So You Want to Write a Cookbook? Part III: Hiring the Right Team
Writing a cookbook is a labor of love. I repeat: writing a cookbook is a labor of love. One more time… writing a cookbook is a labor of love.
It is incredibly hard work, but—if you plan carefully—it’s well worth the effort. If you’ve been following my So You Want to Write a Cookbook series, aimed at guiding you through the process from soup to nuts, you’re either ready to throw in the towel or gearing up to sell your proposal! (I’m hoping the latter, but seeing as the process is quite time consuming, I’m really hoping you’re still chipping away at step one—writing a cookbook proposal.) So with the power of positive thinking, let’s imagine that you have finished your proposal and sold your idea.
After you get past your initial excitement, you realize there’s no way you’re going to finish this project alone. The first step in your planning process is—you guessed it—hiring the right team. Don’t delay in gathering the best creative team your budget can afford. My editor at Rizzoli gave me a great tip: pick those with whom you really connect. Especially during a long and stressful process, it’s essential to find others who completely understand your vision in addition to having a wealth of experience.
This might seem to suggest that working with friends would be a good idea, but beware: this book is your book, your labor of love, and not worth negotiating over. Sometimes hiring professionals will be a heck of a lot easier than calling in favors or asking your buddies to contribute. My personal anecdote: I made the mistake of thinking my good friend could shoot the photographs for my own cookbook. Ultimately, I decided not to go forward with the idea. Thankfully, we are still on good terms, but working with friends may put not only your cookbook, but also your friendship, at risk.
Now, exactly who is on this team, you ask? It could be two people or it could be ten; it’s up to you (and your budget). Here’s a general idea of who you’ll likely need on your team:
Pick this person first. The photographer is your co-pilot and could share almost half the pages of your book with you, so it is of the utmost importance that you choose someone whose work you love. Your publisher will definitely want to weigh in, but you should review portfolios and meet with the candidates to narrow your options before presenting to your editor. I suggest taking note of the photographers in your favorite cookbooks. If they are located in the same area as you—and have a studio—even better! (This means no travel costs or studio rental fees.) And if you can’t afford your favorite photographers, ask if they can recommend someone else or if their best assistants shoot freelance projects.
This role may seem like a luxury, but I assure you, you are wrong. All those lovely surfaces, dishes, silverware, glasses, napkins, platters, pots and pans (I could go on and on) will not show up in your kitchen cabinet for your photo shoot. When you work with a prop stylist, each photo will be planned in advance. Your stylist will hand-select each prop to go with each dish, and then some. They are worth their weight in gold and will make your photos glorious. You prop stylist is also a mule—they have to schlep all the aforementioned items back and forth to set—a job you definitely want to outsource. Again, take note of the props in books you love and email the stylist for rates.
If you are a professional chef and have hands-on experience plating for photo shoots, then you might be able to skip having a food stylist. I, however, love having one on set. They have all sorts of tricks of the trade that I never knew about (and I think I know everything!). A pinch of salt in ginger ale causes bubbles and is a much cheaper alternative to champagne. Grating dry ice over ice cream will prevent it from melting under hot photography lighting. And all those crumbs on the plates in images are perfectly placed with tweezers. Having someone be mindful of those minuscule details can be a world of help when you’re busy taking care of the bigger picture.
Your publisher may take care of this selection, especially if they work with in-house designers. Regardless, you should be sure to ask how much you can contribute to this decision. If your publisher doesn’t work with someone in-house, ask your editor for recommendations—and work with someone who has experience in cookbook design. Just like your photographer, this role is very critical. Your designer is responsible for the layout of the final product, so make sure you can communicate well with this person electronically—because you’ll be sending many emails back and forth.
Recipe Testing and Kitchen Assistant(s)
You may think you can do all the testing yourself, and you can. But it more than pays off to have others test your recipes, too. Often times, I would think my recipes were in tip-top shape, only to learn that I forgot to include an ingredient, or that the directions didn’t read as clearly to my assistant as I thought. Going through the process of troubleshooting your recipes with someone else’s feedback is the only sure-fire way to make sure your recipes work—the gold standard of any cookbook. Personally test your recipes more than once, and have others test them, too. I sent my most difficult recipes to my home cooks who had never baked. If they master my layer cake, then I knew it was ready to be published.
You’ll also want one to two assistants on set at your photo shoot. They will help you prep massive amounts of food and allow you to toggle between the kitchen and the photo staging area. If you don’t have much of a budget for recipe testing and kitchen assistants, this is a good moment to ask competent friends, colleagues or culinary students for help. Photo shoots are exciting work, so you’ll certainly find someone willing to donate their time in exchange for the experience and an acknowledgment in your cookbook. Hiring a team is just the first step in your planning process. In my next post, we’ll cover how to handle the actual timing of your work—and how to get your publisher and editor to help you determine that timeline.