Let Your Story and Identity Shine Through, says Cookbook Publisher

by diannejacob on December 8, 2010


Kirsty Melville, president and publisher of the book division of Andrews-McMeel Publishing, based in Kansas City, MO.

When you submit a cookbook proposal to a publisher, what are your chances?

At Andrews-McMeel in Kansas City, MO, only 10 percent of the books its publishes are cookbooks. That’s 20 cookbooks a year.

Of those 20, perhaps half the books spring from ideas generated internally.

How many proposals compete for the remaining 10 spots? About 5,000 per year, estimates president and publisher of Andrews-McMeel’s book division, Kirsty Melville, who started the cookbook division in 2007.

That makes your chances about  one in 500.

Wait, don’t give up. Melville is always looking for new authors. If you’ve been to the International Food Blogger Conference (IFBC), or the Greenbrier Symposium for Professional Food Writers in the past year, you might have met her.

“I’m proactive, more entrepreneurial,” she explains. “I like to meet and talk to people.” Her attendance at the first IFBC conference in 2009 led to publishing the Foodista Best of the Food Blogs Cookbook earlier this year.

The cookbook department may be new, but it’s already launched best-sellers (Cake Wrecks and Bon Appetit Desserts) and national award-winners (My New Orleans: The Cookbookby chef John Besh; and The Art and Soul of Baking, a Sur Le Table book by Cindy Mushet). Recently Melville won an auction for Top Chef star Kevin Gillespie’s next two cookbooks, showing the publisher’s new clout in attracting star power.

What does it take to be published by Andrews-McMeel? “Being a good writer and good photographer isn’t enough anymore,” said Melville. “You need a framework or a story or a reason as to why someone would buy this book. It can be expressed by the quality of the writing, the way the words and photos are put together.”

What might spark her interest, when she reads a book proposal? “I get excited about a good idea, well expressed, by someone who knows how to promote a book and has a following,” she explains. Is platform as important as the book idea? “Both are important, and one without the other doesn’t work.”

She tries to meet all authors before doing a book deal, or at least have a conversation. “I want to understand what makes the author tick, what excites them, what their vision is, who they are, to create a book that’s going to work. As an Australian in America, to understand it I have to go there and see who the person is, what the place is about, to grasp its significance and importance.”

Originally the founding publisher of Simon & Schuster in Australia, Melville became vice president and publisher of Ten Speed Press in 1994. She moved to Andrews-McMeel in 2005.

For Melville, every book has its own identity. “I want to give voice to authors so they can express their ideas and vision in their own way.I trust the people I publish. I trust them to have a point of view.” Because of competition from the Internet, a book “has to become something you want to hold in your hands and love. There’s an experiential quality to the books we publish.”

Here are some of Andrews-McMeel’s recent food books and Melville’s take on why they succeeded:

Asked what advice she has for potential cookbook authors, she answered, “Why do you want to write a book? That’s the first question. Writing a book takes a long time. You have to really be passionate about what you’re writing, because afterwards you’ll be talking about it for a long time.”

(Disclaimer: Andrews-McMeel bought two books by writers who hired me to coach them on book proposals. See this post about the author of My Nepenthe, Nani Steele. I have also edited books and recipes for Andrews-McMeel.)


Tara Mataraza Desmond December 8, 2010 at 8:46 pm

Thanks very much, Dianne. Great info.

diannejacob December 8, 2010 at 9:15 pm

Thanks Tara. I was just reading your comment on a previous post I did where I interviewed Sydny Miner.

Mariko December 8, 2010 at 9:48 pm

I’m not kidding, my friend and I were talking about this very subject TODAY. And here you are, blogging about it.
Are you reading my mind?
More likely, this is what every blogger is thinking about.
This does fascinate me though. Maybe I should do anthropological studies on food bloggers and writers.

