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Authors of the TikTok Cookbook – The New York Times

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Three years ago, B. Dylan Hollis was an unemployed musician in Wyoming who had never cooked anything outside of a home economics class, much less written a recipe. Last month, her first cookbook, “Baking Yesteryear,” became the best-selling book in the country.

Not just the best-selling cookbook – the #1 book.

“Baking Yesteryear,” which features vintage American recipes, sold 150,000 copies in its first day and was one of the most pre-ordered books in the history of its publisher, Penguin Random House – second only to memoirs Obama and Prince Harry.

Mr. Hollis has no political career or royal family drama to propel his book. What he does have is 10.2 million followers on TikTok, where he has been posting cooking videos since 2020.

“I feel like I stole someone else’s work,” he said with a laugh during a recent video interview from his Laramie home.

Mr. Hollis, 28, has big, curious eyes, beautiful hair and peppers his rapid speech with quaint expressions like “Oh, my God!” Like many people, he became bored during the pandemic and took to cooking. Instead of making sourdough, he channeled his love of all things antique into preparing recipes from old community cookbooks.

His August 2020 TikTok video about pork cake racked up millions of views, and less than two years later, he signed a cookbook deal for what he would only describe as a “large sum of money “.

He is one of several TikTok creators, many with little or no professional cooking experience, who have gone from tinkering in their kitchen to topping bestseller lists in a remarkably short time. In doing so, they injected new energy into a declining cookbook market.

Overall cookbook sales fell 14.5% from last year, according to consumer analytics firm Circana, and the top 50 cookbooks sold an average of 96,000 copies during of the last 12 months.

No one is more surprised than Mr. Hollis.

“I’ve only been baking for two years,” said Mr. Hollis, who splits his time between Wyoming and Bermuda, where he grew up. “Being known for baking without being trained or even particularly versed in the subject is a very particular notion.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘Who deserves to publish a cookbook?’ ” “, did he declare.

The answer is evolving quickly. TikTok has changed what people look for in a cookbook — or in a cookbook author, said Vanessa Santos, executive vice president of advertising firm Mona Creative, which represents several cookbook authors.

“A recipe doesn’t have to be so new or perfect,” she said. “It’s really just: Do they connect to a personality?”

Not everyone agrees, even cookbook authors who have their own fan base.

“When you make a 20-second video baking a cake, it’s really entertaining and interesting,” said David Lebovitz, 64, a Paris-based cookbook author who started his food blog in 1999 and publishes a popular newsletter on Substack. “But again, people want solid recipes.”

Mr. Hollis is far from the first home cook to land a major book deal. The internet has long democratized the notion of who can be an author, and publishers have sought to translate online followers — from food blogs of the 1990s and 2000s to Instagram accounts of the 2010s — into cookbook success.

“But nothing has converted as well as TikTok into actual sales,” said Kristen McLean, an analyst at Circana.

Shortly after cookbook author Deb Perelman, 47, started the Smitten Kitchen blog in 2006, she received offers for short, quick cookbooks on foods like holiday cookies.

“With the TikTok people, I see them writing real serious, hardcore 300-page cookbooks,” she said. “It shows, to me, that the publishing industry is aware of what it has in front of it.”

And the publishers are getting started. TikTok creators are getting the kind of advances that famous TV hosts might get — “definitely in the high six-figure range or even above six figures,” said Anthony Mattero, an agent at the Creative Artists Agency who represents several TikTok creators.

“TikTok is the best-selling machine right now,” said Nadia Caterina Munno, 40, who parlayed her TikTok audience of 3.1 million followers into a deal for a cookbook, “The Pasta Queen “. Released last November, it debuted at No. 5 on the New York Times’ “Tips, How-tos, and Miscellaneous” list. (She and others interviewed for this article declined to share the exact amounts of their book deals.)

Ms. Munno’s TikTok career took off with a video she posted in 2020 criticizing another creator’s lasagna attempt. Now, she says, “I make more money than my husband.” I am the breadwinner.

Beyond money, publishing a cookbook carries a certain prestige, even for people who are already online stars.

“It was such an honor to do a book,” said Jenny Martinez, 49, a mother of four in Los Angeles who sold forklifts and now runs a TikTok account with 3.5 million followers; her cookbook, “My Mexican Mesa, y Listo!” will be released in April. A cookbook is “another level, and such an accomplishment for a publisher to believe in me.”

But having millions of followers doesn’t guarantee a successful book, said Mike Sanders, vice president and publisher of DK United States, which recently created a division devoted to books by online personalities.

Mr. Sanders spends time reading comments online, “just looking at the connection that TikTokers or social media creators have with fans that might allow them to break through the noise,” he said.

Comments on Mr. Hollis’s videos convinced Mr. Sanders that “Baking Yesteryear” would sell. In the last two years alone, DK United States, a division of Penguin Random House, has published six New York Times bestselling cookbooks by authors popular on TikTok.

Turning a video celebrity into a paper-and-ink cookbook author can take a lot of work. Some of the people Mr. Sanders recruited had not formally written recipes and did not understand everything involved in producing a cookbook. “We’re comfortable finding these authors on our own, developing them, nurturing them and surrounding them with the support needed to make these books happen,” he said.

This support may involve pairing the author with recipe testers or arranging the photo shoot. DK even offers authors strategies for advertising their books on TikTok, whose algorithm is sophisticated enough to identify and remove promotional posts, Mr. Sanders said.

Barbara Costello, 74, a retired preschool teacher in New Canaan, Connecticut, is one of DK’s authors and a TikTok creator whose grandmother persona has earned her 3.9 million followers. She said she was surprised at how much work goes into writing a recipe: measuring each ingredient, determining precise cooking times and writing introductions.

The “Celebrate With Babs” cookbook has been a success, selling nearly 100,000 copies since its release in April 2022. It has attracted some media coverage, but Ms. Costello said her TikTok videos about the book have stimulated sales more effectively.

TikTok doesn’t just move merchandise; it also shapes the appearance of these books.

Ms. Molinaro, 44, author of “The Korean Vegan,” became known on TikTok for her narrated cooking videos in which she shares stories about her life. When her editor removed many personal essays from her book, she refined them and insisted that they be added back. She photographed the recipes herself to match her online aesthetic. She even asked her social media followers to vote for the cover.

In his upcoming cookbook, “Kung Food,” Jon Kung, who has 1.7 million followers on TikTok, included QR codes that link to his videos. “How to fold dumplings, knead bread or make pasta, these things will always be difficult to explain in words,” Mr. Kung, 39, said.

Ms. Munno, the author of “The Pasta Queen,” said she doubled the number of photographs of herself and beautiful Italian landscapes in her cookbook to make it more like her TikTok account.

Many readers told her they bought the cookbook to enjoy the pictures, but didn’t cook a single recipe.

Still, many people buy these cookbooks for the recipes.

Janvi Joshi, 26, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in finance, cooked about seven dishes from “The Korean Vegan.” She said that with recipes written in captions on social media, “the measurements and stuff might be a little off.”

“When you go through recipes in a cookbook, they’re a little more thought out and tested,” she said.

But Mr. Hollis worries that the more cookbook deals his fellow TikTok creators get, the less credible their books are likely to become. The field may become too saturated.

“Everyone, including their dog, is about to have a cookbook,” he said, “and who knows what it’s going to do?”

Then again, Mr. Hollis is already thinking about his next cookbook.

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