How did two prolific food writers start their book writing careers? By enduring rejection and persevering anyway.
Here’s what rejection looked like from cookbook editors:
Finally, a senior editor at Harper suggested a trade publisher who would be a better fit:
Indeed, they sold their book to Van Nostrand Reinhold (VNR). Soon John Wiley & Sons, a bigger publisher specializing in culinary and hospitality textbooks, bought VNR. Page and Dornenburg wrote books published by Wiley and since 2006 have been published under Hachette imprints Bullfinch Press and Little, Brown. Their most recent is The Vegetarian Flavor Bible (2014).
Here’s what Page and Dornenburg say about persevering through rejection, and how their next books worked out:
Q. How many copies has Becoming a Chef sold?
A. After being told by editor after editor that there was no market for this book and that we’d be better off writing a magazine article on the topic, by the time Becoming a Chef came out in its second edition in 2003 (the first was 1995), there were more than 100,000 copies in print.
The book is still in print, and has been frequently cited in academic and scholarly literature. It has been required or recommended reading at many leading culinary schools as well as universities, which means it’s continued to sell every year since.
Q. Did you have any qualms about being published by a small publisher?
A. Not at all. As we’d been turned down by every other publisher we’d contacted, we didn’t have a lot of options. We realized that all authors need is one “yes” to have a book in print, and thus create the opportunity to work their tails off to turn it into a bestseller, which we did.
We’ll be eternally grateful to editor Pam Chirls at VNR for signing us to our first book deal in 1992, and for seeing potential in our idea and in us when we had no publishing track record and no “platform.” (She has since left the company.)
VNR had not planned a book tour for us so we sent ourselves out on one. From our home base in New York City, we drove up and down the coast to Boston, Providence, Hartford, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, speaking at adult education centers and bookstores and cooking schools. We could only go on the weekends as we both worked other full-time jobs. In every city we visited, we pushed through our shyness to stop by every bookstore we could, to sign their stock and to introduce ourselves to bookstore managers, many of whom subsequently hand-sold our books.
When our publisher saw that our efforts were resulting in mounting sales, they sent us out on a book tour to the rest of the country, and Becoming a Chef ended up being cited by Forbes as one of the holiday season’s bestselling books.
Q. What did you learn about pitching a book that has stayed with you?
A. Becoming a Chef wasn’t the first book we ever pitched. We’d pitched a couple of other proposals (together and independently) through literary agents, but in the end those concepts didn’t find a publisher. While it’s possible we could have turned those ideas into bestsellers through sheer force of will, our wiser selves believe all worked out for the best. It was the right idea at the right time for us and for the market.
Q. And what is your advice about book proposals?
A. A book proposal is essentially three things in one: an editorial plan, a strategic business plan, and a marketing plan. So it’s important to present the book you envision from multiple perspectives, including:
- the reader’s perspective — the information they’re seeking
- the author’s perspective — how you plan to present that information, and
- the publisher’s perspective — how this will result in a bestseller.
Feature your “elevator pitch” upfront – that is, a concise summary of what the book is about, and who’s going to buy it and why. Remember that publishers are looking for compelling ideas for books with significant potential audiences. Your book proposal should prove not only that you can deliver the book you envision, but that a substantial audience exists for it and that you know how to reach them.
Q. What have you learned from publishing many books about chefs, eating and cooking?
A. In every case, we’ve sought to balance what we’ve most wanted to learn more about next with what our readers seem to most want to read about next. We develop a sense of it through the many letters, emails and social media messages we receive, as well as comments in book reviews. We also pay close attention to what’s on chefs’ minds through our interviews with many of the best in the country, and through chefs’ comments in the media.
At the time we proposed Dining Out (in 1996), restaurant critics had so much power that they could still make or break a restaurant. There was still great mystery regarding the identities of critics, who wore disguises. When proposing What to Drink with What You Eat (in 2004), we wanted to master not only wine but food and wine pairing, while keeping the book accessible for readers who wanted to think like a Master Sommelier without undergoing the grueling training. When we proposed the book, sommeliers were on the rise as the new “rock stars” of the restaurant world, so the timing was ideal.
The Flavor Bible (2008) picked up where Culinary Artistry (1996) left off in building on the most popular feature of that book, an A-to-Z lists of ingredients and compatible flavors. With hundreds of thousands of copies sold globally — including translations into Chinese, French, German, and Russian — it’s become our bestselling book yet. Our next book, Kitchen Creativity (2017), picks up where those two books left off.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to tell people about rejection or pitching books?
A. The most common mistake we see among would-be authors is the tendency to think about the book they envision only from their perspective, while not giving equal thought to the reader’s and especially the publisher’s perspectives. When writing your book proposal, get out of your own head and spend more time in your reader’s and publisher’s heads, and include information that will get both camps excited about your idea.
And if you do face rejection, remember that it doesn’t matter how many times you hear “no.” All it takes is that single “yes,” so try, try again.
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