Why I’ll (Probably) Never Publish Your Cookbook

It happened again. My own book is still a couple of months away from publication and already, I am getting pitches from people wanting me to publish their book. Specifically, their cookbook.

The first came via Twitter. (Incidentally – do not ever do this.) A public message asking if I’d be interested in a fun, quirky cookbook. Besides the fact that you destroy any credibility you might have as a serious writer by pitching to a publisher via Twitter, it helps to actually visit the website of the publisher and learn more about them and what they’re looking for, or if they’re accepting submissions at all. That you came across an indie publisher on Twitter and contacted them doesn’t get you points for taking the initiative, it makes you look like someone who is clueless, can’t follow protocol or written instructions, and who probably doesn’t really care about how professionally things are done.

Far moreso in the US than here in Canada, successful bloggers have been able to translate their blogs into book deals. But Canadian publishers have never had a lot of money to do such things and tend to stick with the more tried and true – TV chefs or chefs from restaurants with a strong customer base. And while there are many publishers who offer a lot of cookbooks and obviously do well with them, I don’t want to be one of them.

There are exactly two food bloggers that I would be willing to work with to publish a cookbook. The first is Esther Walker of the blog Recipe Rifle. A freelance journalist in London, who happens to be married to restaurant critic and food journalist Giles Coren, Walker’s blog is less about cooking than not cooking. And she is brilliant exactly because her blog is more about the frustration of cooking than turning out magazine-perfect recipes. That she curses, possibly even more than me, also endears her to me greatly. Probably I would be the only one who found her book to be funny, and anyway, after a long haul of trying to find a publisher, she’s signed a deal to create an e-book.

Second would be the blog Mario Batali Voice by Steve Albini. The discovery of this site was followed by a whole bunch of people I know making like MacCauley Culkin in Home Alone and using lots of exclamation points in their messages. “Steve Albini has a food blog!!!!!” “What? Steve Albini?? A food blog, you say??! That’s some crazy shit! I love Steve Albini!”

Of course, if you have no clue who Steve Albini is, you’re undoubtedly sitting there going “who the fuck?” instead of using the magic Goggle box at your fingertips. But while the rest of the world spent the 80s listening to the cat-tortured screechings of musical artists like Whitney Houston, me and my black-clad friends were throwing ourselves around dancefloors to the sounds of Steve Albini’s band, Big Black. The man wrote what is undoubtedly the anthem to the freakshow that was my teenage years, and his song Kerosene is not only the story of my wayward youth, but probably also kept me from killing myself – or someone else – during that period.

So just for being Steve Albini, he can have a book deal. That his blog is also super-funny and that he cooks decent stuff is a plus.

If you are not Esther Walker or Steve Albini, take note – I do not want to publish your cookbook.

First off, look, Stained Pages Press hasn’t even published our first book yet. That will be my book, not because I’m all “me first!” but because I want a learning curve. If I fuck shit up, I want it to be my own shit, not someone else’s. I don’t want to ruin someone’s life work. I want a few of these under my belt before I start working on whole books with other people.

At that point, sure… I have a whole list of writers and bloggers who I would love to work with, who I think totally deserve to have a book out there, who deserve to make some money from their work.

As long as it’s not a cookbook.

I have nothing against cookbooks. I read them I buy them, I use them. But – to do them right – they are a lot of work and money to produce. Something like 30% of published recipes are incorrect in some way. I’ve personally reviewed cookbooks where I could see fatal flaws in the published recipes because the editor didn’t know food and cooking, and the publisher didn’t pay for recipe testing. The most egregious was a recipe in a book from a restaurant where a pastry was to be cooked at a low temperature for a short period – the restaurant would have a convection oven, so the recipe worked for them –  but it was never converted to temperatures appropriate for a conventional oven. Whoops!

Also, copyright. Recipes themselves are not subject to copyright, and bloggers can (usually) freely use and copy recipes from any source. But people who develop recipes get cranky when their work shows up places without attribution. When you’re *selling* that recipe in the form of a cookbook, everything you’re claiming as your own, or as passed down from a family member, had darn well better be. Personally, I don’t have the time to check a couple hundred recipes online to ensure that the cookbook author didn’t rip off another publication’s work.

Finally, just in terms of my own personal interest, I’m not that turned on by cookbooks. I know some people read them in bed, like porn, but I’d much rather read long-form food writing. I’ll take Ruth Reichl and M.F.K. Fisher over Nigella Lawson or Rachael Ray, any day of the week. To me, it’s all about the writing. And while that may be the certain path away from fame and fortune, that’s really what my imprint is meant to be about.

If you believe you’ve got a killer cookbook in you, if you think that your blog is a goldmine of great recipes and food ideas, then by all means, get out there and find a publisher. But do your research:

– find an imprint that does lots of cookbooks, and that, ideally, has worked with bloggers, don’t waste your time on places that don’t work with your topic (really, don’t pitch your cookbook to a sci-fi imprint hoping that yours will be the book that changes their minds)

– have an angle – what is special about your blog or book idea? What niche remains unfilled? How can you fill it?

– build a following – you’d best be getting thousands of hits a day, every day, to your blog if you’re going to pitch a book; these days publishers are really only looking at sure things

– submit writing and recipes to places that accept one-offs or freelance pieces – publishers like writers who have already been published elsewhere, both because you have a name and because you have an idea about how the industry works

– learn how the editing process works – a good editor who has experience with recipes and cookbooks (ideally with experience in recipe development) will make you tear down and rebuild Grandma’s scone recipe until it’s perfect (and I don’t mean the scones, but the recipe itself), and the work involved in doing so will make your head spin. Repeat 100 times or so to get through every recipe in your book, cry, rant, rewrite some more

– and finally, know that little indie publishers like Stained Pages and others have absolutely no money to help with any of the above. Recipe testing and editing, as well as copyright research, will all have to be paid for by the author, making a properly written, edited and published cookbook out of our range

I’m obviously happy that people are finding the Stained Pages Press website and Twitter feed and are excited about what we’re doing. And I’m excited to progress into the future to a point where I can work with writers to help publish their works. But that will likely never be a cookbook, I just don’t have the resources, or the interest, to go that route. Unless you’re Esther Walker or Steve Albini, in which case, call me!

2 thoughts on “Why I’ll (Probably) Never Publish Your Cookbook”

  1. I rarely contradict you, but I feel like I have to point out that Nigella is fantastic in prose format. That’s not the main reason I own two of her cookbooks, but it was a pleasant surprise. Then again, I’m so anglophilic I once sprained my ankle on the stairs at Apsley House.

    1. That may well be the case – after watching her on TV, with her lanky hair hanging in the pot and her kid sticking his dirty hands in the batter and all that pathetically “sexy” spoon-licking, I’ve never been able to bring myself to open one of her cookbooks. She could be the Shakespeare of cake baking, and I’ll never know – the lady just creeps me out too much.

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