Former assistant attorney general for the State of Louisiana, Ann Benoit lives, loves, photographs, and writes about New Orleans. Ann is a member of Cookbook Friends Facebook Group and I met her there. As a fellow-member of IACP, I reached out to Ann to do this interview about her experiences writing cookbooks. I find her insights full of good tips and suggestions for anyone in the cookbook-writing business.
What is the name of your cookbook?
New Orleans Best Seafood Restaurants
Discover the best seafood in the city that defines seafood. Cook with established celebrity restaurants—including Ralph Brennan’s Red Fish Grill, John Besh’s Borgne, and Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House Seafood—and classic eateries such as Middendorf’s and Pascal’s Manale. Explore fresh tastes from the newest generation of great chefs: Jason Seither of Seither’s Seafood Restaurant and Oyster Bar, Edgar Caro of Basin Seafood and Spirits and Crudo+Bar at Baru, Keith and Nealy Frentz of LOLA Restaurant, and many others. From Ann Benoit, the celebrated food photographer and writer who gave us two of Louisiana’s Top 20 Cookbooks, comes New Orleans’ Best Seafood Restaurants, an adventure into the five basic seafood groups: crab, crawfish, oysters, fish, and shrimp—plus turtle and alligator: a little bit of lagniappe.
When was it published?
September 18, 2015.
Is this your first cookbook? If no, tell us about your other cookbooks.
No. It is the third cookbook published in my name. My prior cookbooks include New Orleans Best Ethnic Restaurants [Pelican Publishing Co., 2014] and the Broussard’s Restaurant and Courtyard Cookbook [Pelican Publishing Co., 2012].
What compelled you to want to write a cookbook? Can you tell us how you were offered a contract for your cookbook?
I am less compelled and more evolved into cookbook writing through a gradual process and long-term acquisition of skills. Looking back, the path seems almost pre-ordained, but it neither looked nor felt that way at the time; it was a long and difficult struggle. A New Orleans native, I was blessed to be raised in America’s mecca of food and to be the product of a number of food-obsessed family roots including Cajun and Italian. The food industry is the culture of New Orleans the way the auto industry is the culture of Detroit, the entertainment industry is the culture of Los Angeles, the gambling industry is the culture of Las Vegas, and the publishing and financial industries are the culture of New York.
In acquiring the necessary skills, I have been a writer all my life. In grammar school, I was the kid the teachers chose to write the fifth grade newsletter, in high school I was editor of the literary magazine, in college I started an underground newspaper, in law school I wrote the food and entertainment column for the law school newspaper. In my professional career as a lawyer for 25 years, I was a legal researcher and writer for appellate judges, writing legal opinions, speeches, legal journal articles, legal textbooks and scholarly publications, legislation for inclusion in parish and judicial packages, press releases, personal books, and memoirs. I also ghostwrote various works for judges, one of which became a well-known and financially successful movie and another became a TV series. As a legal writer, I received 9 National Recognitions from West Publishing Company for case law that would have a national impact; no one else on the courts on which I worked ever received even one National Recognition from West.
While working as a lawyer/legal writer for my day job, at night I would moonlight for other New Orleans professional non-legal writers doing whatever for pay – copy editing, line editing, research, fact checking, or just whatever they needed- the unglamorous labor intensive, low-paying, backbreaking side of the business which if you don’t love, you’ll never make it. I didn’t do any moonlighting legal writing because of potential conflicts of interest. I moonlighted for a cookbook writer, working on her books for a number of years. Along the way I became obsessed with food photography. My first love now is food photography, and I have an active food photography business.
During this time, I became a young wife and mother. As a young wife, I would have dinner parties and holiday cookie bake parties and create private publication cookbooks as party favors. In 1985, as a new mom, I arranged for peanut free and spice free Vietnamese spring rolls for a Montessori pre-school class and wrote scrolls with the recipes for the moms to reassure them the food was made from the same ingredients they knew. To help me with mealtime at home, I created a binder of my favorite recipes from my growing mountain of cookbooks. It never occurred to me that as a working wife and mother I had an option of not cooking 2 meals per weekday and a few per weekend for my family. I was shocked years later to discover that 50% of the households in America never cook. I continuously kept a food journal since 1986 and still do.
