Welcome to Part 6 of my ongoing series Steps to Write a Cookbook. If this is your first visit to this series, I encourage you to go back and review the previous blog posts in the series:
Now it’s time to study other cookbooks. If you plan to write a family cookbook this step isn’t required. Otherwise, if you plan to publish your book via either the traditional- or self-publishing route, there are two reasons to study other cookbooks:
1. Competitive title research
You need to research competing cookbooks to show how your book will fit into the current publishing landscape. The purpose of studying competitive books is to generate list of cookbooks that are similar in their audience, concept, and category to the book you want to write. This list is then shared with potential agents and editors so they can visualize where your book fits in the context of other published cookbooks. It’s important to realize that the goal of the research isn’t to prove that your concept is unique and that you don’t have any competition. In fact, the opposite is true. You want to point out your competition to validate your idea and then add why it’s time for you to write a similar book for this audience and what you plan to add to the conversation regarding your perceived cookbook concept.
2. Inspiration and design research
The study of published cookbooks can be a source of inspiration as well. While looking at other cookbooks pay attention to what delights you – cover design, paper, fonts, interior colors, photography, recipe or text layout, trim size, or other features. Parts of other books that attract (or repel) you are clues about the type of book you may want to write.
A word of caution
Don’t let the study of other cookbooks deter you from writing your cookbook. Sometimes it feels overwhelming to see so many cookbooks already published. When we see these books we may feel doubt that we can see a cookbook project through to publication. The best remedy for this feeling is to acknowledge that there are hundreds of cookbooks published each year, but the exact book you want to write hasn’t been written yet because you haven’t written it. Your message can only be communicated in a way that you can write it. Use the study of published cookbooks to motivate you and not deter you. Work hard and commit to move forward with your project.
Advice about finding sales figures
I emailed four acquisitions editors to ask about obtaining sales figures for published cookbooks. They all acknowledged that sales data is hard to obtain outside of Nielsen BookScan. As a result, they don’t expect to see exact sales figures, but Amazon and other research can give clues about the popularity of a cookbook.
How much time to spend on research
A common mistake during this phase is to get too caught up in research. Research makes us look busy, but the reality is that excessive research slows down progress on writing your proposal or book manuscript. Even though research is necessary, it’s important not to spend excessive amounts of time on this step. I recommend scheduling approximately three 2-hour blocks of time on your calendar over the course of two weeks. During each 2-hour block of time visit either a local bookstore, library, or perform online search.
Visit stores where cookbooks are sold such as chain or independent bookstores, specialty retailers (such as Pottery Barn, Anthropologie, Williams-Sonoma, and Sur La Table), or big box stores such as Sams Club and Costco. Study at least five cookbooks (preferably published in the past few years) that are in the same category as the book you want to write. Examples of categories are diet and health, regional cuisine, vegetarian cooking, baking, cooking for children, global cuisine, all-purpose cookbooks, etc. Collect data about each book such as the author, publisher, agent (typically found in the acknowledgments), copyright date, concept, and audience. Ask a bookseller or store employee: What cookbooks in the category are restocked on a regular basis? What is trending in cookbook sales at their store? Make notes about specific book design features as well that you like or don’t like. Make notes about design features you want to include in your cookbook.
Most libraries have extensive cookbook sections that include recently published cookbooks, as well as regional, self-published, and out-of-print cookbooks. Take time to ask a librarian about cookbooks that circulate well and titles that have multiple copies in circulation. Ask too if they have access to any additional statistics or rankings for cookbooks that you can access through the library. Collect data as for bookstore research such as author, publisher, agent, date of publication, concept, and audience. Make notes about any design features that interest you as well.
Online research can be done at a variety of websites:
Amazon is the place to a review cookbooks online. Every acquisitions editor that I talked with uses Amazon to look at competitive cookbook titles. Amazon categorizes books in an organized fashion, so pay attention to their categories and rankings within a category. Gather data as for bookstore research, but include Amazon sales ranking, book category, number of reviews, and ideas for competitive titles located in the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” feature. An additional benefit of Amazon is the sales of self-published titles that might be popular and your competition in the online space, but are not sold in bookstores, specialty retailers, or big box stores.
“Google” the cookbooks that you have determined to be competitive titles. Makes note about the book, the author’s platform, or any other experts that may show up when you search. Consider how your audience uses the online space to obtain information related to your concept outside of buying a cookbook. For example, if your cookbook idea is about using a slow-cooker to make desserts, and you find an online expert for this topic, make a note of him or her. Learn more about their platform. Even their popularity validates your idea in the absence of a published cookbook. Search for print or digital magazines, newsletters, databases, events, or conferences that might pertain to your concept as well. What experts are involved in writing and speaking? Have they written cookbooks you might want to consider as competition?
Search Goodreads for your competitive titles. Read the customer reviews to obtain information such as customer perceived strengths and weakness of the book. Look at cookbook categories for most read, giveaways, most popular this week, and new releases.
Consider a subscription to Publishers Marketplace to fully access the website. It’s useful to perform keyword searches that lead you to bestselling cookbooks, as well as recent cookbook deals, publishers, editors, and agents, and titles that are under contract.
Research of competitive titles is an important step for writing a cookbook. Your ability to create this list of titles shows your grasp of your concept, your audience, and the category where your book will fit in the context of previously published cookbooks. Research can be enjoyable, but don’t stall or spend too much time. Download the worksheet below to help you focus and move through this step in an organized fashion.
Cookbook author, editor, and Culinary Dietitian Maggie Green coaches aspiring cookbook authors during the pre-publication phase of writing a cookbook. If you want to write a cookbook, and wonder if you’re ready, download her 11-point checklist Am I Ready to Write a Cookbook?