03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Taking Back the Cookbook Business: What Canal House Cooking Really Means

It's true: timing is everything, everywhere from fashion to design to film to sex. And at a time when the death knell for print media has been tolled from one end of the publishing industry to the other; when Gourmet dies a sad death and vitally important cookbook authors are relegated to the remainder heap because they're not keeping up, sales-wise, with Rachael Ray; when why would I buy a cookbook if I can get the same recipes on line, for free is the mantra of the moment; it is no surprise that the counter-intuitive is what bubbles to the surface.

It almost always does.

I first heard about Canal House through the grapevine, which is a pretty tightly plaited bit of business in the food world. As an editor and food writer and someone who loves every part of the food and food book-making process, I was intrigued: two longtime industry stalwarts who happen to live near each other decide to open up a studio dedicated entirely to the creation of food, and a hybrid cookbook/magazine. Nice and cozy and even mildly Victorian, in that Dickensian, serial publication, totally analog kind of way.

It doesn't particularly hurt that one half of the team, Christopher Hirsheimer, is almost single-handedly responsible for what food photography looks like today whenever and wherever it's printed well; before she got her mitts on her subject, it generally photographed yellow, orange, and brown. It looked gloppy and unappealing and cheesy potato bake-like. Christopher cooled food imagery down, made it organic, gave it a strong dose of hyper-realism, and made us salivate: consider Saveur Magazine, where she was a founding editor and largely responsible for the publication's visual feel. Consider, too, Martha Stewart Living in its heyday of the 1990s; it looked and looks the way it does because Christopher changed the rules everywhere, and raised the bar for every other working food photographer very, very high. Melissa Hamilton, the other half of the team, is a critically-acclaimed food stylist who ran the kitchen at Saveur for a time, and whose work has shown up wherever editors care about what food looks like. And, growing up in a food-focused home with Gabrielle Hamilton, chef/owner of Prune, as her sister, she knows exactly what it looks like.

But why bother?

Why go to the trouble of self-publishing a four-color, magnificently-packaged thrice-yearly publication filled with simple, remarkably delicious recipes when, with street cred like theirs, they theoretically could walk into any major book publisher in the United States and have a contract in hand, a decent advance, and a distribution channel that could reach everywhere?

Because, somewhere along the line, they decided to break industry rules. Those rules are:

1. The average chain bookstore shelf time is six weeks. Think about shelf space as precious real estate: if sales are meager, the books are returned to the publisher for full credit. There is absolutely no risk on the part of the retailer. The greater and faster the returns, the faster a book will be remaindered and, after that, put out of print.

2. Design will be determined by a committee. Very often, the committee will not be attuned to or particularly interested in the very aesthetic that made the publisher acquire the author, or brand, to begin with. If you're the author and you don't like your design, you have some tweaking room. Sometimes. If they bother to show it to you at all. Some do, some don't.

3. The publicity machine responsible for creating buzz and visibility and ultimately pushing sales for the book will likely consist of one very young person who is juggling twenty-seven other authors. You will probably not see your press release, and you will have no idea how your book is being "positioned" to the press. If you set up your own signing, there may or may not be enough books there, most likely because publicity forgot to talk to sales.

4. If you try to shake marketing dollars loose to take matters into your own hands (setting up your own signings, getting books there on time, making sure there are enough books available, setting up a promotional website for the book), you'll be told that the budget is very, very small. Who gets the marketing dollars then? National bestselling authors who are brands unto themselves, and who sell themselves.

5. When your agent tries to sell your second book to your editor, sales figures will be scrutinized, and even though you argue that the house did virtually nothing to help their return on investment (aka your advance, and your book and the in-house plant costs that went into making the book), they will say that the first book didn't perform well, even if your reviews were stellar. And here's your hat.

So why did Canal House Cooking go it alone? Here are (totally) imagined answers:

1. They wanted to be part of the decision-making process.
2. They wanted to make sure that their books stay in print, even if they sell at a steady trickle to a dedicated customer, quarter after quarter, year after year.
3. They wanted to make sure that their package reflects their design, brand, and culinary ethos.
4. They wanted to stay connected to their readers in the most profound of ways.
5. They wanted to maintain their own p&l, and be wholly responsible for qualitative excellence and performance.
6. They didn't want remainders; if they print as they sell, there won't be any.
7. They didn't want to be held to an arbitrary and inflated bottom line set by an international media conglomerate whose focus is on other, more mass market streams, like television and digital platforms.

What would happen if every traditional publisher was as seamlessly dedicated to the success of their books and their return on investment as self-publishers? The book industry would look much, much different than it does today. Ultimately, this "new" model -- steeped in the understanding that for a book to sell and for the publisher to at least break even all parties must come to the table wholly and completely dedicated to its long-term success -- is what will reset the dial on this overworked, understaffed, digitally-focused business that used to be about books and authors and the printed word.

This paradigm has a name: old-fashioned, traditional, analog publishing. And Canal House Cooking has done much to remind editors and writers everywhere exactly what that really means.