That celebrities need help to write their books from the
ground up (and writing book proposals is another income
source) is no surprise. Their books are often written with
very fast turnarounds to take advantage of a small window of
opportunity, such as a hiatus on a TV series or a lull between
between movies or stadium shows. These quick deadlines are
not for the faint of heart. You have got to know exactly what
you are doing, and have top-notch recipe testing and writing
skills. You have to think on your feet, and be able to gauge
a recipe’s potential problems at a glance. Rather than send a
recipe back and forth to a client, I have to fix problems as they
occur, in the middle of a batter. If your food science talents are
shaky, look elsewhere for work.
Gathering recipes is different for every book. One scenario (the
best one) is to cook side-by-side with the author, as this is also
a great way to hear useful anecdotes and catch the person’s
voice. I have talked to the client over the phone to gather
recipes, gotten favorites from the family grandmother, or from
Xeroxes of mom’s recipe cards.
Often, to divide labor and save valuable time, a separate writer
is hired to do the “autobiographical” writing, and I’ll just handle
the culinary requirements. Other times, I do everything needed
to get the manuscript done. The editor leans on the ghostwriter
to save time on the production end, so, again, this is not a job
for newbies. Knowing the metric system inside out is another
important skill, as some publishers now require both metric
and American volume measurements in their manuscripts. If
you have to look up the weight of a cup of flour for each entry
every time, you lose valuable time.
I would also suggest that if you want to do this kind of writing,
it helps to be based in either New York or Los Angeles, in order
to meet the agents and editors whose clients and writers need
your services. At least my personal experience bears this out,
for I met my first editor, Harriet Bell, at an aerobics class (!) as
a classic example of being at the right place at the right time.
She had seen my contributions in books that she was editing,
so my name was familiar to her. This was in 1985, and we have
just finished another book together.
It would be true to say that I learned how to write by being
edited. When I was redlined, I didn’t get huffy. Instead, I read
the copyeditor’s comments and noted my mistakes. I had a
general liberal arts education without the advantage of an
English degree. But, because of my kitchen training and love
of teaching, I was good at explaining the details that made the
recipe work. My training as a caterer allowed me to think about
the visuals of a dish and how it would look in a photo. These
skills go a long way in the cookbook business.
There are many moving parts to a cookbook, and art direction
plays a major role. However, in a 2014 survey, again done
by Nielsen BookScan, only 21% of those surveyed said that
photography was an important deciding factor in their purchase.
Nonetheless, one of the reasons how celebrities are different
from you and me is the amount of money spent on their cookbook
photo shoots. In addition to the usual display of appetizing
food shots, celebrity cookbooks usually include photos of
the author in their awe-inspiring personal environment, often
surrounded by photogenic friends and family. This plays into
the reader’s desire to have a bit of their hero or heroine’s life
on their bookshelf. For a recent book by one of my clients,
the photo budget came in at $80,000 for around 100 images,
including candid family shots. Most publishers do not pay for
photography, and most of the contracts require the author to
pay for this element out of their advance. For my self-authored
books, a $20,000 photo budget is very flush.
One of the beauties of today’s publishing world is that there is
a book for every kind of cook. You may read a book for Nigel
Slater’s prose as well as his roast chicken. But the next person
wants to read how Mrs. Reality Star sets her table with Hermès
plates in a shade of red to match her nail polish. In either case,
it is the writer’s job to ensure that the story gets told, the recipes
work, the editor is happy, and my check gets cashed.