“So You Want to Write a Cookbook…?”
About a decade ago, when we were writing The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, we heard anxiety in all corners of the book-publishing business: who’s going to buy cookbooks when you can now get recipes on the internet? They’re free! And they’re crowd-tested! What those worry-warts of yore (and the online boosters) didn’t seem to consider is that consumers don’t read cookbooks exclusively for their instructional component. True, excellent recipes are an essential part of a quality cookbook, but the pleasures readers derive from cookbooks are varied and personal. Some people seek inspiration, to get ideas. Some people read for aspiration — for a self-improvement yen — or to get closer to their dreams of cooking great food. Still others turn to cookbooks for companionship and fantasy. If only we had a dollar for every person who told us, “I don’t cook, but I read your book like a novel. I keep it on my bedside table.”
We started Cookbook Boot Camp in 2012 simply because we found there was demand for it. There are few places to get information about cookbook publishing standards and practices. Chefs would come up to us at food festivals and conferences and ask if they could sit down with us and “pick our brains for a half-hour.” And we’d break the news to them that while we’d love to chat with them over a bourbon, it would take more than a half-hour for them to learn what’s involved in creating a book and producing the deliverables that make it happen, from the query letter to the manuscript, the photo edit and the touring plan. Our remedy was to create an intensive workshop for these chefs (and others): six prospective authors sit down in a room together for eight hours, two days in a row, and subject themselves to our writing exercises, lectures and pointed questions, and we make progress together, brainstorming the best path forward for each person.
We always begin our Cookbook Boot Camp sessions with the positive message of just how much joy cookbooks bring to readers and a call-to-arms to get our chef-campers thinking about making their cookbooks welcoming to every kind of reader. It is a resilient category in publishing, and the publishers know this. There is no cause to leave the playing field yet. And then we deliver the brass-tacks: in the ten-plus years we’ve been writing cookbooks, the world of hardcover cookbook publishing has changed dramatically. Yes, advances across the board tend to be smaller today versus 2004, and that’s important to be aware of because at the same time, publishers are offloading more and more of the publishing process onto authors, namely, the production of the photo shoot, the quality control and the marketing and publicity. Even with an advance that may seem quite generous — $60,000, say, paid out in quarters, less your agent’s 15% commission – realistically you’re upside down on the book (or at least owing more than you’re getting in the year ahead) the day you sign the contract.
The important thing – financially and otherwise – is to take the long view, and to be honest about your motivations in cookbook publishing. Most would-be authors want that first cookbook for the same reason novelists and poets want it: immortality. It’s about your name, in print, indelibly, on a physical tome that fills space in this world into the next century and beyond (let’s set aside the e-book discussion for now). Imagine your book sitting side by side with Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking on someone’s kitchen bookshelf! You’re on common ground now with the greats. And, if you’re a freelance food writer for magazines, blogs, and newspapers, a certain amount of credibility would be conferred on you for making the jump to another format. Or for publicity: plenty of restaurant chefs, especially, have a financial opportunity, which is that they can add some weight to their customers’ tabs if they only produced that physical talisman, that souvenir of the restaurant experience that expresses their food and sits on the kitchen bookshelf (ideally), reminding customers to come back several times a day.
The first writing exercise we ask of our campers is to describe their cooking in 200 words. You might be surprised by how difficult this is. We give them 15 minutes to complete the task and you should see them squirm and fidget! But seriously, most of these chefs have never been asked to do this. And a lot of them begin by defining their cooking by what it isn’t — not the best instinct if you want what your food is to inspire people. This is a valuable exercise on a number of levels. First, it’s great to have to articulate what your cooking is like in a group of peers — it gets straight to the point of uniqueness, too, because a lot of the chefs we work with are mining a similar vein: contemporary American locavore cooking. It shows that they not only need to define their own cooking, but to iron out what it is about their cooking or their framing of it that distinguishes it from their peers.
Secondly, by the end of this exercise, each chef has in his or her mind decided whether they intend to write the book themselves or whether they want to collaborate with a writer. Even for the chefs who seem proficient with language and resolved to write their own book themselves, we warn them that they need to be very realistic about whether they have — or have the means to create — the time to devote to writing, because it doesn’t happen overnight (and if it does, it usually shows!). A chef could be the greatest writer who ever walked among chefs, but if she’s so busy that she can’t make the time to write, the book will never happen. One chef we know asked us about 7 to 8 years ago to introduce him to our agent so we did, and they met and they were both gung-ho to work with each other. During that time the chef won a James Beard Award and opened a new restaurant. That chef has yet to submit his book proposal to our agent. Obviously, this chef accomplished a lot in the intervening eight years. But if you asked him today whether he wished his book was out to capitalize on all the exciting new successes in his life, the answer would be a resounding yes. And the sad thing is, the book would be out, if only he’d hired a writer to collaborate, to get the proposal deliverables done so the deal could be made.
