L. Chin emailed last week asking for advice on how to get a cookbook idea into print. I usually answer those queries privately but this time, I thought I’d present the information as a post because you may wonder how this stuff happens, and/or you have tips and experiences to share.
When I started out wanting to write my first book, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, I didn’t know much. However, with some pluck, luck and lots of hard work, I placed the book with Ten Speed Press, one of the best cookbook publishers in the United States. I’m currently working on my third book with Ten Speed, due out in early 2012.
I don’t have a set game plan for aspiring cookbook authors but I’ve found certain things to have held true over time. Keep these eight (8) tips in mind, whether you aim to sell your idea to a publisher or self-publish, see your work printed on paper or in digital format:
1. Have something to say: Develop an idea that hasn’t been done before or a concept that improves on what has already been done. Do you have a different angle on a cuisine? Is there a sustainable culinary trend that deserves attention? Most importantly, do you have a point to make? What is it? The topic should stoke the fire of your intellectual and food interests. Feel it in your gut.
Write for online publications too. Aim to get your ass kicked by the best editors out there. You will learn what it’s like to sell (and not sell) an idea. You’ll also benefit from the professional collaboration that creates excellent publications. Your writing skills will improve.
3. Meet people in the industry: No writer works alone. Join the professional food community to meet other writers as well as editors, photographers, stylists, and publishers. Meet chefs and corporate food people too. Consider participating in national organizations such as the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) and Women Chefs and Restaurateurs.
Is there a local or regional organization to join? In Northern California, we have the San Francisco Professional Food Society (SFPFS) and Culinary Historians of Northern California (CHONC). Before joining, attend an event to see if there is a good fit, if you want to hang out with those folks. Also explore less formal organizations too, such as a supper or cooking club, because you never know who you’ll meet. if you want to hone your writing skills and network in an intense weekend of workshops and learning, attend the annual Greenbrier Symposium for Professional Food Writing (Greenbrier FB page).
You’re merely networking. Plus, professional food events are always fun. There’s usually good food and drinks!
4. Develop an online presence: I was once told that I could not sell my book project unless I was on the Food Network. That wasn’t true. Look at all the books authored by people without shows on TV. On the other hand, you need to have a ‘platform’ – people need to know who you are. Along with the professional networking, aspiring authors will be more successful these days if they have a web presence – a blog, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.
You don’t need to have a ginormous following but being active and engaged on the web will help you convince publishers that your project is worthy. Writing online is great way to practice the craft of writing. It’s a regular intellectual workout.
5. Write a proposal like a business plan: Follow the usual outline but think of strategies for marketing and selling the book. With regard to Asian topic, publishers and their marketing/sales force may not be familiar with your topic. You may have access to potential audiences and media channels that they do not. Publishers want to make money off of a book and so do you! How can you work with the publisher to sell lots of books?
6. Find an agent or shop the book project yourself: Approach agents who have represented authors that you respect (check the Acknowledgements of a book). Cookbook agents are often member of IACP or WCR; they may attend the annual conferences. See if there’s a fit with the agent. He/she will tell you how viable your idea is. If needed, an agent will help you tweak or reshape your idea.
If you are willing to negotiate directly with an editor or publisher, then try to sell your idea yourself. It’s hard but a number of publishers, especially the independents, consider unagented proposals. (Btw, I current am not represented by an agent.)
7. Know the financial realities: Don’t expect money to rain from the sky. Few cookbook writers can live off their advances and royalties. Maintain a day job or ask your partner for his/her financial and emotional support. Really.
The payoff is that you have a magnificent asset for your professional calling card. You build your platform and career with the book. Your financial wealth may grow a bit but the pot at the end of the rainbow is filled with a different kind of gold.
8. Realize that the book will own you: Writing a cookbook is a full-time endeavor. Actually, it’s an obsession that I mull over while I sleep and wake up thinking about. The book does take up a major part of your professional and personal life so be prepared.
Lastly, there are few overnight successes. Successfully selling a cookbook idea to a publisher is tough but many people have done it. Why can’t you?
I hope these tips are helpful. If you have additional questions or information to share, chime in!
- Most Book Deals Originate with Publishers not Authors, says Cookbook Agent (on Diane Jacob's WillWriteforFood.com, 2/24/11)
- When is a cookbook deal too good to be true? (on Justin Schwartz's JustcookNYC.com, 2/20/11)
- Behind the scences of the Asian Dumplings photo shoot (on Asian Dumpling Tips, 8/05/09)