Several years ago there was a book written by psychologist Mildred Newman with the title, How To Be Your Own Best Friend. If I were your best friend, I would advise you not to write a cookbook.
I don’t want to be entirely negative about it, but I cannot, in all candor, think of any other way to be these days. Unfortunately, for many authors, the best news they receive is that they are going to get a contract. After that, it is all downhill.
The sad truth is that very few cookbooks earn back their advance, and even fewer go on to achieve anything approaching lasting success.
Most cookbooks have a shelf life somewhere between milk and yogurt. The two biggest sellers are desserts (dessert books best sellers 2011) and diet books (163 on Amazon in 2011). One tells you how to cook the food and the other offers advice on how to avoid eating it.
And, The Winner Is…
If we made a list of the books that have survived for more than a year, let alone five or 10 years, there would be only a handful; heading the list are: Mastering The Art of French Cooking by Julia Child and The Silver Palate Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. Both have had multi-million copy sales but they had forces other than good recipes and good writing that made them into successes.
Let’s take a look at Mastering The Art of French Cooking as a case study because there is a lot to be learned from this book. First, you should know that it was rejected by 11 publishers before being accepted by Judith Jones at Alfred A. Knopf publishers (now Knopf), who offered an advance of only $250 for three people!
The authors not only accepted this paltry sum with gratitude, they went out and celebrated.
Despite all the rejections, Julia and her collaborators, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholie kept on trying because they believed in their work. It was passion that drove them on — not the money.
Incidentally, did you know that Mastering the Art of French Cooking has not been translated into French or Japanese. Maybe this is something you could do?
Among my very favorite books spanning many lands and cultures are:
- French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David
- Simple French Food by Richard Olney
- The Essentials of Classic Italian Cookery by Marcella Hazan
- The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy
- Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery by Madhur Jaffrey
- The Georgian Feast by Darra Goldstein
- The Splendid Table by Lynne Rosseto Kasper
- Jewish Cooking in America by Joan Nathan and her many books on Jewish food
And, writings about food into which category I’d place at the top, Epitaph for a Peach by David Maas Masimoto and Good Things by Jane Grigson.
I’d also include the literary and gustatory cookbooks:
- The Cook and the Gardener by Amanda Hesser
- Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson
- Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables & The Essential Reference: Vegetables From A – Z by Elizabeth Schneider
- How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
This brings me to writing about food and in this category I’d include:
- Cod: A Biography and indeed, all Mark Kurlansky’s books
- The Story of Corn by Betty Fussell
- History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage
- Honey from a Weed by Patience Grey
Fortunately there is always room for more, many more, great books. What is your favorite?