Cookbooks.
"If you buy one of our cookbooks, you're buying a curated, carefully edited, shaped and structured experience. You're not Googling a recipe." - Julie Gibbs, Penguin Books

IN JANUARY, keen home cook Lisa McLean threw out a dozen cookbooks that were, in her words, ''cluttering up the cupboards''. She next took the axe to her magazine collection, binning, along with Meals from the Freezer, a stack of faded food glossies she no longer needed. Survivors such as Donna Hay's No Time to Cook shouldn't get too comfortable - there are more trips to the recycle bin to come.

McLean's cleanout might seem madness to a cookbook lover, even tragedy: the joy of cooking, after all, is partly in the bond with the butter-smeared and wrinkly-spined tome that guides you. But McLean, 43, a long-time cookbook-lover, has transferred her affections to two new objects: her slick and stain-free iPad and iPhone. The affair is one of convenience. For her, a regular cook for her husband, two children and four stepchildren, among them five insatiable teenage boys, family meals are about quantity and affordability. So, spotting a special on corn at the market, McLean whips out her iPhone, Googles ''corn recipes'' and finds a corn, lime rind and sage dish. The Cook's Companion is just a pain to lug around.

She skips the rifling-through-books stage of planning monthly dinner parties, too. Instead, she heads online to find dishes such as maple-glazed salmon and cooks with the iPad propped on the kitchen bench. As her recipe books gather dust, McLean plans to tell her sister-in-law to switch her annual Christmas subscription to Donna Hay from the magazine to the digital edition. ''I'd still accept a cookbook as a present,'' she says, ''but I wouldn't buy a cookbook now myself. I'd download something.''

Julie Gibbs, Penguin.
Julie Gibbs of Penguin Books.

McLean is the stuff of nightmares for Australian cookbook publishers: a cookbook-lover who's stopped buying cookbooks. And, it seems, she's not the only one. The sector in which sales rose 35 per cent between 2008 and 2010 suffered a slowdown last year and Nielsen BookScan reports the figure fell to 3,386,000 last year. We haven't lost our appetite completely; the fall is less than the 7.1 per cent drop in book sales across the board, and a cookbook - Jamie's 30-Minute Meals - topped the overall bestseller charts last year.

Yet, as a buyer from independent bookshop chain Readings says, it's a plateau. ''Sales are still ridiculously strong but they have flatlined.''

Bearing down on the upward curve is that usual suspect, the slouchy economy. There just aren't as many people in shops. And there aren't as many shops, either. In February last year, REDgroup Retail went into receivership and, during the year, closed its 169 Angus & Robertson and 29 Borders shops, leaving publishers with fewer shelves on which to place their books.

Lisa McLean has forgone cookbooks for recipes on her iPad.
Lisa McLean's iPad has replaced many of her cookbooks on the kitchen bench. Photo: Marco Del Grande

''It was basically a 20 per cent loss in the market overnight,'' Sally Webb, food publisher at Murdoch Books, says. All this as the rising popularity of online discount booksellers pushed prices down and one-time cookbook lovers such as McLean headed into the digital ether for inspiration. As one publisher puts it, 2011 was ''a pretty stressful year''.

And so, as with the novel and newspaper before it, rumours of the cookbook's demise at the iPad-clutching hand of progress have been swirling. As with the novel and the newspaper, the rumours might have been exaggerated. ''The cookbook isn't dead,'' says Julie Gibbs, publishing director of illustrated books for Penguin, ''but it is challenged.''

Arguably the biggest non-author name in Australian food publishing, Gibbs has been producing beautiful cookbooks at the pointy end of the market for 24 years. Stephanie Alexander is on her books, and her office shelves exhibit lavish pre-Christmas titles from Penguin's Lantern imprint such as Dinner at Matt's (Sydney chef Matt Moran) and Cumulus Inc (by chef Andrew McConnell).

Julia List with cookbooks in her kitchen.
Julia List believes ''cookbooks are beautiful objects''. Photo: Rodger Cummins

Gibbs suggests cookbooks may be victims of their own popularity. ''There are too many publishing houses thinking, 'Oh, cookbooks sell, we'll start a list and get on that bandwagon.' There are now just too many books for the population that's being asked to look at them, choose them, buy them and take them home.''

The main players on that bandwagon are Murdoch and Lantern, which continue to publish heavily at the high end ($50-$100); Hardie Grant, which has big-seller Margaret Fulton and which is pushing aggressively into the middle range ($20-$50); and Pan Macmillan, which entered the market last year with lifestyle imprint Plum. Encouraged by the past decade's sales and our intense interest in food - Gibbs remembers a time when it was a challenge to get coriander in Melbourne - just about every chef and his sous has a book out. That's good news for consumers and mixed news for publishers.

Climbing supply has met ripples in demand as shoppers cotton on to online bargain sites and a high Australian dollar cuts price tags on imports. Local publishers have had to push prices down not only to get noticed among themselves but to compete against cheaper overseas titles.

Top selling cookbooks.

Webb says her team dropped several prices by 10 per cent to 15 per cent last year and books produced with an expected price of $59.95 were sold for $49.95.

A former journalist who joined Murdoch last year, Webb says she's come in at a time when ''we've got to publish smarter''. Lower price points are being set earlier in the process so that production budgets can be properly hitched to a fixed final price, and Murdoch has reduced its list from 30 books last year to slightly more than 20 this year. Other publishers are also ''consolidating''. ''That's my reality,'' Webb says. ''I've got a smaller list of books that are expected to do better than a large list will do. We have to make the same amount of money or more with two-thirds of the number of books.''

