A cookbook is not a get rich quick scheme. For every Quinoa 365, which sold 170k copies (and counting) in a country where 6k is considered a bestseller, there are thousands of titles that simply flop or fade away. A cookbook will rarely, likely never, bring great profit to your brand, but it is a way to encapsulate your message. Put more romantically, a cookbook can be a way to put a piece of you out in the world, to share your vision and tell your story. 2020 has become a year for soul searching, a time to contemplate all the hustles available. How do you sustain your brand while the world rebuilds? When all you have worked for is put on pause, when all the everyday bustle and stress is stripped away, what is left? You. Just little old you. So why not write a book?
Matt Horn got me thinking this way. He doesn’t have a cookbook. He’s a pitmaster in Oakland, California who never set out to be one. He’s just really into fire. “I know it sounds crazy, but when I lit that first fire I was obsessed.” He tells me over the phone from his Oakland backyard. “I felt consumed by it.”
This is how he talks. He’s always just seemed to me like someone who should be writing a book. And apparently I’m not the only one.
“Two days before you texted me I had a publisher reach out and we had a conversation about doing the Horn Barbecue book.” He laughs.
Cookbooks are a strange genre. Unlike science fiction or poetry, they are much more universally owned and, more importantly, opened. The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson may collect dust on the shelf, but a cookbook actually gets cracked, and read and, more often than not, used. And cookbooks have morphed from simple collections of recipes into full-blooded memoirs and life affirming treatises on existence. From the insouciant hodge-podge that is Joe Beef’s The Art of Living to Carolyn Phillip’s All Under Heaven, an encyclopedic journey through the cuisines of China—they take us far beyond mere dinner prep and into new worlds. Spiral bound compendiums of casseroles never dreamed so big.
When chef Suzanne Barr put together a book proposal she had no intention of delving into her own life and history. “We were thinking we’d write a more traditional cookbook with thirty to forty recipes.” she says. “(Penguin Random House) were like this is great, but we want to know more about you.” She had to take a step back and consider how much she was willing to share, how deep she was ready to go. “When I actually sunk my teeth into what that would mean—pulling out stories about my mother and grandmother, the parallels with where I’m at as a mother myself— the timing really made sense.” We want cookbooks filled with guts and glory. But for the people creating them, what is the motivation? As I learned, during my own intense publishing experience—writing two separate cookbooks simultaneously for HarperCollins—it is most certainly not about money.
“If you want to get rich, find another way to do it,” says Carolyn Phillips from her home in San Francisco. “You don’t make much money, but it opens up new worlds.”
“Also,” she adds, “it’s fun.”
She spent a decade crafting All Under Heaven, a 452-page overview of the five culinary regions of Chinese cuisine. “I was invited by the State Department to go to Chengdu. I was nominated for two James Beard Awards, and now I’m on the Beard judging committee. None of that would have happened if I hadn’t written the book.”
Amy Rosen has written five cookbooks. Her latest, Kosher Style, was published by Random House in 2019. Most of the authors I spoke to weren’t interested in talking numbers, but Rosen was open. “I don’t know why there’s so much secrecy, I’ll always share.” Her advice when it comes to money. “Always ask for more.”
She was paid $20k for Kosher Style, doled out in the traditional way; one third on signing, one third on submission and the final third on publication. “I had to pay for everything, including the photographer. I spent $26k. But Kosher Style was a passion project.”
Here’s the thing with a cookbook—it is a huge amount of work that will take over your life, for no money, for at least three years, with no guarantee of a payoff at the end. Got it? Good.
That brings us to the passion argument—you have a story to tell through food and you just gotta get it out in the world. Wonderful. But is there a real takeaway at the end of the whole backbreaking process? Here’s the good news, there is. But it only comes if the book itself came from you, the real you, not the you who needs to pay bills and wants to buy a summer home.
If the book comes directly from your softly beating heart then you will have no need of earthly things. Ha. Just kidding. But you will have a thing that means more than sales, more than brand. You will have that moment, which has been fetishized in pop culture endlessly, of holding your very own book in your own two hands.
“Seeing Joe Beef in my hands for the first time was the best thing that happened throughout the whole process.” says Meredith Erickson, co-author of Joe Beef: The Art of Living. “And it sold phenomenally well. At this point over 55k in English, the same, or a little less in French.”
After it blew up, people started coming to her for their books. She’d always been a writer, but cookbooks weren’t her literary goal. “Even as I finished that book I had no idea that this was what I was going to do.”
She’s written eight so far, for Kristen Kish, Le Pigeon, Claridge’s and others. Since then, Erickson has made cookbook writing a full time career. She has three books in the works right now. “I’m kind of a crazy person in terms of the amount of work I take on. I’m just all this all the time.”
Her latest, Mandy’s Gourmet Salads: Recipes for Lettuce and Life, co-written with the owners of Montreal’s popular salad restaurant, is currently a Globe and Mail bestseller.
Not every book becomes a bestseller, most don’t even come close. But there are benefits apart from that. As former Houghton Mifflin and Hardie Grant editor, Molly Ahuja, explains, “The right publisher and the right editors can bring your vision to fruition and open you up to a completely new audience. It will bolster opportunities and bring you a lot of credibility.”
Which is what Yasmin Fahr was going for when she started a book for Hardie Grant (UK). Fahr wrote a column for Serious Eats that brought her to the attention of Ahuja, who reached out with an offer. Fahr surveyed her food writer friends for counsel. “Someone told me, ‘no one will care as much about your book as you will’. That’s really great advice. A lot is left up to the author. You have to be your own advocate and fight for yourself. You really have to hustle.”
Also, hire your own publicity person. “Your publishing house is not going to do a lot, so expect that.”
Keeping It Simple came out this spring, and although plans for launch parties and touring had to be shelved in light of world events, it was chosen by both the New York Times and Forbes as a best spring cookbook of 2020. She hired outside help and her book is in its third printing. Which, in 2020, is nothing to sneeze at.
“I spent more money working on the book that I made.” admits Fahr, but she’s already planning her next one.
Three years after that first meeting at Penguin Random House, with the final draft of the manuscript submitted, Barr was finally able to announce her impending book, created with co-author Suzanne Hancock.
“I was ready to step into the ownership and really call myself a writer. This is a new journey, I am a storyteller.” She’s ready for the opportunities it might bring but she’s most excited for the connection she can make with readers, a far deeper and lasting one than a mere plate of food can offer.
As his reputation grows pitmaster Matt Horn is inundated with emails and messages. “I always try to respond, but things are getting to the point now where I can’t. I feel that putting out a book I’ll be able to reach a larger amount of people.” And for him that means less about simple barbecue instruction, and more about the deeper purpose behind his work. “Not just ‘how does he cook this meat’, but the why. It will have the elements of a cookbook, but more of a motivational sort of thing. Reading about my journey may not necessarily inspire people to get into barbecue, it may just inspire them to take risks.”
Says Horn, “My journey has taken me places I never could have imagined I’d go. I know it’s crazy, but with this book I want the reader to step out on faith and build their dream.”
So go build yours. We are all born naked, the rest is brand. Maybe it’s time to flesh yours out.
This feature also appears in the inaugural SUSTAIN Magazine print issue Volume 1 No. 1. Subscribe today to receive our newsletters and receive your free copies of our print issues (published quarterly).
Featured Image: Matt Horn BBQ, photo by Joe Weaver.