Bread and Butter Cookbooks

by Craig Stark

3 March 2014

They're Everywhwere

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One genre of bookselling that I came somewhat reluctantly to was cookbooks. The reason was simple: I was far more interested in so-called guy things. Military, sports, etc. I say "somewhat" reluctantly because, when I saw, early on, those Betty Crocker's New Picture Cook Book's sell for $50, $100 or more on eBay, it got my attention, and I started grabbing them at sales. In time, I discovered that other cookbooks were worth grabbing too, and now, after years of further discoveries (and research as well), I feel confident that my knowledge of the cookbook genre has grown to a point that I can compete more or less with booksellers who specialize in them.

Funny thing about cookbooks: There doesn't seem to be as much interest in publishing history as there is with other genres - and I'm talking about buyers and sellers. When I was doing research for BookThink's Irma Rombauer Author Report, I reached out to some cookbook specialists for assistance with the alarmingly complex publishing history of The Joy of Cooking and got absolutely no help from them. It's possible that they didn't want to help, but I think you will agree that we booksellers are almost always happy to help other booksellers who are looking for this kind of information. One wonders that they just weren't able to help. In any case, I soon happened up Anne Mendelson's Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America The Joy of Cooking, and this proved to be a font of JOC publishing history, greatly helping me produce, to date, what appears to be the only Irma Rombauer bibliography Irma Rombauer bibliography extant.

And - speaking of grabbing cookbooks at local sales, if you haven't noticed this yourself, let me be the first to tell you that there aren't many booksellers who will compete with you. Moreover, the cookbooks themselves are often elsewhere in a house, say, in the kitchen or a pantry off the kitchen - isolated somewhere from the rest of the books and booksellers. And often as well, if there are no other books at all, there will at least be a cookbook or two. (Or a Bible.)

My purpose here isn't to discuss the cookbook genre in detail. An entire book could be written about it. There are many niches within the genre that can produce profits for us, each with their own idiosyncrasies, and if any of you do choose to specialize, I like your chances of making it work. There is that much material out there and as many buyers looking for it.

Instead, I'm going to look at a niche that I'll call bread-and-butter cookbooks. The classics, so to speak. These are cookbooks that your mothers or grandmothers - or perhaps you - used to prepare family meals over the course of years. They were so pervasive in our lives that they almost became family. What's more, these are cookbooks that are enthusiastically sought after today for these very reasons. What better avenue for revisiting the past in one's family than to prepare a meal that was enjoyed decades ago?

Since beans have already been spilled for the New Picture Cook Book, let's take a closer look at it. One of the best-selling cookbooks of its era, the NPCB hits a kind of collectors' sweet spot. If you grew up in the 60's, there's a pretty good chance that you look back on them at least somewhat nostalgically, also that you're now at an age where looking back means something more than looking forward - and you have the discretionary income to perhaps indulge this nostalgia by collecting things from that time. Like cookbooks your mother used.

First published in 1961, the NPC was actually, in a somewhat loose sense, the Third Edition of the Betty Crocker cookbook series. It was preceded by a First Edition published in 1950 and a Second Edition published in 1956, both of which were titled Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book. When a Fourth Edition was published in 1969 (what most now call the red-pie edition), the title was simplified to Betty Crocker's Cookbook - and note that "Cook Book" became "Cookbook."

To repeat, printing state doesn't interest buyers and sellers hugely, but if you have a First Printing of this cookbook - by the way, "First Edition, First Printing" will be stated at the bottom of the title page - there will be at least some enhanced interest in it. These are not uncommon. Generally, buyers won't care if this book is a Third Edition, and it would probably not be in your interest to identify it as one. Noting it as a First Edition (First Printing, if applicable) in your description, therefore, and leaving it at that will be the best approach.

When you encounter these in the field, you'll notice that there are two different formats - a case bound format and a three-ring binder. Usually, buyers will pay a premium for the three-ring binder format, most likely because it lays flat on a kitchen counter.

Value? In good or better condition, look for $50, $100 and up. Three-ring binder copies in exceptional condition will, if you list them at fixed-price and exercise at least some patience, return three-figure outcomes consistently.

As I did with a recent article on book club sets, I've put together a PDF, Top 10 report that will give you nine more bread-and-butter cookbooks that will deliver similar outcomes, along with some marketing tips, pricing guidelines, illustrations, etc. Again, these cookbooks are likely old news to experienced booksellers, but for booksellers newer to the game, maybe not. If you're interested in getting the skinny on the other nine cookbooks, $9.99 will make it happen. Email me at and I'll pass along an invoice. If you'd like to get the previous report on book club sets, same thing.

Finally, issue #48 of the Gold Edition is an in-depth report of the entire Betty Crocker cookbook series - yours for $5 here - and this, along with the above report, will up the total number of common, profitable cookbooks to over 20.

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