On Saturday, I’ll be on a panel at the IACP conference in Washington, D.C. The subject we’re tacking is cookbook collaborations—mostly of the chef-writer variety— and I’ll be sharing some of the tips I’ve learned on how to make it work.
What has been fascinating about putting together the presentation is talking about the subject with fellow panelists Anne McBride, Amy Collins, and Jody Eddy (although Jody is stuck in India on assignment and it looks like she’ll miss IACP, sadly). It is gratifying to know you’re not the only one who has been in odd or tough situations before (and I guarantee that everyone who has written a book with a chef has some choice stories to share). It is also inspiring to talk with individuals who get a lot out of the collaboration process. We don’t need to do it: we want to.
A few years ago, The New York Times published Julia Moskin’s piece about the life of cookbook ghost writers. I remember feeling a sense of—yep, been there, can relate. (Fortunately, unlike Julia, my experiences have never included being stuck in a walled compound in Colombia.) Julia also wrote that while it used to be rare to get any acknowledgement as a co-author, this is changing. Still, it is not a proven way to make a name for yourself.
You don’t work on cookbooks to get major acknowledgement, but some acknowledgement is nice. My soon-to-be released cookbook collaboration, Cookie Love (not pictured above because my mom has my advanced copy), has my name on the cover and the spine. Mindy Segal, my co-author, actually asked the designer to make my name larger that it was on the first draft of the cover.
So if it’s not about seeing your name up in lights, why collaborate? There is no single answer, but one of the most important reasons is to learn something new. And that new thing, be it a set of skills, an understanding of a different culture, an expertise in new ingredients, can be leveraged elsewhere.
I also like collaborating because it allows me to be more productive than I would be if writing alone. Working with chefs allows there to be a constant stream of ideas on recipes and stories. The flip side is that you can’t just go about things your own way. If you’re waiting on a recipe, you need to nag until you get it. That’s the other roll of a collaborator: information wrangler.
One of the major topics we’ll be addressing on our panel is the financial aspect of collaborating. When writers ask me about how to get started in cookbook publishing, often they focus on how to capture a chef’s voice. I feel that those questions are premature. There’s no point in thinking about voice if you don’t have a sound financial foundation from which to start. Not all chefs are ready to commit financially to a book. Some chefs have great followings but can’t afford to pay a writer. Others might unwittingly bill you for photography costs and other big-ticket items if you haven’t had a clear discussion beforehand about financials.
Before taking on a book project, I look at opportunity cost. Will I lose out on significant sources of income by saying yes? Think of it this way: if an agent of a rising star chef calls me with a groovy book idea—but needs the whole manuscript done in 3 months, including tested recipes, I will not have time to work on anything else. What kind of money will I need to make it worth the effort? And do I want to go crazy in the process?
These days, I also want to write about subjects that I will be able to turn into other paying projects. And I want the topic to be timely enough that I’ll be able to leverage that expertise for a few years to come. I also like working with chefs with a clear identity. Oftentimes, this comes from chefs who have spent years honing their craft and their point of view.
I have made money, I have lost money, and I have broken even on book projects. I’m learning from my mistakes. By bringing up a few financial considerations of the job, I do not mean to discourage writers from collaborating with chefs, especially if a writer wants to break into cookbook publishing. Writing my first book, A16 Food + Wine, was cookbook bootcamp. I wouldn’t have gained the confidence or the connections to write the books I’ve done since without taking on that crucial first project. Working on chef cookbooks has also given me access to fascinating people and places and provided me with the ultimate insider view of several great restaurants.
Perhaps the most important aspect of collaborating—more important than subject matter or money—is how well you work with your co-author. Amy Collins, who is a literary agent, calls this the matchmaking part of putting together a book deal. While there are always moments in the writing or recipe-testing process that will try any sane person’s patience, good collaborators can work through them without throwing darts at each other.
You don’t need to be best friends with co-authors, but you better respect them. And they need to respect you, too.