Results tagged cookbooks from David Lebovitz

How Precise Do Recipes Need to Be?

scale and measuring spoons

I’ve been doing a lot of work on recipes lately, and at the same time, thinking about the way recipe-writing has evolved, especially since the internet has taken a role in the process of cooking. At the same time, someone interviewed me about the difference between writing recipes for a cookbook versus a blog and I gave a somewhat long-winded answer (which I’m still editing before I send it back to them.) But the short answer is that when I started writing books, I had to envision who the readers would be. Julia Child wrote for Mastering the Art of French Cooking for Americans who had perhaps a little knowledge of French cooking but not a lot of access to the same ingredients. And she got it right.

When one writes a book proposal, the first thing a publisher wants to know is “Who is going to buy it?” So you sit down and think about the audience; The dedicated home baker? The weekend cook? The person who will tackle a forty-page recipe on making a loaf of bread? Someone with a tiny city kitchen? Then, when you write the book, you need to figure out what equipment people will – or won’t, have. Stand mixers, food processors, 12-quart Dutch ovens, 8-inch square cake pans, candy thermometers, bundt pans, and so forth, are all questions that pop up when working on recipes.

When I write a book, I assume a certain level or knowledge and/or commitment because people have made an effort to obtain the book. Writing for the internet is more interactive and I can write about subjects that are diverse and the interaction makes me think about the possibilities of a recipe. And I can see questions that might arise or need clarification in real-time. So both are interesting to me.

As one of many recipe writers out there, we all want people to have good results. So I spend a good amount of time testing recipes over-and-over, using various ingredients and techniques, then refining and revisiting them over the course of working on the book (or blog post), until I’m satisfied that it works just like I want it to. Then, because of the long publication period for a book, I have time to step back from a recipe, then usually revisit it later again.

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Masterpieces of French Cuisine

Masterpieces of French Cuisine

When I moved to France a number of years ago, the hardest things to part with were my cookbooks. (And San Francisco burritos.) Some I shipped ahead – which, as readers of my Paris book know, I’m still waiting for today. Some got boxed and put in storage, and the rest were sold or given away. One of my favorite books of all time was brought to my attention by a woman who ate in the kitchen at Chez Panisse a few times a week. Back then, it wasn’t trendy to be seated where the cooks were working, which are now called “chefs tables” and they’ve become so popular that restaurants actually put tables frequently in the kitchens and guests can reserve them. She just preferred to be back in the kitchen with us, rather than with the rest of the diners.

breton broiled lobster

Since we all liked her a lot, and not just because she regularly brought us in French pastries and Belgian chocolates, but because she was a lot of fun. She held court at that table for perhaps a decade and she even entered through the kitchen door when dining with us because she wanted to be “part of the gang.” She loved to eat everything, especially lobster and frais des bois (or anything with butter, really), but she had a soft spot for pastries and her table was next to where I worked, so I spent a lot of time talking about food with her. Knowing I liked cookbooks, one day she brought me in a copy of a large-format cookbook from her collection to read – Masterpieces of French Cuisine.

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Favorite Cookbooks of 2011

cookbook pile up

As 2011 draws to a close, I look at the stack of books that I’ve collected on my bookshelf (and piled up on my floor…and beside my bed, and stacked in my kitchen…) and wonder how I’m going to cook and bake from them all. I just can’t help it, though—I love cookbooks. And these are the books that I couldn’t resist tackling in 2011, although a few are filled with bookmarks intended for future dinners and desserts, and blog posts. Some are traditional books bound with nice paper, filled with recipes, others are food-related books; memoirs and remembrances. And there are a few entries I’ve chosen that push the boundaries of traditional text, electronically and otherwise.

This year, I found myself drawn to cookbooks with a story to tell, not just mere collections of recipes. Books with a distinct point of view by an author, and essays which took me beyond the page and into their lives, which veered in some rather compelling directions. A few of the books were chef’s memoirs, which I did include even though they don’t have recipes. But something about them added to the canon of cookery books I have and referenced cooking in ways I wasn’t expecting.

Because I live abroad and have limited storage space (and deliveries can be a challenge), I wasn’t able to procure all the books that I wanted to. But this year saw a big uptick in publishers – and readers – jumping onto the e-book bandwagon. While not everyone wants to cook from a computer screen, one advantage is that foreign cookbooks, or out-of-print titles, may have new lives and can downloaded anywhere in the world within seconds.

