A Cookbook Review Creator’s Taste for Paywalls

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A niche inside a niche (inside a niche)

Some weeks ago, Taste, a digital magazine for “the new home cook”, published a blogpost on creators publishing food media as a newsletter. The piece is much worth reading since it gives a good impression how colourful and multifaceted even such a niche inside a niche can be (newsletters on food topics).

I could even ad another niche: Matt Rodbard’s Taste-blogpost focuses only on newsletters published via Substack, the currently hottest monetization platform for paywalled and self-published writing.

One of his examples is Stained Page News, a cookbook news-Substack. That reminded me of Valentinas-Kochbuch.de (Valentina’s cookbook). It is a German blog-website which started publishing 13 years ago. It did catch my attention only five years ago, when a paywall was set up. The pricing is very moderate, though. The initial offer was €1.45/month or €12/year (around US$1.70 resp. US$14.20). Today, timepasses (!) are sold at €2.50/month or €9.75/6 months (US$3 / US$11.55).

Valentinas-Kochbuch.de publishes cookbook reviews. And out of each cookbook reviewed it publishes three recipes. Over the years some 1,000 cookbooks have been reviewed and the database today comprises more than 3,000 recipes. Each week adds up to two reviews and the corresponding recipes.

Valentinas-Kochbuch.de is published by Katharina Höhnk. Once, I’ve asked her why she didn’t name her blog Katharina’s Kochbuch. “Because from the beginning, I wanted a team of people to write. I think, a diversity of voices makes it more interesting for the readers”, she then explained to me.

The website is Katharina’s own venture. In terms of corporate language, she is editor in chief, head of customer service and chief marketing officer in one person. And though there are other people publishing content on the website, she doesn’t have employees or even a proper company structure (no Inc., Ltd. or GmbH. The imprint simply shows Katharina’s name). To me that clearly signifies she is a self-publisher. But is she?

Interview with Katharina Höhnk, publisher of Valentinas-Kochbuch.de

Katharina Höhnk by Christine Fiedler

Hi Katharina. When I contacted you for this interview, I addressed you as ‘self-publisher’. Do you think of yourself as being a self-publisher?

“I’d rather call myself a publisher. In fact, I think the term ‘self-publisher’ is a bit derogative. I am still enthusiastic about this early idea that the internet allows everybody, you and me, to become a publisher, to take a role which before was reserved for media companies. Also I am not alone, I do have two freelancers, one helping me with the content management and a photographer who eventually takes photos of certain recipes. And some 15-20 freelance authors who write the cookbook reviews.”

Is publishing Valentinas-Kochbuch.de your main occupation?

“No, unfortunately not. It is wonderful thing to earn money with your own publishing project. But it doesn’t pay all my bills. In fact, Valentinas-Kochbuch.de generates around a third of my personal income.”

Our last interview dates five years back. What happened in this time to your project? What were the main developments?

“What is really great is that paywalls have become something common. Not only in the news sector. The New York Times has huge success with their paid Cooking service. And there are other paid for culinary websites as well. Recipes more and more become content which is behind a paywall.

But also, in these years the need to innovate has risen a lot. It all has become faster. This is a huge challenge for a self-publisher who has to keep up with all these developments. There are so many more recipe resources and publishing models on the internet. Even Rewe [a huge supermarket chain] has really an appealing collection of recipes. The cookbook market has changed, especially, since younger people are a lot less interested in cookbooks, more in Social Media. So there is a constant need for innovation on the editorial and product side, while building a brand.

But also on the technical side, of course. Recently, I had to buy a security software because hacker attacks became much more frequent. So permanently there is something to be done on the technical side, which, me being a self-publisher, leads to less time to care for the content and the editorial side.”

Now let’s dive a bit more into the entrepreneurial side of Valentinas-Kochbuch.de and especially into the paywall. Thinking of five years with a paywall, what comes into your mind?

“I’m still enthusiastic about the paywall. I mean, it does not give you security. But it is much more stable than advertising. Think only of the recent Covid-19-induced recession! Also, you constantly have to acquire advertising clients when ads are your main income. And editorially, being a self-publisher, serving the reader and the advertiser at the same time might put you between a rock and a hard place. Having a paywall means you can focus on your editorial product much more.

But I feel a constant challenge on the technological side and, even more, on the marketing side. There is a constant need for marketing. Of course, over time you’ll lose paying readers. In the five years after installing they paywall I have lost 20% of paying readers. That it is of course better than average. But you have to find new ones to replace them, reactivate former readers or convert test readers into subscribers.

“There is a constant need for marketing”

Did I understand this correctly? You do have even less subs today than after starting with your paywall?

“Yes, due to a lack of marketing, the total of subscribers now is some 20% smaller than five years ago. I should spend some advertising dollars and much more time to increase the subscriptions. I should do campaigns, make special offers. But that goes beyond my professional interests. Valentinas-Kochbuch.de is part of my professional life as editor and digital manager – these tasks are my focus and fun.

