What does it take to publish a cookbook? Turns out, it depends.
Although access to publishers remains of utmost importance, a collection’s seasonality, the author’s personality, sheer luck and ― at least in 2020 ― social media presence also greatly contribute to the possibility of a book and its potential success.
We reached out to three authors, including those with a book already under their belt and in the throes of one, with a simple question: How do you publish a cookbook?
The query led to deeper discussions about the realities of the publishing world and obvious differences in approaches when it comes to grouping a cook’s recipes in one place.
Former Real Simple food director and cookbook author Dawn Perry, for example, wrote a pretty lengthy proposal (75 pages!) that she pitched to a slew of publishers. Esteban Castillo, the man behind the ”Chicano Eats” cookbook (published on June 30), was directly poached by an editor because of his eponymous blog. ”Millennial Kosher’s” Chanie Apfelbaum heeded the advice of industry friends, one of whom eventually introduced her to a publisher who considered her blog Busy in Brooklyn enough of a proposal to commission a cookbook.
“I probably would have pushed it off forever if I had to do a lengthy proposal and a full chapter and sample recipes,” Apfelbaum reminisced.
Although differing in their journeys, the three authors all reached the same destination: publication of their very own cookbook. Below, we break down their processes, showing a behind-the-scenes look at how these compendiums of recipes are put together.
Step 1: Learn to stand out and embrace it
Loads of folks around the world know their way around a kitchen and a lot of them can craft delicious dishes from scratch. But what turns certain chefs into authors is their ability to focus on a theme. All food tomes offer readers solutions to very specific issues in the kitchen.
Take Castillo’s approach when writing for his blog and his cookbook, for example. “In figuring out how I wanted to approach the book, I thought if you’re someone who is missing [your Mexican] home, what kind of recipes would you want to see in a book?” he told HuffPost. “It has a lot of things that you see in Mexican cuisine, like your standard rice recipes, bean recipes. The fundamentals. Because that’s a common issue that Mexican Americans go through. You go off from home and then you get homesick and then you are not able to replicate these things that you enjoy because our parents don’t work with measurements. They cook with their hearts and their souls and so they’re not able to translate any of that.”
Perry’s untitled project, on the other hand, is a pantry book. “My feeling is that a well-stocked pantry is the secret to getting fast, easy, really tasty meals on the table ― any day, any time,” she explained, discussing the essence of her pitch to publishing houses.
Although ”Millennial Kosher” benefits from an intrinsic focus on kosher food, Apfelbaum had to figure out how to stand out from the rest of the kosher cookbook crowd. “Every kosher cookbook has a potato kugel and a chicken soup,” she said. “I really felt like the kosher world needed something new and I was like, ‘I’m not doing any traditional foods.’ We need to breathe new life into old traditions. That’s what I wanted to bring to the table: something fresh, new and exciting.”
Step 2: Not all publishing houses are created equal ― so choose wisely
Finding the appropriate editor and publishing house is a choice that ends up influencing other aspects of your book, from finances to timing.
After her book went to auction ― a process in which numerous publishers bid for the rights to the project ― Perry was drawn to a specific editor. “Even before I took all the meetings, I suspected she was going to be it,” she remembered. “I was like, that’s who I want to work with. In the end, they made a generous offer and she was so enthusiastic, so it was a no-brainer.”
Under her contract, Perry received an advance to work on the book. She’ll receive another one-third of the budget after turning in her manuscript, and the final one-third upon publication. “And then I do get some amount of money, but I think it’s only after I basically make back my advance,” she explained.
The process was a bit different for Castillo, who was approached by an editor who happened to be a fan of his blog before he ever thought of working on a compendium of his recipes. He eventually took meetings with other publishing houses.
“Everybody offered something different [financially] and with timelines,” he said. “I had a conversation with a publisher who wanted me to finish the book within two months, which was kind of impossible for someone who doesn’t really have a team behind them.”
In the end, Castillo opted for an editor of Latin descent, like himself. “That was really important to me, I wanted to work with a person of color because I felt like they would have understood my writing and the journey a lot better.”
His contract is similar to Perry’s ― he’s being paid in three installments.
Apfelbaum’s experience was different. She already had a collection of recipes in the works when a friend directly introduced her to the person who ended up becoming her publisher.
