so you want to publish a cookbook

cookbooksI had a great time at the James Beard Foundation cookbook, broadcast and journalism awards last night. No winners this year for me -- as they say, it's an honor just to be nominated out of the hundreds of cookbooks published every year. Speaking of which, you might be wondering how you can get your own cookbook published. There's no one easy answer, but I can think of a few things not to do. Some of this is meant to be humorous, and some is meant to be helpful, but sadly, every tip is based on a real life experience (or several) I've had as a cookbook editor.

  1. This first entry is the inspiration for the post. Don't send food in the mail with your cookbook proposal unless you know the editor personally (or your agent does) and you're certain the recipient is at the office and will be receptive to it. If you do send food, make sure it's not highly perishable because it could be sitting in a mailroom for a while. Don't pack soft items in a padded envelope. And don't wrap the food in a mysterious tin foil ball. Seriously, would you want to eat what's inside these packages sent from a total stranger?
  2. Don't tell me about your grandmother's (mother's, aunt's, etc.) amazing recipes and how you wrote the proposal because you want to preserve them for future generations. Everybody says this.
  3. Don't tell me you want to write a book because you have a lot of dinner parties and all your friends say how great your cooking is. Everybody else says this.
  4. At the very least, don't send out a cookbook proposal until you've read this post, especially if you're a blogger. I know authors who have already published books with major publishers who need to read that post.
  5. Don't send proposals with links to huge 50+meg files to download. And don't send 8 attachments with one email. Send just one file, not too large, not packed with massive hi-res photos on every page.
  6. Don't go the other direction and send a 1- or 2-page cookbook proposal unless you're already a superstar (in which case you're probably not reading this post). A book title and list of chapters is not a proposal.
  7. Don't leave a photo of yourself out of the proposal. I see a lot of bloggers who use logos or graphics for their avatar, but a publisher would be investing in you as a brand, and that's hard to do if you're hiding behind the scenes. Don't worry, you don't have to be a supermodel. Put your face out there.
  8. Unless you take photos like this, don't fill your proposal with photography and insist on shooting the book yourself. Shooting for print is much different than the web when everything is backlit on a computer screen, and sometimes mediocre photography can be the thing that costs you the deal, despite a great concept or wonderful recipes. On that subject, don't "design" the proposal unless you have real skills. Publishers will hire people to do that for you.
  9. Don't include photos of kids in your cookbook proposal. Or to be more specific, don't Photoshop those kids into illustrated make-believe settings, dressed like characters from popular movies, cooking each other alive. It's incredibly creepy. Yes, this has really happened (more than once).
  10. I don't care what those "get your book published" guidebooks say, do not send your proposal to a publisher without a specific person's name on it. Don't address it to the President or CEO of the company. And don't address it to "Mr. Harper Collins".
  11. In fact, don't try to navigate the world of publishing without an agent. I'm pretty consistent about this advice. If you can't find an agent out of the hundreds of them to represent you, then you're going to have an impossible time finding a book publisher. A good agent knows all the editors and how to play by the rules. A good agent is your foot in the door and worth every penny.
  12. Don't tell me about your Twitter/Facebook/Pinterest/Instagram followers unless it's really worth mentioning.  If you have just 424 Twitter followers, you need to keep working on your social networking strategy before trying to sell a book (or doing any kind of business, quite frankly) because your community is probably still just your personal network of friends.  Have you seen this funny SNL video? This is what I think of when someone sends me a proposal with a link to their Facebook fan page with almost no following.
  13. On that subject, don't tell me about your web site that you haven't launched yet or have links on your blog to sister sites or social networking platforms which are not up and running. Sure, you came up with a great idea and bought a URL for it, but that's not enough to attract a publisher. We want to see traffic, steady growth, followers, and lots of comments. We want to see the community you've built over time.