We’ve never owned a restaurant, so people often ask how we got into writing cookbooks, and the answer is, we got lucky. Twice. An editor for Travel + Leisure who had been a customer of our mail-order catalogue asked us if we would write a story about traveling our home state of South Carolina in search of great food. She’d liked the writing in the catalogue and figured she’d take a chance even though we’d never written for a national magazine before. Second stroke of luck: we were asked to speak on a panel at the New York Public Library on regional southern food and a book editor for W.W. Norton was in the audience. She tracked us down afterward and said she wanted to publish our first book. Since then, we’ve published three cookbooks with two publishers and racked up a few James Beard Foundation and IACP awards along the way. In ten years we’ve made all the mistakes you can make in publishing and we’ve seen the industry evolve.
Publishers are now pushing authors to be more or less self sufficient, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: the old ways required you to rely on the skills and connections of the in-house team, and you got what you got. If your assigned team preferred Italian and you were writing about Indian food, you were sunk.
In these days of low-cost communications, you are often better equipped to sell and market your book than anyone. A publisher can set up an off-the-rack signing in a Barnes & Noble in a suburb of Atlanta, but you are the one that can create events that have true impact in the city you’re traveling to. And you have to “go there” (in every sense) to make it work. You have to interact, and to reach out to your colleagues in the industry to create meaningful events that attract writers and bloggers and give you the opportunity to appear on the morning shows, in print magazines and in every gossip rag — digital and print — in town.
The most impactful events we do are typically ones in which we collaborate with restaurants and bars to do a book-signing that highlights our book in some way. And it makes sense: our friends in the restaurant or bar business have already got a loyal crew of fans that will follow their lead and they already have relationships among local journalists who can get advance press for the event. The event itself might take a variety of forms — but we typically encourage the hosting chef to take the lead in how much of a commitment they want to make — after all, they know their market and their clientele best! We’ve done ticketed, sold-out dinner-events at Lucky 32 in Greensboro, NC; Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta; Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor; and 610 Magnolia in Louisville that require a insane amount of planning, commitment, and dedication from the restaurant. But we’ve also done more casual bar-hangouts where a chef might put a single special on the menu from our book and we’ll simply do a mix-and-mingle with the place’s daily customers. Either way, we deliver a high-touch night to the restaurant’s customers to make sure it’s a win-win for the host and for us. Thinking ahead to books #2 and #3: We want to be invited back!
The other reality we try to impress upon our Boot Campers is that investing in a quality cookbook (paying out of pocket for recipe testing, pushing yourself to create captivating headnotes, hiring a researcher to fact-check, getting the best photographer you can afford) is essential for winning the long term publishing game, because if your recipes don’t work, or don’t excite, if the photos are lackluster, if the text is humdrum, then you’ll never have the kind of word-of-mouth, awards and excitement around your book that give it lift, that render it a classic and keep it selling on into the next century.
When you’re producing a photo shoot as a cookbook author, you need everyone on the crew performing at their absolute best and feeling fabulous about being there, creating something beautiful and special. So you tread a fine line getting top talent (photographer, prop stylist, food stylist, assistants) to do the job for a “friends and family” rate. You never want to push photographers and stylists to terms where they’re not going to be happy on set. A happy set with a crew that’s firing on all cylinders moves fleetly and produces results that sustain high-energy. That is crucial.
You want to get the best talent you can afford, but at the same time, you have to balance the talent and experience of the photographer with your publisher’s demands, too. Most publishers retain final photo approval, after all, so they’re unlikely to simply let you choose whomever you want and hope for the best. (And you certainly wouldn’t want to go through the expense and trouble of a shoot only to have your publisher reject the photos!) It is true that you can save a great deal of money by finding a great young photographer who’s itching for the opportunity to do his or her first book and might charge a hugely discounted rate. But be careful: editors in general want you to work with known commodities, and even if they like the portfolio of a shooter they’ve never published so much that they give you the go-ahead, they might set demands on the shoot — sending every shot or every few shots to the publishing house, for approval. This is death to a shoot; we’ve seen shoots get bogged down to molasses when editors start micro-managing food shots from midtown Manhattan. In such instances, hiring the cheaper, less tested photographer might end up costing you more than hiring a more expensive pro.
