A guest post by Sara Bir
My whole life I’ve dreamed of writing a cookbook. But even with formal culinary chops and years of experience as a writer, it seemed like no one in the publishing industry took me seriously. So I guess you could say I’m a late bloomer.
It probably didn’t help that my two previous book proposals were hardly mainstream. There was my idea for The Great Big Book of Hot Dogs, which I envisioned as a lavish cultural history of hot dogs; and The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook, a book with nothing but pawpaw recipes. Do you even know what pawpaws are? Most people don’t.
This year, though, I came out with a cookbook! I had an idea for The Fruit Forager’s Companion: Ferments, Main Dishes, Desserts and More from Your Neighborhood and Beyond as an outgrowth of my obsession with pawpaws. It’s a foraging guide with recipes, but it’s also a stealth manifesto for weirdos who like plants.
Instead of tweaking the concept to appeal to major publishers, I wrote my cookbook proposal with a specific independent publisher in mind, closely adhering to the submission guidelines on its website. (Spoiler alert: Simply following directions makes your work stand out instantly.)
The publisher loved my proposal, and a little over a month later, I signed a contract. They were totally on board with my approach. Sure, it took 17 years to get here, but I now know I would have been miserable doing it any other way.
Here are 5 lessons I got out of my late bloomer experience:
1. Being a late bloomer can be an asset.
The concept of a dynamic young cook and her sensational book is romantic and splashy. Know what else is dynamic? A writer with chops from years in the industry.
If your career path is long with many twists and turns, your proven ability to persevere will be a selling point. It takes the pressure off, freeing you to enjoy the process rather than focusing on the result.
2. Pitch the book you want to write, not one you think you should write.
You’re the one who has to live with this thing for the next few years and beyond. Sure, your idea needs an audience, but the number one audience should be you. Emotional investment alone won’t sell a book, but neither will a pitch that’s not passionate.
3. Don’t underestimate your secret platforms.
Social media followings mean a lot to publishers, but they don’t mean everything. Late bloomers already have a whole army of influencers on their side. Have you taught classes or workshops, mentored emerging writers, or been mentored yourself? Those people you’ve interacted with will likely help you with your book publicity.
Years of experience have lead me to meaningful connections with a far-flung network of professionals, each with their own platforms.
4. Might as well have fun writing the proposal.
And as a result, it’ll be fun for agents and publishers to read. There’s a conception that working on a proposal is a drag. But if you think of it as drawing up a blueprint for your dream book, it can change your whole outlook—and thus your tone. That’s win-win, since a proposal with a strong, positive voice stands out.
Starting with a trustworthy framework for the proposal makes it a lot less abstract, and if you need guidance, this is where you’ll get the most mileage out of coaching. A good coach can help you create a polished, professional proposal that gets agents and editors revved up. I took a proposal writing workshop with Dianne at an International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) annual conference a few years ago, and followed her template carefully, along with my copious notes.
5. People will take you more seriously when your book is published.
Will having a cookbook published massively change your life? Probably not. But if you treat it like a business card, people (even ones who never read books) will be impressed. Even if a cookbook does not sell well, it can help you make more money by scoring you new work.
Expertise doesn’t happen overnight, of course. Maybe I should start thinking of myself not as a late bloomer but as an early beginner. Currently I’m mid-career and just hitting my stride.
Sara Bir is the author of The Fruit Forager’s Companion and Tasting Ohio: Favorite Recipes from the Buckeye State.A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, her writing has been included in Best Food Writing 2014 and two Full Grown People anthologies. Past gigs include leading chocolate factory tours, slinging street cart sausages, and writing pop music criticism. Sara skates with her local roller derby team as Carrion the Librarian and spends her spare time walking around looking at plants. Find her on Instagram at @sausagetarian.
(Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.)