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Question for cookbook editors/publishers

How developed and correct does a cookbook manuscript have to be before it will be considered by an agent, editor, or publisher? I am NOT asking out of personal ambition - although I have created a number of original recipes I rarely measure accurately or prepare a dish exactly the same way twice, and I am way too lazy to write up a bunch of detailed recipes. But on CH and in other places, I hear/read about people who are "writing a cookbook". These are usually people who cannot compose a coherent, grammatical sentence. Their recipe submissions omit important information like pan size, temperature, measurements (e.g. "a can of tomato paste" with no size mentioned), fail to include some of the ingredients in the preparation instructions, etc. Do these people have their heads in the clouds, or is the market for new cookbooks continually strong enough that publishers take on submissions with inaccurate and/or poorly-written content ?

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  1. The CH audience is a well informed audience, meaning we can write down a recipe (or more often than ever, just a list of ingredients) and most of us will figure out how the recipe works; it will probably not be the same as what the author created, but it will be close enough.

    Now, for a published recipe, it depends on the target audience, beginners, seasoned cooks, hobbyist, ... the closer the book is intended for beginners, the more precise the recipes (ingredients and methods) will be.

    It is also important to note that some cookbook are not that well "exportable", meaning that, for example, a cookbook might call for an "can of tomato paste"; for where I am, Montreal, a can of tomato paste is a known size, but if the reader is French or Japanese, there might not be cans of tomato paste available, it could come in a tube, and there is no direct conversions.

    anyway, except for pastry and backing, I always use recipes as loose guides to do something.

    1. Having been a book editor/publisher, I can say this - regardless of the subject from afghan crocheting to cooking & recipes to zoology, if your manuscript is not grammatically correct and spelled correctly, and organized in some reasonable manner, it hasn't got a chance of surviving the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts that come over the threshold.

      Of course, since the creation of desktop publishing, almost anyone with a laser printer can rather inexpensively print out something and *call* it a cookbook. To which I say caveat emptor! There are some fabulous self-published works out there, but a mountain of dreck.

      2 Replies
      1. re: KiltedCook

        Thanks for obliging my curiosity!

        1. re: KiltedCook

          This isn't really true in the case of cookbooks. I've worked at HarperCollins and Random House, never in editorial but I was around long enough to know how things worked.

          Cookbooks are pretty specialized and I can't think of anyone willing to publish an unsolicited cookbook because just about all cookbooks these days come from known entities. Chefs, celebrities, or someone with a big following on the internet.

        2. Move over, jfood; there's a 'hound that may be taking over first place in my affections :) Oh, gg, I wanted to kiss the ground at your feet when I read this. When someone uses the word "of" instead of the word "have" as in "I would of used...." rather than "I would have...." it kind of tells me that the person really doesn't have a clue. Sentences that run on line after line with either NO subject or so many subjects that you get to the end and have no idea what they're saying. And they're writing a cookbook? For what purpose? And it seems like some of these people are the same ones who say they don't use recipes. I appreciate the feedback on this that says that at least the people who have to put up with this torture is limited and we're not likely to see these "creations" as a staff recommendation at Barnes & Noble. Thanks for bringing this up. Maybe we can ALL pay a bit more attention to what we post going forward. I certainly find errors in my own at times. Even with the edit feature :)

          3 Replies
          1. re: c oliver

            I go through the same throes of wondering. But I'll temper that by saying that many mathematically or otherwise talented people I've known haven't been great at spelling and grammar, and I think a wide berth of respect is deserved by anyone who is not a native English speaker who is still willing to wade in and comment. (I want my authentic Asian cooking tips!!) Also, on Chowhound and other message boards you may get otherwise talented but tired-after-the-day people who post, for whom grammar is not a forte. One of the nice things about message boards is the informality.)

            But yeah, absolutely when I see poor spelling or grammar, etc., it raises a red flag. Sometimes those people turn out to have gems of information to pass along but often not.