Step 3: Sit down and write
As is the case with all forms of writing, the only way to actually do it is to, well, do it. Some, like Castillo, attack their initial proposal with that directness in mind, eventually delivering a rather complete writeup that ends up becoming the introduction to their book.
“The proposal process and writing the book are very hard processes,” Castillo said. “But I feel like the initial proposal is just a tiny bit harder because you have to sell yourself. It’s almost like writing a resume. I ended up writing my complete introduction in there.” Castillo’s process included writing down “anything and everything that I could think of,” which led him to “split the book in half between incorporating very traditional recipes and ... more fun fusions” to reflect his Mexican American upbringing.
Perry’s 75-page proposal was also pretty thorough, functioning as a semi-complete introduction to the final book.
Typically, authors have about a year to turn in a manuscript, Perry’s maternity leave and career changes led to a longer lead time. Simon and Schuster, the publisher behind her cookbook, doesn’t schedule drop dates until they’ve got a final manuscript in hand, in order to time the publication to a specific season or event. Her book release hasn’t yet been scheduled.
Apfelbaum got to work immediately after signing her contract. “I set deadlines for myself, I would test a certain number of recipes per day,” she said. “I was upstate with my kids and I would just make tons of things for dinner and everyone in the commune would come taste things, so I got a lot of feedback, which was great.”
Step 4: Test, test, test
Unlike traditional books, a cookbook isn’t only about a chef’s ability to convey a message through words. A cookbook is, quite obviously, about the recipes as well, which end up becoming the most time-consuming and intense part of the endeavor. All three authors agreed that most writers are required to present a collection of 100 recipes in their initial manuscript. To reach that number, a lot of trial and error is needed ― and not all of it by the cook.
Here is where cross-testing comes in. Once the recipes are narrowed down and written, authors enlist the help of cross testers ― folks unfamiliar with the recipes who cook them and make notes. (“You noted the tofu had to bake for 30 minutes, but it actually turned brown after 15.”)
Authors and publishers select the testers together.
“For me, I have a network of friends and family who I trust to do it,” Perry said, noting her contacts from a long career in editorial kitchens. “If I ever had a recipe that I wasn’t 100% confident about, I would send it to one of my professional recipe editor friends, who would know what I was looking for.” Perry also relied on “nonprofessional cook friends” who embody her ideal reader: the average at-home chef.
Apfelbaum made use of her rather large social media following and put a callout for recipe testers on Instagram. “I really wanted it to be tested by home cooks because they are going to be the ones cooking it,” she explained. “Any recipe that was a little bit more complex, I had professional friends of mine test them.” Those who applied for the position had to fill out a form about their cooking level, dislikes and likes, and more.
Although a stressful process, Castillo opted to do all the testing himself. “I do have friends who have written books who have hired recipe testers, but it depends on what kind of budget they are working with and how much time they have to work on the book,” he explained. “In situations where a recipe tester is needed, bloggers usually reach out to other bloggers. Many of us develop recipes for brands and publications regularly, so if I ever need someone else to test a recipe for me, I reach out to other blogger friends.”
Step 5: Deal with photography
The photos associated with a recipe are just as important as detailed step-by-step instructions. How do they come about? Just like anything else in the process, that varies.
Apfelbaum, for example, happens to be an extraordinary photographer, so she ended up taking pictures of her recipes herself.
Castillo’s budget didn’t account for a photographer, so he also opted to shoot each dish himself ― which he was incredibly happy doing. “One of the publishers that I really wanted to work with actually said that if I ended up choosing them, they were going to require me to hire my own photographer. That was an issue for me because it’s a lot of money and also I take all of my own photos.”
Seeking to present a project that was “completely him,” Castillo went ahead and snapped on his own time. “When people ask me how much work it was, I am just like: I don’t even know where to begin,” he said.
Perry said each publisher has its own system. Some will pay for the photo shoot, others leave it up to the authors or work in unison to settle on a professional. Still others will work with writers to obtain grants to cover the expense. “For me, it happens to come out of my advance,” Perry said. She finally selected a photographer who had already seen her proposal and was excited to tackle the project.
The entire long and strenuous path from pitch to publication truly does become a love letter to the recipes and the person who ends up buying the book.
When asked about the ideal reader for his cookbook, here’s what Castillo said: “Someone who is interested in learning about other cultures, in cooking something new and trying familiar flavors in unexpected ways. I would say, someone who just adventurous.”
Cooking is hard, after all, but teaching how to cook is that much harder.