Food Publishing Still a Crapshoot, Says Editor

Jan 052010
 
SyndyMiner

Sydny Miner, newly minted Executive Editor at Crown Books

Recently I spoke with Sydny Miner, about to become executive editor at Crown Books and leave Simon & Schuster, where she edited the Food Network’s Paula Deen and Molly Wizenberg’s first book, A Homemade Life.

Sydny  started working with Paula Deen in 2002, before the food network made Deen a star. What was she like?  “She’s the person you see on TV, maybe a little quieter in person,” says Sydny. We fell in love with her and her great voice. We knew Southern cooking was a perennial subject. We knew her restaurant was a destination.

Yet, she says it was a gut feeling to take Deen on. “We just caught her on the way up.” Sydny might say the same of Molly Wizenberg. An early reader of food blogs, Sydny suggested an agent contact Wizenberg about writing a book proposal. “Molly’s gift is the way she looks at an everyday occurrence, making it relevant not just to lunch but to life. That’s a unique gift.”

While Sydny  now concentrates on narrative non-fiction and memoir, she has advice for those who want to write cookbooks and food-based memoir:

1. The Internet has transformed the market, so position your book to be different. Cookbooks are not going away, but they have to deliver more than what readers can get for free online. “That doesn’t mean you should be twisting your recipes into knots to make them different. There are only so many recipes for vanilla cake, so use cardamom instead of cinammon, or do small batch baking, or cook with agave.”

2. The Food Network has transformed the market too. Get a platform or adjust your expectations. “I hate to say it, but platform (how well known you are and whether you have created demand for your book) is important, because there’s so much noise out there. If you come to Simon & Schuster but we don’t know you from Adam, it’s not going to work,” she admits.

That does not mean you can’t write a cookbook and do well, however. It means you have to set your expectations properly. Sydny believes small publishers such as Pequot, Sasquatch, Runnning Press, Robert Rose and Storey Publishing do a great job for the right book. “Wander around a bookstore and see who’s doing what,” she advises. (Or click on my links to learn more.)

3. A vibrant, definable voice not only still works, but it’s critical, especially when so many recipes are free. “Voice is just as important in a cookbook as it is in a memoir,” Sydny says. “There are dozens of Italian cookbooks. The ones that work have a personality and a voice.”

In the end, publishing decisions go back to the gut, she says. “Publishing is a crapshoot. A number of years ago, we had a consulting firm come into our company. I was the only editor at the meeting. I said I look into my crystal ball and I decide. Everyone laughed.

“Publishers do look at data. We have access to Book Scan, which gives us an idea of how other books are selling. We can talk to our special sales people, and to the people at Amazon and big bookstores. But the info cannot be quantified.

“We’re not selling widgets. We’re seling something both ephemeral and concrete at the same time. We don’t have R&D budgets. We’re bloodhounds and truffle pigs. It’s not a science.”

And that’s good news for those of us who are neither Paula Deen nor Molly Wizenberg — at least, not yet.

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  33 Responses to “Food Publishing Still a Crapshoot, Says Editor”

  1. This is great advice. I always wonder what makes publishers decide to go ahead with a book. I’m still wondering: just how many blog readers/fans does one need to gain a publisher’s interest? Hundreds? Thousands?

    • Depends what kind of interest it is, Erika. There is the quality of the blog content itself, and then there is the readership. Sydny was attracted to Molly’s storytelling abilities and her strong voice, and of course, the huge response she generated in readers of Orangette. Eat Me Daily tracked blog-to-book deals for 2009 in this incomplete list.

  2. Food Network is the 800 lb gorilla. They and the other food / lifestyle outlets are the place you have to be if you want to get noticed.

    It’s sad, because there are still lots of quality food writers out there that haven’t been “discovered” on the small screen.

    Being on the Internet doesn’t necessarily help, either, because there are so many good blog writers who never get noticed due to not ranking high in Google.

    • Nate, yeah, I don’t think most of us can get a TV show or compete with their cookbooks. All we have left is our own spin on things and our audience, which we can build. Her point was that cookbooks can do very well when published by smaller publishers also, or can sell a respectable amount of books (in my interview I think that was 25,000+, which is pretty darned good). It’s also true that good bloggers who don’t know marketing and SEO are not going to rank high in search engines and thus be harder to find.

      • One thing about the internet is that it has opened up the field to people who weren’t previously noticed. Folks like Molly, would she have gotten her book contract had she not spent the time writing such high-quality entries on her website?

