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.