Liveblog: Do You Have a Cookbook in You?

BlogHer Original Post

Welcome to the liveblog of the BlogHer Food '10 panel "Vocation - Do you have a cookbook in you?."

Here's the description:

If you're developing recipes, you may be harboring the dream of publishing your own cookbook. Whether you're a food blogger, or any other kind, for that matter, blogging and authoring a book are different beasts, each with its own unique challenges. In this session, we’ll discuss the distinctions between writing a food blog and a cookbook, all while maintaining an authentic voice and engaging separate, simultaneous audiences. Join authors Shauna James Ahern from Gluten Free Girl, Nancy Baggett from Kitchen Lane, Dorie Greenspan from DorieGreenspan.com, Susan Russo from Food Blogga, and Justin Schwartz, Senior Editor at Wiley, to discover whether you have a cookbook in you.

Day 2 Session II: Do you have a cookbook in you?

Susan (Su)
Dorie (D)
Nancy (N)
Shauna (Sh)
Justin (J)
(Q = Question from audience member)

Su: Introduces panel of successful cookbook authors and editor (J)

We want to share our individual stories with you and share our individual approaches. Want it to be interactive, so ask lots of questions. We will talk about how to transition to writing cookbooks from blogging; recipe writing; editor's perspective, etc. Panelists, please introduce yourselves.

D: I'm a cookbook author. Yesterday was the official pub date for my 10th cookbook, Around My French Table (AMFT), which came out 5 weeks prematurely. Savory foods, but I'm primarily involved in baking cookbooks. Wrote Baking with Julia. 3.5 years ago, started blogging, doriegreenspan.com

N: I specialize in baking, too. My 2nd side is healthy, low-fat. Philosophy: eat prudently at meals, and then indulge in dessert. Have been writing about food longer than some audience members have been alive. The business has really changed.

Sh: Gluten-free Girl: I didn't know people would read the blog. Blossomed into something extraordinary. Was high-school English teacher. Justin was editor on the cookbook. If you are a blogger, you have no idea what awaits you if you follow your heart.

J: Just Cook NYC blog. Have written a couple books. Senior editor (cookbooks) at Wiley.

Su: FoodBlogga. Freelance food writing. 2 cookbooks, including Recipes Every Man Should Know. Was also high-school English teacher.

Shauna, could you address transitioning from blogging to writing a cookbook?

Sh: You don't transition. You're constantly doing both. One of the most beautiful and hardest experiences I've ever had. A lot of people have a dream to write a cookbook and get rich and famous. You don't make any money off cookbooks. Started my blog when no one knew what a food blog was, so there was no expectation of a book, etc. An agent contacted me. My first book, I met my husband, and my editor told me "He's not testing the recipes; he's the last chapter of the book" and he was.

Su: N, you have been writing cookbooks since before there were blogs, right?

N: Yes. I came into blogging as a result of Justin. I had a website so long ago, it was pre-blogging. The idea was your website was like a brochure, for people who wanted hire you, etc. Blogging's a beautiful help desk. My latest book, people have questions and come up with ideas. It's been a great way to find out what my readers are thinking about and want to know. Once in a while, I'll do a blog post gathering up questions people have asked, and answer them. A recent one, a reader took my method and turned a conventional yeasted recipe into a kneadless one, and it was really good, so I'll post about it.

D: I find it so interesting that people are talking about the death of print -- newspapers are going under, publishers are having problems -- bloggers have huge audiences, and still people want to write cookbooks. I was a child bride. Got married in college, ABD (all but dissertation) in gerontology, and baked/cooked the whole time. I had to cook; we couldn't afford to go out. I loved it. I didn't love doing the dissertation. When the kid was born, he was my excuse not to go back to work. Husband encouraged a job as baker, and I got it, and got fired. Friend said why not write about food. Got my first assignment in 1983 for food & wine magazine. Mother was mortified. Not Dr. Dorie, but a food writer, and no one knows what that is. I wasn't writing the great american novel. In 1983, food writing wasn't glamorous. I had an unorthodox but traditional path. Food writer, cookbook writer. Love writing cookbooks. 4 years ago, Baking from My House to Yours (BFMHTY) came out 8 weeks early, got a lot of play on the internet. Internet kept the book alive, because publicity hadn't come out yet. Then Tuesdays with Dorie started. I was knocked out by it and started my blog to be part of that community, and wanted to join them in some way.

I have two lives: print life and ether life, which I adore. It's a tremendous help to my work. Not just my mother reads my books -- you are out there! I can have real communication with my readers.

