Tell me the name of your cookbooks and the year they were published.
Great Chefs Cook Vegan, Gibbs Smith, 2008.
Virgin Vegan: The Meatless Guide to Pleasing Your Palate, Gibbs Smith, 2013.
Can you tell me how you were offered a contract for your first book? Did you have an agent?
I had no agent. About the time I was thinking about arranging for one, since I had the idea for the Great Chefs book already, I attended the BEA, The BookExpo of America at the NYC Javits Convention Center (held annually at the end of May) and met Mr. Gibbs Smith himself at their large booth. As soon as I told him I had an idea for a vegan book that involved the elite chefs of the country his immediate response was to ask if I had time for dinner the following evening. We talked about the growing need for vegan cookbooks and I offered him several other ideas with the theme that would attract various audiences, but at the end of the evening he asked that I send a one-page overview.
While preparing it I realized that being a first-time author I should let him know my background a bit more and that I was quite qualified to make such a book. So, I included more pages that covered marketing statistics, marketing and PR ideas, more book titles, along with my qualifications in the food and corporate world. In a week I had a contract back by email. No further discussion. I then showed it to a literary lawyer and made a few suggestions of which they accepted all of them. I was then assigned an editor. It was glorious that I was left alone to make the book as I saw it, just checking in from time to time to state where I was in the process.
Did Gibbs Smith approach you about your second book, or did you approach them?
I had been thinking about doing a simple book, one that reflected all the points I have mentioned to others over 35 years of being vegan. People always seem to ask the same questions and there just was not a book simple enough, a book with just the basic facts, speaking points, basically. There are books with so much information…book-books, so to speak. But, I was weary of doing another book as I also do the photography and it takes all my time. Having not mentioned this to Gibbs Smith I was surprised when they called me one day on a conference call with the president and an editor to suggest almost the same book I had been rolling about in my mind! It seemed suddenly like a calling.
Do aspiring cookbook authors who want a traditional publisher need a food blog?
I do not have a food blog and the publisher has not pressed me for it. On the website there are extra recipes, resource lists and videos. They manage it. I send them the info and they upload. Being a website is a living thing not all the extra recipes are being put up at once, as well the videos.
I will never have a food blog and I have noticed that some friends who do find it an ongoing writing pressure to keep it current. In a way the book(s) are never done if they are tired to them. They also find that some are not that well viewed and that the effort often seems a lot of work for little result. However, I am aware that the promotion of such and the establishment of a full court press can have a blog as part of it all.
What is your advice for an aspiring cookbook author reading this interview that wants to pursue a publisher?
Perhaps it is an advantage living in a major city where so many events occur where one can personally meet people in the publishing world. Even at book signings here usually someone from the publishing company is present so one can be approached for their card and ask for the invitation to send them a one-page overview of a book. Of course, it should be a book signing that is of a similar theme so it is what that publisher would be interested in.
Attending the BookExpo here was the key for me. But, I did ask cookbook author friends for contacts with their publishers. It is always good to have a name to send something to, or to see what a publisher’s parameters are. Each publisher can have a process in place that they prefer. Today it is great to research their websites to determine any of this. Visit a bookstore and get info from the Library of Congress page in the beginning of books that are the theme in question. A call to the main number can sometimes get you to an editor who can advise you. This way you have a name and someone who is expecting something from you.
Many people ask if cookbooks are dead, or dying, like other print books? Do you have any thoughts on this?
I think that cookbooks are the last to go, if any completely ever will. They are also good e-books, and both of my books are both. But, print far outsells the e-books. People still want to hold a book, it seems. And, perhaps the older one is the more desire they desire a print book. Technology, as it becomes easier at end use, and safe in a kitchen settling, perhaps this will change. Only time can really tell. Right now, I know of nobody who prefers an e-book to a print cookbook.
What was your biggest challenge in writing your cookbook?
The biggest challenge in writing Great Chefs Cook Vegan was enrolling 25 of the nation’s most elite chefs and getting on their schedule. I did 25 chefs in 13 cities with 5 cases of photography equipment in tow. When you invite others to be in a book there is an added time requirement and sensitivity to their time, as well as how they are presented in the book. I had a lot of honoring to do, so to speak.
In Virgin Vegan, I invited some other cookbook author friends, doctors, nutritionists, and athletes, to be in a video talk as well as a recipe from some to be added to mine. Regardless of how the recipes are obtained, they must be tested. I even had others test recipes I have made for years. It is astounding to see the difference between what I know I mean and how others interpret it. Such an interesting process. Recipes, all of them, must be tested by home cooks, professional recipes testers, home economists, etc.
I made sure all the recipes were tested about 3 times each, even 3-ingredient salad dressings and small recipes. The instructions are equally important to have a tester comment on. This is where I found most adjustment needed. Often there were places that needed further explanation. And, this is from someone who has a home economics degree and taught high school where I always had to be specific, speaking in baby-steps with instructions. Recipe writing is not about what one knows but how someone else sees the recipe – this was critical and enlightening.
Of course, because I am also the photographer, I had to make each dish just for photography, sometimes with a food stylist and sometimes not. It is also important to shoot in a mood that fits the audience of the book. In Great Chefs Cook Vegan, it was elegant and elaborate. Since all was shot in the restaurants and made by the chef and staff, there was no need for a food stylist. One would have annoyed the chefs and been in the way, actually. They were not going to allow anyone touch their food, and who would have wanted to. With Virgin Vegan the food was to look domestic, as on a home dinner table, thus much less fancy and the dishes could vary as well as the color schemes. A food stylist made it a lot easier since I had to be thinking of lighting, camera settings, and being sure I had enough props available for the stylist.
The book took longer to do since I was the photographer and videographer. All the processes then had to be sequential with nothing being dovetailed. In other words, the food could not be shot while I was going on to other aspects. Add video talks and editing to the mix it was quite a project. Again, enrolling and scheduling busy people is a task in itself, along with learning more about video and editing.
Any thoughts you’d like to share on the marketing and sales for your cookbook?
Unless you are wildly famous and will sell a ton of books, publishers do almost no promotion other than listings in literary bookstore places and contacting national media. Now, many do not even send a book unless the media outlet asked for one. Otherwise, they will send a .pdf of the book. Signage for book signings and business cards, book marks, postcards and the like are no longer given by the publisher in many cases. They will design anything the author wishes but the author must afford the printing. I think this aspect varies from publisher to publisher but what they did even a couple years ago might be much less today. Times are truly changing in this regard. To pay for traveling to events and book signings might also be mostly on the author’s checkbook. Events are also not paying for an author to come and speak as they used to. They might pay airfare and then they expect the author to pay the housing, or try to have a local person offer a place to stay. An author has to be aware that most of the marketing and costs are now on them.
I have a large sign (2’x3’, I think) of the book cover for an easel, and a desk sign (11”X17”) that serve well for signings. The main piece that has been most worthwhile is a business-sized card with the book cover on the front (stiff paper and high gloss) with details about the book on the back along with any necessary contact info. Do not use very personal info as it will be distributed to strangers. They are easy to carry around all the time and I find I am constantly giving them out. As soon as someone wants to know what you do, out comes the cards. And, often someone might ask a question about being vegan once they know I am and the card is perfect at these times as well. I even gave one to an NYC bus driver the other night as we started to talk and he mentioned he should not be eating the candy he brought and that he needed to change his diet in a major way. Boom! Card!
The publisher expects you to be very active in social media. This is quite time-consuming for me and it feels like the book is never done. And, it isn’t!