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As Always, Julia and Ideas in Food

A couple of books have been resting on my nightstand for the past few weeks and I’ve been enjoying dipping into each, back and forth. They’re quite different and I didn’t expect to take a shine to them both as much as I did. Both of these authors and books are about teaching people to cook, from different eras and in different styles. And the more I read of each, the more I realized how much the two intersect.

Cooking is something that’s always evolving, whether it’s figuring out how to make a good French baguette in an American kitchen or presenting a technique for making risotto in just seven minutes. The first book is based on the correspondence of a familiar face, someone who wrote a book five decades ago that few thought anyone would have any interest in. And the second is from two modern-day faces that are pushing to evolve what we eat even further, based on a new cooking style brimming with new ideas, techniques, and flavor combinations.

As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto

Although many people enjoyed the film Julie & Julia, I would venture to guess that the actual characters are more interesting, and even richer, than what was possible to present on a film screen. Anyone who has watched even one short episode of The French Chef with Julia Child knows that a few minutes of her roasting a chicken tells you just about all you want to know about her. And on the other side, although I didn’t read the original Julie/Julia blog or book, I’m sure she’s a more multifaceted than depicted as well. The film enjoyed a lot of success and pulled Julia Child back into our collective memories.

In this age of e-mail, tweets, and text messages, quite a bit of our lives get lost into cyberspace as we type short notes, then hit the delete button once the information has been processed. The art of letter-writing is on the wane, but evidence of how much we’ve lost can discovered in the pages of As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. Fortunately Child and DeVoto were avid writers and their fervent letters were preserved, and archived, then sorted through by Joan Reardon for this rare look at not just how a cookbook gets published, but a glimpse into the lives of two dynamic women living in separate cultures and gradually discovering what connects them.

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Favorite Cookbooks of 2010

2010 was a very big year for cookbooks. And when I say “big”, I don’t just mean there were plenty of great cookbooks published this year, but some of them were huge. Ready for Dessert tipped the baker’s scale at over 3-pounds, and subsequent books that continued throughout the year tested the limits of my strength, such as Bon Appétit Desserts, which weighs in at a whopping 6-pounds.

But as they say, “Size doesn’t matter” and I found myself attracted to a variety of cookbooks of all dimensions. Here are a few cookbooks, baking tomes, and food-related books that were released this year or that I featured on the site in 2010.


Around My French Table

You’d never know that Dorie Greenspan only spends one-third of her time in Paris because after reading through this massive collection of three hundred fabulous recipes, she nails the city and the food, including stories and recipes from the restaurants, markets, and most endearingly, her stable of Parisian friends—which makes mine look like the unwashed masses. Her moist French Apple Cake was enjoyed from breakfast around here, and eating cake for breakfast probably isn’t very French, but tant pis.

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Vintage Cookbooks in Paris at le Bouquiniste Gastronomie

During a recent book event in Paris at a local bouquiniste, I met up with Alain Huchet, who sells an extraordinary selection of vintage cookbooks, menus, and gravures, all relating to the pleasures of food and wine.

cuisinebook Bernard Loiseau bonbonbook

Naturally, the selection is heavily tilted toward French gastronomy, and I was a kid in a confiserie when I began rifling through the stacks of books. I’ve seen some extraordinary collections of cookbooks; including a pretty good one I left behind : (

But if I had the space to start up again (and beaucoup de euros), this is where I’d start.

Still, looking is free, and look I did. I’m a sucker for any cookbook dedicated to candymaking, baking, and the pastry arts, especially the old French ones, with their faded colored pictures of giant, dinged-up copper pots, and heavily-sugared candies lined up, glacéed and frosted within an inch (or centimeter, I should say) of their lives.

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Baked Brownie Recipe (with Altoids)

When I was in New York City in October I fell in love. Deeply and madly.

I’d swapped apartments with a friend and as I was leafing through her stack of new baking books, I became hopelessly smitten with one in particular: Baked: New Frontiers in Baking.

Baked brownies

And even though both my suitcases were dangerously over-packed (although my new iMac was more than worth the five minutes I spent charming the United agent so he’d waive the overweight surcharges), and I already quite a few other cookbooks wedged in there, I reasoned there was always room for one more.

