Transforming the American Cookbook: The Influence of TikTok Stars, with B. Dylan Hollis

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Three years ago, B. Dylan Hollis found himself in a vastly different place. He was an unemployed musician living in Wyoming, with no baking experience beyond a home economics class and certainly no recipe-writing skills to his name. However, fast forward to last month, and his debut cookbook, titled “Baking Yesteryear,” achieved an extraordinary feat—it became the best-selling book in the entire country.

To clarify, it wasn’t just the best-selling cookbook; it was the number one book overall. “Baking Yesteryear,” a collection of vintage American recipes, made a remarkable debut by selling a staggering 150,000 copies on its very first day. It also became one of the most preordered books in the history of its publisher, Penguin Random House, trailing closely behind memoirs by the Obamas and Prince Harry.

What’s even more remarkable is that Mr. Hollis has no political career or royal family drama to attribute his book’s success to. Instead, he possesses a massive following of 10.2 million on TikTok, where he has been sharing his culinary creations since 2020.

Reflecting on his newfound success, Mr. Hollis said with a chuckle during a recent video interview from his home in Laramie, “I feel as if I have stolen someone else’s job.”

At the age of 28, Mr. Hollis boasts big, inquisitive eyes and a stylish swoop of hair. He peppers his rapid-fire speech with quaint expressions like “Oh, heavens!” Like many others, he found himself seeking new hobbies during the pandemic, and he decided to explore the world of baking. However, instead of jumping on the sourdough bandwagon, he channeled his love for all things antique into preparing recipes sourced from old community cookbooks.

His TikTok video from August 2020, showcasing a pork cake recipe, quickly amassed millions of views. In less than two years, he secured a cookbook deal, the details of which he would only describe as involving a “grand amount of money.”

Mr. Hollis is just one example of several TikTok creators who, despite having little or no professional cooking experience, have gone from experimenting in their home kitchens to dominating best-seller lists in an astonishingly short span of time. In doing so, they’ve injected fresh vitality into a cookbook market that had been experiencing a decline. According to consumer analytics company Circana, overall cookbook sales have fallen by 14.5 percent compared to a year ago, with the top 50 cookbooks averaging just 96,000 copies sold in the last 12 months.

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Perhaps no one is more astonished by his own success than Mr. Hollis.

“I’ve only been baking for two years,” admitted Mr. Hollis, who splits his time between Wyoming and his hometown of Bermuda. “To be recognized for my baking, despite lacking formal training or deep expertise in the subject, that’s a rather peculiar notion. You have to wonder, ‘Who truly deserves to publish a cookbook?'”

The answer to that question is evolving rapidly. TikTok has fundamentally shifted what people seek in a cookbook – or in a cookbook author, according to Vanessa Santos, the executive vice president of the publicity firm Mona Creative, which represents several cookbook writers.

“A recipe doesn’t necessarily need to be groundbreaking or flawless,” she explained. “It’s really about whether they are connecting with a personality.”

However, not everyone is on the same page, including established cookbook authors with substantial fan bases of their own.

“When you see someone making a cake in a 20-second video, it’s undoubtedly entertaining and intriguing,” said David Lebovitz, a 64-year-old cookbook author based in Paris, known for starting his food blog in 1999 and publishing a popular newsletter on Substack. “But, once again, people crave reliable recipes.”

Mr. Hollis is far from being the first amateur cook to secure a major book deal. The internet has long democratized the idea of who can be an author, with publishers aiming to convert online followings into cookbook success, starting from food blogs in the 1990s and 2000s to Instagram accounts in the 2010s.

However, TikTok has proven to be the most effective platform for driving actual sales, as noted by Kristen McLean, an analyst at Circana.

Deb Perelman, a cookbook author who began the Smitten Kitchen blog in 2006, received offers for short, quick-turnaround cookbooks shortly after. She remarked, “With TikTok users, I see them producing substantial, 300-page, serious cookbooks. To me, that signals that the publishing industry recognizes the potential here.”

