Should You Write a Single Subject Cookbook?

Jun 042013
 

Author Andrea Slonecker must really, really like pretzels and eggs for years — and she’s up for it.

A guest post by Andrea Slonecker

Andrea Slonecker is a food writer and cooking teacher in Portland, Oregon. Find out more on her website.

I once heard that the best way to learn about something in detail is to write a book about it. That is the essence of a single subject cookbook. I learned this by writing Pretzel Making at Home (Chronicle Books, April 2013), and another book on eggs that’s in the editing phase.

Enthusiastic cooks, it seems, take to single subject subjects as well, when they want to know all about a food or dish. Here are the pros and cons of writing them:

The Upside: You Really Get into the Subject Matter

For authors, the opportunity to write a single-subject cookbook is a dream come true, providing the resources (time plus funding) to dig deeply into the subject and reveal all its potential. Total immersion in the subject makes the author a go-to expert, which opens the door for further opportunities such as interviews, articles, and, for some, spokesperson work.

Single-subject books connect the author with enthusiastic cooks who are eager to learn. Kirsty Melville, president and publisher of the book division of Andrews McMeel Publishing, says, “Single-subject books can reach a dedicated or committed readership, where the passion for the subject becomes the driver of interest.” Andrews McMeel has a series of “I Love” books that match writers with readers who are passionate about their area of interest, from coffee to meatballs.

The Downside: Just How Fascinating is It?

Before pitching your highly focused idea to a publisher, you had better be really interested in it, because you will be living with this topic day for years: researching it, talking and writing about it, and, most important, eating (or drinking) it almost daily. Not to mention the promotion after the book launches.

As is true with all cookbooks, with an unlimited supply of free recipes online and in magazines, publishers are looking for a story that goes beyond just a collection of recipes. They want depth of content and a unique perspective’97a compelling reason to publish the material in book form. On top of that, you must prove a niche audience exists for the book, and that the subject warrants a whole book. Otherwise, publishers may decide it’s better suited to a magazine article.

And then there’s pricing. Since single-subject books tend to be affordable. Their authors typically receive lower advances than they would for a bigger, more expensive general interest book. Justin Schwartz, executive editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt says, “I’m always asking myself, ’91Would anyone really pay $15 to $20 for a whole cookbook about this subject?'”

Trends are Different from Fads

When it comes to single-subject books, publishers are looking for topics that are trends, not merely fads. There are two angles: be the first to market and do it quickly to capitalize on the craze, or look for topics that Chronicle’s senior editor, Amy Treadwell, refers to as “evergreen:” perennial favorites that are part of the “enduring culinary landscape.” Ingredient-focused books are more wide-ranging than books on trendy food; that range will likely translate to higher sales and a longer shelf life for the book.

If your idea capitalizes on a trend, consider where the trend comes from. Often, trends begin in restaurants, but not all restaurant trends translate to home cooking. Take burgers, for example: they’ve been a smashing hit in restaurants over the last few years, but books on the subject can be hit or miss. As Wiley’s Schwartz points out, “I just don’t think anyone wakes up thinking, ’91I really want a book of all burger recipes.'”

And a word of warning: with trends, there’s likely competition. Writers across the globe now have access to the same ideas, and it’s common for books on the same topic to come out from different publishers in the same season. “We are publishing a book called A Taste of Honey, and I noticed that another publisher also has a honey book coming out,” says Andrews McMeel’s Melville. “We all live and breathe the same information these days.”

While authors benefit from having their book first to market, they can also benefit from being the best possible person to write the book. For instance, Wiley published blogger Gaby Dalkin’s first book, Absolutely Avocados (Wiley, 2013). Schwartz says, “I’m sure any number of recipe developers could have written this book, but avocados are Gaby’s true passion. This is the book Gaby had to write.”

There was a time when the cookbook market wanted one book to learn “how to cook everything,” but now home cooks are looking for experts to teach them how to cook one thing in the best possible way. Given the wealth of information shared on the Internet, “topics need to be carefully considered and have a little story behind them,” says Treadwell. “In the end it’s all about publishing the right book on the right subject at the right time.”

Got a question for Andrea? Comment here and she will respond.

Note: This article was originally published in WORDS, the newsletter of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Food Writers, Editors and Publishers section.” This post contains affiliate links.

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  18 Responses to “Should You Write a Single Subject Cookbook?”

  1. What a timely post! I JUST got back from having lunch with Gaby and about 10 San Diego bloggers to celebrate her cookbook as part of her book tour. And she is definitely the person who HAD to write that book; a passionate and perfect topic for her.

    Today happens to be the official release date of my cookbook! A single topic cookbook on…Peanut Butter as you know. And yes, one had better get on board and LOVE their ingredient b/c you are living and breathing that ingredient for years. And eating plenty of it.

    That said, in my case, just simply writing a baking/desserts cookbook wasn’t seeming to be in the cards (basically what would differentiate it from the million other books like it) but when I switched my focus to a single ingredient, everything clicked into place. In my case, it was a great call and yes, I actually really still love PB! :)

    • Congratulations, Avery! I’m so happy for you. It seems like years ago since we worked on this book idea.I’m also pleased that you still like peanut butter, since you will probably have to create treats to promote your book. Good luck.

  2. Writing a single subject book requires researching and having great passion for your subject. Writing a trendy book might work for some writers, but I feel it may stay around for many more years if you select a common kitchen pantry item or a subject more basic. (love peanut butter!)
    I chose “Olive Oil” because I feel it runs throughout my veins being of Greek decent! Spending many years working for a olive oil brand the subject of recipes came up several times during my experience with the public.
    Thanks to a fellow blogger and photographer we collaborated on the project and finished it last month!
    But, I love and collect single subject books! I use them for inspiration and recipes when a garden vegetable is ready for roasting or a seasonal fruit is ready for picking!
    See you soon, at an olive orchard near you!

