So You Want to Write a Cookbook? 5 Tips for Sealing a Deal

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Ronna Welsh is the owner of Purple Kale Kitchenworks, a Brooklyn culinary studio that teaches strategies for ingredient-driven, zero-waste improvisational cooking. Last year, Welsh stirred up a feeding frenzy among eight publishers, who bid on her cookbook proposal She signed with Rux Martin Press, an imprint of Harcourt Houghton Mifflin, and is now hard at work cooking up chapters of her still unnamed book, due out in spring 2018. 

What research did you do to determine if your cookbook idea would pass muster?

Teaching was my research.  Response from my classes and my blog, along with press write ups for Purple Kale Kitchenworks, told me early on that my ideas were new and compelling.  

How did you know what a publisher would be looking for in a proposal? Did you work with an agent?

I did work with an agent.  I was lucky; she found me. In 2011, I was one of several chefs featured in an article by the New York Times on cooking with food scraps. I was still growing my business and only beginning to think about the cookbook. This agent, as well as a few others, reached out to me then. After several meetings and phone calls, I decided she was the person with the best experience and understanding of the industry. Plus, I liked her a great deal. I had read several guides about publishing a cookbook, so I had an understanding of what a proposal required, but my agent was the person who knew exactly what editors looked for. I found her help indispensable. 

Courtesy of Ronna Welsh, Purple Kale Kitchenworks

Courtesy of Ronna Welsh, Purple Kale Kitchenworks

What did you do to make your proposal stand out?

In the end, several things:  I spoke directly and respectfully to the reader; I devised a thorough, clear table of contents; and I provided a complete list of recipes (over 300), and included a full sample chapter and sample illustrations. Plus, I worked hard to write well. In the end, it was the idea that sold the book, but all these factors made the sell compelling. 

What lesson did you learn from your process about what publishers are looking for? 

Publishers will look for the celebrity or chef or blogger with a huge following, an established platform. There were two editors who backed out of the process as soon as they saw I wasn't famous. But there are some editors, and by extension, publishing houses that are willing to take a chance on someone new, if they can be convinced that person brings something original and shows they can deliver. Part of the delivery is having a voice and being able to write well. Also, almost every publisher who eventually bid on the book set up an introductory meeting with me first. It was a chance for them to see who I was, answer their specific questions, and convince them to take me on.

What's the hardest part of getting a book contract? 

I think that's personal. For me, it was the financial sacrifice my family made for me to put in time away from work to write. Plus, it was hard to stay optimistic about the project, and maintain stamina, while I was running a business (and a family) in the face of countless revisions. It took me three years to get the proposal exactly right.  By the time I submitted, I felt I had written the book three times over.