Wednesday, July 25, 2012

What You Don't Know About Writing a Cookbook

Life as a recipe writer/tester is good when things work out.
So I'm officially in the thick of it, brainstorming, writing, shopping for ingredients, testing, tasting, re-writing, shopping for ingredients, re-testing, tasting, cleaning, bleaching and cleaning some more.

Such is the glamorous life of writing a cookbook. Don't get me wrong, I am utterly thrilled to death to have this opportunity, and every day I've got my eyes on the prize for when that first box of copies arrives on my doorstep, but the fact is, the means to the end involves some seriously hard work.

For starters, I haven't had a day off in at least 3 weeks (maybe more, but who is counting), and it looks like there ain't one coming anytime soon. I've got a fast deadline looming that often gives me panic attacks, most of the time at the oh-so convenient hour of 3am, which in turn, makes me a ball of fun when I have to get up at 7am. to start food prep.

Since I'm writing a slow cooker cookbook (emphasis on sloooowwww), the majority of the recipes I'm testing require 8+ hours of cooking time with some recipes topping out at 10-12 hours, which means there are some days where my work day starts at 8am and finishes at 11pm+. In effect, I've become a slave to my hot-ass kitchen, I've one nasty case of cabin fever, and I'm starting to get really cranky.

Now that I've aired that laundry list of whiny complaints, let me give you something practical to chew on, a little window into the financial world of what it's like to write a cookbook.

Recipe testing is an arduous and often expensive process: While some cookbook authors have an army of recipe writers, testers, kitchen assistants, personal shoppers, even ghostwriters to pen their books, the rest of us are left with a cutting board, a knife, pens and paper, and a long day ahead, and I personally wouldn't have it any other way. I'm far to anal to put my work in the hands of someone else, and frankly, sometimes it's easier to fly solo. While I do have several fine volunteer recipe testers lined up to help me (mostly friends and family), this will only happen after I have tested them at least twice and butchered them all to hell (please reference the above photo). This process not only includes conceptualizing, writing, testing, and re-testing, but sometimes even total failure with a complete do-over.
It also involves assembling grocery lists, shopping, shopping some more, and then shopping some more. I know my grocery store produce guys, my butchers and my check-out gals, and I figure they're wondering why I'm there all the time.

What many people may not realize is that all of these trips to the grocery store I pay for myself and they can get seriously expensive after weekly visits for months on end. But you got a big advance, so what's the problem, you ask? I did get an advance, but it wasn't "big" or anywhere on par with a Rachael Ray six-plus figure deal. It was average, and on par with what other cookbook authors who aren't celebs tend to make, and while I am thankful for the cushion, I will also need every penny of it. 

For starters, I paid a literary lawyer to help me negotiate the contract (I don't have an agent which can be another 15% deducted out of both your advance and your royalties). I am also paying for the book's photography (a biggie, but worth it because I know it will be stellar). I'm even paying for the indexing of the recipes (which takes a professional's eye so that was a necessity).

None of these extra costs are news to seasoned cookbook authors. This is how it's done now, and when one signs on to write a book, it's expected, but throw in food costs for testing some hundreds of recipes, paying the I.R.S., kitchen equipment costs, even basic necessities that get used up on a regular basis like trash bags, kitchen cleaning materials, kitchen tools etc...when the smoke clears, often an author ain't left with much. Toss in the fact that when she is on a super tight deadline, she won't have any time to take on any other jobs, so this cashola up front has got to last. To get a good idea of what I'm talking about, check out this article by veteran cookbook author David Lebovitz (specifically reference section 6 to see what I mean).

At the same time, writing a cookbook can be a beautiful thing. I've got dinners in the freezer to last the rest of the year, and my husband, parents and neighbors eat like kings. They get overly caloric, bacon-laden goodies like this on a regular basis:

They even get leftovers that can be made into yummy sandwiches.
So all is certainly not lost, not even close. I am loving every second of sweating in the kitchen and plopping my butt in front of the computer to conceive something new and exciting. In fact, I haven't felt this happy in a long time, and in the end that's what it's all about. I'm doing what I love, living the dream. I won't be getting rich and I'm okay with that. This is not why I'm here, and I figure thousands of hard working chefs, food writers, bloggers and various creatives know exactly what I'm talking about.

In the meantime, I shall keep on keeping on and you should too. If you dream of writing a cookbook one day, don't let this information discourage you, but do know it's not all hearts and flowers. If you're okay with that and still want in, write a book proposal, get an agent, or self-publish your own book. Whatever you do, just do it. Your personal satisfaction will be priceless.

©2012 Fatback and Foie Gras. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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  1. Great post Kendra. Who knew that cookbook authors have to pay for their own index?! Amazing. And I'm glad I'm not the only one whose initial stabs at recipes sometimes need to be thrown out completely. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks Jenna. As far as indexes go, it's fairly common for author's to either pay for it themselves (usually comes from royalties) or do their own indexes. Most authors like me, don't know how or don't want to deal with doing their own indexing, so we'll pay.

    I throw out stuff all the time that doesn't work. Usually this makes the dog very happy!

    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. It was great to run into you yesterday. It is true that people who have not written a cookbook have no idea all the costs that the author incurs. I had no idea that you have to pay for the index! In the end it will be worth it...sign me up for a pre-order copy :)

  4. Great seeing you as well Shannon and thanks so much for the support!


  5. I'm sure it's an exciting adventure! Great tips and I hope everything goes as smoothly as possible =)


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