Similarly, many chefs and authors publishing for the first time think they’ll save money by doing their own cooking and food-styling (and sometimes prop-styling) on set themselves. But unless that author/chef has extensive experience preparing food for camera (or an unlimited budget!), that route could wind up being far more costly. Since the highest paid person on the shoot is the photographer, any moment there’s not food in front of the camera is money flowing down the drain. Experienced stylists are expert at scheduling the timing and order of the shots, knowing what shortcuts they can — and should — take in a recipe to make the food drool-worthy but make the production move along rapidly. Say you need 60 food shots for the book and you got a top-notch photographer who’s giving you a discounted $2,000 day-rate. The difference between hiring a crack food-stylist with a day-rate of $600 who can rock 12 shots a day versus the 6 you could swing on your own means the difference between a 5-day shoot and a 10-day shoot. So your DIY-mandate just cost you $7,000 — and a few years off your life.
We spend as much as we can absolutely afford to get the highest quality talent for our shoots; if we need 60 – 75 shots for a book, we typically budget $20,000 – $25,000 for 6 days (5 days of food shots, 1 day of lifestyle/atmosphere). Everyone we work with tends to be doing us a huge favor, and we ask a lot of them. It makes for a hectic pace, but we do our best to make the shoot as enjoyable as possible: housing out-of-town crew in extraordinary Charleston houses (usually one that’s doubling as the studio and is donated) and giving the crew culinary experiences they might not have in their home cities. We always cook dinner for the crew on night 1 or 2, take everyone out to a restaurant toward the end of the shoot, and eat the “leftovers” from the shoot for most other meals.
But also: if your publisher does offer to pay for some or all of your photo expenses, that’s awesome. Still, you’ll want to make certain that if they’re deeply involved in the shoot, that you also have a voice in the hiring of photographer and stylists, every step of the way. These decisions matter critically to the final result. And you’ll need to be on set, co-directing the shoot with the creative team. In fact, direction is the most import role of the author on the shoot (besides cruise director). We recently heard of a first-time chef-author whose publisher has taken on so much control of the shoot that the chef was not on the set for any of the plated shots that will appear in the book. We realize that very commercial, celebrity-chef titles sometimes get shot in studios thousands of miles from where the chef happens to be, but for an independent writer or chef publishing their first book, not being on set seems like a sure path to a product that doesn’t reflect the personality of the author, and will result in a short shelf-life.
We spend a good deal of time with our boot campers talking about what it means to establish a test-kitchen practice. Restaurant chefs, especially, tend to think that they can develop recipes for cookbooks in their kitchens, but that’s a fallacy unless they’re writing a book whose recipes are only of relevance to other restaurant chefs. Because from start to finish, the kind of cooking that happens in a restaurant bears little resemblance to what happens in a home kitchen. Think about it: how restaurants shop for ingredients; how far removed commercial kitchen equipment is from home-kitchen equipment; how restaurants clean the dishes. Even the language in a restaurant kitchen is different. There’s no way a chef writing a recipe that’s supposed to work for a home cook can get a holistic sense of what it’s like for that cook to replicate the experience unless he or she is shopping, cooking, and cleaning up the way home cooks do. It’s that simple.
Another big piece of advice we give to chefs and first-time authors is that regardless of their talent and proficiency, they need to hire an independent recipe tester to do a final test of their recipes. Restaurant chefs, especially, never want to do this. When our first book was signed up by Maria Guarnaschelli, she said every one of her authors was required to hire a tester; it was simply her rule. We were initially bummed-out — that book had 225 recipes and at $50/per recipe plus ingredients, it added about $15,000 to our own investment on the production. But to this day, we’ve never regretted a dollar we’ve spent on independent testing and we believe it’s one of the great bargains in the food industry. A stellar recipe tester gives you so much insight into your own recipes because they don’t approach your recipes with any of your kitchen prejudices (this is especially important when publishing a regional cookbook that you intend will have a national audience — hire a tester who’s not from where you’re from). They show you ways to save time; how you can adjust quantities to make shopping for the recipe less frustrating; where you’re assuming knowledge that should not necessarily be assumed; as well as great ideas for variations on the recipe you might not have considered.
At the same time Maria was telling us we had to hire an independent tester, we had a television producer tell us: Make sure the recipes work. Because if they don’t, we can’t put you on our show. That should be the voice hanging over the head of every author. If your book gets a rep for not being cookable, it’s not likely to be in print 5 or 10 years down the road.
For us, the payoff in investing in and creating a quality book is measured over a long period of time — more than the publishers themselves might contemplate — but it yields short term dividends, too. With great word-of-mouth and an energetic launch, some awards and nominations may come your way and you will feel the excitement on the street from people who read, cooked and enjoyed your creation. Produce a classic cookbook, and it will keep selling on into the next century. And isn’t that the reason you wanted to publish in the first place?
First published August 2014