So You Want to Write a Cookbook: Part 2

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stack of cookbooksLast week, So You Want to Write a Cookbook: Part 1 offered some insider advice to would-be authors with Julia Child ambitions. Today, with Part 2, a few answers to those questions you didn't know to ask, from what makes a recipe yours to how to get an agent.

How do I create an original recipe?

1. Read cookbooks, and travelogues, and biographies and memoirs of interesting people from cultures that intrigue you. New cookbooks are the most seductive, of course, but the 641 section of the library is every food writer's friend. Other people's recipes can be a starting point; after all, you can't create your own pesto recipe without knowing the typical way a pesto is put together. Anything you taste, or even just read about, can be an inspiration for a recipe. The important part? Once you've got your idea, get in the kitchen and mess around. Measure, take notes, taste, take more notes, make it again. This is the part that is messy and time consuming, but the strength of your recipes depends on it.

Once you've got your recipes nailed down, pass them around. Get your mom, your friends (especially the ones who say they can't cook), and your neighbors to make these dishes. No hints, no tips, just what's written down. See if you can taste and take a look at what they produce.

As for the source of your inspiration, when in doubt, attribute. Cookbook author and former Bay Area pastry chef David Lebovitz recently posted a very useful article about copyrighting and fair play around recipes. Remember, even if you found something floating around on the internet with no attribution, it didn't get there by itself. Someone, somewhere created that recipe, and it's not yours until you've shaken it up, changed some ingredients, and re-written the instructions in your own voice.


OK, I've got my recipes. How do I get published?

2. The short answer? You get an agent to do it for you. Why? Because professionals use agents, and that means that submissions that come through agents are considered more seriously by publishers. Agents know what publishers are looking for, and so an agent will work with you to polish your submission into something worth publishing. Having opened a lot of unsolicited submissions during my time working at Chronicle Books, I can say that most un-agented submissions didn't tell us what we needed to know.

Swell. How do I get an agent?

3. You pick up a bunch of cookbooks similar to yours and read the acknowledgments. There aren't that many agencies that represent cookbook authors, so you'll have a short list in no time. You can also ask any friends who've been published who represents them, and if they've had a good experience with their representation.

The way you get an agent interested is the same way you get a publisher interested: with a great proposal. Remember, charming as you may be, you're only useful to an agent if your book sells.

    A proposal should include:
  • A brief cover letter, explaining your idea, who you are, and why you're the right person to write this book. If you have a connection to any fellow authors represented by that agency, and they've given you the OK to use their name, mention it here.
  • A C.V. covering your writing and/or culinary experience, including any awards as well as anything that makes you look promotable and media-savvy, like cooking demos or TV appearances.
  • Marketing and trend research, pointing out why this is a hot topic now, acknowledging similar books, and explaining how your book differs from the competition.
  • A table of contents
  • A recipe list
  • The introduction, followed by a sample chapter including 3 or 4 recipes.
  • Press clips lauding any of your previous books, or clips of published articles you've written

What if I've never published anything else? Doesn't my blog count?

4. Get published first, before you try to pump out a book. A publisher wants to be sure that you can write on deadline and handle the editorial process. The only way to prove this is to write professionally for a while. A personal blog is a good calling card, but just because you can write to your own satisfaction doesn't mean you can do it as a job. Those bloggers you've heard of getting book deals? Most of them were professionals in the publishing world already, either as writers, designers, or photographers. Get some experience pitching articles and writing for editors, and you'll be much better equipped to produce a book.