What Makes a Good Cookbook Review?

Nov 052013
 
Mark-Rotella

Mark Rotella, senior editor of Publishers Weekly, edits Cooking the Books newsletter, which includes 8 to 10 cookbook reviews.

Mark Rotella, senior editor of Publishers Weekly and editor of the Cooking the Books newsletter, hires cookbook reviewers for PW’s newsletter, which carries 8 to 10 reviews per month.

(The pay is $25, and there’s no byline. If you’re interested, see info at the bottom of this interview.)

The reviews are aimed at bookstore and library buyers, so reviewers rarely test a recipe. The cookbooks Rotella selects are mostly from big names. I spoke with him about what makes a good cookbook review and why:

Q. What is the most important question to ask yourself when approaching a new cookbook for review?

A. See if it lives up to what it purports to do.

I tell my reviewers not to review the book on what they want it to be, but whether the author or publisher has accomplished what they set out to do, and whether they do it well. I usually cut out the part where the reviewer says I would have liked it better if they did this, except when ingredients are hard to find, or when the book needed an index or resource section.

PublishersWeeklyQ. How do you do see if it delivers on its promises? 

A. You’ve got the title and subtitle. You make sure all the information is there, and you figure out what’s different about this book and why would it stand out. Flip through to see how it’s laid out and what it feels like.

Q. How important is it to read the book from cover to cover?

A. That’s a good question. I expect my reviewers to read it through. They do it a disservice otherwise.

Q. What should they look for?

A. They look at the tone of the book, the type of recipes, the layout, and the overall design. The writing is really important too, because many cookbook readers want a narrative. That should be part of the enjoyment and what you take into consideration when reading the book.

Q. How many recipes should a reviewer test?

A. Because of the expense of the ingredients, we don’t formally ask reviewers to do that. Most of my reviewers will test and report what they’ve found, but it doesn’t always go in their review.

Q. Isn’t testing central to a cookbook review?

A. It is, but there are other parts of the book that are just as essential.

Q. What if someone tests the recipes and they aren’t great?

A. The books that I choose are often bigger books, and I haven’t heard people come back to say “this hasn’t worked.”

Our audience is not always end users, but bookstore owners and librarians who want to see if they should carry the book, so 220 words gives them a general idea. They want to know the size, the color, the photos, the layout. If it’s an author who’s done a lot of books before, they want to know if it’s a rehash of previous books.

Q. That might be hard for reviewers if they don’t have their previous books.

A. A lot of my reviewers have been with me for a long time, and I try to find people who are familiar with the books. If not they may go to a bookstore or library and look at the author’s previous books.

Q. Will you publish the cookbook review if the reviewer doesn’t like it?

A. Yes. I think it’s completely fair to state it if doesn’t live up to the expectation and why. In the end, it’s what we do as critics.

Q. Many food bloggers won’t review a cookbook if they don’t love it.

A. Our reviews are anonymous.

A lot of bloggers want their own cookbooks, or they want traffic from one site to any other, so they may be unwilling to give a negative review of the book.

Q. What about food photography and styling?

A. See if it works within the whole of the book. Often when reviewers get galleys, we don’t often get full color photos. Because we review them three to four months ahead of time, we rarely see a finished book. We can’t really comment on the quality of photos, but we can comment on the layout. Sometimes publishers send a color blad (a glossy insert, kind of like an 8-page magazine, or a color page layout example — DJ) so we can get a better idea.

Q. Why do people buy cookbooks rather than download recipes?

A. Because they want to be transported. It’s a bit of an escape. And people will go to a cookbook for two or three recipes, and then they’ll go to another cookbook, and maybe they’ll combine recipes.

* * *

To apply for reviewing cookbooks for Publishers Weekly, email Mark Rotella, mrotella [at]publishersweekly.com. Says Rotella: “I select who reviews each book, based on the reviewers’ interests, such as baking. Then I send galleys. Some galleys look just like the book but are black and white. Some are full color and look like the full book. While we mostly review big books, I try to cover smaller titles from smaller houses when I can. I rarely have to look for reviewers because the ones I have are pretty dedicated, but I’m always looking for a particularly good writer.”