Mariko December 8, 2010 at 9:49 pm

Typo. Maybe I should “do…”

parisbreakfast December 9, 2010 at 6:16 am

“Being a good writer and good photographer isn’t enough anymore,” said Melville.
“You need a framework or a story or a reason as to why someone would buy this book.
(in any basic the book proposal)
*It can be expressed by the quality of the writing, the way the words and photos are put together.”
! ! !
This is a contradiction IMHO

diannejacob December 9, 2010 at 8:41 am

They are not mutually exclusive ideas, Carol. Publishers want it all: brilliant storytelling and a huge following.

Alison @ Ingredients, Inc. December 9, 2010 at 7:58 am

Awesome post. Very informative. After completing my first manuscript of 400 recipes, I agree that cookbooks take a lot of work and so much more. It is a huge sacrifice so picking your topic is one of the most critical parts!

diannejacob December 9, 2010 at 8:42 am

Wow, that is a huge number of recipes, Alison. Congratulations!

Yes, picking the right topic is crucial. I’ve had lots of talks with general food bloggers about this. When you love ALL food it’s tough to narrow anything down.

Barbara | Vino Luci Style December 9, 2010 at 8:16 am

I’m thankful that getting published is not on my agenda; for me it’s all about loving the process and sharing the results. However, this is great information for those who do have that desire and need some guidance about the process. Very informative.

diannejacob December 9, 2010 at 8:43 am

Thank you, Barbara. How wonderful that you are just enjoying having a blog, with no other aspirations.

Penny De Los Santos December 9, 2010 at 8:55 am

DJ-great post and Kirsty is a diamond in the rough.
“I want to give voice to authors so they can express their ideas and vision in their own way. I trust the people I publish. I trust them to have a point of view.” -Kirsty Melville
That’s pretty damn cool!

diannejacob December 9, 2010 at 9:09 am

Thanks Penny. I don’t know how rough she is — she’s been around a long time. I have heard from a few authors that she gives them wide berth. One even demanded to review the paper stock and got the kind she liked. Don’t know of any other publishers who do that.

angi December 9, 2010 at 9:25 am

Thanks so much for this informative post, Dianne. I personally love cookbooks that tell a story (or stories), which is why I’m a big fan of Besh’s book and anything by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford. It’s nice to hear that about publishers who are interested in story-based cookbooks and encourage that in writers, in addition to more traditional, recipes-heavy cookbooks.

diannejacob December 9, 2010 at 10:33 am

Me too. So much more fun to read in bed. I think they do recipe-heavy cookbooks too. Ex. Bon Appetit Desserts.

Jim Eber December 9, 2010 at 11:37 am

GREAT post. “Why do you want to write a book?” Priceless – how many people DON’T ask themselves this? I’ve been in and around the cookbook business promoting and writing for a long time and no matter the trends in food or publishing, this question still holds so so true. And as an old friend once told me and I have adapted into the words I ask of everyone work with, if you can’t answer/address these three questions (in six words), you have almost no chance of convincing anyone to buy your proposal: Who Cares? So What? Why You?

diannejacob December 9, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Oh yes, I use that one a lot with my clients who are writing book proposals. Can’t remember who said it first, but I love it.

People have romantic ideas about writing books. Once they find out how much work it’s going to be to write a proposal, a sample chapter, find an agent, write it, and then promote it, they often change their minds.

Megan December 9, 2010 at 12:00 pm

This is great info, but I would much rather edit cookbooks than write them. I noticed you’ve been hired by a lot of publishers to edit cookbooks. Your name probably speaks for itself now, but how did you first get noticed or picked? I’m an incredible editor (nearly 8 years of experience now), but I can’t seem to break into cookbooks. I know it would be my dream job. (I’ve read your books, I’ve read books about how to edit recipes, I’ve read other culinary career advice, I’ve taken a cookbook copyediting course, I worked in a bakery… I’m at a loss.)

diannejacob December 9, 2010 at 12:10 pm

It’s extremely difficult to get hired as a developmental editor on a freelance basis. Almost impossible, unless you’re a famous one who left a big press. And I am not that person. So best is if you want to be a copy editor. Maybe smaller presses would be wiling to try you?

