March 17, 2015

This has been a terrible week for Australian cookbook publishers


Keep out of reach of parents.

Keep out of reach of parents.

Marketing cookbooks and their authors brings with it a particular set of challenges. Whether you’re dealing with an author’s unfortunate recent history, claims of racism and cultural appropriation, or explosives, one thing’s for sure: a high profile author can make or break their cookbook, and it’s already a delicate balancing act to sell books that often carry a high price point when endless recipes are available for free online.

The love of the game that brings most people to work in publishing may run a little deeper for cookbook marketers and publicists, but the trade-off is that their authors get called out for some rather bizarre things. For example, baby endangerment and faking cancer, accusations of which were recently levied at two separate Australian cookbook authors. Let’s break both of these (very insane) stories down.

The charge of baby endangerment involves Australian celebrity chef and autism truther Pete Evans. Evans is the host of the competitive cooking show My Kitchen Rules, as well as the bestselling author of multiple cookbooks. He recently jumped on the paleo diet bandwagon, and has co-authored a new  cookbook, Bubba Yum Yum: The Paleo Way for New Mums, Babies & Toddlers. The book attracted so much pre-publication controversy that it was put on hold, and ultimately scrapped, by his publisher Pan Macmillan Australia. 

The controversy sprung from a recipe for “baby formula”, and this is put in quotes for reasons that will become immediately clear. Via the Australian Women’s Weekly:

The Weekly online has learned publishers Pan Macmillan have held back release of Bubba Yum Yum: The Paleo Way – following intervention by a consortium of health organisations that expressed grave concerns over the book’s DIY baby milk formula, based on liver and bone broth.

“In my view, there’s a very real possibility that a baby may die if this book goes ahead,” Professor Heather Yeatman, president of the Public Health Association of Australia, has told The Weekly online.

The “formula” has the potential to cause vitamin A poisoning in infants, which is probably why the book contains the following disclaimer:

A disclaimer in the back of Bubba Yum Yum: The Paleo Way states, “Although we in good faith believe that the information provided will help you live a healthier life, relying on the information contained in this publication may not give you the results you desire or may cause negative health consequences.”

Public health isn’t sexy, and Pete Evans is sexy, so he’s planning to ignore critics and self-publish Bubba Yum Yum as an ebook which his many adoring followers, none of which hopefully have infants, are sure to purchase.

However, author Belle Gibson may not expect as silver of a lining on her alleged cookbook chicanery cloud. Gibson rose to prominence as the blogger and creator of diet and wellness app “The Whole Pantry”, the basis of which was her claim to have cured her own cancer(s) without conventional medical treatment through a combination of alternative medicine and healthy eating. The app was successful enough to get slated as a default on the Apple Watch, but after details of her claims began to unravel, along with accusations of charity fraud, the app, and her cookbook version, were both pulled.

Via the Sydney Morning Herald, whose acronym was made for stories like these:

Penguin Publishing has now revealed it never asked Ms Gibson for any evidence of her medical condition, saying it published the recipe book in “good faith”. A spokeswoman said the latest revelations were concerning. “We’ll discuss them with Belle, as ultimately only she can answer the questions.”

Penguin later stopped selling Gibson’s book, and she quickly began backpedaling on most of her story, attributing inconsistencies in her medical claims to misdiagnosis and her vanishing charity funds on cashflow problems while deleting disputed posts on social media.

During times of great professional stress, publishers will often tell each other and themselves  that whatever worst-case-scenario occurs, “it’s not like people are going to die”. If these two stories remind us of anything, it’s that cookbook authors and publishers don’t always have that assurance.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.