Whether they’re used for a beautifully curated dinner party, handy one-pot family meal or impressive lunchbox, cookbooks are a staple of most people’s homes. They inspire creativity in the every day and enable us to eat food we may never have encountered before. But how is a cookbook put together?
How does a publisher find a cookbook author?
The publishing process for a non-fiction book can be quite different to that of a novel. Editors will look to reach out to writers themselves, as well as taking submissions from literary agents.
"In my experience there really isn’t a ‘normal’ route to getting published with a cookbook," explains Commissioning Editor at Ebury, Sam Crisp. "We often approach potential authors directly but, of course, we get approached by authors with and without agents too."
Ione Walder, Publisher at Penguin Michael Joseph, agrees:"It can happen many ways. Lots of our cookery writers approach us, most often via a literary agent, who helps them shape their ideas into a book proposal."
"But sometimes we do spot potential authors and go to them directly - we may find them on social media; discover a restaurant or food business that is doing something impressive, or perhaps hear about them by word of mouth. We also sometimes identify a strong trend or gap in the market and then go in search of a writer who is qualified to write specifically on that subject."
Do you need to have a literary agent?
A literary agent acts as a connection to the publishing industry, but as cookery writers may have come from many different areas – restaurants, social media, a food critic or columnist, publishers approach each author journey differently.
"We work with both agented and unagented authors," says Sam. "Sometimes they might have talent agents rather than literary, and other times they might not have an agent when we start but then decide to partner with an agent further down the line."
Most of Ione’s authors do have an agent, however, and she encourages aspiring cookbook writers to pursue that route, as that person can help with more than just your book deal.
"It’s generally beneficial to all involved. Particularly as an agent can help manage an author’s cookery career beyond their book; helping them to pursue TV or media roles, get booked for food festivals, launch merchandise, or generally support them in building a brand – all of which can, in turn, help their book reach a wider audience."
What are the key things to think about when creating a cookbook pitch?
Unlike fiction or narrative book proposals, which tend to need significant amounts of sample writing, cookery proposals generally offer more of an overview. Ione and Sam share what they look for in a pitch:
- A summary or synopsis - what is the particular theme or subject of the book?
- Information on how the book fits into the market e.g. does it tap into a growing trend? Share comparable books that have sold well
- Details about the author and their profile - professional credentials, size of audience, media activity, useful contacts
- A recipe list and/or chapter breakdown
- A handful of sample recipes
A key part of this pitch is in thinking about the audience and concept. "It’s important to think about who is going to use the book and how," Sam says. "Are your recipes quick and easy, great for busy family life? Are the ingredients inexpensive and easy to find? Or are they longer, comforting recipes for weekends or special moments? Ask yourself what other books you think yours would sit beside in the shops and think about how yours will stand out from them too."
Of course, you should also consider what the pitch looks like. Ione adds, "Cookery proposals do tend to be nicely designed and often include photos, to give a sense of what sort of aesthetic the book might take, or an author’s existing branding."
Does it help to already have a presence within the food world?
Similar to other non-fiction categories, it can really help a publisher to see that you already have an existing audience or are recognisable in your specialism, and it’s often how editors find new authors to approach.
Within the food world, this doesn’t have to be a presence in the traditional sense – Sam suggests, "You could have a popular blog, a podcast, a pop-up, or a social media platform with an engaged audience – Tiktok and Instagram are really interesting spaces for cookery."
Ione agrees, "The cookery book market is incredibly crowded and countless new food titles are published every year. Any activity that helps put an author or book on a consumer’s radar and helps them to stand out from the competition is invaluable."
"While it’s not crucial for a cookery author to have an enormous ‘influencer-level’ social media following, they definitely do need to have a way to tell consumers about their food and connect with other writers, chefs, business owners or influencers in the food world."
Are the recipes crafted with the editor?
You've got a book deal – amazing! What's the next step on ideating recipes?Sample recipes or a draft contents list will have been part of the winning pitch, but the editor will work with the author to pull together the full list.
"It’s rare for the recipes to be ready prior to a book deal being agreed," Ione shares. "Usually, once the contract is signed, the editor will work with the author to agree on a recipe list and then the author will be given a period of time for testing and writing, checking back in with their editor for guidance as they go along."
"Occasionally some authors do come to us with a bank of existing recipes, but there is still usually a selection or development process that needs to happen to make them publishable"
How much say does the author have in the food styling and visuals of the book?
As important as the recipes are, an integral part of a successful cookbook is in its look and feel. As part of the pitch, an author may have included existing photographs to get across the aesthetic they’re looking to achieve, but this has to be matched with the publishing expertise in what will appeal to consumers.
In cookery, this is integral, says Sam: "The book needs to feel authentic to the author and any existing audience that they bring with them, so it’s so important that they are involved in this part of the process. It’s all about working together to build a brief for the creative teams that captures the author’s style, as well as using our experience of what we know works for the book market."
Ione also highlights the collaborative aspect of the creative process: "We work with all our authors to ensure we create a book they’re proud of having their name on, and which they want to shout about!"
"We have a network of many incredible food photographers, food stylists and designers, so we usually begin by sharing portfolios or mood boards with the author to get a sense of what sort of style they like best."
Authors might even get involved themselves on shoot days: "Some authors do their own food styling, depending on their background and experience, while others prefer us to use to a professional."
"The book cover can often be the trickiest part, as it’s a crucial selling tool, so we have to strike a balance between aesthetics and commercial appeal, in a way that suits publisher, author and sometimes even the retailers."
And lastly – be your authentic self. Bringing something new to the (figurative, and physical) table is what Sam looks for: ‘‘We’re looking for books that reach new audiences, for food that brings a fresh approach to established styles or sought-after solutions, and for engaging authors that can shake up the cookery space with a new perspective."
Illustration: Flynn Shore/Penguin