A love of food can inspire a plethora of career options: you could be the head chef of a renowned restaurant kitchen; a baker of stunning, delicately decorated patisserie; or a food critic at a top publication. But for many, the dream is to publish a brilliant cookbook.
Both a highly useful object and, often, an elegantly crafted objet that beautifies any bookshelf, cookbooks remain treasured items for readers and a symbol of achievement for cooks. It’s no wonder, then, that Channel 4 decided to produce The Great Cookbook Challenge with Jamie Oliver, a new TV series in which 18 unknown cooks compete for a cookbook contract with Penguin Michael Joseph.
But what makes a cookbook successful? Is it all about the food? And where might a would-be cookbook author even get started? We spoke to two of The Great Cookbook Challenge’s hosts – Michael Joseph Managing Director Louise Moore and chef, food writer and stylist Georgina Hayden – to ask their advice.
The essentials: clarity, purpose, and usability
Moore, who has commissioned dozens of cookbooks – including those of Jamie Oliver, a long-time friend – articulates the importance of clarity of vision when it comes to putting together, and then selling, a cookbook.
“It should something which really grabs attention, because it feels fresh and original. It needs have clarity of purpose and voice – a big collection of ragbag recipes, by somebody who’s a nice cook, isn't going to cut it, as there are so many millions of recipes available. The author needs to articulate what they want to do, and show you – the publisher and ultimately, the purchaser – why you need to have that book on your shelf.”
“They need to target a need,” she says, “to answer a question, whether that is efficiency and speed because we're time poor – like Jamie's 15 Minute Meals – or whether it's someone writing about the food of their heritage or wherever they're from. It needs to have a clear answer to a question and serve a very clear purpose, so customers can say, ‘I want a book on Palestinian food or Italian food,’ or ‘I want a vegan book.’ It shouldn't try to be too many things.”
“The books that break through the ceiling,” according to Moore, “have got a very clear promise and solution about them: ‘30-minute meals’ or ‘five ingredients’ or ‘one tin.’ It will be about diet, speed, affordability, diet, or cuisine type.”
Beyond just the food, both Moore and Hayden agree that a cookbook’s concept, ease of use, the personality of the chef and more factor into a book’s success.
“The recipes have to work; they have to look achievable; they have to look original,” Moore lists, but points out that, increasingly, a good cookbook must have personality. “The voice and the platform are becoming increasingly important, too; they're a massive help, if a writer comes to us, and they already have a platform of followers. It's not essential, you know – publishers can help someone build that – but it is becoming important to have that in order to have a successful cookbook.”
Moore says that social media is a great place to start on your journey towards a cookbook – “If you've got a good idea, and you know what you're doing and you're excited about your recipes, put them up! The idea that you're giving away secrets is passé” – as it’s useful to test your ideas and your recipes online. But it’s also a stepping-stone towards finding a literary agent – a hugely important step.
“Agents are really helpful. They know which publishers are going to be the ones that will go for it; they can help you with contracts, advice, pitfalls, that kind of thing; and they continue to be a very, very important funnel for cookbook publishers. We get maybe hundreds of submissions every month, and we just don't have the capacity to look at them all physically. We do have un-agented submissions occasionally make their way through,” she says, but because of the cost of making a cookbook – “the testing, the photography, the design, then the printing, then the distribution” – make it a high-stakes investment: “We have to be thinking we could sell 25 to 30,000 quite high-priced books.”
…and staying patient
Hayden agrees that social media fame helps, but it’s not essential.
“In that situation,” she says, “you need pedigree on your side. That might mean history or clout in your field: whether you've worked in food publishing for magazines, or you’re a food writer or stylist, or you’re a chef. These people might not have social media followings, but they have pedigree.
The other option, she says, is timing: bringing a unique idea or unheralded style of food to the fore, as one Great Cookbook Challenge contestant did successfully in the show’s debut episode: “If you have a heritage where we don't have enough cookbooks about it, a bit like Rex with his Filipino cooking” she says, that can be your ticket to cookbook success.
“There are a few Filipino restaurants that are on the up at the moment, but I can't think of a current, up-to-date, well-known book. In that situation you have a real strength as well, regardless of other things. Trends play a big part; if you happen to be releasing a book at the same time as the world is going in a certain direction, that is really important.”
Moore notes that Hayden’s books did just that: “Georgina writes beautiful Greek/Cypriot books, and it’s a wonderful cuisine, and you would want to buy that because you probably wouldn't have another book on that particular kind of cooking.”
Summary and top tips
Asked about their single most important tips for aspiring cookbook authors, both Moore and Hayden emphasise simplicity.
“Think very, very hard about what the one thing you want to say about why someone should buy this book,” reiterates Moore. “Think about your elevator pitch.”
Hayden points to passion, simply advising to “read cookbooks, and cook from cookbooks. You can be an amazing chef, and you can create amazing food, but it doesn't mean you're going to write a good cookbook that people will find user-friendly. Get in the head of the person cooking at home.”
Louise and Georgina’s top tips:
- Come up with a book concept that is solution-based and satisfies a need
- Test your food – and photos – out on social media; then, seek an agent
- Put in the time and work – fame can always come later
- Pay attention to trends, and read – and use! – other cookbooks
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Image: Alexandra Francis / Penguin