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.”
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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.