How I got my cookbook published (and how you can, too)

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On April 23, I will celebrate the publication of my first cookbook. If you had asked me five years ago, I never would have believed getting a publishing deal with HarperCollins could have been possible. At that time, I was a recent culinary school graduate, a food writer/blogger, and had found steady work testing and developing recipes for Martha Stewart Living (yeah, I was already living the dream, but a cookbook? No way.). 

Here’s how I went from working in the food industry to scoring a publishing contract and finally getting my book published:

Image Credit: Anna Francese Gass.

Find the void … and fill it

This is one piece of advice I heard straight from Martha Stewart’s mouth that stood out and truly changed my life. In a world full of noise, if you want to stand out and be heard, you have to find something no one has really tapped into, and bring it out for people to see.

For me, that became a focus on the real-life stories behind the cooking I was interested in. Little did I know at the time, but that was key to landing a publishing contract.

“When evaluating a new project, I look for a variety of things, including a special or different take on a topic; a clear story and solid sense of place; a new, and especially underrepresented, voice in the landscape; and an authoritative presence,” Cristina Garces, my editor with Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins, said. “My favorite cookbooks to publish are the cookbooks I gravitate toward as a consumer: books with evocative stories whose pages are just as pleasurable to peruse as they are to cook from.”

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Create a meaningful platform people want to follow

Once you have your groundbreaking idea, you need to get noticed. The first order of business for me was to create a beautiful, inviting website where people could “visit” me, track my progress and engage with my material.

I also hit Facebook and Instagram hard. Posting regularly and engaging with like-minded users allowed me to build buzz. Establishing a solid following is critical. You must always remember that if you want a publishing house to gamble on you, you have to stack the cards in your favor. In other words, the more people know who you are and engage with what you are doing each step of the way, the more likely a publisher will want to invest in you and your idea.

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Become an expert on your topic & get published regularly

Once you have a solid platform of fans and followers, articles posted on popular websites can really help you get traction. In my case, I pitched my idea to Food52 where I work as a recipe tester. The people at Food52 are always looking for fresh, quality content so they were happy to publish my articles about the immigrant women who cooked with me and allowed me to share their delicious recipes. These opportunities can help you widen your audience, build a base of followers and get you the right track.

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Write a compelling proposal

Once I felt ready to share my idea in the form of a published book, I spoke to many experts in the field to get some insight. I needed to get from point A to point B and didn’t know how to do it. After many conversations, it was clear I needed to secure a book agent if I wanted the best chance of converting my blog to the printed page.

Most agents will not just take a phone call. They are not easy to obtain. They have proposals landing on their desk daily and many won’t even take new clients. However, a compelling proposal will help get your foot in the door. Use this as an opportunity to explain who you are and why your ideas are worthy of print.

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Secure an agent

Reaching out to publishing houses without an agent isn’t impossible but I don’t recommend it. An agent is important, not only because they can guide you to the houses that will be interested in your material, but also because they have long-standing relationships with individual editors. If an agent believes in you and thinks your content will sell, there’s a good chance an editor will agree.

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Know what agents are looking for

My agent, Sarah Smith of David Black Agency, explained that, when considering a new client, she asks herself the following questions:

  • Does the person have something original to say?
  • Do they have a unique point of view on their topic?
  • Do they have a specific manner of expressing that point of view (this is sometimes referred to as “voice”)?
  • Do they have an expertise or authority on their topic?
  • Will a wide range of publishers be interested in their project?

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Failure is not an option

Anything worth achieving never follows a simple, straight path. Along the way, you will experience shortfalls, rejection. There will be times when you will just want to give up. However, if you truly believe in what you have to say and that the world will want to hear it, you have to persist.

Rejection has to be a learning experience. You have to take it on the chin, and listen closely and carefully to the reasons why your project wasn’t accepted. If you do, you will be able to look past the “no” and see useful advice that will help you get on course, and move you closer to your goal.

Anna Francese Gass is the author of Heirloom Kitchen: Heritage Recipes and Family Stories from the Tables of Immigrant Women. She is a graduate of the International Culinary Center in New York, and lives in Connecticut with her husband, three children and a dog named Levi.

Photo: The author, right, with one of the women she cooked with for her book.

Image Credit: Anna Francese Gass.