Yesterday heralded the first ever Blogger Breakfast Briefing, hosted by Penguin Random House, under The Happy Foodie umbrella.
At this enriching event, four successful cookbook authors were in conversation with their editors to offer the all-ears audience a leg-up into the world of publishing.
What helpful words of advice did they have to offer?
Shu Han Lee, author of Chicken and Rice
First up was Shu Han Lee (in the featured image above), author of Chicken and Rice, who gave a charming retelling of her path to foodie fame.
On not learning to cook until she moved to London
Originally from Singapore, Shu Han Lee’s true-to-type tiger mother hadn’t allowed her into the kitchen at all – banishing her to finish her music practice or complete her studies. That didn’t stop her from developing an appreciation of the wealth of flavours and scents on offer in her home city though.
Then she moved into the world of work and across the world to London. Suddenly she had to cook for herself. This, initially alarming, chore soon became a source of interest… a fascination. And she began a Facebook album of all her creative experiments as a means of reassuring her anxious mother that she hadn’t died of starvation or food poisoning!
Graphic design training came in useful
Initially, she says, the images she put up were awful – she’d taken them at night with a flash and no time. However, Shu Han Lee’s training as a graphic designer soon resulted not just in improved photography but, later, for her book Chicken and Rice, in a collection of charming illustrations.
Building up a following through supper clubs
Then, quite by chance, through a post comment, she became involved in supper clubs which led to a growing following. An Instagram account soon proved similarly popular and she started to become much more widely known.
The importance of having your own voice
And then, out of the blue, she was invited to a discussion over coffee from a would-be agent. A contract was agreed and signed and soon Anna Steadman, her future editor at Penguin, was in touch. “We liked her voice” explains Anna, “it was different, very individual, and her sense of humour shines through”. Shu Han Lee thinks this is because both the blog, and then later, the book, are very personal, “I write them really as a journal” she says, explaining that they’re really a collection of memories.
Writing a cookbook takes a year
Shu warned us all that writing a cookbook involved a lot more work than keeping a blog going. “It took a long time too, because I like to cook using seasonal ingredients – I couldn’t cook and photograph the rhubarb condensed milk ice cream, for example, until spring.” Anna confirms that the year-long time frame is realistic for any cookery book, seasonally-based or no.
At the end of the briefing I talked to Anna about agents. “Are they really necessary – and if so, why?” I asked. Anna explained that, as well as providing a forum for foodies, The Happy Foodie also offered a means for the various publishing houses within Penguin, all with different lists and aims, to liaise between themselves. “If you’re a hopeful author how do you know who to contact, which division of Penguin to approach”, I ask. “That’s where the agent comes in”, explains Anna, “a good agent will know who carries which sort of book and author”, and she points out also that some editors will be looking for books on specific subjects reflecting current interest – a good agent, she says, will know who is looking for what.
Tips from Shu Han Lee and Anna Steadman
Try supper and brunch clubs as a way of building a following
Develop a voice – be individual
Get an agent
Allow at least a year for writing a cookbook
Caroline Craig and Sophie Missing, authors of The Little Book of Lunch and The Cornershop Cookbook
Next in the morning’s line up were poachers-turned-gamekeepers, Caroline Craig and Sophie Missing, both with the significant advantage of having been themselves editors. In fact, their first book came about because they sat near each other and compared their packed lunches on a daily basis. “I’d never seen anyone have artichokes for lunch before” laughs Sophie, “I had a mouldy old tuppa filled with leftover spag bol”. Their comparisons and quest for variety gave them the impetus to have a go at writing a book themselves.
Structure the book
Both these professional-editors-turned-author stress that it’s important to know how to structure a book, and to spend time on this. “Use a spreadsheet to ensure you don’t have too many chicken recipes… or too many of anything else”, they suggest.
And at the end of the process do a cull. “We’re not immune to trends” they admit. “In the past we’ve tried to shoehorn a recipe in,” adds Sophie, “but then we’ll realise it doesn’t quite work”. Less is more in other words, don’t get lured into including recipes which just don’t fit.
