder about their quality, particularly since you don’t have an author to hold responsible for the final product,” said Marisa McClellan, author of the books Food in Jars and Preserving by the Pint, and a cookbook reviewer for Table Matters. I am less inclined to write about an authorless book than I am one with an author who has an interesting story.”
Still, there’s no reason that a book like Mediterranean Cooking — which has a professional test kitchen developing recipes — can’t be a solid source of good dishes. Says, McClellan, “I will still trust an uncredited book until it proves to me that it is untrustworthy, through lousy recipes or other mistakes.”
Are authorless cookbooks a negative thing? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s certainly something worth discussing. Too bad it’s so difficult to figure out with whom to discuss it.