        In the past, folks like her might have toiled away at home, sending queries to agents and publishers, and perhaps might have gotten a contract. Now she, like others, have the opportunity to build something tangible to show agents and editors. Her site has no ads, it isn’t fancy (she’s on Blogger), and isn’t super SEO-friendly, yet she landed a contract with Simon & Schuster. So it is entirely possible.

        I had an editor at a major publishing house turn a book down because I wasn’t on Food Network. So it went elsewhere, to a smaller publisher, where it’s doing quite well. There are a zillion obstacles, as Sydny pointed out. You just have to believe in what you’re doing, and keep working at building up your blog or your writing portfolio, if you want to get published. It’s hard, no matter what.

        • All good points, David. Don’t forget that Molly had a huge following, and that counted for a lot in terms of getting a book contract. Sydny saw how readers responded to her.

          • Hi Dianne: I made note that Molly had (and has) a large following. But to Nate, to mentioned Food Network and Google ranking as factors in getting a book contract, they are just part of the mix.

            I don’t know what Molly’s Google ranking is now, but the main thing is that she started just like any other person with an internet connection: she set up a free blog on Blogger, and started writing and publishing her own pieces. Whatever Google ranking she got was because she wrote well and built a following.

          • Molly was one of the early adopters and reaped the benefits of that. Nowadays with the field so full and getting more crowded by the day, a new writer is hardly noticed. You have to do more than put up a free blog and write well. That formula doesn’t work anymore. Google has moved beyond and writers or anyone who wants to get noticed have to know what they can do to build the audience.

  3. I actually find this encouraging — I think it all comes down to voice, vision and positioning. If you can develop those things, you will get viewed and eventually published.

    • Oh good. I didn’t mean for it to be a downer. Don’t forget the big one: platform.

    • I agree – though it’s scary to realize that platform is the most important factor in some cases. So I stick to what I *do* have: drive, vision and a voice. And one hell of a positive attitude!

  4. Thank you very much for this post — eye opening and helpful

    On building a platform, I would say that there are so many great and fun channels all looking for good content, all good options for getting your name out there gradually. Traditional newspapers and mags; online forums e.g. Tastespotting, your own blog, guestposting on other blogs etc. I say take on as much as your time and space allows.

    I offer the above as a work-in-progress writer rather than an expert. Hope it’s helpful.

    To all hopefuls, Happy New Year, keep at it, and keep the faith

    Wen
    http://www.goingwithmygut.com

    • If the recent LA Times article is true, then traditional newspapers and mags will provide the platform…so long as you’re willing to not be paid well for it.

      You’re even less likely to be paid for guest posting on other blogs, but at least you don’t have to fight with a stingy editor. ;-)

  5. On Molly’s site-what counts for a large following? It is curious that she never did do much more than write, no fancy blog heading, nor did she seem to be too savvy in terms of SEO etc.

    She hardly ever writes on it now-maybe once a month at most, and it will be interesting to see if she writes another book or where that takes her. As well, she was blogging way before it became the thing to do, so that helped her, as it did Julie of Julia/Julie Project.

    I think the biggest conundrum is how to gain a platform, that in itself is hard especially in today’s very competitive market. It’s not necessarily enough to have a great blog, and getting on food network, well that’s something else entirely. And what if you are NOT interested in playing that game? hopefully, the publishing world will remain some autonomy from that scene and give us books that are much more interesting.

    • Jaden Hair of Steamy Kitchen is a great example of how it can be done – start small, dream big, and work HARD.

      • Man, you’re a big commenter on my site today, Nate. I agree, it’s harder to get noticed now.

        Re the LA times article, it’s already happening. Ex. Saveur has put food blogs on its home page, but no one’s getting paid. See my previous post on this topic

        And yes, Jaden is a super hard worker. She deserves everything that comes her way.

    • It happened exactly as Dianne wrote above: Sydny had been reading my blog of her own accord, and she suggested me to an agent she knew. That agent happens to have a friend of mine as a client. But at the time of her conversation with Sydny, the agent didn’t even know that her client and I knew one another.

      I’ve never been interested in playing the game. I just wrote what I wanted to write, and that’s what I continue – and will continue – to do.

      • Into the sense of foreign avodart results currencies.

        Thanks for clarifying, Molly. it’s rare that a writer gets published mainly on the strength of her writing. People love to read this kind of success story, and you did it.

