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Is there a recipe for success when it comes to licensed cookbooks? Vanessa Lopez – Co-Publisher & VP for Licensing and Partnerships at Insight Editions – shares her thoughts.
Vanessa, it’s great to connect. Before we dive into the world of licensed cookbooks, how did you find yourself working with brands?
I started working in trade fiction and non-fiction and came to branded publishing because of Insight Editions. I was hired by Insight and I was already really intrigued by what they were doing and blown away by the quality of their books. I’ve always been a huge fan of pop culture so it was an exciting opportunity to create high quality books for brands that I was a fan of. I’ve been here 10 years now.
You guys have an incredible line-up of licensed cookbooks. Has this corner of licensed publishing become busier in recent years?
There have been licensed cookbooks over the years, but they tended to be pretty specific – or very logical! There’s been a wider explosion in licensed cookbooks in recent years around brands that you maybe wouldn’t expect to see in this space.
“We’re looking for brands with passionate, engaged fans that want to participate with the IP in a way that’s organic to their everyday life.”
When we started our line, we launched with several gaming brands and we got a lot of questions around ‘Do gamers cook?’ In actual fact, our cookbooks with gaming brands are some of our most successful ones. If you look at worlds like Elder Scrolls or World of Warcraft, there’s food-making components to these games. The books were a logical extension of those worlds.
Is it a case of looking at brands with passionate fanbases who would enjoy seeing the IP extend in this way, as opposed to asking: ‘Does this fanbase cook?’…
Exactly. It’s a combination of factors. A food association is always great, but even without that, there are still opportunities. We’re looking for brands with passionate, engaged fans that want to participate with the IP in a way that’s organic to their everyday life. Things like cooking and cosplay are fun ways for fans to actively enjoy these worlds.
“If the brand is specific to a culture, we’ll try to find someone from that cultural background who can create recipes that way.”
Looking through some of your licensed cookbook, you’ve got recipes like Jawa Sushi in Star Wars: The Padawan Cookbook – where the food resembles the characters. In Emily in Paris: The Official Cookbook, there’s recipes for dishes seen in the show. In Black Panther: The Official Wakanda Cookbook, we have dishes from Africa. Three very different approaches, but each feels authentically on-brand.
Yes, there’s almost always a route in. I’ll give you an example; one of the earliest cookbooks that we did was The Walking Dead: The Official Cookbook and Survival Guide. It did really well for us – but initially, it felt like a brand that you could never create a cookbook around… Would it just be recipes that recreate brains?! We took the approach that it would be a cookbook to help you survive during a zombie apocalypse. It also included tips for preserving food. You can always find an angle.
Let’s dive into the creative process behind these cookbooks. Are there recipe writers out there that specialise in licensed cookbooks?
We have a stable of awesome chef authors that we’ve worked with on a number of titles, but on other projects, if the brand is specific to a culture, we’ll try to find someone from that cultural background who can create recipes that way. We also always look for someone who is a big fan of the brand. Authenticity is really important in publishing in general, and that’s definitely true of licensed publishing.
In other cases, we might pair people together. We might need someone who – like in the case of Downton Abbey – understands historical cooking, and we’ll then pair them with someone that has the brand knowledge. We’ve used that model in the past.
How playful can you be with these cookbooks? I imagine some brands really let you mess around with what consumers might expect from a traditional cookbook format.
Yeah, we’ve been lucky that our licensing partners have been excited about us playing with off the wall things that fit the brand. One of the first licensed cookbooks we did was Adventure Time: The Official Cookbook. That property is so unique; we needed to create something as unique as the brand. The ‘in-world’ story is that the characters found an old cookbook, but some pages were missing, so they had to guess at what the rest of the recipes would be… It’s very off the wall in relation to what a traditional cookbook would be, but it was very on-brand for Adventure Time.
I love the sound of that. It’s also worth highlighting that the photography and graphic design of these books are really impressive. How important is it to get these elements right?
It’s very important. I’m constantly in awe of our creative director and our design team. People like to see the execution of what the food is supposed to look like, so there’s a practical application to it, but with licensed cookbooks it’s especially important. Sometimes the food is meant to look like something not of this world, so executing how that looks is vital. Or, if we are recreating an iconic food item from a brand, you want to see what it would look like in real life to whatever degree that’s possible.
Like the Suspicious Stew from your upcoming Minecraft cookbook!
Exactly! And it’s not just the food; it’s the plating, the backdrops… It all comes together to bring you deeper into that world.
I wanted to dive into a recent launch from Insight… Seinfeld: The Official Cookbook – why did Seinfeld feel like an apt brand to create recipes for?
Seinfeld is a great example of one where the food association was so strong. It’s one of the most iconic comedies of all time and it has a die-hard fanbase, but there was also so much food on that show! And not just casually in the background – food was woven into so many memorable plotlines, like Elaine’s big salad or the black-and-white cookie. With that book, we almost had trouble stopping! We just kept finding amazing food references.
Before I let you go, are there any other recent – or upcoming launches – we should keep an eye out for?
Marvel’s Black Panther The Official Wakanda Cookbook is one we’re super proud of. The author did a really incredible job, and Marvel has been a wonderful partner in this space across the board.
The Seinfeld cookbook noted above is also a favorite, as is the My Pokémon Cookbook that’s just launched.
Looking ahead, Minecraft: Gather, Cook, Eat! is a going to be a huge launch for us in 2023. I’m also excited about Coco: The Official Cookbook. We love that film here and, in general, our partnership with Disney on the cookbook front has been amazing. We also have cookbooks launching for Hocus Pocus and Lilo and Stitch this year and are really excited about those, too.
Sounds like a great line-up. Last question! What fuels your creativity?
It helps to be a fan and to be watching the content. It sparks ideas. But for me, it’s all about the team. Creative discussions with our team really make me feel lucky about having this job… It’s fun and it helps the wheels start turning!
Vanessa, this has been fun! Huge thanks again for taking time out to chat.
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