editor at the publishing house, answer questions, and follow up with the copy editor’s questions.
Q. What are the different ways that you work on cookbooks?
A. Four ways:
- I get in on the ground floor and write the book proposal. My agent, Jayne Dystel, or the client’s agent sells the book. We get a contract and I take it from there.
- Authors hire me after their books are sold to a publishing house. I did the Sheryl Crow cookbook that way. She sold the book to St. Martin’s Press, and the editor of St. Martin’s contacted my agent.
- Sometimes another collaborator is on a tight deadline and hires me to write copy for a cookbook. My name is nowhere in the book.
- I’m hired to just edit recipes.
Q. What do you get paid for these jobs?
A. If I’m hired to write the book proposal, I usually get paid for the proposal separately from the book. A proposal is an important part of the process — it “sells” the book — and so I expect to be paid pretty well. Into the thousands of dollars. When I write the book, I work on a percentage. Optimally I would like 50 percent of the advance and royalties, but generally it’s less, with the author getting a little more. If I simply contribute the book’s introduction, for instance, or another part of the book, or if I only edit the recipes, I charge a flat fee, which I figure out based on an hourly rate. I don’t actually charge by the hour. I simply use a number to help me come up with a flat rate.
Q. What about testing recipes? Do you do that?
A. I’ll test a few recipes from every book, but if they all need to be tested, I hire and work with a recipe tester. I don’t consider myself a professional tester and I don’t love doing it. The author pays for testing and while expensive, we do our best to keep costs down. Testers charge by the recipe – at least $80 to $100 per recipe, plus groceries – and I don’t add a surcharge for managing the process.
Q. I saw that you worked with cookbook author Edna Lewis. What was that like?
A. That was a dream. It was in the 1980s, and I had just left Cook’s magazine and I knew Judith Jones (Julia Child’s editor at Knopf). She and her husband Evan were very supportive of the magazine.
Judith called me and asked if I would write Edna’s book, In Pursuit of Flavor. Judith had written Edna’s first book. It was very little money, it was summertime, and Edna was in her 70s, working as a chef in a restaurant. I would drive into the city from Connecticut, get in around 10 a.m., and go into the restaurant. It was icy cold from air conditioning, and she always had made fresh coffee, biscuits and jam. She would have a legal pad full of recipes she’d hand written, with notes. That was well before laptops. We would sit there for two hours and just talk. I would come back two to three days later and we would do it all over again. She was kind and one of the most passionate people I’d ever met.
I wrote the text for the book, and Judith would have me come into her office at Knopf and we’d go over it, line by line, and she’d teach me. Nobody does that anymore! I was so proud when I hand delivered the manuscript to Alfred Knopf.
Q. What are the pros and cons of being a collaborator?
A. The pros used to be that you could make a good living, but that’s not as easy anymore. I’ve met a lot of interesting people and have learned a lot. I’ve stretched my writing wings, learning to write in different voices and styles.
Also it fits with the way I live. I like to be in my office in my house, having my weekends here. I don’t want to be traveling all the time. When I was younger I was a single parent and it fit into my lifestyle to work at home.
The cons are that you don’t have your own book, you don’t make as much money as the author, it’s sometimes lonely, and you work a lot of hours. It’s so much work to put together a book!
Q. How hard is it to write in someone else’s voice?
A. I have them talk to me a lot on the phone, and I write it down, transcribing it. Then I go back and edit it. That’s the way I get someone’s voice. I don’t like tape recorders, because I don’t like going back and listening again. I just type type type.
Q. What has been your proudest moment?
In some ways, you might think winning three James Beard cookbook awards (An American Place, Michel Nichan’s Sustainably Delicious, and Art Smith’s Back to the Table) would rate as my proudest moments, and of course I am proud. I am also proud three of my books have shown up on the New York Times bestseller list. But in all honesty, my proudest moments are when the author contacts me after the book is out and say it reads well. That puts a smile on my face.
Q. How do you deal with difficult co-authors?
A. (Laughs.) I try to laugh about them, behind their backs when the phone is safely on the hook. Email helps a lot with difficult people who want to take up a lot of your time on the phone. My strategy is to take over the book in a positive way. I tell them “I’ll take care of it, I’ll write it up and send it to you, and you can see if it’s okay.”
Q. Have you ever refused to work with someone?
Q. What has surprised you most about doing this work?
A. How many people know that I do this work! People say “I’ve seen your name everywhere,” and I’m always surprised.
I’m surprised that collaborating has been such fertile ground for a long time. I like to help people and have them be pleased with their book afterwards.
Q. How long do you get to work on cookbooks?
A. It depends on the publisher and the deal the agents make. In the past, the standard was a year. That stopped in 2005-2006. Publishers wanted books a lot faster. Now I usually get four to eight months. It’s really hard to write a cookbook in that amount of time. You have to be so careful and so precise.
Q. What advice do you have for someone who wants to collaborate?
If you know a chef whom you think should have a book, get to know him or her. Potential clients are chefs with restaurants, celebrities, the owner of a food company, and cooking teachers. The reason you collaborate with someone is because they don’t want to learn how to write a cookbook. They run their own business and they need someone who can do it.
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