Agent Couldn't Sell Her Memoir, so Cookbook Author Publishes it Anyway

Sep 172013
 
Kitty-Morse

It took Kitty Morse 10 years to write her memoir. Her agent couldn’t sell it, even though she was an award-winning cookbook author. (Photo by Owen Morse.)

A guest post by Kitty Morse

As a cookbook writer with nine books under my belt, I always harbored a desire to write a memoir centered around Dar Zitoun, the riad that my father willed my brothers and me 50 miles south of my native Casablanca. I fantasized about writing my own story, free of editorial constraints such as word counts. But how? I was just a cookbook writer.

Frances Mayes’ bestselling Under the Tuscan Sun provided the impetus I sought. Her stories of restoring a Tuscan farmhouse struck me as similar to those I experienced at Dar Zitoun. I too was living on two continents and learning to deal with foreign masons, house painters, and plasterers.

Thus, in 2001, began the most rewarding aspect of my memoir: the learning process. Mayes herself led one of the seminars I attended. “Take a poetry class. It’ll do wonders for expanding your vocabulary,” she urged. This was the best piece of advice this writer and poet could give me. I was exhilarated at the newfound freedom of playing with sentence structure. I enrolled in writing classes at my local San Diego university. Professional assignments took a back seat to penning food poems about couscous, tagines, and Moroccan wedding customs. I joined critique groups, devoured biographies of food writers and chefs, and read all the literature about food and travel I could find.

MintTeaand Minarets

Morse felt validated after a positive review of her book appeared in Saveur magazine.

I settled on a format, imagining each chapter as a long headnote, each one concluding with a recipe relevant to the text. With that outline in mind, I relived childhood visits to Berber villages in the Atlas Mountains with my father; shadowed Tita, my great-aunt and accomplished cuisini’e8re, as she cooked in her kitchen in Casablanca; and consulted with our local practitioner of native medicine. During my research, a neighbor informed me that our riad had been a culinary training ground for young women in the mid-1800s! It was fate that more than a century later, I too, would give cooking demonstrations there to members of my annual gastronomic tours.

Back in my kitchen in San Diego, I tested recipes for taste and accuracy before my husband photographed each of the 31 dishes. More than 50 of his location shots also complement the text.

My agent at the time tried to sell my memoir, to no avail. “Memoirs with food don’t sell,” responded publishers Really? Isn’t there a popular sub-genre of food writing called “food memoirs?” I became tired of rejections, and so did my agent. I would publish Mint Tea and Minarets: A banquet of Moroccan Memories myself.

The writing process took 10 years, with weeks and sometimes months of hiatus. I soldiered on with the help of a critique group. The aim was to produce a beautiful book, one that would compare favorably with any mainstream publisher’s. I hired professional editors, and prevailed upon literary minded friends for constructive criticism. A graphic designer in training designed the front cover and laid out the text for less than $1500. I sought endorsements for the back cover from three noted cookbook authors. My confidence grew after the unpublished manuscript was a finalist in the 2012 San Diego Book Awards.

I found that the price of printing a book in China is half to one third of what it is in the US. I hired the printer with whom I had worked on the reprint of A Biblical Feast to handle the Chinese connection. Two months later, in December 2012, a truck loaded with 1500 copies of Mint Tea and Minarets appeared at my door. With a relatively small first run, high quality paper, 327 pages and 100 color photographs, the the price averaged about $9 per book. (Here’s the 57-page flipbook version of Mint Tea and Minarets.)

My work was only half done, however. Now came marketing. I opened a store on Amazon.com to promote my books. With chain stores off limits to small publishers, I have learned to think “outside the box.” I try to do so on a daily basis. But the reward comes when I find a good home for my book, including linking up with passionate independent booksellers across the country. I am honing my social media skills. I send out The Kasbah Chronicles, a monthly e-mail blast containing a recipe and announcing my upcoming activities. I give Power Point presentations and food samplings on Moroccan food and culture. A lovely review in the April 2013 of Saveur magazine did much to validate my efforts.

Would I recommend you publish your own book? Only if you are compelled to do so. Is it a money making proposition? Let’s just say that seven months on, my stock of boxes has diminished by half. My main satisfaction, lies in the fact that my perseverance paid off. The story of Dar Zitoun lives on through my book.