My first break was maybe 12-13 years ago, when Weldon Owen hired me to edit two books in-house. It was only because the editor knew me from a former job, where I was the editor-in-chief.

Megan December 10, 2010 at 5:26 am

Thank you for the advice. I actually would prefer copyediting over developmental editing. I’ll just keep plugging away at trying to get my foot in at a small press somewhere. I really appreciate the response!

JaneT December 9, 2010 at 7:55 pm

@ Megan – I share your thoughts, this might be problematic.
I am too impatient for the old publishing process. I’ve been recently approached by the folks from Cooklet and there it takes just a moment to be in the book 😉 http://cooklet.com/en/About/Christmas. Of course this is just an ebook. Don’t get me wrong – I still love the printed books 🙂

diannejacob December 10, 2010 at 11:57 am

Sorry I don’t get it. Anonymous start-up in beta asking for recipes, no pay. I guess that’s okay if you’re just doing it for fun, as a home cook.

JaneT December 10, 2010 at 6:57 pm

That’s just me 🙂 Everything in the moment of time gets done immediately so that instant publishing might get some people’s attention. As I stated before I love the classic cookbooks and hopefully once I publish one myself but this e-conomy goes faster and faster. Regarding the startup – I found that they got some serious funding from Adobe but I might be wrong. I really like http://www.thedailymeal.com/ and it is also a startup in beta. Does it really matter? 🙂 Regards! PS. Love your blog and I really enjoy that you reply to every comment.

diannejacob December 11, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Yes it does. Agree with you there. It’s hard to keep up.

I don’t know much about Daily Meal. They say their content is well planned, but anyone can upload photos and recipes, so there you go.

Re is it a good idea to get involved in start-ups, the answer is: that depends on your goals.

Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite December 10, 2010 at 2:48 am

So, publishers are looking for a great story as well as photos and a huge following? Ok then. That does seem like a tall order for “little people” like me but I guess Rome wasn’t built in a day and should I really really want to pursue this, just plodding on and working hard will eventually reap its rewards, right? I am happy that more “story” cookbooks are being published (i.e. with more than just recipes) because that is what I love to read too!

This is excellent information – thank you for answering these questions that I am sure I share with thousands of others.

diannejacob December 10, 2010 at 1:08 pm

Thanks Mardi. Yeah, they want it all. You’ve got to develop your own personal story and work it, girl. You’re doing beautifully with your Food Network blog posts and your gorgeous photography.

Nancy Singleton Hachisu December 11, 2010 at 11:44 pm

I was just thinking about you today. I pulled out my new edition of Will Write for Food that finally arrived in Japan a month ago (6 months after I pre-ordered it!). And I was marveling at your sage advice: the new stuff and the old (but revised). And just now was whiling away a few minutes on Twitter, waiting in the car outside “Family Book” as my 15-year-old alien son with spiked black hair and a dangly earring dashed in to buy a couple of books, when I saw the @AndrewsMcMeel retweet.

I have been feeling so bemused at my good fortune to have landed a book contract with Andrews McMeel, and after reading this post am even more floored. So Mardi, the “little people” can get noticed. I live on an organic farm in Japan, but if truth be told, I’ve been working on my “platform” for more than 10 years. Patience and effort are both essential to the process. But then, I’m in it for the long haul and not a flash in the pan.

I also loved the post on Nani & My Nepenthe. It is so true that none of us are getting rich doing this. But it is also true that writing about food and writing about our life is something that I need/want/have to do. And I love every minute I spend feet propped up on my bed tapping away at the laptop. So satisfying. And even more so when someone reads it.

diannejacob December 12, 2010 at 6:18 am

Hey Nancy,

Great to hear from you! I wasn’t sure whether I could announce that you’re the other author I worked with. But now you have done so. Congratulations again. Hard work and patience are two main ingredients. The other is your unusual story and the quality of your writing.

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