Su: I started blogging 3.5 years ago, to chronicle family recipes. Love writing, love to cook. Food is that connection with my family, 3000 miles away. Did memoir writing, started doing freelance work. Got a cookbook deal. Got an email from an editor who liked the blog and my pieces on NPR, and wanted to talk about writing a cookbook. First book, Encyclopedia of Sandwiches, comes out in the spring. It's really rare for people to approach you to ask you to write a cookbook.

Wonderful experience for me: no traditional book proposal -- they already had the idea. Not the normal path people take. Then I pitched the second idea, and wrote the cookbook for men.

N: Over the years, I freelanced for major publications, but until book 5 or 6, no one ever approached me, and it was at an award ceremony for my international chocolate cookbook. It doesn't happen often that one is approached that way.

Su: How is it normally done, J?

J: Hard to define what normal is. With N, Kneadlessly Simple was a different model: it was on her own technique for no-knead bread. N and I were already working on a cookie book, which got postponed. We rushed the book to publication. The world has changed, though, so I get just as excited about stumbling upon a really great blog? I don't contact everyone I know and ask them to write books, but the world has changed, and editors do have feelers out, looking for the next best thing.

Q: Any experience in self-publishing?

J: The difference is, on the surface, that you are spending the money instead of the publisher. You take the risk. Would you rather do that or have someone take the risk for you?

D: And you get expertise with a publishing house, and an art department, and copy editors, etc. You can buy that talent, but in publishing with a traditional publisher, you have a team you don't have if you self-publish.

N: A friend decided she was going to do a diet book (no sugar). I said no, I'm not into that. She decided to self-publish. She is a cookbook author in her spare time, has written 100 novels. She and her husband self-published. She had the experience and her husband provided backup. Other big difference is that you end up doing all the distribution and sales yourself. She had a whole roomful of books forever. You make much more of the money, but you also have to do all of the work. When someone wants an order, you pack it up and ship it. Do you want to be the writer, or the errand person? They did okay, but it was a lot of work.

D: I think it really depends on what you want. Like when you set up your blog. Do you have a book that has a targeted audience you can reach through your blog? Is it something you can handle yourself? Depends on what you want from the project. If you're doing a small project, it might be the way to go. If you can handle it, this might be the perfect thing to do.

Sh: I've seen some amazing self-published books. Ally self-published.

Ally (audience member): It was a lot of work in the beginning.

Sh: I don't think I would ever do it by myself. I would miss the community. No one ever cooks alone. You're standing with cooks in the past -- mom, friends. Working with a team is better. When we hold this book in our hands, we did this together.

Su: I agree. I so appreciated the collaborative process. You need fresh eyes, someone else's perspective. Editors help. Be really careful if you self-publish. Make sure you have lots of eyes going through the recipes.

Speaking of recipes, it's not just about writing; it's about developing high-quality recipes you know will work. How do you get to the point where you're an expert recipe developer?

D: Developing a recipe for print is not the same as baking a cake for your family or doing a beef stew, though it might start there. Then starts the real testing. You measure really carefully. You take notes. You measure. You time carefully. You take notes on what the food does as it's cooking, etc. It's a very precise process. The way I do things is I keep a notebook, write everything down. If it doesn't come out, I redo it, and then I write the recipe. I can react to what my readers say when it's on my blog, but when it's in a book, it has to be right before it goes to print. It's a different kind of discipline. It's not instant satisfaction like cooking dinner.

N: If they're paying good money for a cookbook, people don't mind complaining loudly if they don't like your recipe. You will hurt your potential book sales if your recipes don't work. It's a laboratory experience. It's too labor-intensive to only change one item at a time, but the chemistry is really important. I went to pastry chef school to learn the chemistry, along with presentation. I can bridge the gap between home cooks and professional cooking. "Every recipe should be good enough that if that is the recipe that the harshest most important critic out there chooses to make from your book, that recipe will stand the scrutiny." (Didn't note who the quote was from -- Julia Child?) After testing a bajillion times, sometimes the joy comes out of it, but the joy does come back when it's all done and it looks good.

Sh: I find the experience of learning to write recipes well to be humbling and beautiful, and I love the meticulous precision you talk about, because it's not my first nature. I love the fact that in the end, recipes are a guide. We want it to feel like a really warm, comfortable voice who will stand in the kitchen beside you. There's a way in which the precision can be too much. You want to make it a warm precision.

I made the transition to baking by weight. Buy a kitchen scale! A cup is not a cup. One cup can be 4.2-5.5 ounces. With gluten-free flours, it's a different experience, too. I wanted to make this accessible for people, and make them successful. The pasta recipe illustrates how much I've learned. I wanted it to taste really good, not just good enough. We made it about 58 different times, different flours/ratios. Wrote all over back of envelopes, etc. First draft of the book went in, came back, and I made it when it came back, and it was HORRIBLE. Didn't work, and I cried. Finally realized it was the eggs. Had been using farmer's eggs, but now we were using grocery store eggs. Farmer's eggs, 1 egg. Grocery store, 1 egg + 2 yolks. Have to use what most people are using. I have learned so much. Love the geekiness. Want to do it again and again.

