Wendy Hobson, an experienced writer and editor, shares her essential guide to successfully writing cookery books.
It never fails to amaze me that so many prospective authors don’t look – and I mean really look – at other books. They may browse through their favourite cookery books and drool over the pictures, or choose a recipe for their next dinner party, but they don’t dig deeper to find out the crucial things that make that book work in the kitchen. You can be different.
In all practical books, the devil – as they say – is in the detail, and I hope this brief overview will encourage you to think carefully about how you present your own project in order to make it more likely to succeed.
The first thing I always recommend is that you roll your sleeves up, put your apron on and think as though you are in the kitchen. (‘She’s mad,’ I hear you say. ‘I’m sitting at the computer!’) Bear with me and all will become clear, because clarity is the name of the game.
Heat the oil in the pan, add the mushrooms and stir-fry until soft, having chopped them finely.
So your guests are on their way, you throw the mushrooms into the hot oil and only then realise you should have chopped them – and that’s ignoring the fact that the preparation should really be in the ingredients list, not in the method.
Cook the vegetables until they are done.
Cook them how – boil, bake, steam, grill, barbecue? What do I cook them in? How do I know they are done – should they be soft, falling apart, crisp?
Prepare a large cardoon in the usual way.
Do you know what a cardoon is, let alone how to tell if it’s large, what you do with it, or what you could use if you can’t get one?
I think I’ve made my point: this is a practical book and you need to think worktop, not desktop, the whole time you are writing it. Now let’s look at some other important elements of the process.
Books don’t exist in a vacuum. You are writing your recipes because you want to share them, whether you are aiming for a bunch of friends or millions of international foodies. Draw up an identikit of your ideal reader and structure both the content and the style for them, because each different audience needs a different approach, right from the concept to the detail of each recipe. An experienced cook is not going to want a plain folded omelette with detailed instructions on how to pour the egg into the pan, stir it and fold it, but that’s exactly what a beginner might want. You could usefully include vocabulary like ‘roux’ or ‘bain marie’ in a book for a cook but they are out of place in one for a student.
Rather than just collecting a raggle-taggle of recipes, think about the book as a whole. It may focus on a particular ingredient, a style of cooking, a particular appliance, a region – find its raison d’être.
You’ll find you are rarely, if ever, alone. How many other books can you find on the subject? What made them succeed or fail? (Don’t forget the celebrity quotient – that counts for a lot in marketing.) How high are they on The Bookseller or Amazon lists? How is yours different? How can it be better? What’s your Unique Selling Point?
Build the skeleton of the book: the division of chapters and their coverage, with the first recipe ideas. Does each section contribute logically to the whole? Is it balanced? Is anything missing? How long should it be? Live with it and play around with it as you work on the recipes.
Think about any supporting text you need to provide: an introduction to the topic; perhaps details of any unusual ingredients or cooking methods; and anything else specific to your book concept.
Now your recipes can be slotted into their individual chapters. Once again, ask what’s missing. Is it a seafood book with no prawns? Do you have eight beef recipes and no lamb? Does every recipe include carrots? Do you have three similar recipes following each other?
Don’t shy away from the tough questions, too: does this look and taste great? Will readers want to cook it?
For each recipe, give the reader a few words of introduction to personalise the collection – you could talk about the flavour combinations, how you developed the recipe, associated anecdotes or specific ingredients.
I am not a legal expert and the whole area of copyright is complex and a delicate shade of grey (or fifty). However, I would suggest you be guided by common sense.
On the one hand, a collection of recipes, the actual recipe text and totally original ideas are unique to the author who published them, so you should never simply reproduce someone else’s recipe. On the other, classic recipes, which may form the starting point for many of your recipes, cannot be considered copyright (a basic scone, a chocolate sponge or a macaroni cheese, for example). Of course, you will get inspiration from all kinds of sources: classic recipes, books, magazines, meals you have enjoyed at a restaurant, TV shows – that’s pretty much what everyone does all the time. Your job, however, is to put your stamp of originality on a collection of interesting and new recipes, so always start with your own ideas and develop your own recipes from scratch, jotting down ideas and testing them out in the kitchen. That way, you should avoid any problems. If you know you have used a published recipe, you should consult the author via the publisher, whose address will always be on the imprint page.
The format for presenting recipes varies between publishers and between books, so you may not want to include all these elements, but do make sure your manuscript is clearly and simply laid out. Don’t go in for all kinds of fancy formatting. If you have an idea of how you would like your book to look, prepare a separate spread or two.
Now we come back full circle to our chopped – or not chopped – mushrooms. Take your manuscript back to the kitchen, pretend you’ve never made the recipe before, and do exactly what the text tells you to do, then take your corrections into the manuscript. However many times you’ve made the dish before, I guarantee there will be a few surprises.
Food photography is an art form all its own. If you are lucky enough to place your book with a publisher who will invest in the photography (and don’t hold your breath), that is a whole new phase. However, if you take snaps of your recipes as you test them, that can be really useful in planning the book.
Now that you have created a really strong manuscript, you will have a much better chance of succeeding with your project, whether you plan to self-publish or offer the book to publishers, which is the next stage on your journey. Good luck.
Wendy Hobson has spent a career in creative publishing, as an author, commissioning editor and freelance editorial consultant, working for many top international publishers, including Pavilion, BBC Books, OUP, Watkins and Constable & Robinson. Working across a broad range of non-fiction lifestyle topics from angels and appliqué to weddings and wine, her main focus is on food and cooking, and she has worked with many of the UK’s top chefs. Her published books include Everyday Cooking for One and Meals in a Mug, as well as books on organising weddings, computing skills for seniors and angels.