My relatives also published a private collection cookbook of recipes from an historic family home along the lines of a plastic spiral book through a publisher that does community cookbooks. After I retired and divorced, I was trained and worked for a restaurant management consulting firm in New Orleans as a restaurant evaluator. I looked at restaurants far beyond the usual food critic criteria and began to have a deep understanding of the difference between commercial restaurants and home cooks and a strong compassion for the challenges faced by the individual restaurateur and the restaurant industry. Eventually, the cookbook writer for whom I had worked offered me one of her overflow projects, the publisher agreed and my first book was published in my own name. After my first book was published, I was approached by publishers to write or package cookbooks for them. I have been approached by so many self-publishing companies that I don’t know the number and I have been approached by six regional traditional publishers. What’s the difference? You pay self-publishing companies, but traditional companies pay you. Thus far, I have stayed with the regional publisher that gave me my first break, but it is nice to know that your work is appreciated by professionals in the business.
I am a columnist for the Times-Picayune, New Orleans’ original daily newspaper owned by Advance Publications and part of the S.I. Newhouse chain. I am honored to be affiliated with Times Picayune.
I enjoy your perspectives on writing cookbooks and the path you traveled to get to your cookbooks particularly the cooking journal that you kept to create the foundation of your books. Do you have any further thoughts on this concept of “keeping track” for aspiring cookbook authors?
A cooking journal is a great way for any home cook to keep track of progress, experimentation and gradual changes in his or her recipes. It also is a refresher when we return to warm weather or cold weather recipes at the change of seasons and, of course, is a great basis for your cookbook. I have written the menus and recipes for holiday meals in my journal for years. I am often able to go back to recipes for the last time I hosted a bridal shower, for example, and remember cute details I would have otherwise forgotten. I also stick into my journal loose copies of recipes that I would like to try — like a grilled gruyiere sandwich with an innovative condiment. I also write out my time lines for various dishes and tips and tricks that I have developed for that particular recipe.
Do you have a food blog? If so, was your blog a driving force in obtaining a contract?
My blog is NewOrleansBestEthnicRestaurants.com. I also have a New Orleans Best Restaurants Facebook page, a Fine Art America page and tweet under #AnnBenoitWriter.
My blog had nothing to do with getting a contract and was created after publication to support the publication. For legal and financial reasons, my publisher prefers not to publish bloggers who post recipes.
Do aspiring cookbook authors need food blogs? If no, what other ways can they promote their work (or how do you promote your food writing work?)
Food blogs are a good way to gradually break into the discipline needed to be a paid professional writer, but almost no one makes any money from them. My mantra for years has been to be a writer you must be able to ENJOY sixteen continuous hours of butt in the chair staring at the computer screen with no to little human contact. In many ways, the writer’s life is periods of diametrically opposite lifestyles.
When writing a book, you must become solitary, tell your friends and family you’ll see them in six months or a year or eighteen months and go down the rabbit hole to focus entirely on the project, but when it is released you must become an outgoing, gregarious, book-signing, people person. I am not married, but that is not the norm. I know many women food writers in New Orleans and they are all married to husbands who financially support them so they can do this work. Generally, their husbands take over the marketing and financial side such as distribution beyond what the distributing companies will handle and event creation. For example, it is not worth a book distributing company’s time to drive to a gift shop to sell 3 books.
Do blogs affect sales? Blogs might or might not create a demand for your books, but it can be tricky. If you become too familiar, they may not like you and so you can actually alienate readers. If you build up your mailing list, but you annoy them with too many emails, it can backfire. If you publish recipes, there is no reason for people to buy your books. Blogs are tricky. We all have them. We all think they do something, but we’re not quite sure what and they do not directly put money in our pockets, which is the ultimate test.
What tips do you have for software that you use to keep yourself on track during this writing time? For example, I use Scrivener, some use Word, but I’m curious if you use any software or apps that the aspiring author might benefit from?
