A guest post by Kate Leahy
Before writing a cookbook, I didn’t know exactly how my finished book would look. But I knew a cookbook was the right vehicle for sharing a restaurant’s inner world with the outside world.
For my first cookbook, A16 Food + Wine, I could envision how the recipes, wine descriptions, and restaurant stories would be layered into a physical book. Since then, I’ve grown to understand that not all ideas about food, restaurants, or home cooking make sense within the structures of a cookbook. There are many other ways ways to tell a story. Today’s technology makes it easier than ever to explore other forms of media, from videos to podcasts and e-newsletters and many things between.
But if cookbooks are only one way to approach food storytelling and recipe sharing, how do you know if pursuing a cookbook is right for you? (I’m talking about a traditional publishing route. For self-publishing, it’s somewhat different, though much of what I say below will still apply.)
Before writing a cookbook, ask yourself:
1. Are your recipes part of a fast-moving and potentially short-lived trend?
When thinking of all the amazing recipes you want to include, are you willing to talk about them two, three, or four years down the road? If you get a book deal, it will likely be another one-and-a-half to two years before the book is out in the world. You will need to promote those recipes for years to come.
It’s fine to include these recipes if they define who you are as a cook and writer. Or if you to talk about and promote the content for years to come. Or the trend you focus on has a long tail (hello, Instant Pot!).
But if you’re writing to capture momentum from a specific moment (like in 2020, when everyone was trying to use up sourdough discard), there are more effective ways to go about it. You could publish recipes on a website, in an article, in a series of videos or online classes, or in a newsletter. It will get you away from playing the waiting game with traditional publishing. You can use these formats to build a loyal audience of readers or viewers, which will only help you sell the book later.
2. How do your recipes translate to the page?
Are your recipes easy to digest when written down? Or do they demand a lot of visual cues to get readers moving in the right direction?
Some recipes feel simple when you show them in a video or live demonstration. But they can take a while to write down in cookbook-speak (such as “in a bowl with a whisk, beat the eggs until frothy….”). You don’t need to forego a cookbook idea if you have complicated recipes. But you may want to think through adjustments to make the recipes to fit on a page.
For example, a recipe may require a cook to make smaller recipes (subrecipes) to complete it. How can you get reader buy-in? Can each subrecipe live as a separate recipe in the book? Consider the book’s balance. Can you limit the book to ten complicated recipes? Then you can really go to town celebrating the heck out of those recipes with stories and explanations and a guide to completing the dish.
For the remainder of the cookbook, challenge yourself to write innovative recipes that fit on one page. That way you can gain trust that you understand the confines of a home kitchen. You also can push readers into becoming better cooks, and understanding your point of view.
Make sure your recipes use home equipment. A cookbook that requires professional-grade or expensive equipment will not be easy to sell to traditional cookbook publishers.
3. Do you want to tell all your amazing life stories?
If so, maybe what you really want to write is a memoir with a few recipes. Cookbooks are built around their recipes. Recipes demand most of the book’s real estate. If it’s narrative nonfiction that fires you up, read widely in that field, and see if that’s a better format for the stories you’d like to share with the universe.
4. Do you want to get a cookbook deal to help you pay for travel?
It will be far less expensive to travel for fun or for research than putting time and energy to get a book deal to use part of the advance (the money a publisher gives an author upfront to work on a book) on travel. If you do so, you may have little left to pay for ingredients for recipe testing, and to ensure you have enough time to write the book.
Considering that a book can take more than a year or two to write, especially if there is lots of research, a vacation that you pay for out of pocket has a much lower opportunity cost.
For most of us, cookbook advances are not on the grand side. Plus they are paid out in installments, often as many as four over the course of two years.
Writing a book that doesn’t require travel may save you huge amounts of time and energy. You may make more money from the book in the long run as well.
5. Does having a cookbook fit your professional goals?
Think about a cookbook as part of your overall professional platform. You might be:
- An influencer and want to keep building your brand
- A food or wine writer who wants to be known as an expert in a particular field
- A restaurant owner that wants to share your story
- An entrepreneur with a line of spices or vegan cheese (or anything else)
- Or the founder of a non-profit organization that works in the world of food.
Having a cookbook as part of your marketing initiatives could pay off. Not necessarily through book sales, but through name recognition. Your beautiful product can go in gift bags or as donations for fundraising events. Giveaways keep you or a company top of mind whenever someone pulls the book out to cook from it. If you have a company, it can budget for the book production as a marketing expense.
Is your professional goal is to make lots of money by writing a book? You may want to press pause and reconsider. For most published cookbook authors, the books themselves have never been sure-fire ways to pad bank accounts. But having a published book on the shelf can open doors and serve as an ultimate portfolio builder.
The Bottom Line
If all of this sounds awful, tedious, or disingenuous, ask whether a cookbook is the right medium for your story. A video series might be more of what you want to create. Maybe you set up a site that gives exclusive access to your innovative recipes via video and step-by step instruction. By doing so you break the mold set by traditionally published cookbooks. You may make more money this way in the long run. You may eventually decide to do a cookbook. Regardless, you will have honed your idea through your beta recipe testers, who have become your fanbase.
These questions are not meant to discourage you from writing a cookbook, but rather to encourage critical thought about end goals. Before writing a cookbook, think of how it fits the story you want to tell. Does it contribute to your professional and creative ambitions? And ensure you have a stable way to pay the bills while you work on it, since large advances for cookbook projects are few.
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Kate Leahy worked as a line cook in San Francisco, Napa, and Boston before writing about food and wine. Her first book, A16 Food + Wine, was an IACP Book of the Year. Her first solo book, Wine Style, focuses on simple recipes that pair with wine. She lives in San Francisco. Find her on Instagram @kateleahycooks.
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Jennifer R Osborn says
This is really great advice
Kate. You’re probably saving a lot of people a lot of headaches and potentially wasted time.
Also, are you the Kate who wrote Cookie Love with Mindy Segal? I adore that cookbook! Nicely done.
Kate Leahy says
Hello, Jennifer – and yes! That’s me. Mindy is such a talented chef, and it was a pleasure to work with her on Cookie Love.