J: I appreciate how highly everyone is speaking about the collaborative process. I worked at the company that had Joy of Cooking on their list. Someone added a can of creamed mushroom soup. What do I do after I put the (unopened) can into the pot? That was all I needed to know about how much info we need to give to the consumer. I write a blog for fun, but it's easy to forget the way the average person might think, or the lowest common denominator, if you will. Not everyone knows what sauteeing is. What are you looking for? Describe what's going on, and now much time it'll take. Remember that not everyone understands where you're coming from.

Q (Diane Jacob, Will Write For Food): When I talked about ten words you shouldn't use with abandon, people were upset. They thought people should know these terms or look them up. I get a lot of pushback about what people should know.

J: Wiley does publish everything from Betty Crocker and Pillsbury to Culinary Institute books. It's about knowing your audience. You want to have an agreement with the publisher before you start your contract.

SH: It's arrogant to only write to people who are where you are.

D: Sh made me think of something. There are 3 parts to a recipe in a book. Headnote, formula, instructions. There's a style for each of them, except maybe the formula. There's nuance, but that's not that important. Ingredients need to be precise. In writing the instructions, you have an opportunity to develop a style. I don't know that it's a question of arrogance. Might not be smart to use words your readers won't understand, but it's a question of what your style is going to be. Julia asked me to write Baking with Julia and said "You write recipes the way I do." "You mean long?" "No, detailed." I'm lucky I get the space to write detailed recipes, but short recipes don't have as much of my personality in them.

Q: I have never written a recipe before. Where do you get your ideas for recipes, and then how many recipes in a book?

N: Depends on what kind of books the publisher does, what line you're working for. Depends on who you're writing for. I always go on the assumption that fewer people know anything about cooking because their mama wasn't home to teach them. J, is there a magic number?

J: Su, you had a real concept in mind to make a small book. It depends on what you're going for, price point, style, color/pictures. There's no one formula.

Sh: For me, cooking is such a beautiful sensory experience. Tell the story of how the dish got made. If you close your eyes and think about how that fantastic dinner happens. It's kind of magic. There's a kind of alchemy and beauty. If you use that as a guide, it will help you.

N: Headnote: If you're used to blogging, you're able usually to do a picture. You can allow the picture to tell a lot of information (garnish, serving, etc.). Many recipes in your book won't be photographed, so you have to use the words to entice people to make the recipe.

Q: At IFBC, someone said she thinks of bloggers as people who write adapted recipes, rather than original ones, which is a little insulting, but is true of a lot of bloggers. Please explain the differnce, and how you come up with original versus adapted ones.

Su: 99% of mine are original; if not, I'll say that they're adapted. My inspiration comes from the ingredients at the farmer's market. I have a notepad on my kitchen counter, so I take notes with different versions in different color inks, etc. as I go along. By the second time I do it, I can then follow that process. Your editor is going to make a lot of the decisions for you about length and style. It depends a lot on your format, etc. It's an interesting negotiation process, and something you get better at with practice.

J: The adapting recipes issue is sensitive. In the old days, you might even pay a fee to take someone's recipe and adapt it. On the internet, it's a nice promotion for the book. I took Sh's brownie recipe and made two versions of it, but I wasn't reprinting her whole recipe, and I was promoting her book, so it was a win-win. Where it really gets fuzzy is if someone writes a blog that's mostly adapted recipes, do you then put them in print and get money for it? I'm concerned about that, but don't have the perfect answer. I'd be upset if someone reused my recipes to make money.

Q: Re: Writing for the lowest common denominator and baking by weight. The majority of my readers do not have scales. People aren't going to get scales. How do you deal with things like that?

SH: The last 3 months, I've been a snot and only put grams up. People say "Really? Grams?" There are dozens of great gluten-free bloggers, so you don't have to read mine. It's a matter of the personality of your writing. I fyou want to be more inclusive, and give both, great. For me, I don't choose to do that. My intention is for the recipe to work in your kitchen.

N: I like to do both. I think fewer and fewer people are home every day, I want everybody to be able to experie3nce ffresh-baked bread, etc. How many people will go buy a scale? You have to make it as acce3ssible as you can. I try to build in measures. I will offer tips on what to do if it looks wrong. I try to build that in. If you put down in the recipe, "Do not stir more than 3 or 4 times, people will pay no attention. Put it in the headnote and let them know what will happen if they don't foll

Q (Serene, The Mom Food Project): My example on this is always my mom and braising. My mom's the best cook I've ever met, and she's intelligent, and she didn't know what braising is. That eliminated my idea that people who don't know a food term are not smart, or not good cooks, or beneath me in any way. They just don't know the term.