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Writing Your Own Cookbook

Many folks dream of turning their recipes into a cookbook and I hope to answer some of the questions you might have about the process in a concise manner. Below are some pointers that might help you out but there’s lots of other great tips out there and I encourage you to read as much as you can. (I’ve provided some great links at the end.)

books4.jpg

In this post I offer some advice, but more important, interspersed are a lot of questions for you to ask yourself. There are no right or wrong answers, just points to consider and to help you refine your idea as you pursue your goal. These are not meant to discourage, but to encourage you to think about your project so that you can best position it, in case you decide to try to sell it and get it published.

[Note: This post was revised and updated in 2013, to reflect some of the changes and innovations in the publishing industry, including some interesting self-publishing options.]

Here are ten tips to help you get started:

1. Start With A Great Idea

Come up with an idea. And while you’re at it, make it a good one.

Perhaps you have a bevy of good recipes. Or you want to be famous and have a show on television. Maybe you want to be rich. All are reasons to write a book. But the best is because you want to share your great food and terrific stories with readers. If you look at your favorite cookbooks, each one has at least one recipe that’s amazing, that you make over and over again. If not, the author’s voice rings through and you like thumbing through it for the writing or the photographs. In either case, there’s something about it that excites you.

As Regina Schrambling wrote about Julia Child “…everyone wants to be her, but no one would dream of putting in 10 years of obsessive work on a cookbook.” Yes indeed, Julia spent ten years writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Are you willing to spend ten years laboring over a manuscript? That’s probably not likely and shouldn’t take that long, but you should believe in your idea enough to obsess over it night and day during the time you’re writing it, and be willing to spend a big chunk of your life devoted to it.

Note: If you want to contact someone who is a cookbook author, agent, or editor to pick their brain be aware that you are asking someone to take time from their own work and life, to consult with you on yours. Read Modern Etiquette: Asking for a favor, which has guidelines on how to approach someone. Keep inquiries short and sweet. Get to the point – don’t just say, “I want to write a cookbook. Can you tell me what I should do?” And for the sake of everyone’s eyes, avoid superfluous text and use spacing between paragraphs. If someone is a professional editor, ask if there is a fee for the initial consultation if you have a lot of questions and want to set up a time to talk.

2. Find Your Niche

Saying you’re doing “seasonal and regional foods” isn’t enough anymore. Everyone does that—or says they do…what makes yours any better? Find something else, or work within that genre.

There are thousands of cookbooks that come out every year. Think about what makes you buy the ones you buy? Would your book appeal to you? Is this the kind of book you could see in a bookstore? Head to your local bookstore or online and see what is on display, and selling.

Like it or not, that’s what’s out there and that’s what people are buying. If they weren’t, no one would be selling them. Big-box bookstores exist to make money and they’re trying to sell books so most likely, ‘One Hundred Recipes from Tammy Terrific’ can’t compete with ‘One Hundred Meals from Rachel Ray’. Since they only have limited space, you need to give them a reason to carry your particular book. How is yours going to fit in, and /or compete?

Evaluate cooking trends. Scope Amazon and cookware shops. Is there a new item on the horizon that might need a cookbook to be sold alongside, like a panini-grill, a home smoker, a blow torch, or an ice cream maker? Are there any foods coming down the pipeline that might need recipes or merit further explanation? Soy, gluten-free, whole grains, and home-cooking are all popular right now. But what’s next? Hamburgers? Ceviche? Organic? A low-protein diet? What’s the next big thing?

3. Find An Agent

While it’s not imperative to have an agent, most editors and publishers give top-priority to proposals submitted by an agent. One editor told me she gets twenty proposals a day and frankly, doesn’t have the time to even look at most of them let alone respond. The best way to find an agent is to look at cookbooks that you like, check the acknowledgments, and take note of the agent. Then do some research to contact them with your proposal. Read query letter pet peeves from agents, to get a handle on how to approach one.

A good agent knows exactly where to send your proposal and is on good terms with the top editors. If an agent accepts to take you on, that means they can sell it or will try to, since no one wants to push something they don’t believe in. You may get passed over by an agent for no apparent reason (trust me on that one…) as they may have a similar proposal on their docket or another author working in the same genre. (Same with editors. You may simply get rejected based on the fact they have a book in print or in the pipeline on the same subject.)