  30 Responses to “What Makes a Good Cookbook Review?”

  1. Hmm, from these answers it seems that PW might be more interested in form than substance. I can see his point about libraries and bookstores not being the end-users, but libraries have limited funds to spend on books that will end up being unpopular if they don’t deliver on the recipes and not many bookstores can afford to carry duds either.

    • Yeah, when I posted this on Facebook I got the same complaint. I think his reviewers should test, but it’s a lot to ask for $25. That’s probably why he doesn’t ask.

  2. Still, irregardless of money, food writers and critics presumably prepare foods on a regular basis so why not use the opportunity to test a couple of recipes within the book by incorporating them into that weeks meals. It seems however, that perhaps the reviews are not necessarily based on recipes per se but on writing content and delivery.

    • I agree, I think that if I was writing a review, regardless of how much I was getting paid, that I would want to test a few recipes. I think this is a big factor in wanting to know if the book is good enough.

    • I understand your point, but it takes planning, time and money to do so. I got the sense that some of his reviewers do just that. Otherwise they have to be skilled enough to assess the recipes without testing any of them.

  3. The first time I reviewed a cookbook, (over 150 recipes), I didn’t test one recipe, simply because it wasn’t in the job description. Interesting point though…after reading so many recipe ledes, ingredient lists and directions, I got a feel for what would and wouldn’t work.

    Dianne, I’ll bet you are the queen at ascertaining if a recipe will work by just glancing at it, no? :)

    Thanks for sharing this info-there are so many aspects of the food industry, and while I attended the IACP webinar with Mark, I never thought about the review process for a publishing company.

    • You probably cook all the time so you have a good sense of whether a recipe would work by looking at it. I can do the same. I have read enough recipes that I know as well, but there are lots of things I haven’t tried — ex. a book on fermenting, or high end chef cooking, where I wouldn’t know.

  4. Wow, I have mixed feelings after reading this. First, $25? Really? Even without testing that’s expecting a lot for not much. I question the value of cookbook reviews with no recipe testing, but then again, they’re not actually aimed at people who use cookbooks, just those who sell or catalogue them. His reviewers who test recipes must have a spirit of generous volunteerism. And really, $25, without even getting the book? I’d like to review cookbooks but my time is more valuable than that.

    • I can see where you are coming from, reviewing a book takes time, and $25 is too little to review, but if you really like it and want to see what the book is about, you can simply look at it as checking out a book before it comes out and getting $25 dollars in your pocket haha…. You can use that $25 towards at least one recipe haha

    • I totally agree about the $25 dollars. I was paid far more and still wasn’t asked to test. Which I was okay with. Reviewing is time-consuming.

    • At least there is pay. I applied at a newspaper to write reviews, which involved testing three recipes and writing a long article, and was told the book was my reward.

      But he probably has no end of people who want to do it, so why pay more? On the other hand, if it takes you 45 minutes to review a cookbook and write the review, it’s not bad. And you do get to keep the book, which could add another $30.

      • Diane – I’ve never done a cookbook review but am surprised to hear you say it could take 45 minutes to review the book and write the review. I would have thought it would take a lot longer, but if the purpose is to confirm if the book does what it purports to, I suppose it could be done. I still think the pay rate is low, but there’s value in the experience too.

  5. I can definitely agree with @lambsearshoney – I think taste is a big factor in testing a cook book, but I can also understand what @diannejacob is saying. For $25 dollars, you can’t expect people to go out of their way to buy ingredients and make a few recipes. It’s definitely a stepping stone to a review, but hard to truly take it in 100%.

  6. That was interesting. I had never really thought about the ins and outs of reviewing a cookbook. The funny part is my mom was a head librarian at a large college and purchased books from reviews. It all make since to me. I am in the process of assembling a cookbook and these are all things I need to consider. :)

  7. Thank you for this! While people are choosing to complain about the $25 and lack of recipe testing, I look at it as helpful information for me to see how one company approaches reviewing cookbooks. Gives me some better insight into how I should approach writing my recipe e-books.

    • Well, that’s a nice change, Halona. Considering that people who buy multiple copies of books read PW, it’s a powerful influencer.

