I met cookbook editor Rux Martin years ago, before she got an imprint in her own name. Now she is Editorial Director of Rux Martin Books at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
She specializes in cookbooks, narrative nonfiction on food, and diet books. She has worked with Dorie Greenspan, Mollie Katzen, Jacques Pépin, and Ruth Reichl, to name just a few, and has edited New York Times bestsellers including The Gourmet Cookbook; Hello, Cupcake!; Around My French Table; and As Always, Julia.
An industry veteran, Rux is a multiple award-winning editor. Here are her thoughts about the cookbook market and trends, why photography is critical, how food blogging has changed the industry, and on writing a “truly great” recipe:
Q. What does it mean to have your own imprint?
A. It’s a bit like a brand, in that it’s supposed to signify the sort of books I edit.
Q. What kinds of books do you look for?
A. I’m looking for authors who have a lifetime of experience and have something fresh to say.
I also feel it’s important to look for wild cards, for something that’s new and maybe a little bit wacko, but in a good way. I’m never prouder than when my daughter, who’s kind of a hippy, says, “Wow mom, that doesn’t look like something you would publish.”
This past fall I published a funny little book that came in designed, called The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert. It’s written by a master sommelier and it’s genuinely funny and smart. I learned a lot from it and hoped others would too. I thought it would be a good gift item, and it spent a significant amount of time on the bestseller list.
Q. You have a range of authors, many of which are not wild cards.
A. True. And I have other authors who pull their weight on the backlist, like Pati Jinich, who wrote Pati’s Mexican Table. She has a PBS show about making Mexican food at home for her three boys, that is suited to American family life.
Natasha Case wrote Coolhaus Ice Cream Book, based on her ice cream truck. The recipes are named after various architects, and there are sidebars on famous architects, great line drawings of the buildings and little factoids. It’s a really serious book for cooks, but it brings something new to the table and makes you want to read it.
Q. What’s new for cookbooks visually?
A. I see eclectic photography, hand-drawn calligraphy and type, embellishments on covers such as a cloth spine and paper over board, where it’s clearly more of a keepsake or art approach. Everyone is doing it. Before a cookbook was supposed to be attractive, but you never forgot you were supposed to cook out of it. Now, design has been paramount.
Maybe the extreme focus on design has to do with needing to reinvent. I think it has to do with younger designers and photographers. People are not content with a cookbook that, by today’s standards, would look boring. Some sort of design intervention is needed.
Q. What about food bloggers who have become photographers? Do you like their work?
A. I do, when it’s good. And it’s an amazing package for a publisher. There’s a huge economic advantage to the publisher, and it gives authors full control, which they often don’t have when someone else is shooting.
Q. Some would say publishers take advantage of food bloggers. They’re not going to give $25,000 to a food blogger who shoots her own photos, but they’d give it to a photographer.
A. Yes, but major publishers are giving bigger advances to food bloggers, six figure sums. Some people you’ve never heard of have gotten a pre-empt for a huge sum.
From my side of the desk, it’s never been a more exciting time to be in the world of food. As a publisher, it’s never been a more challenging time, because there are so many outlets for people’s creativity: blogs, e-magazines, small limited print magazines like Cherry Bombe and Sweet Paul. That’s the other reason food is so exciting: before you had to fit into the magazine’s voice, or you couldn’t get published. Now you have a greater authorial integrity. With so many outlets, you get to test ideas, you get to show them to the world, and sometimes you get to make a little money.
Q. Some people believe cookbooks don’t sell without color photography. Do you think that’s true?
A. It’s truer than ever before. If you want to sell to a big box store — which account for up to half of all cookbook sales — or gourmet stores like Anthropologie and Williams-Sonoma, color photography throughout is essential. On the level that I need to do cookbook, meaning the highest sales possible, I haven’t done one in years that didn’t have full color throughout.
I can think of two exceptions, but they are kind of wild cards: Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation, and The Drunken Botanist, which has a gorgeous art feeling because of its illustration and embellishments.
Q. Are food bloggers changing the way books are acquired and marketed?
A. They have the built in audience. They can market and shoot their own books. Because they have their own brand, they have to be connected visually to the book. The book has to visually reflect the sensibility of the blog.
Q. Are bloggers a bargain then, compared to other authors?
A. I guess if their books sell!
Q. What should authors know about today’s cookbook market?
A. That there is a hugely shrinking space at all of the major retailers, that independent booksellers are still going out of business, that more cookbooks are being sold every day, and that in big box stores, they give less and less space to cookbooks. So you’re competing fiercely, and your publisher is competing fiercely. Places like Amazon order a little bit at a time and keep ordering as demand requires. Everything is tighter. But manufacturing costs and the costs of marketing don’t go down.
And in the big leagues, advances are becoming far larger. That can be great for publishers if the book sells. A huge number of the books a publisher publishes are supported by a few titles.
Q. When a good book proposal lands on your desk, what excites you most about it?
A. Everything! The food, the names of the recipes, the way the author writes, and if there’s a huge emphasis on an idea that, just by tweaking something we know is in the air, can feel totally new. And that an author’s resume is incredibly impressive. They may not have ever done a book on their own before, but they’ve done so many things that make you know they are so ready. I think you know instantly. You don’t even need to get to page two.
Q. I’m glad you didn’t say ”We could make a lot of money if we bought this book!”
A. If you think you could make a lot of money by writing this book,that could be a trouble sign. Your book needs to be heartfelt. A book on bubblegum donuts has not been published before. There might be a reason. We have to do these spreadsheets before we buy these books, but that’s an artificial construct. The real meat of the thing is the editor’s feeling about the book and why it’s going to work, and intuition.
Q. Is there anything new in the area of recipe writing?
A. Yes. The world of the bloggers has perhaps resulted in more borrowing of recipes. In the past they would be considered stolen.
You’re supposed to be doing genuinely original work, giving full attribution as to how your recipe came into being. If you used a crust from so and so and a filling from so and so and put them together, and you say so, that’s honest. To me, a good headnote is part of the pleasure of reading about how amazing cooks came up with their ideas, even when they’re borrowing from people.
As an editor, I want to know that the author I’m giving an advance to has recipes that are sufficiently original, and in the cases that they’re not, the headnote will reflect that.
Anyone who is a really successful cookbook author makes recipe development look gloriously easy. But if they’re the real deal, it’s really hard work, even if it’s something you’ve integrated it into their own life and they’re serving the food to friends and family. There are a small number of people who are truly great. For the others, just be honest if you’re not doing original food. That’s not a high bar to set.
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(Disclosure: This post includes Amazon Affiliate links.)