Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 16 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 200 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through WRITER ON LINE. Her latest book, a humorous essay collection called "HOW TO TELL IF YOUR CO-WORKERS ARE FROM MARS & Other Tales of the Workplace," is available at www.zeus-publications.com
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This Month: HOW TO WRITE A COOKBOOK - Cooking and writing can be a harmonious--and profitable--marriage.Ah--January! The month to hit the neighborhood gym with a vengeance and make up for all those holiday dinners, office potlucks, and countless boxes of Christmas candy. It's also a new year for critically reviewing and revamping your publishing aspirations. If you've been unable to jump-start that mystery novel or convince your agent that your screenplay-in-progress will set Hollywood on its ear, maybe now is the perfect time to try your hand at something completely different.
Thus, with food still largely on everyone's mind, this year's first column is on how to turn your culinary talents into a "must-buy" book that will make an editor hunger for more.
What do storytellers and gourmet cooks have in common? If they can whip up a tempting product that whets the appetite and serve it with panache, they'll both be hearing the eager words, "You should write all this down!" Cooking and writing can be a harmonious--and profitable--marriage if you approach the project as you would any other type of publishing endeavor and follow four simple guidelines. Let's look at each in turn.
Cookbooks come in as many sizes and varieties as cooks themselves. How many of these are on your own bookshelves?
* Celebrity - in which well known chefs (or restaurants) divulge their culinary best
* Regional - the foods of a particular geographical area
* Ethnic - the menus of a particular country or its people
* Historic - tastes and tales of another era
* Budget Conscious - the title says it all!
* Dietary Restrictions - meals that address specific health conditions
* One Food Wonders - books that relate 200 things you can do with a radish
* One Course Specials- i.e., soups only, or hors d'oeuvres galore.
Whether you plan to self-publish your recipe collection or query a big-name house with your proposal, it's important to have a unifying theme or subtext beyond just the food itself. "Cooking With Ethel" may look charming on a book jacket, but who exactly IS Ethel? And why would anyone want to learn her kitchen secrets?
The reason is that Ethel--or you--added a creative slant to otherwise generic material by offering a little something more than just another book about entertaining and food preparation. Let's say, for instance, that Ethel's recipes have been handed down through the generations and date from the Revolutionary War. Or maybe Ethel herself has been blind since birth and has learned everything about cooking through scent and texture. The subliminal hook of the first example is that these are not only "timeless" recipes but may contain sidebar snippets of everyday life in the 1700's from a family who actually lived it. The enticement of the second example mixes inspiration with simplicity; if a person who can't see what she's doing can create such fabulous desserts, so can anyone else! A trip to your local bookstore or through the pages of a mail order catalogue will yield an overview of how heavily the above markets are saturated...or screaming for fresh-picked topics.
Who are your target readers? Before you type up your first menu plan, you need to know who you're writing for. Are these seasoned chefs who not only understand all the lingo of the kitchen but also possess an enviable arsenal of expensive gadgetry? Or are they struggling beginners who wouldn't know a truffle from a trifle and whose cupboard consists of one frying pan and a couple wooden spoons? Likewise, are the people who buy your book those who have the luxury of an entire afternoon to cut up ingredients...or harried parents who have a scant twenty minutes after coming from work to get a nutritious meal on the table for a family of four? Again, it is important to study cookbooks that are currently on the market and discern the level of technical expertise required to understand the steps involved.
An additional factor to consider with your target audience is the accessibility of the ingredients. Many Middle and Far Eastern recipes, for example, call for fresh herbs and spices as opposed to a powdered variety. Have you accounted for this requirement in your book? If not, you could easily lose a sale for the simple reason that the person casually thumbing through your book realizes that he or she could not possibly acquire all the components at the neighborhood Safeway.
In concert with assessing the skill level of your cookbook's potential users is the need to display the material in a format that is easy to follow, as well as attractive to the eye. Let's start with the overall content. Most cookbooks are laid out in the same sequence as actual courses, starting with appetizers and ending with desserts. Within the entrée section are the further divisions of beef, fowl, and fish. Regional cookbooks might take a different approach, segregating the material by North, South, Central, etc. Yet another method, particularly for books targeted to new cooks, would be to increase the complexity of each dish as the student reader becomes more accomplished.
What about the menus themselves? The two most important rules are: (1) Don't leave anything out, and (2) Provide accurate measurements. Granted, most cooks will become bold and experimental after their first try, substituting various ingredients and forsaking measuring devices completely. Accordingly, those innocuous and subjective terms like "a smidge" and "a tad" will have a meaning to them which is separate and apart from the more precise directions you have initially provided in print. The best way to test all of this, of course, is with a friend who has never prepared this dish before and who may have questions or concerns you had not considered.
How will they know if they've done it right? Not only are quality color photographs an effective guideline to presentation but the right one on your front cover can lure a buyer straight to the cash register. If you are not a photographer yourself, now is the good time to go find yourself one.... perhaps with the promise of a gourmet meal or two in exchange!
Last but not least is the icing that makes your book distinct-the inclusion of sidebar anecdotes, historical references, menu substitutions, or "food first-aid"-what to do if something goes wrong during preparation!
Just as with any other type of book, you need to get the word out that your book is on the market. Among the list of creative ways to hype a cookbook:
1. Demonstrations at local cooking schools.
2. Stand alone articles, interviews, and recipes in food and wine publications.
3. Giveaway recipe cards (not unlike bookmark promos that novelists use!).
4. Radio interviews (especially if you bring the DJ's a bribe of snacks!).
5. Networking through local caterers.
6. Display of the book at local shops or (in the case of a regional text), the local history center or Chamber of Commerce.
7. Fund-raising events for charities and service organizations (not only are you writing the sales off as donations but it's also getting your book into the public's oven mitts!).
8. Community service classes, which aren't just a great way to test new material on a cross-section of amateur chefs, but also imbue them with the culinary confidence to want to try everything else you've written about.
So what are you waiting for? Get cooking...and writing! (We have it on good authority that the latter is not only fat-free but burns a lot of calories, too...)