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Five essential steps to writing your own cookbook, by Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin.
We first started thinking about writing a book when, just a few months after founding Ovenly in 2010, a senior food editor approached us to author a series of simple cookbooks (imagine something titled Bar Snacks Galore next to a display of Whirley Pop popcorn poppers and snack bowls at Crate & Barrel) to be published without mention of Ovenly. Even back then, our myopic focus was on building our brand, and committing ourselves to the long process of writing a book without promoting our company name or logo didn’t make sense for us, so we politely declined the offer.
However, the mere fact that a major publishing house was interested in the work of a couple of barely established entrepreneurs suggested that our creative recipes had real market potential, so we called up Brettne Bloom of Kneerim, Williams & Bloom to get a literary agent’s take on the whole thing. She loved the idea of Ovenly and a related book.
With high hopes, we got to work on our pitch but soon found that we, well, didn’t know how to write a cookbook. We discovered that we had a zillion questions (How do we tell our story, and what stories do we tell? Do we co-author, or does only one of us write? Who’s our audience?), and that they needed answering before we started writing our proposal. These next steps were essential in getting started on our own journey of writing our cookbook.
1. Hire an agent who believes in you, and also take his/her advice.
If you hope to go the traditional publishing route, take the time to shop around to find an established agent. Even though he/she may charge you a percentage of the advance, a professional will negotiate a much better deal for you than you ever could on your own. A good agent is one who knows how to sell a book—look at their client list before signing a contract!—believes in you, is doggedly persistent and won’t bullshit you about the realities of the publishing world or about the marketability of your creative ideas. A trustworthy agent will mean more empowered decisions as you gear up for a book deal.
2. Know the book you want to write, and develop a badass proposal.
The more comprehensive your proposal, the better the chance you’ll sell it. A typical proposal includes: one to two full chapters, five to 10 completed recipes, a detailed bio, a comprehensive outline of the entire book and sample photography that fits the theme of the book. Be clear and concise about the arch of the book, the stories you want to tell (personal journeys, company stories and compelling journeys in food will help bolster your chances) and exactly the kind of recipes you will be presenting. Also, be certain about how it’s going to be written (ghost writer? yourself? co-author?). Once you write the thing (and it’s going to take some time), don’t be afraid to ask your friends and colleagues for feedback. Find someone with serious editing skills to help you polish it up, and if you don’t have a friend like that, consider paying someone who has those talents (and show it to your agent over and over and over as you write!).
3. Network with other cookbook writers.
When we started writing our proposal, we started asking ourselves a lot of questions. What elements would attract the most attention from publishing houses? What kind of photography would best represent our brand and the book we want to sell? What creative controls could we ask for in a contract? What are fair royalties? What were some of the challenges of going the traditional publishing route? If we were going to get a deal, we wanted to be as prepared as possible; we surmised that networking with other seasoned cookbook writers was a good way to educate ourselves. We talked to as many people as possible, and their advice was infinitely helpful.
4. Build your social media network…starting now.
One of our biggest challenges when we sold our book was that we were relatively unknown. A lot of publishing houses told our agent the same thing: “We love the look of the brand and the personalities behind the writing, the recipes are unique and the photography is beautiful, but Ovenly doesn’t have enough of a following.” Because of that, a lot of the larger, more well-known cookbook publishers rejected us. Having a strong social media network will help sell your proposal, and when your book finally hits the shelves, it will be an essential marketing tool.
5. Don’t let rejection get you down.
We believed in the book we were writing and so did our agent, but that didn’t mean we were going to get a book deal from the first publisher who saw our proposal. In fact, it was rejected over and over to the point that we thought about tabling the project until we had a more established brand. But Brettne is an amazing sales person, and she had the creative idea of going to Harlequin, a company not necessarily well known for high-end cookbooks but was interested in reaching a wider audience, with our proposal. Rejection will happen, so be prepared for it. But don’t let it get you down (and keep working on step No. 4 in the meantime).
Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin are the authors of Ovenly: Sweet & Salty Recipes from New York’s Most Creative Bakery and the co-founders of Ovenly. Ovenly is headquartered in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and is known for its unique twists on traditional recipes and innovative flavor combinations that incorporate sweet and savory with a touch of spice. Founded in 2010, the company has become one of the largest vendors of artisanal baked goods in the New York City area and has gained vast media attention, including being named as one of the “Coolest Companies in America” (Business Insider), the best bakery in New York City (Time Out) and much more. Ovenly the cookbook has received equally high praise, including best cookbook of the season by Entertainment Weekly, Bon Appetit, Joy the Baker, and Cherry Bombe, as well as one of the best overall books of 2014 by National Public Radio.