* * *

In addition to her memoir, Kitty Morse is the author of nine cookbooks, five of them on Moroccan and North African cuisine. Her award-winning Cooking at the Kasbah: Recipes from my Moroccan Kitchen is in its ninth printing from Chronicle Books. She has been a freelance food and travel writer, newspaper columnist, cooking teacher, adjunct professor of French, and organizer of a gastronomic tour to Morocco for 23 years.

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  14 Responses to “Agent Couldn't Sell Her Memoir, so Cookbook Author Publishes it Anyway”

  1. i LOVE the “Cooking at the Kasbah!” It’s the first Moroccan cookbook I bought, and it remains my favorite. Congratulations, Kitty, on tackling self-publishing! I self-published, too, and while the learning curve was steep, it’s paid off for us. I loved having creative control and owning the rights to my content — and there’s something uniquely satisfying about going it all ourselves. Best wishes for continued success to you! I’m going to buy a copy of Mint Tea and Minarets right now! (Have you read A Street in Marrakech; it’s the book that made me fall in love with the idea of Morocco.)

    • Thank you, Melissa. And write on! Yes, I did read A Street in Marrakech. A fun read.
      The process was worth it, but you need to hang in and believe in yourself!

      • Go for it! I guess publishers don’t count Italian or Proven’e7al cooking as ethnic. Spain either. I agree with you, if you have a good story to tell, word will get around. Good luck.

  2. I wrote a review of Kitty’s book, which can be read on my blog, Gherkins & Tomatoes. At Dianne’s request, I am posting the link here: http://gherkinstomatoes.com/2013/01/08/a-cuisine-created-by-moroccan-women-a-review-of-kitty-morses-mint-tea-and-minarets-and-a-brief-word-about-dadas/

    Cynthia Bertelsen

  3. Well, with all the changes in the book publishing world, writers conclude that self-publishing may be the only way to get one’s work out there. That is the route I took and it worked for me. I am wondering, however, what is a riad? I think it is a currency in perhaps, Saudi? Again, thanks, Diane for a most interesting post.

    • Pat, a riad is a Moroccan home, the traditional kind. It’s salient feature is an inner courtyard with plants, trees sometimes, and a water feature. The layout is somewhat similar to old Indian homes. The courtyards afforded privacy while allowing residents to enjoy the outdoors, and allowed for good ventilation, creating airy verandahs and porches. Many of the riads now take in renters and tourists. It’s so much better than staying in a hotel, and economical too if you’re traveling with family.

      • Thanks, Sujatha, great explanation. Indeed, foreigners are buying up riads to remodel in Marrakech and Fez, mainly. Ours is located in the most traditional medina (old town) you can imagine) and it sits on the bank of one of Morocco’s main rivers, the Oum-er-Bia (Mother of Spring.) We don’t have verandahs or porches, but a rooftop terrace, traditionally the place where women and children gathered to chat, eat, and sometimes sleep.

    • Oops! A riad is a traditional Moorish mansion. One built in a medina (old city) and with an interior garden, the riad, and a central fountain. Very romantic (if a built chilly in winter because the atrium is open to the sky!)

  4. This is a very inspiring post! I have been researching on how to self-publish myself. I have been told that “ethnic cookbooks are not a good sell” by a publisher I pitched to. I beg to disagree. If one has a good story to tell, great recipes, good content, then readers will be drawn to it at the end of the day. Thanks for generously sharing all this info, Dianne. You just motivated me to surge forward and take matters in my own hands.

  5. Diane and Kitty, thank you for this post! Inspiring and educational!

  6. Thanks for sharing your experience, Kitty. I’m a hybrid published author: fiction and nonfiction, traditionally and self-published. Both kinds have their advantages and disadvantages, but both are labors of love. It’s all a matter of what/how much you’re willing to do.

  7. I’m late in reading this post. Computer issues. I just ordered a copy and looking forward to the Moroccan story you have to share Kitty. The recipes will be a bonus. I posted on FB my purchase with a link back to Amazon. Hopefully, my foodie friends will follow.

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