The psychology of cookbook covers

You might think making a cookbook stand out from all the other millions on the shelves is just a matter of putting something – or someone – pretty on the cover and letting the image do the talking. But my book designer friend has told me that there’s much, much more to it than that.

Take, for example, Nigella Lawson’s How To Eat. This is my favourite of all Nigella’s books, perhaps because it doesn’t rely on pouty photographs of the author to get its point across. The cover is restrained, the illustrations few. The author photo is incredible, but it’s restricted to the inside back cover, just like that of a novel.

Eight books, 11 TV series and one iPhone app later, it’s all about Nigella’s beautiful face. It’s no great surprise – if I looked like that I’d be splashing my face about the place too – but it’s also about brand recognition.

Apparently, this rule applies to a lot of cookbooks. The general rule of thumb seems to be that if the author is young(ish), female and attractive, she’s on the cover before you can say nice buns. The same is true for both sexes if the author has any kind of TV presence.

Such as…. Annabel, selling the dream from her slice of Kiwi paradise in Wanaka…

… and perennially cheerful St Jamie, who has been on the cover of all his books right from the start.

Then there’s the issue of different covers for different markets and different editions. This is the US cover of Yotam Ottolenghi’s second book, Plenty…

… and this is the UK version (which is what we ended up with in New Zealand). Which do you prefer?

If you’re on the wrong side of 25, not naturally photogenic, or have spent a little too much time sampling your own wares, then your best hope is to put something luscious on the cover.

Or perhaps you should trust in the fact that some people will look past the cover and just check out how decent the index is (honestly – bad indexes are SO frustrating!)

What’s the prettiest cookbook cover you’ve seen recently? I’m quite keen on this one, particularly because the end papers are really gorgeous. Oh, and the food looks good too. What are the chances of that?!



  1. October 7, 2013 / 7:39 pm

    Interesting. I don't go a bundle on the cook splashed all over the cover and pages of the book. I generally want a cookbook for it's recipes. Dan Lepard's Short & Sweet is good – simple but stands out.

    • October 8, 2013 / 6:14 pm

      Yes, I often think, what are they hiding (if it's all about the author), but perhaps I am too suspicious for my own good. I agree, S & S is a good example of a book where the content speaks for itself. My copy is looking a bit battered now, but that hasn't affected my use of it!

  2. October 7, 2013 / 8:06 pm

    I think author on the front can look a bit cheesey, but then I don't look like Nigella! Beautifully shot food usually gets my vote.

    • October 8, 2013 / 6:16 pm

      Come on, I've been expecting your pic to be on the front of the Mumsnet book! Don't disappoint me now…

  3. October 7, 2013 / 9:38 pm

    I'm fascinated by this too. Definitely attracted by the covers, the US version of Plenty is more attractive to me than the UK/NZ one. Probably an exception to every rule about covers – a nice cake usually does it for me 😉

    • October 8, 2013 / 6:18 pm

      At the risk of offending US cookbook buyers, there seems to be more of a requirement to really spell it out. The Jersusalem cover is different in the US too – why change the lovely cloth bound one? I think nice cakes do it for everyone!

  4. October 7, 2013 / 11:27 pm

    Love this post – the cookbook covers that come to mind that I love are the Enchanted broccoli forest (very old school but the colours and naive illustrations appeal), and also the kitchen diaries with the apples which is just such a lovely image. I only have two nigella cookbooks and they are how to eat and domestic goddess neither of which have her face on the cover and I think they look more appealing for it. I also really like Wild Garlic, Gooseberries and Me…. Give me a good title and a nice picture over a pretty face any day.

    • October 8, 2013 / 6:21 pm

      That sounds fascinating, I'll have to look it up. Have you sen My Abuela's Kitchen? It's a really beautiful book with an illustrated cover (though I confess I have only ever made one thing out of it). The never-used cookbook syndrome is a topic for a whole other post…

  5. October 10, 2013 / 7:29 pm

    Very timely post Lucy. I've been looking into the symbolism of food/food communications on my course and it is fascinating to see when you look at the broader picture how much diversity there is in cookbook presentation. Personally I do like books with illustrations and graphics than chef photographs. I love any of the Phaidon cookbooks such as Silver Spoon, Tapas, Paella, French Baking all of which put the food at the fore.

    • October 13, 2013 / 7:26 am

      I love those Phaidon books – even though I don't use my various ones as much as I should. They are excellent resource books though (and their indexes are always brilliant!)

  6. October 11, 2013 / 12:31 am

    fascinating post.
    what i find more disappointing is when the fab cover pic entices you in, only ti find there are very few pics inside. i like almost every recipe illustrated! US books i find have very few pics.
    i also like a designy book, if done well; river cottage veg every day has whimsical prints made with vegetables that is just delightful and compliments the content (doesn't compete).
    though nothing is worse than a beautiful book… then on closer inspection, thinking "well actually, i don't want to cook any of these…".

    • October 13, 2013 / 7:28 am

      I had a long conversation on this very issue with a friend the other day – she was adamant that every recipe needed a pic, I was on the fence. I think it's like clothes having 'hanger appeal'.

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