So You Want to Write a Cookbook: Part 1

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cookbooksYour brownies reign supreme. Your roast chicken makes Zuni Cafe look like Safeway’s rotisserie. Proposals–not all tongue-in-cheek–pile up when your strawberry-rhubarb pie arrives. Your friends, your family, your blogging buddies all agree: you should write a book. They’d buy it, their friends would buy it, Ina and Martha would arm-wrestle over who would get you on her show first.

Don’t you wish it was that easy?! The first thing to know about writing a cookbook is that publishing is a business, and businesses have to make money to stay in business. They do this by paying attention to a whole lot of things, from profit and loss projections to trend research. It helps to realize, right from the beginning, that your book will get published only if a bunch of people (and not just editors, but sales and marketing folks too) can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it will sell and make money.

Of course, if you just want to give out your favorite recipes to family and friends, it’s easier than ever to self-publish, especially as an on-demand or e-book. But if you want the glamour of a Library of Congress number and a place on your local bookstore’s cookbooks shelf, you’d better toughen up.
Here, words to the wise, part 1:

1. It’s a cookbook, not the Great American Novel. Yes, some people buy (and read) cookbooks for the writing, just like some people buy Playboy for the articles. But, just like Playboy, many more people buy it for the pictures, or in this case, the recipes. Content editors, copy editors, proofreaders, and yes, even your editor’s phone-answering assistant will be slicing and dicing your precious prose. Believe it or not, they’re actually making you sound better. If you can’t hand over this kind of control, stick with self-publishing.

2. Learn to write recipes like the pros. This means being consistent from start to finish. For example, ingredients should always be listed in the order in which they’re going to be used. Measurements should be written the same way each time, not teaspoon on one page and tsp the next. Each time you saute an onion or roll out a batch of pastry dough, it helps to trot out the same description in the same language. Consider your audience, too. If you’re a professional pastry chef, you probably work your recipes out by weight– easier and much more consistent, of course, except that most American home bakers measure by teaspoons and cups, not grams and ounces.

3. Stay ahead of the trends. Would-be authors are often shocked to find out just how long it takes to put out a book. Let’s put it this way: if you sold your book idea tomorrow, you probably wouldn’t see a finished copy until fall of 2010 at the earliest; more likely spring of ’11. Which means the trend of the moment better have some long legs. I don’t doubt that someone’s pitching a goat cookbook right now, goat being the latest meat white people like. A goat cookbook on the shelves right now would be perfect; in two years, who knows? The meat-garde among us may have moved on to rabbit and guinea pig.

4. Have a hook. It’s not enough to throw together your greatest hits if no one knows your name. it’s sad but true that being famous in one realm is usually enough to get a hotshot deal in another (see Schwarzenegger, Governor Arnold). The rest of us have to rely on snappy ideas.

5. Got your hook? Now you need your title. Skinny Bitch, Hot Sour Salty Sweet, Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, Snakes on a Plane: all of these tell you exactly what you need to know, including the authors’ attitude. I’m a little embarrassed by the very literal title of my latest book. Then again, calling an astrology cookbook The Astrology Cookbook does make the Googling pretty darn easy.

6. Prove yourself. It helps if your connection to your cuisine of choice is breathtakingly obvious. You’re Jewish and you’re writing about the new kosher cooking! You own a fish restaurant and you’re writing about seafood! Of course, crossovers do happen– just ask Arthur Schwartz, now a go-to guy for Southern Italian. But no matter where you come from, you better have a good answer as to why and how you’re an expert– in fact, the ONLY expert– on your particular topic.

7. Figure out what goes where. If you were a punk band, you wouldn’t send your demo to Deutsche Grammophon, would you? When I worked at Chronicle Books, I opened up a lot of proposals for diet schemes, foodie memoirs, and celebrity cookbooks– none of which matched anything on our list. Ask for a catalog, browse through the library or a well-stocked bookstore cookbook section and see what titles come close to yours before you start pitching your proposals.

Up next: what’s in a proposal, creating (and copyrighting) recipes, and do you need an agent?

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About the Author ()

Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen is a longtime local food writer, author, and cook. Her books include World of Doughnuts (Egg & Dart Press); Kids in the Kitchen: Fun Food (Williams Sonoma); Honey from Flower to Table (Chronicle Books) and The Astrology Cookbook: A Cosmic Guide to Feasts of Love (Manic D Press). She has studied organic farming at UCSC and holds a certificate in Ecological Horticulture from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. She does frequent cooking demonstrations at local farmers’ markets and has taught food writing at Media Alliance in San Francisco and the Continuing Education program at Stanford University. She has been the lead restaurant critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian as well as for San Francisco magazine. Last year, she worked as an assistant chef at the Headlands Center for the Arts, an artists' residency program located in the Marin Headlands, and worked as a production cook at the Marin Sun Farms Cafe in Pt Reyes Station. She has lived in San Francisco for nearly 20 years, interspersed with stints in Oakland, Santa Cruz, Brooklyn, and Manhattan.
  • http://www.virginiawillis.com virginia willis

    Stephanie – I came across your blog post and suppose if you were with Chronicle that you know Lisa Ekus Saffer. In conjunction with the Seattle chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, we are hosting a media training seminar and will touch on cookbook publishing in Seattle in November. I thought you and perhaps your readers might find this of interest. Here’s the info below – if you could help spread the word, Lisa and I would greatly appreciate it. Best VA (author Bon Appetit Y’all)

    HONING YOUR EDGE
    Cutting Edge Media Skills for Culinary Professionals

    Friday, November 13, 2009
    Flying Fish
    2234 First Avenue, Seattle, WA 98121
    Full Day 9:30 – 4:30 PM; Half Day 9:00 – 1:00 PM
    For registration contact Daniele Mathras at 413-247-9325 or Daniele@Lisaekus.com.

    In cooperation with the Seattle Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International (LDEI), experienced media trainer Lisa Ekus-Saffer (Boston) and culinary television producer and cookbook author Virginia Willis (Atlanta) will offer “Honing Your Edge,” a national media training program for culinary professionals on Friday, November 13, 2009.

    The program will take place at Flying Fish in the Belltown neighborhood of downtown Seattle (2234 First Avenue) from 9:30 to 1 p.m. (half-day session) or until 4:30 for full-day participants. Offered in a classroom setting, “Honing Your Edge” is designed to teach the skills and help build the confidence culinary professionals need to work effectively with the media.

    Full Day 9:30 – 4:30 pm. Fee $790 per person. Includes handouts, video screening of food segments, and select attendee interviews, taping, and critiquing.
    Half Day 9:00 – 1:00 pm. Fee $490 per person. Includes handouts and video screening of food segments.

  • http://www.eatrelatelove.com Shelley | The Food Relationship Coach™

    I googled information the appendix in a cookbook and came across this on the 1st page. OMG! I love your wit and dead-on advice. I’m self-publishing on Kindle, my first cookbook Tantric Tastes™: Dessert for Lovers will be released Nov. 17th, 2011. Thanks hun!