I was chatting with J about her new venture, CSA Cookbooks (wherein farmers or CSA operators collaborate with her to create a cookbook customized to the ingredients available from that farm or CSA), and I wondered aloud, “does anybody ever pay for a single recipe?”

A recipe is a small tasty morsel of intellectual property, like a poem or a song, or maybe more like a chemical formula or computer program.  People have paid for songs one at a time from sheet music to single 45’s to itunes, and there’s a healthy trade in small software programs like plugins and skins, but the record for written matter is less clear.

A published recipe is protected by copyright as long as it has some content beyond a simple list of ingredients.  But of course most of us the change recipes that we get anyway, either because we’re missing some ingredient or because we’re tinkerers by nature.  A recipe’s improvisational nature is sort of like that of a jazz standard – different with every performance but always recognizable as the same.

I asked the same question at the Public Radio Kitchen food blogger confab last week and the consensus was that nobody’s buying single recipes, but people do buy cookbooks and subscribe to cooking magazines, both online and off.  It still seems odd to me.

You only need one or a handful of recipes at any given time, to make a meal for yourself and your family, but people consistently overbuy books of hundreds of recipes that they never use, and there must be millions of cooks and chefs with great recipes who have only limited ways to monetize or publicize them.  Sure, we love to leaf through books and we probably don’t want to expose our computers to kitchen conditions, but the internet has a lot to offer the recipe market – search, ratings, recommendation, social and affinity marketing, bundling, mass customization…

So here’s a rundown of some recipe business models.  I’m sure you can think of more, but which one – if any – will bear fruit?

The itunes model: pay as you go, one at a time or a few at a time for a price per. There are plenty of places where you can buy songs for about a dollar each.  Could somebody set up a recipe store where you could download recipes for a small sum each?  The first listing on Amazon.com for “cookbook” is a Rachel Ray number that boasts 365 recipes for $19.95, discounted to $13.57, an implied per-recipe price of 3.7 cents.  Not a lot of joy there for the recipe makers, but I figure the average cookbook buyer actually uses a fraction of the recipes in a book (who hasn’t bought an album to get one great song, at least before itunes?), so maybe 25 or 50 cents could make this model go?

The youtube model: it’s all free, but there are ads, and Google is making serious book on your behavorial data, too.  Alhough there’s no overwhelming single destination for recipes, there is a lot of free content out there, which is generally ad-supported or provided to build other businesses.  More on the latter later, but as far as ad-support goes, it doesn’t necessarily value quality over quantity.  Youtube has feedback systems and ratings that help you decide if a video is good or not before viewing it, so that might make a recipe portal more useful.  Even in published cookbooks, too many recipes are untested and may not really come together as you think.

The netflix model: all you can eat for a fixed monthly price.  This might actually be the magazine model in disguise, but even if you subscribe to Martha Stewart Living, you only get one issue a month, and anybody can read a lot of it free on the website.  Since you need to eat every day, you presumably have a regular and ongoing need for new recipes, so a subscription seems to make sense. Wouldn’t people pay to get a daily, weekly or monthly digest (sig) of fresh recipes?

The corporate tool model: it’s all free, but it’s provided by companies with an interest in your cooking.  Honestly, I think this is where the action is.  People who make food or cooking equipment have an interest in helping us cook more food, or at least in cooking more of their food using their equipment.  If your CSA shipment comes with one of Julia’s cookbooks, doesn’t that serve everybody well?  I’ve been making the cookie recipe from under the lid of the Quaker oatmeal for years.  I still use the tiny cookbook that came with my rice cooker.

I was surprised that at my recent visit to the Davis Square Farmers market, only one of the six or eight fresh food vendors had any recipes available at all, and that one missed the critical point of including their own farm’s name and contact information on the recipe cards!  Anyway, free recipes for the consumer and publicity and complementary assets for the vendor seems like a win-win to me.

I know I probably shouldn’t do this, but while I’m on the recipe topic, I’m going to reveal most of the secret of my peanut butter oatmeal cookies, adapted from the Quaker oats recipe under the lid of the box. The base recipe is free, but it’ll cost you to learn the secret ingredient.

Professor M’s Peanut Butter Oatmeal Cookies. Makes about 3 dozen.

1 stick organic butter, softened
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cage-free organic eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1-1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
3 cups Quaker oats
2/3 cups [redacted secret ingredient]
1/3 cup chopped dark chocolate or chips

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F
  2. Combine butter, peanut butter and sugars in a bowl
  3. Add eggs and vanilla, beat well
  4. Add flour and baking soda
  5. Add oats, [redacted secret ingredient] and chocolate, stir in
  6. Drop generous rounded tablespoons onto cookie sheets
  7. Bake for about 12 minutes, cool at least a minute before devouring