I think this is something you have to think about when installing a paywall. You should be fit at marketing. You must be willing to do it by yourself or find somebody else.”

I must admit that would frustrate me a lot. To see, that I run a business without growth. But you still seem cheerful and optimistic, that’s good to see.

“Yes, I love the project and my readers. After each financial year, I calculate whether the effort and income match. Until now it is fine. It is not even that the traffic went down. We do have some 90,000 unique users per months. That is around the same as in the days when installing the paywall. That is also because I still offer a lot of content for free. All reviews are free. I have to do this in order to secure the visibility in the search engines and to offer the readers free content. It’s only the recipes which are behind the paywall. That is because recipes have a direct use value, something users will pay for.”

You are selling time-passes, no subscriptions. So your readers have to renew actively if they want to keep access to the recipes after expiration of their time-pass.

That is how the paywall looks at Valentinas-Kochbuch. 3 paid timepasses (6 months paid with PayPal, 6 months paid per invoice (!), 1 month paid per Paypal, a free 3 day trial)

“I remember you criticising me here, five years ago. But still, I think this is a very good idea. A time-pass means the user will have a very favourable impression. Readers cannot forget to cancel, they never slip accidentally into another payment obligation. That reduces complaints. That is important for the reader experience and for me personally.

 

Do you do analytics? How many time-passes are renewed? How is the conversion rate at the paywall?

“I am currently not evaluating this separately. Member Press does not report these figures and I don’t work with them either. Looking at the whole customer base I think that around 4/5 are regular customers and around 1/5 are new customers.”

 

How do you know?

“When I look into my database, I can see how many time-passes a single user has bought over time. MemberPress [a WordPress plugin to manage memberships or a paywall] works with two data sets. One table for users and another for time passes. Both data sets use a fix number to identify either a certain user or a certain time-pass. I can see how many time-passes a user has bought. So even though I do not measure this systematically, I can track single cases and get an overall impression.”

 How satisfied are you with MemberPress [a paywall plugin for WordPress]?

“Super. They are doing great work. They have a have a reliable support and take the european market into account, which is for example important for the tax. They update their product regularly (yet another thing which is constantly changing, where I do have to be up to date!) I don’t have anything to criticise with their product.

Nonetheless, and this is something I must tell you, something which makes me question the paywall, there is a huge technical challenge. And that is that a lot of users are digitally competent to use your publishing product, but not enough to solve even a small problem. I personally service all of their questions. But sometimes they do not even know what a browser is, not to speak to be able to give me the version number, to change the settings if necessary. They do sometimes not understand the password manager. They think that is something I do provide.

Everything not working smoothly is regarded as a problem of Valentinas-Kochbuch.de, any complaint falls back on me. Really, that is sobering. You see the technical side innovate so rapidly. And many people are not able to follow or do not have the joy for it, they are missing the most basic digital competences.”

“Many people are missing the most basic digital competences”

This might partly be due to the content you are publishing. Might be a prejudice, but I’d bet that the average cookbook-reader, when it comes to digitization, will have a state of knowledge below the average.

“Yes, might be. But my readers are from the middle of society. They are working people. Think of a nurse who, for sure, will have to deal with technical and digital questions in her job. But that doesn’t mean that she’ll have media competence to solve a problem with her digital devices or browser. Really, I do see this as a societal problem. There is huge gap between the technically competent people and a huge number of other people who are not. And that although the user processes in general are actually getting easier.

May I ask you about some hard figures? You said, with the introduction of the paywall you haven’t lost unique users or traffic?

“We do have the same number of users as before. But we do count fewer page impressions. Not because of the paywall but because of a resetting of the paywall 3 years ago. At the beginning it was a metered paywall, giving user access to 5 articles per month for free. But with the browsers making it so easy to delete cookies I switched to a new model. That’s what most big publishers also did. Now the reviews are free, but the recipes are behind the paywall. That lead to a drop from around 400k to 250-300k page impressions per month.”

 Would you disclose how many paying users you do have, how much revenue does Valentinas-Kochbuch.de produce?

“No (smiling). Ok, you might publish that currently there are 1,500 active paying readers. And 13,000 passive readers, people who took a trial or have an expired time-pass. I mean, you know, it is a small business. It is only a third of my personal income. Apart from the paywall revenue Valentinas-Kochbuch.de also has affiliate revenue. This revenue is far below the reader revenue but it is important to cover costs nonetheless. To run Valentas-Kochbuch.de isn’t cheap. I do have technical costs. The content isn’t cheap to produce. I don’t earn the hourly rate here that I usually earn as a freelancer. But that’s also part of the bill: the network, personal visibility and prospect of new business opportunities for valentinas-kochbuch.de.“

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