“You switch one word and you can mess up the entire equation,” I’d explain to the copy editors at The New York Times Magazine, who wanted to cut, cut, cut the recipes.
Mess up the equation and you potentially waste someone’s time and money, or worse, ruin his or her dinner. And if that happens, what’s the likelihood that she’ll come back to your magazine, cookbook or website for another recipe?
A few years later, while reviewing some of the fall’s hottest cookbooks, I kept running into problems. Recipes from three popular books didn’t work well. A beautiful Mexican dessert book copied the frosting of one cake into the recipe of another cake double its size. This was an obvious editorial mistake, but what a drag for the home cook who would be left with a half-frosted cake.
It was then that I started questioning the state of cookbook publishing. Why were the recipes in so many new books not working?
What I learned is that the days of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” are over. No one spends as much time as Julia Child and Simone Beck did on a book. And that’s because few write their books before they secure a publisher or a book advance. Child and Beck spent nearly a decade writing, developing, testing, and editing their recipes before they sold it to a publisher.
Today most cookbooks are created in under a year. If you’re a celebrity chef, your publisher may want it even sooner, say when your new show airs. “The timelines are absolutely choked,” says Katie Workman, founding editor of Cookstr.com and author of “The Mom 100 Cookbook”. “The time spent on every stage of the book, from writing to proofreading, is insane.”
Paris-based cookbook author David Lebovitz was surprised to learn that most people think publishers hire recipe testers to test the recipes. “In most contracts,” Lebovitz says, “recipe testing fees come out of the author’s pocket, not the publishers.”
Recipe testing, ingredient costs, photography and illustrations usually come out of the author’s advance. So by the time you pay for most of your expenses, you’re left with practically nothing. It’s no wonder cookbook writers, many of whom are chefs, lean on their staff or friends for testing. And there’s nothing wrong with that, except that friends and chefs typically don’t test with an editor’s eye. If you can find someone who does, then you’re fortunate.
Before the digital age, an author would be assigned an editor who would take real ownership in your book. Today, Lebovitz explains, “editors leave or suddenly get replaced, and the person who was so keen on your project – who you’ve been working with for months is up and gone…” Publishing houses are cutting editors to cut costs. Their work is being “farmed out to freelance editors, who are essentially copyeditors,” says Workman. “They are not saying, ‘Does this recipe make sense? Do these ingredients make sense? Is this something someone could make at home?’”
There are a few who get lucky, as Amanda Hesser did when writing “The Essential New York Times Cookbook.” For one, most of the books’ recipes were previously tested at least once by the Times. She and her partner Merrill Stubbs tested every recipe several times again. Norton then hired a copyeditor who had worked on “The Joy of Cooking”, among other notable books. “Judith Sutton has such an incredible brain,” Hesser says. “She whipped the recipes, which were from all different time periods, into a consistent style, so that any cook could understand them.”
The current state of cookbook publishing is a “reflection of both the economy and of the semi-disposable times we live in,” says Workman. “Things are meant to give immediate gratification and then ‘break’. What’s unfortunate and short-sighted is that you cannot build brand loyalty this way. You won’t buy the second cookbook because the first one didn’t work for you.”
Child’s first book set her up for the rest of what was a very successful career. And that’s because she was meticulous. Her recipes worked because she took the time she needed to make them right. Not an easy feat had she tried publishing that first book in 2014. My advice to cookbook authors: spend the money if you don’t have the time, but please, please test your recipes, and save yourself and your readers the embarrassment of a bad meal.