A day does not go by without someone telling me about their genius idea for a new fabulous cookbook. From movie stars to my neighbour down the street, the latest craze is penning your favourite recipes.
I took choir and drama as electives in high school instead of what all my friends took – typing and commerce, as a result of my creative decisions I ended up hand writing my first cookbook in 1998 on the back of old scripts.
I had just finished a four year stint cooking on the popular TV show Harrowsmith Country Life. My producer told me that I should write a cookbook and I thought – that would be fun, so I cold-called a Canadian publishing company and told them that I wanted to write a cookbook. Oh, to be young, stupid, and lucky. I don’t know if it was my blatant ballsey pitch, my sense of confidence or the cosmic powers aligning – but they said yes, and so began my career as a cookbook author.
I am blessed with my Father’s optimism gene, believing that everything will work out just fine, eventually. Thank goodness for Dad’s DNA, because I had no idea how labour intensive, mind blowing, or expensive writing a cookbook would be – I cooked all the time, had a degree in home economics and had been creating recipes ever since I was 12 years old. How hard could writing a cookbook really be? For all you rookies out there – insert - Bye-bye Life, Hello Hell.
To save you some time and pain here are some of the lessons I’ve learned over my 15 year career as a cookbook author.
Flying by the seat of your pants in the kitchen may be fun and creative but you can’t replicate it. Measuring can totally screw up your recipe for Poached BC Salmon with Dill Sauce. A dash of this and sprinkle of that doesn’t necessarily translate into a recipe that works 100% of the time.
Every time you enter the kitchen to play, write down what you do. In the heat of the moment you might just forget that it was 1 tbsp (15ml) of baking powder not 1 tsp (5mL) and size really does matter in many areas of life, especially in a recipe.
Computer skills are really, really important – singing, dancing, and being creative are good for your soul but learning how to talk to your computer is good for your bank account.
Writing is just as important as recipe development – you can’t have a great cookbook based on recipes alone – learn how to write.
Recipe development is costly – I spend at least $7000.00 on my creations per book. If you want that recipe to be perfect, you need to make sure that they taste fabulous and work every time someone makes them. Create the recipe and then test it at least three more times to make sure that it is worth putting your name on. I farm my recipes out to see if other people can make them. My motto: Test, test, and test again.
The success of any cookbook isn’t necessarily based on how great your recipes or your writing is.
You have to promote the living daylights out of it.
Even though I ‘d been on a TV show for four years I still didn’t have a big enough profile to sell a ton of books. My first cookbook, Lick the Spoon, become my introduction into the foodie world, not a paycheque.
It took me many, many years to build up my audience. I started doing free dems in Church basements to mom’s groups and eventually was lucky enough to end up on TV and radio. I have hosted Cooking Competitions, been an MC at foodie events, written hundreds of articles as a freelance writer, done media work, and have eventually have become a regular on Cityline and Breakfast TV in Toronto. The cookbook market is a huge competitive event; you need to stand out from the crowd.
Make a name for yourself. Inevitably the people who sell the most books have amassed a following via many different forms of media exposure.
Only a small group of cookbook authors make a living from their book sales. Yes, it can be done but the majority of authors are happy to sell 5,000 copies. At 10% of list that works out to be around $15,000 for at least 2 years of work.
Success is a combo of the right topic at the right time, an established media presence, the willingness to work your ass off prompting your baby, and a magic wand.
I’ve written five cookbooks – four were National Bestsellers, one won an award and I still don’t make a living at writing cookbooks. My living is a combination of freelance writing, TV appearances, key note speaking engagements, and my work as a voice over actor.
So why on earth does anyone write a cookbook? Is it the desire for complete strangers to love you via your recipes? Is it the sense of accomplishment when an idea becomes a fabulous main course? Is it the love of the written word? Or is it your passion?
My modus operandi is to help Canadians become healthier one yummy recipe at a time, oh…. and the love from total strangers part too.
Jennifer Bain, food editor of the Toronto Star, wrote an in depth article on The making of the Toronto Star Cookbook. It’s a must read for all would be cookbook authors. I highly recommend reading it before you sign your first cookbook deal.