  14. Don't write a post about bacon on your blog the same week you send out a vegetarian cookbook proposal to every editor in the business. On that subject, seriously, don't try to sell a proposal that has nothing to do with your platform or reputation. I'm a big believer in specialization. If your web site about gluten-free food gets 100,000 views a month, that's much better than a general-interest food blog which gets 200,000 views a month. I could write a long post about this subject to explain it better, but just trust me for now. Also on this subject, if you claim to be an active blogger, you'd better be posting more often than twice a month.
  15. Don't specialize too much. Gluten-free, vegetarian, low-fat, and pressure cooking are great categories, but not all in one book. And I may have broken this rule myself before, but just because there is nothing published on a given subject (The Best Carrot Recipes Ever!), it doesn't mean there is a void in the cookbook category that needs to be filled. If you think there is a void, at the least you should try blogging about the subject first to test out your logic.
  16. Just because you write about Italian food, don't compare yourself in the proposal to Giada. Or just because you're crafty or love entertaining, don't claim to be the new Martha unless you have huge following of some kind. I know this is tough advice, but everybody says these kinds of things in every proposal I see. Focus on being yourself.
  17. Speaking of TV stars, don't promise you're starring in your own TV series until it's a done deal. I can't count how many people, including many of my current authors, have been approached by TV producers, shot pilots (or even a few episodes), and waited months or years, without luck, for those shows to be sold to a network. In fact, any publisher would rather wait for the show to start airing and pay you a lot more money to write a book if the show is a hit. You'll also likely have agents begging to represent you if the TV deal goes through.
  18. Don't assume your 9th place finish on Season 7 of that cable TV show means anything to a publisher. I guess it's better than nothing, but everybody who appears on those shows is trying to write a cookbook. If you're lucky enough to appear on a show like that, you'd better at least make sure you were really memorable, preferably not for being a jerk or drama queen.
  19. This is a long one -- don't be inconsiderate. You know the old joke about meeting a doctor at a cocktail party and asking him to look at that weird mole, or meeting a lawyer and asking her for some impromptu legal advice. It's a little annoying for them. Cookbook editors (or agents) at writer/blogger conferences are fair game -- of course you should try to meet them. Find a comfortable way to introduce yourself or be introduced, hand them a card (you have business cards, right?), make your elevator pitch if you can, and then read the signals. If the editor asks questions in response, then great. If they politely offer to check out your site and then excuse themselves from the conversation, respect that. If it's a social event where you're meeting, try to be a little more understanding. They might be there to have fun. Don't keep pulling them away from their friends, interrupting conversations, and going on and on about your passion for food and your whole life story unless you want to risk burning bridges. See if the editor is doing a "meet the pros" session and sign up for that, or if the editor is speaking on a panel about publishing, try to introduce yourself after it's over. Believe it or not, I speak on those kinds of panels because I want people to pitch me on book ideas. But at a random weekend meet-up among local bloggers, I might just be out to have a good time.
  20. This is a weird one, but if you do meet or get to know an editor, don't ask them to take an early look at your proposal unless you're offering them exclusivity. I imagine some agents won't agree with me about this, but when I see a not-quite-finished proposal, if I like it, I might give the writer some advice. If you take that advice and then try selling the improved proposal to another editor, well, it's really not cool.
  21. If you have great recipes but your writing isn't very strong, don't try to do it yourself. Even the pros use co-writers. A proposal full of typographical errors is going to get rejected, no matter how great the recipes might be. By the way, a good agent won't let you make these kinds of mistakes.
  22. That being said, don't send your proposal to an editor until it's the best it can be. You might not get another shot at this. Take the extra time to build your platform, hone your craft, and make the proposal something you're proud of. I'm sure there is some applicable cliche about how "winners are doers" and that kind of thing, but I like another cliche -- "patience is a virtue." Just because your best friends keep telling you how great you are on Twitter, it doesn't mean you're ready for the big leagues. Take the time to get it right. Seek feedback beyond your personal network. Push your boundaries. Attend a conference or two. Work with a mentor. Keep writing that blog (or for bigger web sites or print publications) and building your platform. Take a writing class or a photography class. Embrace social networking. Invest in yourself before you take the next big step.