A guest post by Casey Barber
It can feel overwhelming to take on a solo cookbook project versus co-writing one. You’ve got to hit on the right topic. You write and rewrite a proposal. You invest in a year or more of your life in the result.
Why not consider co-writing or ghostwriting instead? As a co-writer, I can vouch that it’s a refreshing change of pace. I like to dive into someone else’s world and work alongside a professional who’s not a writer.
Besides, “It’s crucial to have a writing pro at the chef’s side,” says Dorothy Kalins. A former Saveur and Newsweek editor, Kalins has worked with chefs John Besh, Michael Anthony, and Seamus Mullen on books over the years. “Unless the person has a really good ‘voice,’ and unless writing is part of his or her identity, it’s very hard for someone who works the way chefs do to write a book.”
So co-writing a book might be for you, if you can find the right opportunity and match.
Here are seven tips to consider if you want to co-write a book:
1. Do your own legwork to find a partner. Keep your profile updated on LinkedIn, Contently, and other professional social media sites. Doing so helps agents and editors find you.
But it’s more likely that you’ll need to find potential collaborators on your own. So flex your networking skills. Chat up chefs you admire, or artisans who make food you love at restaurants and shops. Find professionals by networking at events like the International Association of Culinary Professionals annual conference.
Because a cookbook is a valuable publicity tool, many chefs and producers (like the Ovenly team profiled by Food & Wine) may already be thinking of writing a book. They might consider it a way to raise their profile beyond their local customer base. All you have to do, in some cases, is ask.
Apart from your own reconnaissance, don’t underestimate the power of fellow collaborators to help you find opportunities. Olga Massov is a Phaidon editor who has also co-written four cookbooks, including Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream and Season with Authority (with chef Marc Murphy). She got her start through a conversation with food writer Melissa Clark. “It’s a surprisingly difficult place to wiggle into if you don’t have the right connections or culinary training,” Massov says. She freely admits that she got lucky by having Clark’s ear.
2. Know your role up front. Whether you’re writing a proposal with a collaborator or joining a book project already in the works, know what you’re getting into. Think about what your co-author wants, and more importantly, needs. Will the book be heavy on narrative? Will you be working alongside the chef or partner to develop, rewrite, or test recipes?
3. Use an agent. Having your own agent is a good idea, and not necessarily the same one as your collaborator. She or he will be inordinately helpful when working through contractual details like the scope of the work, how you’ll be credited, and how you’ll be compensated.
4. Push for enough time with your co-author. One of the biggest challenges in co-writing a book is getting all parties to focus. It’s not that chefs aren’t invested in seeing their work in print, but that they’re often overcommitted to keeping their own enterprises afloat. “Sometimes it’s a little tricky to nail down your people. Chefs are notoriously very busy, pulled in many different directions,” Massov says. “Maybe because I hounded them, people showed up.”
5. Make your deadlines. Do whatever it takes. That includes creating a work timeline at the outset and following up with firm reminders, sitting down with co-authors for tutorials on Google Docs, or pushing for in-person meetings and interviews. “The main challenge is having enough time,” Kalins laments. To write Michael Anthony’s recent cookbook V Is for Vegetables, “he and I wrote that entire book together, side by side at my computer.”
6. Decide about your own brand versus those of others. Bringing another’s book into the world comes with nagging questions. Does it hurt your personal brand? Will you be forever tagged as a co-writer instead of an author in your own right? Jess Thomson, who has collaborated on five cookbooks, including A Boat, A Whale, and A Walrus with Renee Erickson and Passionate Nutrition with Jennifer Adler, says definitely not. She’s now putting the finishing touches on her first memoir. “I always thought I’d have to choose between being a ghostwriter or co-writer and being a writer of my own accord,” she admits.
7. It’s not about settling. As Thomson realized, it’s not about settling for being the second banana. It comes back to finding collaborators and projects you feel great about supporting, and where you won’t feel like you’re getting lost in the shuffle. “I figured out how to meet and write with people whose personalities were close to mine, and whose voices I truly believed in and identified with,” says Thomson. “Ghostwriting felt more genuine.”
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Casey Barber is a freelance food writer and photographer. The co-writer of Inspired Bites: Unexpected Ideas for Entertaining from Pinch Food Design (2014), she is the author of Classic Snacks Made from Scratch (2013) and Pierogi Love (2015). Casey edits the online magazine Good. Food. Stories. Learn more about Casey at caseybarber.com.