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How TikTok Is Reshaping the American Cookbook

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

Not just the best-selling cookbook — the No. 1 book.

“Baking Yesteryear,” which features vintage American recipes, sold 150,000 copies on its first day, and was one of the most preordered books in the history of its publisher, Penguin Random House — just behind memoirs by the Obamas and Prince Harry.

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

“I feel as if I have stolen someone else’s job,” he said with a chuckle in a recent video interview from his home in Laramie.

Mr. Hollis, 28, has big, curious eyes, a shapely swoop of hair and peppers his rapid-fire speech with quaint expressions like “Oh, heavens!” Like many people, he got bored during the pandemic and began baking. Instead of making sourdough, he channeled his love for 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 “grand amount of money.”

He is one of several TikTok creators, many of them with little or no professional cooking experience, who have gone from tinkering in their home kitchens to topping best-seller lists in a remarkably short time. In the process, they’ve shot a jolt of energy into a sagging cookbook market.

Overall sales of cookbooks have fallen 14.5 percent from a year ago, according to the consumer analytics company Circana, and the top 50 cookbooks sold an average of 96,000 copies in the last 12 months.

No one is more surprised than Mr. Hollis.

“I have only been baking for two years,” said Mr. Hollis, who divides his time between Wyoming and Bermuda, where he grew up. “To be known for baking without being trained or even particularly well versed in the topic, now that is a very peculiar notion.

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

The answer is changing rapidly. TikTok has altered what people look for in a cookbook — or a cookbook author, said Vanessa Santos, the executive vice president of the publicity firm Mona Creative, which represents several cookbook writers.

“A recipe doesn’t need to be all that new or perfect,” she said. “It is really just: Are they connecting with a personality?”

Not everyone agrees, even cookbook authors with big fan bases of their own.

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

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

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

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

“With TikTok people, I see them writing real, 300-page hard-core serious cookbooks,” she said. “That, to me, is showing that the publishing industry realizes what they have in front of them.”

And publishers are ponying up. TikTok creators are receiving the kind of advances that celebrity television hosts might get — “definitely in the high six- or even over six-figure range,” said Anthony Mattero, an agent at Creative Artists Agency who represents several TikTok creators.

“TikTok is the greatest 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 “Advice, How-to and Miscellaneous” list. (She and the 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 attempt at lasagna. Now, she said, “I am making more money than my husband. I am the breadwinner.”

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

“It was such an honor to do a book,” said Jenny Martinez, 49, a Los Angeles mother of four who used to sell 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 blockbuster book, said Mike Sanders, the vice president and publisher of DK United States, which recently created a division devoted to books by online personalities.

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

The comments on Mr. Hollis’s videos convinced Mr. Sanders that “Baking Yesteryear” would sell. In just the past two years, DK United States, a division of Penguin Random House, has published six New York Times best-selling cookbooks by authors popular on TikTok.

It can take considerable work to turn a video celebrity into a paper-and-ink cookbook author. Some of the people Mr. Sanders recruited hadn’t formally written recipes and didn’t understand all that’s involved in producing a cookbook. “We are comfortable finding these authors on our own, and developing them and nurturing them and surrounding them with the support to make these books happen,” he said.

That support can mean pairing the author with recipe testers, or running the photo shoot. DK even provides authors with strategies for advertising their books on TikTok, whose algorithm is sophisticated enough to identify and suppress promotional posts, Mr. Sanders said.

Barbara Costello, 74, a retired preschool teacher in New Canaan, Conn., is one of DK’s authors and a TikTok creator whose grandmotherly persona has earned her 3.9 million followers. She said she was surprised at just how much work went into writing a recipe — measuring every ingredient, determining precise bake times and writing introductions.

The cookbook, “Celebrate With Babs,” was a hit, selling close to 100,000 copies since its release in April 2022. It drew some press coverage, but Ms. Costello said her TikTok videos about the book more effectively drove sales.

TikTok not only moves merchandise; it also shapes the look and feel of these books.

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

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

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

Many readers have told her that they bought the cookbook to enjoy the pictures, but haven’t cooked a single recipe.

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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