    • I totally agree with your comments, Halona, despite the fact that I focused on the remuneration and the lack of recipe testing in my comment. I found this interview very interesting and it gave me insight into an area of food writing I haven’t yet explored.

      As background to my comments about the $25 payment per review, I’m aware that many publishers and companies are expecting writers to work for less and less pay. Perhaps that’s an indication that the value of our work is declining, or that so many of us devalue ourselves to work for free or for little. It may be a marketplace issue, but I think the marketplace is also dynamic.

      All that said, I understand the temptation to do something like this for the experience. There is other value besides the pay.

  8. As long as I had the time, I think I would look at this as an opportunity to test and try new recipes (which I would be doing anyway) from a book that I didn’t have to purchase, with the possibility of gaining a little pocket change.

  9. I would never write a cookbook review without trying at least one recipe from the book just to get a feel for how the author’s recipes translate to the table. I don’t think you need to cook a huge number of recipes from a cookbook to get a sense of the quality of the book, but it’s pretty hard to do it without cooking anything from the book…

    That said, I get that it’s expensive and if you’re pumping out quick 200 word reviews and only making $25/review, it’s probably unrealistic.

    • Yes, exactly. I think PW pays $25 for reviews, period, and you don’t have to test anything in other categories — you can just enjoy the read.

  10. Yeah, I’m among the surprised that he doesn’t require recipes to be tested. As Amanda said, it does seem that he asks reviewers to review the book as a book and not as a cookbook, judging form, layout, etc. Which I think does the buyer a huge disservice. But maybe his reviews are aimed at the bookstore rather than the end buyer? I have heard too many stories of cookbook recipes not working for this to be of real service to the buying public. But PW gets, I guess, what they pay for… Quite an enlightening interview, Dianne.

    • What about the idea that few people actually try the recipes, and most people buy the book for other reasons? That seems anathema to the writer, but it might just be true. Just trying it out as an idea. This might make a good blog post, eh?

      • Absolutely, Dianne! Some editors sell a cookbook not as a collection of recipes to be used in the kitchen but as a coffee table (or bedside table) book. And many of us do buy cookbooks and never cook from them but love them all the same. Yes… a blog post….

  11. Interesting article, Dianne… to my mind, $25 is peanuts, especially these days, and I can’t see how anyone could test recipes (including buying ingredients, using gas/electricity) AND write a review for that amount. A good review is time consuming, as you know. Having said this, I guess there are people keen to do this. I have been reviewing cookbooks for decades and am not paid to review them on my blog (though I was paid for the column I wrote for a decade). I do like that I get to keep the book!

    • Yes definitely, peanuts is a good descriptor. Getting cookbooks can be wonderful, though. I now have a $200+credit at a used bookstore. And then they’re always around for gifts (at least, the good ones).

  12. Fascinating as always, Dianne. You always bring a fresh perspective to our work. I do reviews, generally one a week, but I spend a lot of time with the books, working 3-4 months ahead. That’s how I am able to test a minimum of 3 recipes for each book.

    I would disagree that you can tell from reading a recipe how it is going to come out… I just reviewed a book that I was expecting great things from, and the ingredients all sounded fantastic, and all three recipes were awful, barely edible. I also have to keep myself from changing the recipes midstream, if I know that they are not going to turn out, otherwise I’m not testing as written.

    For me, I would actually find it more annoying to be paid such a pittance, but if people are willing to do it for PW, then it seems to be working for his system.

    My policy now is to ask for a PDF of the book if I think I’m going to possibly cook from it later, and then I give away all my review copies in my monthly giveaways, so my readers can enjoy them.

    As PW does, I comment on layout, writing style, design, photo quality, and usability, as I think that’s an important aspect of the books too.

    I do write negative reviews (after taking your class) but I temper it as much as I can, as often the author is part of at least one Facebook group I’m in, which is where it can be awkward.

    Thanks again.

    • Very interesting to hear about your process, Stephanie. I assume this is for your own blog. You sound very thorough, and I’m intrigued that you don’t always know how it’s going to turn out just by reading the recipe.

      I’m glad you are brave enough to not always be positive all the time, but I do see your point about how it can be awkward if you’re connected to the writer through social media. And of course, we want to be connected to everyone to have a wide reach, so this problem will continue, I fear.

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