As far as software is involved, I just use a word processing software like Open Office or Word. I tried Scrivener and even printed out and studied the manual, but I found there was so much lacking in the manual that it frustrated me. For example, I like to lay all my 3×5 cards out on a table surface or wall and then manually move them around, but Scrivner kept putting them in piles with one on top so that I couldn’t see all of them at the same time. A friend said I needed to make each 3×5 card its own Scrivener chapter, but that was not how I envisioned the chapters in the book so in the end I stopped using it.
Because I am a plotter, I have an outline and know where I am going from the beginning. I have a file folder for each recipe or page in the book with subfolders for whatever I might need that relates to that page. I understand that Scrivener is much better when you start a project in it originally instead of attempting to import one in as I did and for screenplays and fiction writing. I know other writers who swear by it, but we each work out our own process.
For me it is psychologically important to have a cut file where I store writing that I have cut, so that when I make a cut, the writing is not gone forever, rather it is in a file where I can find it again and perhaps use it in or as inspiration for another project. I hate the phrase “kill your darlings”– why would anyone destroy their best work just because it is not appropriate for this particular project? I say kiss your darlings to sleep, knowing they will wake from their nap later, refreshed and better than ever.
Do you find the publishing industry daunting in any way?
No. It is a business run by business people who are primarily interested in how much money you can make FOR THEM. It is a business like any other business, but you must understand the different types of publishers and what is their financial interest. Watch the money. Watch who is paying whom and for what. You want to be the one receiving money, not the one paying it to someone else.
What are your thoughts about an aspiring author, who’s an unknown food entity, writing a cookbook?
Do it, then privately publish it and sell it to your family and friends. The experience will give you a crash course in the many aspects of publishing and selling your book and will show you whether you want to write a second one or if it was just something you needed to get out of your system. It is the ultimate learning experience. Keep in mind, however, that your friends and family buy your book because they love you and much to our chagrin, many of them will never read it. You will cherish the people who not only read it, but come back to you with comments. Most people can sell 200-250 self-published books for their first self-published book, with sales halving themselves for each subsequent self-published book, so don’t order 2,000 which will need storage equivalent to an entire room in your house. See if there is a friendly small local printer who will print 100 copies for you at a time and start from there. Slow and steady wins the race.
What is your advice for an aspiring cookbook author who is reading this interview?
I insist on absolute quality from myself in every aspect of my book and you should do the same with yourself, but do not be an overbearing harpie with your publishing company and other individuals with whom you work. Apply this harshness only to yourself. This means taking the time of do every single tiny little detail right, not just in the writing and food aspects, but also in every part of the book such as perfect photos and photo conversions. If I am tired or want to spend time with someone or my house is a mess or there’s a party, none of them are excuses for slacking on quality or time spent on the project. There are no excuses for anything less than the best quality possible. I am all about quality.
Also realize something else – sometimes our gifts are not what we think they are or what we would like them to be. I am a successful cookbook writer and food photographer, but for 20 years I tried to be a singer, studying opera, singing with choirs and bands. Finally, I realized that I was successful with writing and photography, but I was putting all of my effort into singing – scales seven days a week, running on treadmills while singing to increase breath capacity, etc. In short, the level of success was not commensurate with the extreme level of effort expended. I finally learned what I seemed to have a natural knack for – writing and photography- were my gifts, not what I enjoyed doing or thought my gifts were or what I wanted them to be. If after you have written your first cookbook, you decide your gifts lie elsewhere, then you are all the wiser and you are free to do your best with your true gifts. If after the first book you decide this is your calling, then your work and learning are just beginning.
What was the biggest challenge in completing your manuscript?
Working with restaurant owners and their families is a delicate balance requiring a great deal of diplomacy, tact, understanding of the dynamics of the familial or business group, building of trust with a simultaneous awareness of potential traps and derailments. The tasks associated with creating a book are the fun part, working with people requires much more time, character, discernment, and saavy.
What was your biggest fear about writing a cookbook?
I don’t have any fears about writing cookbooks. It is a business, a job, a way to earn money, not a definition of my value as a human being. I am confident in my ability as a writer and I am confident in my ability as a photographer. Everything else is putting in the work and the time.
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?