    • Certainly olive oil consumption is not a fad, and there are a few cookbooks on the subject already. Best of luck, Mary. A perfect topic for a Greek.

  3. After devoting years to my big baking books, “Baking in America” and “A Baker’s Odyssey” I am now writing a single subject book on souffl’e9s for Gibbs Smith as part of their series, The French Cook. It’s a subject I am passionate about. I love the single subject concept because it lets me fly in all sorts of flavor directions. And I get to experiment with vegetable and fish souffl’e9s as well as with a whole bunch of sweet ones, hot or cold. It’s a real gift.

    • And on top of all this, Greg, this book will not take you several years! There’s something to that.

  4. I love single-subject food books. In fact, backed Kickstarter project, Short Stack, hand-crafted books-too adorable not to mention here. BTW, this is not an endorsement Dianne. :)

    I wrote my first single-subject about salmon. But I’m stuck, like my body is buried in sand. My biggest challenge today is what to do with the manuscript. Choices are either: 1. find an agent 2. create an ebook (my original thought process) or 3. contact a publisher directly. I’m not sure why I can’t move forward!

    Andrea, what was the defining moment for you when you decided what to do with your manuscript?

    • Hi Maureen,
      I had a unique situation when I pitched my first book, because I had worked on three books with Diane Morgan as her assistant. Two of the books I worked on were for Chronicle, so when I came up with the idea for my pretzel book, I already had the connections at Chronicle and they took it right away.

      I have thought a lot about the need for an agent, and I am a firm believer that they know the market and how to negotiate contract terms much better than I do, so it is worth the investment. For both of my books, my agent was able to negotiate a higher advance that paid for her 15% commission. I’d find an agent to help you craft and deliver your pitch. Hope that helps!

      Andrea

      • Yes Andrea, that’s a big help. I think in retrospect with regards to moving forward with the ebook, it’s more work than I realized and my work effort or ROI is worth more than uploading it online. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons I’m sitting on the manuscript. My next step is to craft a pitch for an agent. Thanks.

        And I can’t wait to read your pretzel book, I’m munching on cheese filled pretzels as I write. :)

  5. I’ve written a number of single subject cookbooks–including three large ones all devoted to cookies–and there is good news and bad news. The good news is you do amass a huge amount of info that a writer who hasn’t specialized in that subject will never know; and the confidence in knowing that you are an expert on the topic.

    The bad news, at least for me (and apparently Andrea), is that I get very tired of testing so many of the same sorts of recipes while working on a single-subject book. No, no, not ANOTHER cookie–can’t I just make a pie?! This is one reason I love blogging–I can work on other kinds of foods and take a little break from the book deadline grind. The other bad news, maybe, is the problem of getting type cast. Here again writing informative/interesting stories and recipes for a blog or magazines or newspapers can keep reminding peeps of your multiple areas of expertise. I got a publisher interested in my “Kneadlessly Simple” bread book after doing a very well-received newspaper article–this overcame the, “She doesn’t do yeast bread” pushback.

    • It is used to treat problems buy clomid serophene with.

      Nancy, great points, and I agree. Consider pitching a topic that you absolutely love and won’t tire of, or that has enough variation that you won’t get (too) sick of–I’ve never tired of eating pretzels or eggs, even while I was developing the recipes.

  6. Interesting discussion about the difference between trend and fad. I can’t always tell the difference myself. I sometimes wonder if the quinoa cookbooks will be evergreen or get filed away when the next superfood comes to town.

    I am interested in doing a single-subject cookbook but fear I would tire of my favourite food like Nancy Baggett and her cookies. Love how she counterbalances with her blog.

    Lots to think about in this post. Thanks!

  7. I go back and forth on this. I still use my How To Cook Everything as a resource when I’m stuck. I also enjoy the single subject cookbooks for the the details. I guess it all get down to your need. :-)

  8. Single subject cookbooks used to come in the form of pamphlets, didn’t they? I have old ones that I found in my mom’s cookbook cabinet from the Florida Orange people, Florida Seafood people, one on salads, etc. I have a couple of old French ones, one all on eggs and the other on rice. I think that trends and fads aside, what probably works in single subject cookbooks are cookbooks that focus on ingredients that are always on hand, such as eggs, avocados (good!), ingredients that we just want new recipes in order to use up. Pies and cookies work, too, because they are eternal and we make pies and cookies all year round and, again, crave new recipes. Maybe one reason these cookbooks sell is because they are in some way comforting to those who are not confident cooks or bakers, allowing someone to really dscover and work on one type of recipe. I would be curious to see a study done of who buys single topic cookbooks and why.

    • Hah! Funny to think how short these pamphlets are, and now we have whole books on the subject. You make a good point about what works. I think it was James McNair who pioneered the form at Chronicle, doing single subject paperbacks on pizza, pasta, chicken, salads, etc. They were not ingredient focused as they are today.

      I’m not sure about the readers being new cooks or bakers. I think it’s all about obsession with a particular subject. The recipes are written by the same cookbook authors who write all kinds of books.

  9. [...] Should You Write a Single Subject Cookbook? [...]

  10. I heartily agree that you had better love your single subject. For me, it was easy to write my cookbook, “Soup’s On!” because I’ve always loved soup, and there are so many ingredient possibilities so you don’t get tired of the same thing. But, it can feel weird when you’re testing Post-Thanksgiving Turkey Chili in July! To avoid palate fatigue, I froze a lot of my test batches in single-serving containers. They were great for my husband to take to work, to share with my elderly parents or a sick friend, or to give to my college kids living on their own. And It was very satisfying to thaw and heat a cup of something I’d worked on several weeks before, and to realize how good it tasted!

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