This is the first part in a series of articles, entitled How to Write and Self-Publish Your Cookbook. Each part is a reflection on how Stephanie and I managed to get this project off the ground and sustain momentum for the three years it took to finish our book, The Fisherman’s Wife: Sustainable Recipes and Salty Stories.
While the final article will summarize with a list of actions you’ll need to take from beginning to end of your project, each individual article goes in depth in order to shape the reality of day-to-day work on writing, photographing and self-publishing a cookbook.
Enjoy, and don’t be shy about asking questions or commenting about your own experiences below!
In some ways, the hardest part in starting a book-length project is forming a cohesive vision for the book. Managing those ideas are the most important part to starting a lengthy project. If you’re thinking about writing your own cookbook, you might be bursting with creative energy, or it might be more of a need for your business and you don’t know how to make it work. Either way, you’ll start from the same first step.
Step 1: Write a Book Description
At this point in the process, everything is described very broadly—recognize and accept that. A book description is a seed: it describes what your project will mature and flower into. Or think of it as a foundation: it’s what you build upon and determines the structure of your book. Or maybe it helps to call it a dream: what do you want this book to be? Or think of it as your elevator pitch to an agent. Whatever metaphor you choose, a book description is the starting point.
Steph and I left our first meeting together with one task each: for Steph, she was to write a two to three sentence book description based on our discussion; for me, I was to figure out how the heck one proposes a cookbook to an agent and publishing house. After a couple days, here’s what Steph emailed back as a description:
Unlike other seafood books, this book contains current information on small-scale sustainable fishing, nutritional information, and how to handle and prepare fish using recipes that work for real people. There will be behind-the-scenes stories about the hardships of commercial fishing and the good and bad that go along with this type of lifestyle.
When Steph first asked me to help her write a cookbook, we both thought that I’d be helping her to write a proposal and get an agent. After that she would continue with the guidance of her agent and editors within a publishing house, and I’d fade away into some invisible role of project management or cheerleader. That’s not at all how it turned out. I ended up project managing, photographing, recipe testing and eventually recipe writing too, to the point of becoming co-author.
It’s interesting to note that I approached this as a project manager from the beginning. I saw a big list of items that Steph needed to check off to achieve her goal, and I set this up for her as a clear pathway to getting the book done. I think that freed her mind in a way that allowed her to begin writing about her life creatively.
I knew from the beginning that Steph’s unique voice would make this book a success—we’d both seen too many fish cookbooks written with either cold scientific kitchen laboratory or with a wonky post-pirate diction or a precious vision showing only the romantic side of the fishing life and leaving out the toil. You could chalk that criticism up to me being a hater, but when you’ve lived a life and then you see it converted into something “marketable” or trendy, it’s irksome. Steph and I both decided that we weren’t aiming for something trendy; this was to be, we decided over glasses of wine and hamburgers after market in Union Square one day, an honest book.
I’m happy to say that we used this two sentence book description to help keep us focused throughout our three years working on this project. The description contained all that we wanted to do with our book and was worded in a way to keep us from veering off onto the many paths we could have taken.
For example, “preparing fish using recipes that work for real people” was of utmost importance to us. At some point I had been testing and rewriting my recipe for scallops with a cauliflower puree for a week or so. While making a cauliflower puree is not an exceedingly difficult kitchen task—even if it did finally kill my blender (see below)—it’s a distraction from our focus on helping people learn how to cook fish. According to our book description, what’s important to us is that our readers learn the proper way to pan sear scallops. We ended up cutting this recipe out. Put another way, we learned that if the recipe is sounds like a pain in the ass, then we don’t want to cook it, and our readers probably won’t either. That’s honesty at work. That’s not to say we don’t want to enlighten our readers about more complex ways to prepare fish—that’s why we included recipes from our chef friends, like Alex Raij and Marc Forgione—but we wanted to maintain focus on simplicity and method as a foundation for expanding our readers’ abilities to creatively cook fish.
The second sentence in the description also was important to the way our book took shape. We knew from years of working with regular customers that people want to understand what the modern commercial fishing family has to go through to get their product to market. We wanted to share that and the history of Blue Moon Fish with our readers. So our book would take a storytelling turn at times.
We wanted those stories to be about lifestyle, but also to convey information about how seafood gets to the market, sustainable fishing methods and nutrition. This was not only practical, but it was fun. It broke up the monotony of writing, testing and photographing recipes. Some days working on the cookbook meant drinking rum with Alex and hearing stories about an old fisherman’s bar in Greenport where a guy would always remove his glass eye and roll it down the bar at you; some days Steph would just end up talking about some major mishap that happened on the way to market, like when their truck caught fire on the expressway and burned up with hundreds of pounds of fish inside, and I’d say, “That’s great! We have to put that in the book!”
The thing is, a book description is so small that you’d think you could ignore it and go straight to making a proposal, but I don’t recommend going forward without one. I can tell you that even to this day, with the book already done, people ask, What’s this cookbook about? And the answer is always our book description. It’s your elevator pitch, your twenty second response to hook somebody into saying, Tell me more! It is an invaluable focal point to have ready to save you anytime you feel lost in the vast amount of work that awaits ahead. It’s your mission statement, your self-correcting, recentering mantra that will always be there to explain to you what you're doing and why you set out to do it in the first place!
Order The Fisherman’s Wife: Sustainable Recipes and Salty Stories by Stephanie Villani and Kevin Bay, or buy it in person at the Blue Moon Fish stand in the NYC Greenmarket.