Brian and I belong to a group of cookbook writers on Facebook. In this group any cookbook writer can ask a question and get a variety of answers from a variety of cookbook writers. Earlier this year I inquired about this set of interviews for my blog and Brian responded favorably to my request.
Brian‘s approach to getting his ideas in front of a publisher through submitting a well-written cookbook proposal has worked well for him. This past summer his sixth cookbook was published. Enjoy this interview with Brian where he gives his insights into cookbook writing, cookbook publishing, and getting your name out there as an expert.
What is the name of your cookbook?
My most recent book was A World of Noodles from Countryman Press
When was it published?
This past summer (2014)
Is this your first cookbook?
No, it’s my sixth.
If no, tell us about your other cookbook(s).
Most of my other books are similar single-subject cookbooks but two; Cucina Piemontese and The Ploughman’s Lunch and the Miser’s Feast explored whole cuisines. I’m now branching out and starting to work with a chef too.
What compelled you to want to write a second cookbook?
There is always more out there! I am always eating new foods and meeting new cooks. As I learn, I take pictures and compile recipes. Right now, I have at least three different partially executed ideas. Only one has even been circulated as a proposal.
Can you tell us how you were offered a contract for your cookbook? Did you have an agent, self-publish, or find a publisher without an agent?
I followed the instructions in the book Writer’s Market. It lists many legit, paying cookbook publishers and gives clear instructions for how to write a good proposal. I have sold every cookbook proposal I’ve circulated using the method spelled out there. (Although an agent helped me get better deals in some cases.)
Agents are a tougher question. I had one for a while, but he seems to have lost interest in the cookbook market. So while I am putting some modest effort into seeking out another agent, I’ll put far more into contacting publishers directly. However, you almost certainly need an agent to reach the top of the market.
I would never self-publish a cookbook. Self-publishing ensures that your books will never appear in the places where most cookbooks are sold – especially big box stores, kitchen supply chains and supermarkets. Even online though, self-publishing supporters like Amazon.com rank self-published books below conventionally published ones in keyword searches and almost never includes them in bundles or “if you liked …” style suggestion lists.
Have you ever seen a self-published book on sale at Willams Sonoma or Target? Those are the sorts of places your books have to be in order to earn real money. Selling a few copies at a demo is just not the same as having your books on store shelves.
So far, the only successful self-published cookbooks I’ve seen were from well-known cooking school owners. There only sales were at their classes and events, but they had enough traffic to make a profit.
If I want to write a cookbook, do I need to retain an agent?
No, but under certain circumstances, an agent can really help. I think that for most of the people I’ve met, solid proposals sent directly to mid-list publishers are the most sure route to success. Agents can get you more money, but you’re more likely to make the sale yourself.
I also should point out that I’ve had great success with food photos offered through photo agencies like Getty Images – I couldn’t begin to exist without them. They are a whole different story and essential to my functioning. I am watching the trend of photo agents that combine images and recipe text into
one package – this hasn’t reached the USA yet, but has made inroads in Europe. (Where editors are used to buying text/photo packages from agents.)
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)?
No. A book with lots of technique will appeal to culinary students and kitchen professionals no matter who wrote it. The same with solid historical or regional information. Two of my books had no promotional effort at all and sell steadily.
However, a blog or social media page is a good way to stay in touch. I love getting questions through Facebook and participating in the community of food photographers and writers.
What are your thoughts about an aspiring author, who’s an unknown food entity, writing a cookbook?
When they’ve published the book and it’s in stores, they won’t be unknown anymore. When I gave book proposal classes myself (to photographers and writer/photographers) I noticed that questions like this reinforced fears. Why describe yourself as “an unknown food entity” in the first place? Why not “somebody who’s been researching … ?”
What is your biggest piece of advice for someone who dreams of writing a cookbook, but is overwhelmed with the process?
Work on it as a spreadsheet and database instead of a text. That way you can see what actual information you have and need. And make sure it’s about food, not you – even if you write in the first person. Food can tell the story better than I can.
How do you manage your time stay focused and get all your work done?
I don’t. I just make sure that the pipeline is always as full as I can make it. I’m a terrible goof-off and gym rat. Answering these questions is a kind of goofing off actually.
How did you pick recipes/develop recipes for your cookbooks? How will I know that the people who buy my cookbook will like the recipes?
When I started, I just listed recipes I wanted to do on a spreadsheet. Soon the patterns became obvious and the books emerged. I think that people have to like the recipes before they buy the book. They have to find it in stores, flip through the pages, and see that things are workable. Ultimately, the book itself has to stand on its recipes – not the reputation of the author.