Stephanie and I were lucky that we had friends who could guide us through the proposal process when we first conceived of Melt. With their advice and a bit of our own innovation we crafted a successful document that had publishers fighting to purchase the rights to the book.
So what are some key elements to a phenomenal cookbook proposal? Well, organization is key, as is knowing your audience, communicating a clear and focused topic, and having a good sampling of tested recipes that represent your cookbook. (In case, someone at the publisher does decide to test a recipe.)
Since starting the tour I've been getting asked advice on putting together a proposal. It's a long conversation to have but below are three important aspects to consider. I feel giving these items attention will assist significantly and get publishers jazzed for what you have to offer.
Photography is one of the most crucial aspects of a cookbook. While epic tomes such as The Joy of Cooking or The Physiology of Taste may not have any food porn spooging from the pages these cookbooks are the exception to the rule due to their reputation and grandfathered respect.
Today, cookbooks are expected to have photos. Most readers, sadly, do not have any imagination or the desire to discover what the final outcome will be. They want images for most - if not all - recipes. Today's readers insist on visual hand-holding, and if you can provide a maximum number of photos (points for photo guides for complicated techniques) you're guaranteed to sell more copies.
In fact, many cookbooks these days are photographed with the intention that many buyers will use them solely for inspiration or as coffee table books to admire and never actually cook from. It's a sad fact, but we knew that many people who buy cookbooks rarely ever cook from them; thus, the photography had to be top notch. And, admit it, you've bought a cookbook at least once just because it was pretty.
Now, cookbook authors are generally assigned a photographer after the proposal has been bought and the final manuscript submitted. Generally, you'll get very few chances to interact with this person. The author may get some say in the aesthetic and style of the photography, but for the most part you'll never be there for the styling, shooting, or to offer input. This means that a crucial aspect of your cookbook's success will be out of your hands! Boo! Hiss!
So what's a good way to circumvent this? Submitting photographs with your proposal.
To be frank, historically, many publishers frowned upon this. However, in this day and age where many food writers and bloggers can do their own photography or have contacts who do, and where the publisher or author can save money doing so it's becoming more common. Yet, I would still call this a relatively new phenomenon and it's currently hit or miss on this tactic.
We hired our photographer-stylist team, Matt Armendariz and Adam Pearson, to shoot and style four of our recipes from the proposal for a simple, affordable fee. The results were engaging photographs that caught the publishing houses' attention and got them excited about the project (we also used them in the book). It encouraged high bids for the project and more enthusiasm on the part of the PR department for the latter half of the project.
The other bonus was that the publisher was comfortable with our choice of photographer. We ensured in the contract that Matt and Adam would be the designated team for the book. As such, we were able to be there for the shoot, offer input, learn a lot about professional food photography, be on site catch a hiccup in one of the recipes, and - ultimately - have more control in the visual aesthetic of the book and more responsibility in its success or failure.
I love doing research. This is because I am a nerd who enjoys going to the library to read dissertations, government reports, hunting down passages in digital scans of 600 year old texts written in Middle English, and reading company statistics. If this does not sound appealing to you then get over it quickly for your proposal.
Your proposal needs to demonstrate public interest in the subject you plan to write a cookbook about. For Melt, Stephanie and I researched everything from the FDA's yearly tracking numbers of artisan cheese sales from 2001-2011 to the American Cheese Society's membership stats. We then listed and provided links to recent online and print articles in major news outlets to demonstrate a current public interest in the subject.
Any data that can show people care about the type of food you plan to write about is important to your argument and helping you sell the proposal. In addition, please remember that you need to relate your data to your future sales. How does this data demonstrate that your cookbook will sell?
Lastly, research the popularity of the subject. Magazine covers, celebrity talks, etc. If the president tweets about vegan pie and it gets retweeted a million times then note how this is a perfect example of why there is interest in your vegan pie book!
Oh, you know that I had to talk about this. Platform. The most ostensibly boring, but vitally important aspect of any blogger's life. What is your platform? What does it say about you? What is your blogger's thesis? How many people do you reach? Do you have good SEO?
Yes, it all matters.
This is where you pull out all stops, ask every favor, and work any connections. If you have some shame I highly recommend that you fold it up, tuck it in an old clothing box from Macy's, and stuff it in the attic because you won't be needing it.
Your blog and facebook numbers matter, but so do those of your friends and any media outlet you've ever had contact with before. In the olden days publishers would send their authors on book tours and work PR into a frenzy. Nowadays this is all upon you. You need to show what blogs, websites, and newspapers you have contact with that will sing the praises of your books. How many people will each one reach? Do you have the ability to get on any television shows or radio programs? These all matter and you need to tell publishers all of it in your proposal.
How will you sell your book and who will help you? I recommend you make a list of all of all your contacts and ask if they would be willing to help you publicize your book. The bigger the list, the better. The bigger the names, the better.
So that's the gist of it. There are more subtleties and all, but this should be enough to help you push your good proposal into a great proposal. If you have any questions, Stephanie and myself are always willing to talk to you about the proposal process.
One last thing I would recommend is cookies. Cookies make the proposal writing process a bit more tolerable. Sugar and fat has a way of doing that.
These cookies come from one of my new favorite cookbooks, Wintersweet, by Tammy Donroe Inman. I promise to go more into this cookbook in my next post, but let me say now that it is a rather fantastic book. Very inspiring, enthusiastic writing, phenomenal photography, lots of education within.
These oatmeal cookies use cranberries and salted-roasted almonds. It's a novel approach to the traditional oatmeal cookie and I think that going back to raisins or chocolate chips will be difficult.
Cranberry Almond Oatmeal Cookies
Makes about 30 cookies
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/4 cups old fashioned oats
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup salted, roasted almonds, roughly chopped
1. Cream the butter and sugar together until they are whipped stupid. Add the eggs, one at a time, and cream until well incorporated. Add the extracts and whip together unit fragrant and all is right with the world.
2. While all that whips, whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, nutmeg and oats. Mix into the butter-sugar mixture until just incorporated. Stir in cranberries and almonds.
3. Preheat the oven to 325F. Place heaping tablespoons of dough onto a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet. Leave two inches between each cookie. Bake for 16-20 minutes or until the tops are lightly golden brown. Allow to cool for a few minutes on the baking sheet before transferring to a cooling rack.