I’ve been bugging Julie Bennett, vice president and editorial director at Ten Speed Press, for an interview, ever since we met at a conference a year ago.
It’s because Ten Speed publishes so many terrific cookbooks. As the director of the editorial department, Julie manages nine editors who will put out approximately 70 books this year. She has worked at Ten Speed since 1999.
Julie edited New York Times best selling cookbooks Super Natural Every Day by Heidi Swanson and My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz, and A New Napa Cuisine by Christopher Kostow (IACP Cookbook of the Year), just to name a few.
We talked about cookbook publishing trends, whether all cookbooks need color photos, and what she looks for:
Q. What are the latest trends in cookbook publishing?
A. Today cookbooks have more of a personal narrative element. The trend of blogger-to-book ties into it, and there are cookbook writers who have a lot to say.
There are so many recipes online, but books present readers with well-curated, well-tested recipes. They come with a story that’s unique and readers are learning more about the personality of the author through their life, world, culture and food.
Long narrative headnotes or a personal story gives readers a new way of interacting with food that they thought they knew everything about, or food they knew nothing about. They can connect in an authentic and personal way.
Q. How has cookbook publishing changed since you started working at Ten Speed?
A. Initially, it’s the fact that cookbook publishing wasn’t a huge part of Ten Speed. But now it’s our largest category, between food and wine and spirits. The market has echoed that. There are lots more publishers in the game and lots more cookbooks.
The focus on food in general has exploded, between the Food Network and spin-off shows and blogs and smaller food-related journals. It’s become much more of a lifestyle.
Q. What was the market like before?
A. I just don’t think people thought about food in the same way – you went out for nice dinners for special occasions, and people cooked at home, but now it’s more of an event. People are defining themselves by how they feed their family and friends and how they entertain. Cooking is a reflection of who you want to be now. There are so many people who buy cookbooks but never cook from them. They simply enjoy paging through this beautiful cookbook and feel like they’re touching some of this aspirational lifestyle.
Q. Speaking of beautiful books, some people say that design and photography are now more important than content.
A. I’m an editor so I’m never going to believe that it’s just the visuals. It’s how the visuals marry with the story. Each cookbook is an individual package and we’re trying to realize a shared vision. People are not buying cookbooks in e-formats like they would a novel, so we’re trying to capture people’s attention for a book.
Q. What’s new in cookbook design at Ten Speed?
A. We work really collaboratively with our design team, along with authors, to create a shared vision. We have authors who have high expectations of what Ten Speed is going to create with them. They push us and we push ourselves in trying to create a package that speaks to that author’s vision. Thought and care goes into the design, and our willingness to think differently about each cookbook.
I don’t think design is as important to every publishing house as it is at Ten Speed and you see that in the results. Some houses are focused on publishing a saleable topic and “let’s just find an author for it and put it out there,” which is totally fine. Other houses want to focus on making a beautiful object and making something different.
Q. What is the definition of something beautiful and different?
A. Creative, good design. One of the most common things I hear about Ten Speed is “you guys make such beautiful books.” We all care about aesthetics here. About how the book looks and feels in your hand. Is it slightly smaller because people really want to read it? Does it have amazing photography so we want it to be a little bigger? That’s the kind of stuff we sit in meetings and discuss.
Q. Do all cookbooks need color photographs now?
A. If I listen to my friends, they would say absolutely. Because we have access to so much visual information about food, the expectation is that they have photographs. But we have a book coming out this season that’s a one-color book, the Jewish Baker’s Pastry Secrets.
Q. Didn’t he want color photographs, just like every other author?
A. The author has passed away. His family wanted us to finish the book.
Q. Hah! And sorry.
A. Some authors want to move away from photography and are doing more illustration. We have a book about the Swedish coffee break that’s illustrated, and it’s adorable and doing quite well.
While yes, everyone wants photos because the way food is presented has become so beautiful, but this may shift a little as people seek to differentiate themselves in the market.
Q. How often do cookbook authors take their own photos now?
A. It’s more common now that it was, and in those cases, it’s usually bloggers. They come as a package so you know going into the project that you’re getting the photographer and the recipe writer in one. We’ve had success with that format – Heidi Swanson is a great example. But we want to be proud of the quality of the project, so we consider this carefully before acquiring the book.
Q. Are writers with a big online presence changing the way you sell books?
A. Yes, definitely. The clichéd idea of a platform has become more important as we have fewer bookstores and we have to find a direct relationship with consumers about whatever it is we’re selling. It’s incredibly helpful when we find a writer who has a strong connection to consumers.
That said, we have a whole series of single-subject books — like our Sriracha cookbook — that are topic driven, so having an author with a huge platform wasn’t essential. The sales of this particular title were driven by the topic and the timing.
Q. How often does Ten Speed come up with its own ideas for cookbooks? What’s the percentage?
A. When we have an idea for a book, it’s common that we also have the perfect author in house who can write it. Like the chili cookbook, a Robb Walsh book. We were reading some analysis a few years ago and saw that chili was a rising food trend, so we thought, “Who can write that?” Robb was an obvious choice. He came up with a great concept and proposal for us.
Less than 40 percent of our books come from in-house ideas, though.
Q. Do you ever worry whether an author used pre-existing recipes when submitting a manuscript? How do you find out?
A. I can’t say it’s something we spend a lot of time thinking about. When an author signs a contract, they stipulate that what they’re delivering to us is original content, and we trust that authors will offer credit to the original source when they’ve taken recipes from other places. It’s become a common and accepted practice.
You can’t copyright a recipe, and there are so many similar recipes in the world that it’s difficult to track.
Q. Any last words of advice to someone who would love to be published by Ten Speed?
A. We’re still looking for up-and-coming authors, and we’re still scouring the food and wine categories, looking for people doing interesting things. So it’s still possible for people who don’t have a huge platform but do have a really great idea to be published here. They have to refine that idea, have a solid argument for why that idea is relevant, be able to define the audience, and tell us how they can help us reach them.
We want to get in on the ground floor with an author and grow together and do multiple books. For example, The Sprouted Kitchen is a blog we had been watching for a while. We could see that Sara Forte had great potential and her platform has only grown over the last few years we’ve been working together. That’s the ideal partnership.
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