            1. re: Cinnamon

              Absolutely, people for whom English is a second language (and one that's notoriously difficult to learn, at that!) get a "home free card" from me. It's usually easy to tell that they are not native speakers, and to get the gist of what they say or write.

              1. re: greygarious

                I'm 100% with you there. Not the issue at all.

          2. It wasn't until very recently that cookbooks went into such detail that we see now. A 'knob' of this, a dash of that, or just a list of ingredients. Personally, I pay little attention to the quantity of something since I tend to favor some flavors and the taste and quality of any ingredient is inconsistent.

            But if the grammar is incorrect, I'd wonder about the accuracy of the recipes (although I'm exempt since I habitually start my sentences with and's and but's - and spelling is something else entirely!).

            1. People jotting down recipes online for other people who are more or less on the same wavelength should not be judged by the standards of professional cookbook publishing. They are two different things. While many cookbooks are accepted for publication because the author writes well, others are chosen because the author's name will sell. All the replies to your query have ignored the unsung hero (usually heroine, I think) of all those precise, orderly, easy to follow recipes we expect from Anglo-American professional publishing: the copy editor, who often works miracles on really nasty manuscripts. Publishers will buy (I am not saying "always," of course) the jottings of a near-illiterate but box-office name, knowing that they will eventually be whipped into shape by a professional coauthor or editor (or a team) other than the famous "author."
              Mere mortals, of course, have to turn in decent copy that observes the basic rules of recipe writing and English.
              Actually, the level of detail you describe (exact pan size, etc.) is not universally used or even desired outside English-language publishing. I didn’t realize how Italian I had become until I got back the editor's queries on Italian recipes I had written for a Williams-Sonoma publication, and when I translate Italian recipes I nearly go out of my mind over the "missing" detail.

              2 Replies
              1. re: mbfant

                ^This post speaks much wisdom. Fascinating too about the difference in style of recipe notation Italy vs. U.S.

                1. re: mbfant

                  And there are the cases where the 'author' did not write the book. For some top name chefs, the publisher hires someone to start with the restaurant recipes that use very different quantities and then trail the cooks to see how the recipe really makes it to the plate. In many cases, there are both inadvertent and overt 'secrets' that fail to make it into the final recipe. These could be both ingredients or technique.

                  And the celebrity chef does not test the recipes. If the end buyer of the cookbook is very lucky, a recipe tester will have been hired.

                2. Generally, no one can successfully edit one's own writing; even great writers like John Updike had a professional editor.

                  More egregious, IMHO, is the lack of recipe testing. I've done food styling for several Williams-Sonoma cookbooks, and a significant percentage of their in-house recipes were untenable ("mince leeks, spread under chicken and roast at 400 degrees for one hour..."), but my recommended corrections were usually ignored, as far as I could tell. I'm in the process of writing my own cookbook, but can't find enough friends to test my recipes (it's expensive and time-consuming, I know).

                  9 Replies
                  1. re: Claudette

                    As others have said, if you can't write correctly, then why should anyone think that your recipe is correct?

                    1. re: Claudette

                      As you say, it's expensive. In my experience with a Williams-Sonoma book, if I had had my recipes professionally tested (which is the right thing to do), I would have earned practically nothing on the book, which was a job (and if we divide what I earned by the hours I spent, I probably did earn nothing), so yes, I relied on friends to help. But when questions emerged during photography, the editors queried me and if necessary, we adjusted the recipe. In a couple of cases, the recipe had to be adjusted to reconcile picture and text because the styling deviated from the recipe.

                      The kind of editing a writer like John Updike needs and the kind a television chef who has never put pen to paper needs are as different as powdering your nose is from plastic surgery.

                      1. re: mbfant

                        What a splendid analogy!

                        I'm interested - and a little appalled - to read that cookbook recipes aren't pre-tested, although it does explain my "this wouldn't taste good" reaction to many that I read. I guess I should rethink my decision not the renew the Ci subscription that expired in January. I have every issue since the first, in 1993, but J. Kenji Alt's chicken soup recipe, which called for chicken breasts and ground (Perdue in the photo) chicken was such a complete repudiation of CI's frugal ethos that I felt they had betrayed their own values (and mine as well). However, at least we know that their recipes have been extensively tested and tasted.

