How to turn your recipe collection into a bestselling book

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Gemma Crisp
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You don’t have to be a qualified chef or TV star to clinch a cookbook deal in 2017. Three debut authors share their advice on turning your recipe collection into a bestseller

Nigella. Delia. Jamie. They may have monopolised the cookbook sales charts over the past decade or two, but right now a Sriracha-scented whiff of change is in the air. The democratisation of food publishing is in full swing, with bloggers, street food vendors and Instagrammers all signing book deals. And you could be next.

“You no longer have to be a famous chef, restaurateur or TV personality to get a cookbook deal,” agrees Ione Walder, Michael Joseph’s cookery commissioning editor. “The public has changed the way they consume – both in where we’re eating out and where we look for cooking inspiration. The rise of pop-ups, supper clubs and street-food vans has allowed for a lot more food entrepreneurism. People now get their recipe ideas as much from blogs and YouTube as from cooking TV shows.”

Kate Pollard, publisher at Hardie Grant, says evolving retail environments have also contributed to the revolution. “The growth of non-traditional book retailers like Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters has changed the landscape. Now we can dip into areas of the market with subject- led titles – grilled cheese sandwiches, poké bowls – with more competitive price points that are relatively low risk to produce.”

However, that doesn’t mean you should start brainstorming a proposal for unicorn milkshakes. “When you pick up a cookbook it’s because it answers a general question like ‘what should I cook today’ or ‘how do I cook this fish?’ No-one says ‘Shall I smoke my own reindeer?’” says Juliet Annan from Penguin imprint Fig Tree.

Which brings us to the pitch. “A few paragraphs on the concept, a sample chapter including six or so recipes and any pertinent notes about the author will suffice,” explains Lisa Pendreigh, Bloomsbury’s commissioning editor. “I am most interested in whether an author has researched their subject, developed a voice and identified their book’s unique selling point.” And you don't need a SLR. “Photos don’t have to be more than phone snaps, as long as the food looks delicious. I can even cope with no pictures if the book is distinctive enough,” says Annan.

Here, three debut cookbook authors share their advice...

Dr Hazel Wallace

The Food Medic (£20, Yellow Kite), out now
After starting the @thefoodmedic Instagram account four years ago as a way of tracking her personal health and fitness journey, junior doctor Hazel Wallace had 60,000 followers when a literary agent approached her at the end of 2015. Her debut cookbook The Food Medic: Recipes & Fitness For A Healthier, Happier You launched last week, focusing on evidence- based health advice that bridges the gap between mainstream medicine and nutrition.

Plan – way ahead

“If you’re really serious about getting a book deal, start planning it now. Long before I was approached by my literary agent, I spent ages writing down potential chapter headings and listing all the things I wanted to include to get me started and keep me focused. I could see what my social media audience responded to so I knew that my book should be a mix of the food I cooked and how I exercised as well as my medical knowledge.”

Have a distinct message

“I wanted to make it clear that healthy eating does not need to be expensive, boring or time-consuming. All my recipes were created on a student budget in my dinky little kitchen in my student house. I know my book isn’t culinary genius but the recipes are designed to maximise health while not taking ages to prepare. I concentrated on making sure the content was as accessible as possible.”

Spend plenty of time on your pitch

“I spent two months pulling my proposal together. The key was to show publishers the scope of my knowledge and how my book would be different from others in the market. It was like a showreel of all the best bits I wanted to include. I included a few thousand words explaining my back story and why I was qualified to write the book, then I laid out what the reader could expect in terms of lifestyle and medical knowledge and included recipe examples and exercises as well as images from my Instagram and blog. The proposal ended up being a mini version of the final book – nailing down the specifics so early on meant that we all had the same vision.”

Zoe Adjonyoh

Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen (£25, Mitchell Beazley), out now
In 2011, Zoe launched her supper club featuring remixes of traditional Ghanaian food after accruing a mailing list of 200 people who had sampled her cooking at a local festival. The supper clubs were so successful, she expanded to event catering, street-food festivals and eventually, a restaurant in London’s Brixton in May 2014. Within a month of opening, she was approached by a publisher and signed her book deal in early 2015. Her cookbook was published late last month.

Don’t do it until you’re ready

“I was always ambitious so a cookbook was on my mind from the beginning of my food journey but despite being approached by a literary agent a few years ago, I waited until I felt equipped enough to offer a solid package that reflected my journey. In 2014, having taken a research trip back to Ghana and another 18 months of cooking for the public, I felt confident about what my book might represent about Ghanaian food.”

Test your recipes, then test them again

“I had a stockpile of staple recipes from the pop-ups and supper clubs but I cook by taste, sight, even sound – not by exact measurements. So it was difficult to force myself to think about methods and how much to include of this or how much of that. I had to test many of the recipes I’ve cooked less frequently to get them right. My publisher originally wanted 80 recipes but I added more during the editing process, ending up with over 120.”

Do your research

“Know your subject and what you want to say about it – test the concept thoroughly, making sure you have something that’s really different and inspiring, that reflects your connection to it and the reasons why you want to show it off.”

Itab Azzam and Dina Mousawi

Syria: Recipes From Home (£25, Trapeze), out now
“A film-maker and actor/producer respectively, self-confessed foodies Itab and Dina spent three months in Beirut working on a theatre project with Syrian women when they had the idea for their cookbook. Forgoing a literary agent, they signed a book deal directly with Orion Publishing Group in 2016 after meeting a publisher at a book launch in 2015.”

Recipes don’t have to be your own

“The Syrian women we worked with would invite us to their homes for lunch where we would spend hours cooking, eating and sharing stories. We thought it would make a great book and interesting way of creating something positive about Syria so we then set out to meet other Syrian women living in Europe, infusing our knowledge of Syrian food with their recipes to create the best versions of each dish.”

Make sure you have a different story

“When our publisher heard about our idea, she was instantly keen. It was around the time people were starting to embrace Middle Eastern food and she was excited to hear life-affirming stories coming out of Syria, to highlight something positive from a nation that is currently only steeped in negative images.”

Allow plenty of time

“We wrote and tested recipes for 11 months. Nearly every weekend was spent cooking and we wrote in the weekday evenings. We had no social lives! Often we had to repeat recipes three or four times to get them right because Syrians cook instinctively so it was difficult to write down exact quantities. We then sent the recipes to friends to test and give feedback, which really helped.”

What cookbook publishers want now

Inspired to write your very own cookbook? Here the experts reveal what’s on their radar for next year

Vegan food

“Next year will be the year that vegan cooking goes fully mainstream. We’ve already seen Pret A Manger offer vegan-friendly options plus plenty of street-food vendors are cooking vegan versions of their popular dishes. The trend has been partly fuelled by an awareness of the ethical issues but it has also been propelled by the popularisation of meat and dairy alternatives by the wellness crowd.” Lisa Pendreigh, commissioning editor, Bloomsbury Publishing

Zero waste

“I’m expecting to see more zero-waste eating as the economy – and therefore our wallets – takes a hit in the run-up to Brexit. It’s the promise of saving money when it matters that usually helps to take such topics mainstream.” Ione Walder, cookery commissioning editor, Michael Joseph

Back to basics

“We’re seeing a move towards practical cuts of meat and plain vegetables – white potatoes and cauliflower – being reclaimed. There also seems to be a move away from ‘health’ cookbooks and sugar and junk food being embraced once more.” Kate Pollard, publisher, Hardie Grant Books

Words: Gemma Crisp
Photography: Packshot Factory, Liz and Max Haarala Hamilton, Tabitha Ross, Nassima Rothacker, Susan Bell