        • Molly, I think you are taking my words out of context, as I’m not slighting you or accusing you of anything–in fact, pointing you out as someone who didn’t come at it like so many others are and having to “play” the game–a kind of sink or swim mentality in the rush to be published or to be noticed.

          Your path does not seem typical nor representative of Dianne’s post-and great for you. I commend you for all you have accomplished, read your blog when you do write it, and enjoyed hearing you read in person.
          I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to have friends who know friends-it helps a lot in this business. Sorry to have offended you.

  6. Thanks for a great read, Dianne! There’s hope yet for us smaller bloggers…

  7. Thanks for your post, Dianne. As always, very helpful.

    • Lynda and Alona, you are most welcome.

      Nani, If you see how loyal her followers are, even if she doesn’t post for a while, they wait for her. I ‘m not sure how Sydny discovered her blog, other than that she was an early reader of food blogs, and that gave her an advantage. And as David said, she started just like any other person with an Internet connection, and that gives hope for beautiful writers who know how to connect with their readers.

  8. this is a great post! I’m heading back to the Philippines to gather some material for the blog but maybe it might be good material for a memoir regarding relationships with family and food. Sort of like “Joy luck club” meets “Not becoming my mother”. Like most memoirs I have to weigh the consequences of writing it vs. hurting someone’s feelings – a delicate balance. I remember you telling me before to gather as much oral history as possible. My mom’s memory is failing but I hope she can give me the rich memories of her past and some of those that I was too young to remember but have shaped my attitude towards life and food.

  9. Thanks for this post Dianne. The information is sobering but encouraging. Sobering because of the ever-growing numbers of food bloggers but if you can a way to stand out anything is possible. I think David made a great comment about believing in what you’re doing and working at it. It is easy to look at the likes of Molly Wizenberg, Paula Deen, and David Lebovitz now and think how big they are in comparison to me and my little blog and that I couldn’t possibly ever compete, but the truth is they started somewhere and worked. It’s easy to forget that even the stars were nobodies once and even they had to put in the effort to get there.

    Thanks again. Your posts are always thought provoking.

    • You are welcome, Patricia.

      Yep, the old “work hard and be patient” adage still has merit. Even Paula Deen started small. As she writes on her website, “One day it just dawned on me: I was going to take control of my life and my destiny! So, I decided to do what I do best – taking a lesson straight from Grandmother Paul – and started The Bag Lady. With $200 and the help of my boys, the real adventure began.”

  10. Love this insider look, Dianne, but can’t decide whether to feel hopeful or despair over the business of writing for a living, especially in light of the LAT piece today about the dwindling fees for freelancers.

    And yet some of us are just driven to tell stories — hideous odds be damned!

    • That’s the crux of it, Sarah. Some of us have something to say and we just can’t stop ourselves. I hope that’s a good thing.

  11. Thanks, Dianne, Sydny and all those in the discussion via comments. This entire post is well-timed after the gloomy LAT article yesterday. Rainey isn’t unrealistic in what he writes in the article, but it’s tough to read when you’re determined to forge ahead!

    I find it worth mentioning to commenters who might feel frustrated and discouraged about being a “no name” that my co-author and I managed to convince Ten Speed Press to take a chance on the two of us for our book Almost Meatless which was released in April 2009. It has done very well. Joy was a Philadelphia food writer and restaurant critic, and I was a food writer, recipe developer and regular freelancer for the Food Network (but no on screen personality!) when we proposed our book. I couldn’t have predicted that I would be an author. It was, indeed, a crapshoot! Even now as a published author, I work every day at building a platform. For many (not all) celebrity cookbook authors or writers, platforms spring up like modular homes! For the rest of us, it’s hard work, brick by brick. There are only two choices: quit or keep at it.

    I like David’s philosophy of believing in what we do and moving forward.

    Here’s to steady growth in 2010.

    • Hey Tara, nice to hear from you.

      You and Joy were not exactly “no names” but you had built a platform and I know how hard you worked when that book came out. I particularly liked the how fellow bloggers all tried a recipe on the same day and linked to each other when the book came out. I’m so pleased for you that the book has done well. You’ve certainly capitalized on a trend.

  12. Dianne, I have found the support of fellow authors, bloggers, writers- even friends and family not professionally involved- to be completely invaluable with regard to our book and my own career. Networks are powerful propellers.

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