By Jennifer Kurdyla and Abbey Rodriguez
Do you dream of turning your blog (or collection of index cards) into a cookbook? Or maybe you already have a publishing deal in place? Regardless, so much goes into making a cookbook that you won’t see in the finished product. But like recipes themselves, there are ways to make the process easier.
The two of us spent 2020 creating Root & Nourish, our new cookbook focused on herbalism for women’s health. The pandemic threw us some major curveballs, but even in normal times, making a cookbook reveals lots of gaps in preparation, knowledge, and experience.
Here are some of the things we wish we knew when we made Root & Nourish:
1. Your book is not your blog.
As a blogger, you may have an audience/food niche/tone already established and beloved by your readers. Keep this in mind as you develop your ideas and start writing. But also feel free to explore something different. We both had our own blogs, with overlapping but different focuses. The book became a hybrid of the two. It also introduced concepts and a cohesive narrative about food and cooking that neither of us had deliberately focused on thus far.
There’s also key distinctions in the style of blogs versus books. As a general rule, the headnotes in books are much shorter than those on blogs (with less personal story and less SEO). Books also need introductory writing to explain what the book is about. The whole book has to tell a story, and your recipes must contribute to that story in a cohesive way.
If you’re working with a publisher, they’ll likely want input on the writing and photography, so keep in mind that the creation process will be more collaborative than a solo blog. If you’re taking your own photos, keep them clean and classic, rather than optimized for Pinterest. Avoid overly trendy backgrounds, props, or styling. Think about how the images can serve as part of the instruction and how they will look together, in terms of the book’s overall layout and composition.
2. You’ll need a task list and timeline.
When you’re about to cook, you make sure you have the ingredients you need, and maybe prepare a mise en place. The same goes for writing a book. You need to prep to make it all come together at the end (literally and metaphorically!).
We used Google Drive to make folders, and spreadsheets and shared docs for different stages of the process. We built in deadlines for rest and to celebrate meeting a goal (which is very much a part of what’s in the book). Our process reflected our practice in that way. Here are the tasks we considered:
- Proposal development
- Agent searching
- Publisher searching
- Manuscript development
- Recipe testing
- Photo shoot planning and executing (including making the food)
- Manuscript editing
- Marketing and publicity.
3. Make a book budget — and double it.
We were so excited to start working with a publisher for a number of reasons, including because they gave us money up front (called an advance) to do our work. But publishing budgets rarely line up with reality, so we did some math to see if we could make a profit.
Preparing a budget helps establish clear expectations for the resources you’ll need to write, cook and photograph your book. Consider:
- the cost of groceries
- time to make the food, write about it, and to do the other writing for the book
- and the marketing and mailing costs that might be extraneous to what the publisher will contribute.
You’ll probably need to make some dishes a few times, which multiplies how much time and money each costs. So look at the numbers you crunch initially, then double them, and you might find yourself close to breaking even at the end.
Depending on your financial and life situation, you may need to make adjustments to other sources of income, childcare, or even where you are living. Jennifer did her recipe development from a tiny New York kitchen with only one saute pan, a one-quart sauce pan, baking sheets, and one Dutch oven. Abbey made her recipes and styled photos while taking care of (and home-schooling) three kids. The pandemic definitely complicated some of our plans, even the ones with lots of wiggle room. Planning for more time, money, and space is always the side to err on.
4. Recruit friends who like to eat.
One of the things we were most excited about for the book-making process was recipe testing. We envisioned tasting parties with friends, family, and neighbors, where people would gather around a big table and comment on myriad versions of the same dish, giving feedback on which one tasted best. The pandemic changed all that, but we still relied on a number of people to offer this valuable information—and help us make sure our leftovers didn’t go to waste.
Inviting people into our process during quarantine was even more important, since it served as a way to connect. Delivering meals and having people make things themselves at home created much-needed diversions and excuses to reach out to people and talk about things other than the news. Even in non-pandemic conditions, testing and getting other people’s opinions—who have different tastes and cooking experience—ensures your cookbook is accessible and enjoyable for your readers. We wound up making all of our recipes at least twice, including once during the photo shoot, which was not necessarily the best time to realize a recipe needed tweaking.
5. Storyboard your photo shoot ahead of time.
If you have a blog and take your own photos, you know that hours go into every shot you post. Maybe you have a set routine, like batch cooking and shooting one day, then writing another, or maybe you do a whole post from start to finish to stay in the same headspace.
Either way, the scale of a cookbook shoot is bigger than even the most intricate blog post. You’ll make and shoot dozens of recipes, and depending on where you’re shooting (whether at home or in a studio), who’s helping you, and your budget and timeline, the process might take place over weeks, or even months.
Look at your schedule, consider any seasonal ingredients, and make a storyboard for your photos ahead of time to help the process go more smoothly. Consider which parts of the dish are important to show. Is there a special technique, ingredient, or mood you want to highlight? Sketch them out and put them all in order so you can evaluate the flow of the photos. You won’t want all the same style shots next to each other. We also shared inspiration photos from blogs and magazines with our art directors ahead of time, so they could weigh in on the photo story.
Then, plan to take groups of photos with the same set-up, props, or ingredients, so you don’t have to switch out so many things for every shot. (This likely won’t be the order the photos will go in for the book.)
The pandemic prevented us from doing the week-long photo-fest we originally planned. We were only able to get together to shoot in the same space for two days. Having that plan in place was crucial for when Abbey, who (wo)manned the camera, and had to finish the other half of the photos solo.
6. Get a kitchen assistant.
We made all of the dishes in the book fresh for the photo shoot. Despite our extensive plans, we weren’t expecting to be so exhausted by the end of the first two days. No doubt part of that fatigue came from prepping the dishes, styling them, shooting them, and cleaning up all at the same time. Our four hands could only do so much!
While we did have some generous lighting help from Abbey’s sons, having another cook in the kitchen would have been very helpful. You could hire a stranger or recruit a foodie friend to keep the recipes coming out hot. It’s definitely worth the investment. Remember: payment in food could be a reasonable option.
7. Think beyond the book.
Holding our finished books in our hands was one of the best moments of our lives. All our hard work was finally here, in this tangible thing other people would soon buy and enjoy. But realistically, we don’t expect to be living off royalties of Root & Nourish. And at heart, we are teachers who want to make the ideas we put in our book something people incorporate into their daily lives, as we have.
So we’re imagining different kinds of media, resources, events, classes, and products. They might give the book a life outside of the binding. They could offer ways to continually bring new people to the book. And they will help us grow as cooks and writers. Showing how people really respond to the recipes and giving feedback can inspire us on where to go next.
Just like with cooking, the best part of any meal is sharing it. Finding creative ways to repurpose your book’s ethos will serve the long-term benefit of your book sales, business, and creativity.
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Jennifer Kurdyla and Abbey Rodriguez are co-authors of Root & Nourish: An Herbal Cookbook for Women’s Wellness (Tiller Press, 2021). Jennifer is an Ayurvedic health counselor, yoga teacher, and writer. Plant-based since 2008, she lives in Brooklyn, New York. Read more at www.benourished.me and follow her on Instagram @jenniferkurdyla. Abbey Rodriguez is a certified holistic nutritionist, herbalist, and food content creator. Since 2015, she has developed recipes for women and young families on her food and wellness blog, The Butter Half. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and three children. Visit her on Instagram @thebutterhalf.