Q: We often talk about whether you'll make money from books. Authors are putting in a lot of their own money these days. You can make money from books, but how have you finagled a way to make money? Is book-signing the way to go? If so, is there a better way to do it?

Sh: I'm in the middle of this, and so is Dorie. It has changed. Very few of us get paid book tours. The work the publishers do is extraordinary, but in terms of seeing people, no. A lot of why my book is doing well is Facebook and Twitter. People will say "I heard about your book on Twitter 22 times, so I'm buying it." Some people want to do a Julie/Julia / Tuesdays with Dorie thing. You may have to put your own money out, but it's a lot of word of mouth. We feel strongly that we're selling the book person to person to person. I love it when people say they've used the book and liked it. Slow and steady wins the race.

N: I think over the years, publishers have evolved into expecting you to bring recsources to the table. Blog contacts, features in papers, etc. You get to know people and any reaching out that you can do and build your own platform is good. There are people who still come back to me about books I wrote 15 years abgo, and are still blogging about it. They liked the recipe, they stick around for the next book. I would suspect it's unusual for the first couple of books take off, but the blogging arena is changeing everything. (Other panelists all say something like "It's changing now")

Su: If you're a first-time author, be prepared to be asked what is your platform. (How do people already know you. What are you using to get your name out there. Longtime blog, loyal audience, other audiences.) If you're new, be prepared to have those answers ready. The stronger platform you have, the more confidence they'll have in you.

D: When my first book came out, I was so excited. I cried. At last! Editor turned to me and said, "The hard work begins now," and she wasn't wrong. This is my 10th book, and I start the book tour Monday, 16 or 17 cities, sponsored by my publisher.

N: This is very unusual.

Sh: She deserves it.

D: I know it's unusual, and I'm grateful for it, but I can't just sit back. The hard work now begins. Publishing houses are depending on their authors to bring in something -- blogging community, or outreach. Before your book comes out, they give you a questionnaire asking whom you know. The contacts that you build become an important part of your publicity campaign.

Q: When you've written your books, you share a lot about your life. Are your books all new material? Did you cull some from your blog? Is it all original?

Sh: This book is 98% original. That was very important. My first book, I was given 4 months to do, so I pulled a lot together. Blogging is an immediate connection, but writing a book is much more permanent, and should hopefully last.

D: And lonely.

Sh: Yes, that's why I'm lucky I write with my husband. But I don't think the blog and the book are the same writing. It's a whole different thing.

Su: Even if someone loves your blog, they don't want to pay money for your book if they can get it for free on your blog.

How long is the process? Can we give some examples? This little book, I had 5 weeks to write it, so I had to hurry and focus at the last minute. My other book, I had 4 months. These days, if you have an opportunity, I don't want to say no to that, even though I'm pulling my hair out. You need to ask yourself if you have the stamina to work on a baking cookbook for 3 years.

D: It took me 4 months to write just the proposal for AMFT, and I worked on it for over 3 years, and then had the editing proces, so this was a long, long process. You're living with this project, no matter how long it takes. You're not getting the immediate feedback you get from a blog. You're looking at a page over and over again, sending it out, getting it back, then looking at it again. It's really a discipline to sit still and just do the work. It's really a discipline.

N: I take a long time to do the recipes, like Dorie. I worked on a cookie book, and then we decided to stop that. I worlked on it for a year, then did nothing but make bread for a year. It becomes increasingly difficult to try to blog without using your book's material on the blog. You start to feel like you need a clone. It's an all-consuming commitment, and you have other demands, and if you're writing articles, as well, you can't say no, because that's your platform. It's very demanding. Be careful what you wish for.

Q: What about an agent? How do you get one and how important is it?

J: If you don't already know an editor personally, a good agent will help you write the book proposal. They know all the editors already. They'll negotiate a contract for you. You can't put too high a price on that. Plus, most important, they're there for you when something goes wrong. That's when they earn their keep. I can't urge people enough to give it serious thought.

N: It is hard to get an agent. One way that sounds kind of backwards is getting a book contract offer and then said to an agent "Here I am with a contract offer, so take me on". They get zero unless the book goes to contract, so they're reluctant to take on projects if they don't know you.

Sh: Before everybody leaves, we've been talking about how hard this is. It's exactly like having a child. Exhausting, sleep deprivation, food stains on your clothes, but you'd be happy to do it again. Don't let anything stop you!

Your liveblogger is Serene.

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