                        1. re: greygarious

                          This thread is a good reminder of what to look for in cookbooks - for one thing, possibly 'liner notes' where the author has jotted in real hair-splitting comments about how to do this or that, or what kind of this or that to look for. You know, where you can detect a slightly obsessive quality to the formulation.

                          1. re: greygarious

                            Greygarious - I'm with you on that. I developed that recipe, but it's not really one I would ever follow. But Cook's Illustrated is in the business of writing recipes for real people, and real home cooks, many of whom demand strict time constraints on how long a recipe can take. So even though personally, I save my chicken bits in the freezer and make real stock when I need it, there are many people for whom this is not an option (as in, they buy their chickens already butchered, so don't have bits to make stock with). The recipe was intended as a quick, inexpensive, and easy way for those people to make a great tasting chicken soup at home.

                            I fully support anyone who says "no" to it though!

                            1. re: kenjigoodeater

                              Thanks for writing that recipe! Even if I won't use a recipe, I take a lot of pleasure in reading it and cooking it vicariously in my mind. (Saves a lot of calories, too.)

                              Your recipe is very clever, but the irony is that if I'm not sick, I'll make chicken soup slowly from my bone collection, but if I am sick, I'll send my hubby to Sweet Tomatoes or our local Chinese place for takeout chicken soup.

                              1. re: kenjigoodeater

                                one more thing about Cooks (and a lot of recipe writing in general): there's a bit of pressure to come up with some new twist on a recipe that hasn't been done before. I mean, really, how sexy would a story on collecting chicken bones to make stock be? how many times have you read that and would you want to read it again? at least this one gave you something new to think about, even if you ultimately reject it.

                                1. re: FED

                                  >how sexy would a story on collecting chicken bones to make stock be<

                                  Hmm, Chowhounds would read it. Endless hair-splitting over whether black chickens were highly preferable, what to add or not add to the stock, whether to add chicken feet, the historical significance of chicken stock, how chicken soup came to be known as a good food when you had a cold, all that stuff.

                                  But I'm not saying the rest of the world would read it.

                            2. re: mbfant

                              But of course Updike's longtime editor Judith Jones is probably better known for editing cookbooks.

                          2. Having worked as an editor of both cookbooks and food books, I'll share with you what I have learned. The text has to be clear, grammatically correct, and interesting to read, at a minimum. The headnotes have to tell a story. The recipes must be honed, and tested several times at the author's expense.The organization and progression of the cookbook have to be well thought out. You will need an agent, no question.

                            If the cookbook author is not already famous, the cookbook itself will have to be a markedly original concept, something that has never been seen before. .

                            When chefs wish to write a cookbook, it is almost always necessary for the chef to hire a "translator" who will dog him/her at every step of a recipe, and who will then include every ingredient (and who will quantify every ingredient!), every technique, every nuance and detail that the chef forgot or does without thinking.

                            The recipe writer has to know the difference between:
                            1/4 cup chopped parsley.
                            and
                            1/4 cup parsley, chopped

                            The comma and phrasing make a big difference in the quantity of parsley. A great reference book explaining all this is Shirley Corriher's "The Recipe Writer's Handbook."

                            Unfortunately, the only chef-authors whose cookbooks are usually published are the chefs already famous by virtue of their restaurants, television/radio shows, or other media coverage. Few cookbooks make money, and publishers rarely provide marketing support these days. The publisher needs for its chef-author to be able to garner marketing support from his/her existing media venues. Without marketing, the cookbook will not succeed.

                            For those would-be cookbook authors who don't have existing media exposure, chances are your cookbook will be rejected.

                            So the goal is create a cookbook so blazingly original, and so great, that the publishers have to take notice. Sorry it's not a prettier picture.