Done right, with the help of an agent, your proposal can land on an editor’s desk the next day. A good agent will also help a writer shape that proposal and they handle on the contractual and legalese. Not that they have a crystal-ball into the future, but they do have their fingers on what’s selling and what’s not. As mentioned, you can sell a proposal without an agent but a good one will understand your concept and work on your behalf to get you’re your book sold. Finding an agent is one crucial part of the puzzle and in my opinion, one that’s important.

4. The Proposal

When I tell people I spent around eight months just working on just the proposal for my ice cream book, they’re shocked. But editors want to see a full and clear vision of what you’re going to write about. It’s especially true for a first-time author, but even for someone who’s written several books. Each book is a brand new project and requires a fresh start. And often the editors have to answer to higher-ups in marketing, sales, etc…and don’t, in general, have the last word.

Included in the proposal should be extensive samples of content, the tables of contents, recipe list and sample recipes if applicable, as well as a winning biography of you. And very importantly, a plan for how the book will sell once its published. Including as much as possible in there is a good idea, perhaps a sample chapter or two. But be careful: One editor told me she got a very good proposal but it was accompanied by some homemade cupcakes that were terrible and she found them, half-eaten, tossed in the trash of the employee break room where she left them for the staff. Not a good sign.

Most importantly, this is the time to give this your very best shot. Be concise and self-critical, and only send in your best effort. Editors are simply too busy to take the time to sift through a lot of material so your proposal should be, as they say, a “killer app.”

TIP: Publishers these days love numbers; Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and Twitter followers, as well as blog traffic. When you proposal lands at an editor, they need to “sell” the idea to the marketing team and nowadays those numbers have become important. They’re not vital, but the more followers that you have, the stronger your proposal will be. If you don’t have high numbers, don’t be discouraged. But an explanation of your social media and platforms will improve your position. If your numbers are low, explain how engaged with you those followers are. (Add proof, if you can.)

5. Give It Time

From the time you start writing down ideas, the proposal is written, the book sold, the book written and edited, and then printed and released, most books take much longer to come to fruition than people imagine. Plan on at least two years from the moment you start your quest until you see something tangible.

Most books have a one year lead time, which means you generally have a year to write the book. Then it can take another year to edit, re-test recipes, design and photograph the book. Finally, another year passes before the book is on the shelves.

6. Paying For It

Although it sounds tempting to live off your writing, for most writers, it ain’t their ship coming in. According to Dianne Jacob, in Will Write For Food, in her survey she notes a first-time author can expect to get a $5k-$25k advance.

But even if you get, let’s say, $50k, that might sound like a lot of money. So figure your agent gets 15%, the IRS gets 27%, plus figure $5k in expenses like food costs, printer cartridges (why are those things so darn expensive?), and equipment. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll go through a lot of pajama bottoms too, the preferred uniform of those who work at home. So that’s approximately $25,000 for a good 1-2 years of full-time work.

Most people who write books do something else to supplement their income: teach classes, lead tours, consult, have a restaurant or go to real jobs where they have to get dressed and leave the house for each day. Others marry rich. I’m not kidding.

7. Going Inside and Outside Your Blog

If you have a blog, use your blog to practice and refine what you do. Since anyone can start a blog, use yours to go out on a limb and write something outside your comfort zone.

If you’re used to writing recipes, for example, do a review of a product, visit a food producer, conduct an interview—whatever. Keep a theme going, but challenge yourself on occasion. If you want, keep your blog private and just use it for practice. Very few writers just start tapping a keyboard, or pick up a pen, and write something magnificent. I’m the exception. (Just kidding!) Most of good writing is editing. Step away, then come back to your writing. Or ask a friend who has good sensibilities, that you respect, to read what you wrote and get some feedback.

Another option is to use a writing coach. This can be money well spent if they get you motivated to write the book you want to write.

Note: If you’re going to ask someone for help, you should thank them properly. A lot of people give advice freely and graciously; I can’t even begin to thank those who helped me enough. But do take the time and have the courtesy to acknowledge the assistance of others. It’ll come back to you in spades and you’ll gain the respect and trust of others for acknowledging their contribution to your success.

8. Sell It

It all comes down to selling. There are lots of great ideas for cookbooks out there, but if you want to do a book, you need to have an idea that’s salable since most publishing houses are now owned by larger, global media corporations who are looking at the bottom line. But there are independents still out there that do superb cookbooks. See what’s out there, look at what publishing houses are releasing and what people are buying. Differentiate yourself from the pack if necessary, or go with the flow.