Publishers are also carefully examining what worked and what didn't. It's obvious to most why Jamie's 30-Minute Meals sold 221,000 copies last year - Gibbs says it was simple: ''The words 'Jamie Oliver' plus '30 minutes!''' But why was Sydney patissier Adriano Zumbo's debut book a breakthrough hit with 60,000 sales worldwide while others tanked? Surely, no one was actually going to make that infamous croquenbouche.

What makes a cookbook work depends on who you ask. Mark Ashbridge, marketing director at Murdoch, says ''author-led'' cookbooks are hot right now - Zumbo, Hay, Perry - and that generic titles, such as ''best pizzas'', are cooling. A buyer from Readings says being on-trend is key. Brit-Israeli chef Yotam Ottalenghi's vegetarian tome, Plenty, sold an impressive 1000 copies at Readings shops last year.

Vegetarianism joins trends such as macarons, health, artisan, barbecue and foraging as bankable subjects. Personal vegie patches are in, too: Indira Naidoo's The Edible Balcony was a surprise breakthrough for Lantern, selling more than 10,000 copies and entering a second print run.

Gibbs says that, regardless of what's hot, the key ingredient is trust. It's why Lantern, Murdoch and, most famously, The Australian Women's Weekly brag that their recipes are thrice-tested. ''That's the quintessential thing about cookbooks as a buyer, reader, cook - you only get one go,'' she says. ''If you cook a recipe out of a book and it's not successful, and you know that you've done the right thing by the recipe, then you're not going to go there again.''

Cookery's biggest-sellers suggest simplicity is also important in reaching the masses. Of the top-10 non-fiction books in Australia last year, four were cookbooks: Jamie's 30-Minute Meals (221,000); Simple Dinners by Donna Hay (78,000); Fast, Fresh, Simple, also by Hay (59,000); and 4 Ingredients: Kids (51,000). McLean, who works on the business side of community newspapers, says that while she's happy to experiment at dinner parties, it is these very qualities she looks for when Googling her more regular meals - and deciding which books to keep and which to ditch. ''I'm a mum with six children to feed and I work. It's just about good-quality food prepared well but in a time-convenient way.''

Developers of apps are banking on their products being the best way to deliver fast, fresh and simple recipes.

''The thing about an app is that you can start with your ingredients,'' says AppBooks' Liam Campbell, who developed the iPhone app for Kim McCosker and Rachael Bermingham's popular 4 Ingredients book series. The 4 Ingredients app has a recipe builder that's useful for in-supermarket inspiration or looking through your pantry: simply enter four ingredients and the app tells you what to cook.

Campbell sees opportunities in the digital cookbook realm. He is building a database of all 4 Ingredients recipes from which niche eBooks can be quickly produced, and envisages a day when people might be able to log on to the database and create their own physical books. Pick and choose your dishes, add family recipes and simply press print - after entering your credit card details, of course.

But Campbell has the luxury of working with daring self-publishers. The main imprints see eBooks and apps as part of the evolution of the cookbook and as an opportunity rather than a threat but they are reluctant to evolve too quickly.

''With apps, we're at a little bit of a wait-and-see moment,'' says Murdoch's Ashbridge, citing cost and general uncertainty about how large or valuable the market is.

The 4 Ingredients app has been downloaded 44,000 times since its launch in April 2009, for instance, but the book series has sold 5 million copies.

Murdoch has committed to hundreds of eBooks this year but even those, with video and audio, are expensive to produce.

At Lantern, Gibbs says: ''What you're doing is trying to put a TV series and a book into one product. When those costs come down, we'll be able to do even more of it.''

But if iPad-swiping McLean is keeping publishers up at night, there's news to lull them: bookseller Dymocks reports that, in its shops, pre-Christmas sales last year were 25 per cent higher than in 2010, and 2012 is already a better year for cookbooks.

There are still people such as 28-year-old Montmorency high-school teacher Julia List. The tech-savvy Generation Y iPhone owner has coeliac disease, so cooks for herself most nights. But she rarely Googles a recipe and never brings electronic devices into the kitchen. ''If you look at a cookbook and what's happened to it, I find having a computer on a kitchen bench a risky enterprise.'' Instead, List collects books, everything from Beyond the Great Wall, a ''very political cookbook'' with recipes from China's regions, to an heirloom edition of The Joy of Cooking that contains a diagram showing how to skin a squirrel.

It's the connection to her books that keeps List hitting the shops. ''Cookbooks are beautiful objects when you get them,'' she says. ''And, later, there's something about opening that favourite recipe and finding the pages stuck together and that bit of pastry on it from last time.''

It's this tactile connection with cookbooks, their beauty, new or well-used, that publishers say distinguishes physical books from a Google search or an app.

''When you get a cookbook right,'' Webb says, ''it's something you'll hold and you'll love and you'll cherish, a bit like a husband, for the rest of your life.''

For Gibbs, the joy of a cookbook lies in the holistic experience it provides.

''If you buy one of our cookbooks you're buying a curated, carefully edited, shaped and structured experience. You're not Googling a recipe. We take you to a place of vicarious enjoyment and, hopefully, real-life enjoyment.''

But the last word on the state and future of the cookbook must go to Australian cookery's grande dame, Margaret Fulton, still a hot seller after more than 40 years. Fulton, 87, has written 20 books, with more to come, and her ubiquitous Margaret Fulton Cookbook has sold more than 1.5 million copies since its release in 1968. She has an app but says the technology can make you lazy. ''Maybe I'm just old-fashioned.''

Surveying the landscape, Fulton says there are too many cookbooks - ''Enough to fill 10 houses!'' - but that there will always be an appetite for quality. ''What makes a cookery book great is knowing that the author really cares,'' she says. ''Donna Hay once told me that when she was at school she made her little brother sit in front of her in the kitchen as she pretended to be me. Any book that comes from a basis of loving something, like that, those are the books I would go for.''