I have worked on over a dozen celebrity cookbooks, and they
have become my main source of freelancer income. I’ve made
this a niche for one simple reason: Celebrity cookbooks drive
the culinary book market.
At print time, Barnes and Noble lists 199 books that they
consider celebrity cookbooks, with celebrity chefs separated
into another category. Amazon combines the categories. A study
in the British Journal of Psychology indicated that about a third
of the people studied qualified as suffering from “celebrity
worship syndrome,” where the celebrity’s life becomes an
obsession. Obviously, not every person who buys a celebrity
cookbook is borderline pathological, but the desire to share a
part of the person’s lifestyle does play into the purchase.
Here are some informative figures to put the role of celebrity
cookbooks in today’s market into perspective.
According to sales figures from the nation’s top book
wholesaler, Nielsen BookScan posted in Publisher’s Weekly,
the bestselling cookbook of 2014 was Ina Garten’s Make It
Ahead at 512,872 copies shipped. The second bestselling
cookbook, also by a television celebrity chef, Ree Drummond,
was The Pioneer Woman Cooks: A Year of Holidays, following
at only 152,439. Look closely at those numbers—Garten sold
three times as many cookbooks as Drummond, comparing these
two books alone. However, Drummond had two additional
titles on the 2014 list, Recipes from an Accidental Country
Girl and Food from My Frontier, to bring her total up to (only)
411,820 copies. The combined total of approximately 925,000
copies by two authors is enough to make editors want to
publish celebrity cookbooks. Compare these numbers to most
cookbooks. For midlist authors, a 10,000 copy first printing is
Granted, Garten and Drummond are phenomena. But so are
Guy Fieri, Rachel Ray, Giada de Laurentiis and Sondra Lee,
among many others. And whether they admit it or not, there are
a lot of freelancers working behind the scenes of their books.
All celebrity cookbooks cannot be painted with the same pastry
brush. Like all books, some are good, and some…not so good.
The genre includes such short-lived books by Boy George,
Liberace (who we can assume was an authority on cooking,
as his home had eight dining rooms), and the rapper Coolio.
Perhaps the most enduring, top-rung celebrity cookbook is by
the horror movie actor (and accomplished gourmand) Vincent
Price, who with his wife, Mary Price, wrote A Treasury of
Great Recipes. This book is now in a new fiftieth-anniversary
edition. I have made a sour cream orange cake from that book
for a few decades.
I know people who actually learned to cook from the three books
on Italian-American cooking by Dom Deluise. Readers related
to those recipes, and made them want to get into the kitchen,
something that many books sadly do not accomplish. I hope
these cooks discovered Marcella Hazan after Deluise, but
even if they didn’t, they still had some good eating and
fun in the kitchen.
In my work as a freelance writer, I have to be chameleonlike and write in a style that is best for the book at hand. As a
former actor, my ability to get under a character’s skin has been
very helpful, to say the least. I’ve worked with name-brand
restaurant chains and corporations, Grammy-award winners,
movie stars, baseball players, and two “Real Housewives.”
I’ve been an editor, ghostwriter, co-author, and recipe tester.
Unfortunately, there are no Purple Hearts awarded for this kind
of work. (Let me tell you about the time a client continued
dictating her life story to me from the powder room. No, I
Paychecks are not optional in my business plan as a food
writer. Writing cookbooks is my profession. I don’t always get
to choose my assignments. When an editor calls me looking
for help, I usually commit because, realistically, there are
many other writers who would be willing to take the job.
Sometimes my name goes on the cover as a byline, sometimes
I am just listed in the acknowledgments, and other times, I go
entirely undercover with an ironclad nondisclosure agreement.
Sometimes I work “for hire,” but most often, I hold out for
sharing royalties (which are not, as with any book, assured).
Ghostwriting is not for everyone, but my ego is large enough
that I can spare a little when working with a celebrity, who
must remain the star. I also love being the person who makes
the project happen.
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