Publishers are not holding back either. TikTok creators are now receiving advances that rival those given to celebrity television hosts – “definitely in the high six- or even over six-figure range,” according to Anthony Mattero, an agent at Creative Artists Agency who represents multiple TikTok creators.

“TikTok is currently the most potent selling tool,” stated Nadia Caterina Munno, a 40-year-old TikTok creator who translated her audience of 3.1 million followers into a cookbook deal, resulting in “The Pasta Queen.” Released in November, it entered The New York Times “Advice, How-to and Miscellaneous” list at No. 5. (She, along with others interviewed for this article, declined to disclose the exact amounts of their book deals.)

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Reflecting on her newfound success, Ms. Munno remarked, “I criticized another creator’s attempt at lasagna in a video I posted in 2020, and now I’m making more money than my husband. I’m the breadwinner.”

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

“It was such an honor to work on a book,” expressed Jenny Martinez, a 49-year-old mother of four from Los Angeles who transitioned from selling forklifts to running a TikTok account with 3.5 million followers. Her upcoming cookbook, titled “My Mexican Mesa, y Listo!”, is set to be released in April. She emphasized that a cookbook represents “another level” and a significant achievement for a publisher to believe in her.

However, amassing millions of followers on TikTok doesn’t automatically guarantee a hit book, according to Mike Sanders, the vice president and publisher of DK United States, which recently established a division dedicated to books by online personalities.

Mr. Sanders personally delves into online comments, stating that he examines the connection that TikTokers or social media creators have with their fans, which could enable them to stand out. The enthusiastic comments on Mr. Hollis’s videos convinced Mr. Sanders that “Baking Yesteryear” had the potential to be a bestseller. Over the past two years, DK United States, a division of Penguin Random House, has published six New York Times best-selling cookbooks by authors who gained popularity on TikTok.

Converting a video celebrity into a cookbook author printed on paper can be a considerable endeavor. Some of the individuals recruited by Mr. Sanders had never formally written recipes and were unfamiliar with the complexities involved in creating a cookbook. “We are comfortable finding these authors on our own, developing them, nurturing them, and providing them with the support needed to bring their books to life,” he explained.

This support might include pairing the author with recipe testers or managing the book’s photo shoot. DK even equips authors with strategies for promoting their books on TikTok, as the platform’s algorithm is sophisticated enough to detect and limit promotional posts, as Mr. Sanders noted.

Barbara Costello, a 74-year-old retired preschool teacher from New Canaan, Conn., is one of DK’s authors and a TikTok creator with a grandmotherly persona, boasting 3.9 million followers. She was surprised by the amount of effort involved in creating a recipe, such as precise ingredient measurements, bake times, and introductory text. Her cookbook, “Celebrate With Babs,” has been a success, selling nearly 100,000 copies since its release in April 2022. She found that her TikTok videos about the book were particularly effective in driving sales.

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TikTok doesn’t just influence sales; it also influences the visual and thematic aspects of these books.

Author Ms. Molinaro, known for “The Korean Vegan,” gained popularity on TikTok for narrated cooking videos sharing stories from her life. When her editor removed many of the personal essays from her book, she insisted on refining and reinstating them. She photographed the recipes herself to align with her online aesthetic and even enlisted her social media followers to vote on the book’s cover.

In his upcoming cookbook, “Kung Food,” Jon Kung, with 1.7 million TikTok followers, incorporated QR codes linking to his videos. According to Mr. Kung, certain culinary techniques, like folding dumplings or kneading bread, are challenging to convey in words.

Author Ms. Munno, responsible for “The Pasta Queen,” increased the number of photographs of herself and picturesque Italian landscapes in her cookbook to match her TikTok account’s appearance. Many readers purchased the book primarily for the visuals, without actually attempting any of the recipes.

Still, plenty of people buy these cookbooks for the recipes.

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

“When you are going through recipes in a cookbook, they are a little more thought-out and tested,” she said.

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

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

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

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