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So You Want to Write a Cookbook: Part 1

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cookbooksYour brownies reign supreme. Your roast chicken makes Zuni Cafe look like Safeway's rotisserie. Proposals--not all tongue-in-cheek--pile up when your strawberry-rhubarb pie arrives. Your friends, your family, your blogging buddies all agree: you should write a book. They'd buy it, their friends would buy it, Ina and Martha would arm-wrestle over who would get you on her show first.

Don't you wish it was that easy?! The first thing to know about writing a cookbook is that publishing is a business, and businesses have to make money to stay in business. They do this by paying attention to a whole lot of things, from profit and loss projections to trend research. It helps to realize, right from the beginning, that your book will get published only if a bunch of people (and not just editors, but sales and marketing folks too) can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it will sell and make money.

Of course, if you just want to give out your favorite recipes to family and friends, it's easier than ever to self-publish, especially as an on-demand or e-book. But if you want the glamour of a Library of Congress number and a place on your local bookstore's cookbooks shelf, you'd better toughen up.
Here, words to the wise, part 1:

1. It's a cookbook, not the Great American Novel. Yes, some people buy (and read) cookbooks for the writing, just like some people buy Playboy for the articles. But, just like Playboy, many more people buy it for the pictures, or in this case, the recipes. Content editors, copy editors, proofreaders, and yes, even your editor's phone-answering assistant will be slicing and dicing your precious prose. Believe it or not, they're actually making you sound better. If you can't hand over this kind of control, stick with self-publishing.

2. Learn to write recipes like the pros. This means being consistent from start to finish. For example, ingredients should always be listed in the order in which they're going to be used. Measurements should be written the same way each time, not teaspoon on one page and tsp the next. Each time you saute an onion or roll out a batch of pastry dough, it helps to trot out the same description in the same language. Consider your audience, too. If you're a professional pastry chef, you probably work your recipes out by weight-- easier and much more consistent, of course, except that most American home bakers measure by teaspoons and cups, not grams and ounces.


3. Stay ahead of the trends. Would-be authors are often shocked to find out just how long it takes to put out a book. Let's put it this way: if you sold your book idea tomorrow, you probably wouldn't see a finished copy until fall of 2010 at the earliest; more likely spring of '11. Which means the trend of the moment better have some long legs. I don't doubt that someone's pitching a goat cookbook right now, goat being the latest meat white people like. A goat cookbook on the shelves right now would be perfect; in two years, who knows? The meat-garde among us may have moved on to rabbit and guinea pig.

4. Have a hook. It's not enough to throw together your greatest hits if no one knows your name. it's sad but true that being famous in one realm is usually enough to get a hotshot deal in another (see Schwarzenegger, Governor Arnold). The rest of us have to rely on snappy ideas.

5. Got your hook? Now you need your title. Skinny Bitch, Hot Sour Salty Sweet, Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, Snakes on a Plane: all of these tell you exactly what you need to know, including the authors' attitude. I'm a little embarrassed by the very literal title of my latest book. Then again, calling an astrology cookbook The Astrology Cookbook does make the Googling pretty darn easy.

6. Prove yourself. It helps if your connection to your cuisine of choice is breathtakingly obvious. You're Jewish and you're writing about the new kosher cooking! You own a fish restaurant and you're writing about seafood! Of course, crossovers do happen-- just ask Arthur Schwartz, now a go-to guy for Southern Italian. But no matter where you come from, you better have a good answer as to why and how you're an expert-- in fact, the ONLY expert-- on your particular topic.

7. Figure out what goes where. If you were a punk band, you wouldn't send your demo to Deutsche Grammophon, would you? When I worked at Chronicle Books, I opened up a lot of proposals for diet schemes, foodie memoirs, and celebrity cookbooks-- none of which matched anything on our list. Ask for a catalog, browse through the library or a well-stocked bookstore cookbook section and see what titles come close to yours before you start pitching your proposals.

Up next: what's in a proposal, creating (and copyrighting) recipes, and do you need an agent?

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