Say your book is all about making great salads. Great! Does the world need another book of salads? No. Do you have something extra to offer? Is there something special about your salads that make them different? Are you using a new product or vegetable to make those salads? If you do, that could be your hook.

People often want to publish treasured family recipes. If you are thinking along those lines, make sure to explain what makes your family special, and why are those recipes. Just because friends ask you for them, you need to explain in your proposal that ten- or twenty-five thousand other people will pay $30 for a book of them. Is your family from an ethnic group noted for something special (ie: Korean pickles, Swedish cordials, French dips, etc)? Is there something in your family’s culinary history that stands out?

Italian cooking is another popular topic. You may have a lot of great pasta recipes. But how does that make you different from the multitude of established (and already published) Italian cooking authors, like Faith Willinger or Marcella Hazan? Find what makes you different from the rest of the pack. Is it your take on it? Is it your personality? Are there techniques that are groundbreaking or truly exceptional that you can share?

9. Do It Yourself

If you want to write a book just for the fun of it, or to sell, there’s several places online to do-it-yourself and that can be a lot of fun if you have the pluck to do it yourself. In the past few years, many options have opened up, such as publishing an e-book through Amazon, Lulu.com, and Apple offers an iBooks Author publishing tool.

And there are apps for creating your own cookbook as well, such as Cookbook Cafe.

You don’t need to go through a traditional publisher and you have complete control over every aspect of the book, but self-published books need to find an audience so they sell best if you have some sort of outlet for sales, such as a blog or another medium. Another aspect is publicity. You won’t have a publishing house behind you pushing your book and making media contacts so you’ll need to take that on yourself. Still, no one’s as concerned about your book as you, and there are many self-published authors that sell tons of books on their own.

10. Do You Click?

In these cost-conscious times, if you have photographic skills, that can be a huge plus. Cookbook photography and styling is very expensive, costing $500 and up, per photo. So imagine the budget for a book with fifty, full-color professional photos. (And often the price of the book reflects that.)

If you are a good photographer, or are willing to learn, that can work to your advantage nowadays. If you can do a good job and save the publisher some money, that just might be a major plus in your favor during these cash-strapped times. Include samples in your proposal, but make sure they’re the very best you’re capable of doing.

Lastly, don’t be discouraged. Julia Child was rejected by almost every publishing house because Mastering the Art of French Cooking wasn’t considered a salable book. Later in life, another of her books was turned down, which became a huge success as well. The folks who wrote The Silver Palate Cookbook came up with the idea over drinks at home one night and had no idea what they were doing. But they took a risk, worked hard, and it paid off: They got the book they wanted, it met with great success, and the rest – as they say – is history.

This is just a general overview and there are lots more to consider if you want to write a cookbook. But I hope these questions and suggestions give you a good introduction to the process – good luck!


A few excellent books that I recommend are:

- Will Write For Food,

-Recipes Into Type (out of print, but worth tracking down)

-The Recipe Writer’s Handbook


Related Posts and Links

Submission Requirements (Literary Agent Lisa Ekus)

So You Want to Publish a Cookbook (Justin Schwartz)

Before You Write that Cookbook (Cookbook Editor Susan Friedland)

From Blog to Book: How to Turn Your Ideas Into Reality (Chronicle Books)

How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal (Blogher)

How to Get a Cookbook Published (Andrea Nguyen of Viet World Kitchen)

Turn Your Blog Into a Book, Part I, and Part 2 (Gina Trapani of Lifehacker)

Chronicle Books’ submission guidelines as well as those from Ten Speed Press.

Five Secrets to Getting a Book Deal (Alan Rinzler)

Turning your blog into a book (Problogger)

So You Want to Write a Cookbook (Betterbaking.com)

How to write about food (Adam Roberts of The Amateur Gourmet)

Cookbook editor Justin Schwartz writes When is a cookbook deal too good to be true?

Media Bistro: Information and forums for authors & writers pitching ideas.

Modern Etiquette: Asking for a Favor (Design*Sponge)

Read how one man’s book became a #1 bestseller—even though it was turned down by 13 out of 14 publishers.

Questions & Answers with Dianne Jacob, writing coach and editor, about writing a cookbook.

Lulu.com and iUniverse both offer self-publishing and distribution options.

Tools and books: Resources I recommend for budding food writers.

The Making of My Paris Kitchen.