So You Want to Write a Cookbook
MY newest cookbook has never been more close to being ready. It has gone from a sketch to blueprints, to a sculpture, to the main frame of the house, to having the walls put up and plumbing installed. Metaphorically speaking, we are about ready to move in the furniture and put up some pictures.
Each day, something is evolving. The manuscript is almost honed to perfection, the recipes tweaked to mouthwatering appeal, and the very book design is sheer art. Absolutely gorgeous. Trust us. The book is ever so much bigger, bolder, prettier than even we imagined. (Thank you Ten Speed and Random Canada).
This is my third cookbook and although I am not new at writing a cookbook, I am always amazed myself, as an author, how much work is involved - not only from the author's end but the publisher. Editor, copy editors, proof readers, graphic designers, photographers, food stylists all jump into the fray. In the end, a mainstream cookbook is pretty well an investment (of time, on the author's part) and on faith, as well as sheer outlay, on the part of the publisher.
With The Best of Betterbaking.Com just a couple of months away from being in a-store-near-you or at Amazon and Indigo online, I thought you might like to know a bit of how it is done.
"Your recipe for cheesecake is amazing - You should write a cookbook!" How often have people said those words to you? Flattering words that make more than one person think about quitting their day job to publish their own recipes and make the New York Times best seller list or Amazon's top 10. Not so easy.even for the pros. There is so much more than simply writing up a recipe and pasting it a Word file and sending it on to a publisher.
Let's start at the beginning. Recipes are everywhere: cookbooks, family recipe files, on the net, back of
boxes of cereal, on cans of soup and certainly, in cookbooks. Cookbooks offer countless recipes and tempt foodies with their bounty. No wonder why people collect them - to read at their leisure and some, of course, to cook and bake with and from. But GOOD recipes? Tested, tried and true and tasty recipes? These are worth their weight in gold. Sure, recipes are variable and results are often in the hands of the cook in charge - no matter how tried and true but still, a good recipe is a precious thing.
What is a good recipe? Or how do I create recipes? First, I think about taste, then ease of preparation, accessible techniques and ingredients, and final "wow" results. I look at trends and re-spin recipes (eg my Tiramisu Biscotti or Carrot Cake Scones). Then I think of my reader or a user of my recipe. How can I take my professional baker's expertise, along with a reasonable palate and culinary instinct, and design a fool proof recipe anyone else can replicate in their own kitchen. This takes work, time, and testing.
OK - we have one recipe but we need more. A cookbook needs at least 100 recipes. (Which raises another point: People often ask me where I get my recipes from. From my head, generally. One cannot simply photocopy other recipes and call them your own or even play with one ingredient really - and claim that as your new recipe.) To make a cookbook a marketable concept you can pitch to a publisher, you need 100 recipes with a theme or "hook". Chances are, if you have a 'hook' someone else in the business also does. So, you need a hook that is marketable and original or unique but mindful of culinary trends.
In our case, I have a website on baking. Our persona is in place - the "look" of our site, is as much our calling card as the recipes. I guess you can say our hook is two fold - it is a cookbook about great baking but also, a book those genesis is from an online publication. So, to our knowledge, it is somewhat of a first - a website becoming a print cookbook. We think that is so cool.
Cookbook trends do come and go. There was the low fat trend, as well as famous chef's cookbooks, one-subject cookbooks, regional cookbooks, and gourmet ethnic cookbooks, to name some. If you want to write a Salute to Polenta and it is the year of encyclopedic tombs of How To Cook Anything, you will have a hard time selling a comparatively focused or 'little' idea. Even if you have a Pulitzer prize winning bunch of borsch recipes - if it is the year of the artisinal bread book, you might hit a glass wall. Unless...there is a glut of artisinal bread books and the borscht collection is the new next wave. Timing is everything.
Let's say you do manage to sell your concept. Then the real work begins. Most people have no idea that by the time they buy a cookbook, it has 2-3 years of work behind it, and probably about ten years germination time before that. It is usually the distillation of recipes, expertise, and evolutions on the part of the author. Then, the recipes in it get re-tested: by the author, and teams of testers. At that point, it is time to put it together in a manuscript. You can't just spit out recipes on paper - there has to be an introduction - it sets the tone and "voice" of the book, and there has to be "connective tissue" via entertaining text, enlivening sidebars, and tantalizing, information recipe headnotes.
This brings us to BetterBaking.com. Many folks have asked if this cookbook is simply my website, regurgitated into a book. Hardly! Recipes that were formatted for the website were completely rewritten. New recipes have been formulated just for the book. The book has been written with a notion that you might be a baker and cookbook collector and have never heard of BetterBaking.com. And yet, BetterBaking.com - the book, still retains the character and spirit of the site you do know (and love). All in all, it is everything, and a bag of potato chips.
OK, I have recipes, a concept, and a manuscript. Then, I have volunteer testers. And we have something integral to great cookbooks - an editor that oversees the project, adopts it, and works with the author(s) to pare and refine it to a respectable length and help make raw material sing that much more. This takes an editor that knows words and food both. It is painstaking work and consumes hours and hours of noting each and every detail of the book. Questions get ferried back from editor to author. The manuscript gets re-done and re-worked until it emerges as a sculpted form from a huge lump of clay. Then copy editors step in and copy typists and proof readers. Facts have to be verified and everything gone over with a fine toothed comb. One day, this all gets to a place where a galley version of the book is produced. It is transformational. A manuscript finally looks like a book in its galley stage. Metaphorically speaking, if you will permit, a galley is like a wedding dress try on - the marriage is only a matter of time.
All these processes take time. By the time the average cookbook (350 pages - 150 recipes) is ready to hit the stands, the man hours of work are beyond counting and usually at least 18 months have gone by. Many people have had a hand in helping a book along. In that time, you have to also hope, ten other cookbooks in the same vein, are also not about to hit Barnes and Noble.
Now the publisher's sales force and publicity departments step in. You have to share with them how great this book is and can be. They become the book's emissaries. They take a slew of books to their clients (Barnes and Nobles, Indigo, Chapters, Borders, Amazon et al) and convince them, this is THE cookbook to carry. Probably the brightest thing an author could do at this point is to send brownies or biscotti to the sales force. Or cross their fingers. Or send the biscotti to the New York Times or Gourmet or FedEx dulce cheesecake to every and any reviewer.
Cookbooks sell only second to mystery novels. Everyone eats and most people, at some point, will cook or bake and use a cookbook to do it better. Once a book comes out, and has a coveted ISBN number, authors feel a special thrill. Having people buy the book, use the book, and then tell you about the experience they have had in real time, in a real kitchen is probably the best thrill. But the next time someone tells you, you should write a cookbook, remember, it is really fun thinking about doing a cookbook but incredibly hard (and rewarding) work to actually do it. None but the brave. Only the lonely (and sometimes.....the well fed)
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