The writing style
Both authors say they find it helpful to write recipes first in their heads. “Sometimes my recipes might be a bit too long,” says Sophie, “but I like an explanation – why, exactly, do you need to sweat the onions for so long, for example.”
And Caroline adds that honesty is essential. “You need to admit to your failures. It’s so hard to make Florentines look good – readers need to know that they will be ugly to begin with.”
Truth is also important when it comes to timings. “Let’s face it,” sighs Caroline, “baked eggs just don’t take three minutes… but I’ve so often read that they do. Frequently people say that onions only take five minutes to sweat when in fact they take 20. Why do these authors feel the need to lie?”. Part of the problem stems from the hectic pace of life today. Readers need to slow down, to enjoy the whole process of cooking says Sophie. “In our forthcoming book on brunch there’s a cinnamon buns recipe. We share a building with some bakers and they laughed at the idea of cutting short the baking time. There are some things you just can’t rush.”
“I think we worry because we’re not chefs, not professional cooks. The idea of a recipe failing is just devastating to us, we feel we have to work harder to make sure everything is absolutely right. We tested the cinnamon buns to death before we passed it on to family and friends to try out”. A member of the audience wants to know how often a recipe should be tested. “It depends on the publisher” explains their editor, Rowan Yapp, “chefs’ recipes (originally developed in a professional kitchen with hotter ovens and for larger quantities) often need third party testing, but otherwise it’s really up to the author to make sure that it’s done thoroughly”.
Asked about their food writing heroes, Caroline mentions Ottolenghi, explaining that she was lucky enough to work on his first book. Sophie is an unapologetic fan of Delia Smith, “don’t forget about her” she insists, “if you ever need to know anything, that’s the place to look. Her recipe for lasagne is still the best”. But after Delia she thinks that writers and their books tend to come and go. Quoting Nora Ephron she theorises, “using a cookbook is like being in a relationship… it’s not sustainable”.
On writing a cookery book jointly
A member of the audience wants to know about their own relationship – how easy is it to jointly write a cookery book? “It’s what makes it,” is Caroline’s immediate response, “it’s SO good writing together”. “We text each other a hundred times a day”, adds Sophie. They both say writing together enables them to share the stress, to try out new ideas on each other, to keep each other going.
Sophie turns to Caroline, “you’re very good at saying in your recipes – ‘put the kettle on for a cup of tea now’”, she says warmly, and we get the impression that there must be something very caring and giving about this duo’s cookery writing.
Tips from Caroline Craig and Sophie Missing; and Rowan Yapp
Structure the book thoroughly and logically
Test your recipes thoroughly
Consider finding a partner
Michael Zee, author of Symmetry Breakfast, interviewed by Felicity Cloake, cookbook author (The A-Z of Eating) and Guardian food columnist
Felicity Cloake begins the last session by asking Michael Zee how he came to start his Instagram account (he now has a stunning 649K followers), and write his first book, Symmetry Breakfast.
How it all started
“I’d just moved in with my partner, Mark,” he tells us, “and I realised that almost the only meal where we would regularly see each other was breakfast. Add to that the fact that we also have a dining room (how many people in London can say that?) which cried out for a bit of elegance, and doing things well, and I felt that producing a beautiful breakfast was worth the effort”.
Additionally, he tells us, “my family owned a chain of Chinese restaurants in Liverpool… my father enjoyed photography… I had a dark room as a kid… there is so much of my previous life’s experiences which were woven into this project”.
From the first, he says, Instagram was his main platform. His following grew and was so successful that eventually Michael was able to quit his job and write full time. Fame brings its own pressures though. “Now people want me to write a recipe every single day” he comments indignantly. “‘You could do a breakfast for every day of the year’ they generously suggest. Well, no thanks, sometimes it’s just black coffee!”
Which social media aside from Instagram?
Felicity asks him about other social media. “I think I’ve missed the boat on YouTube” he says, “and it took me a long time to get onto Twitter…. I’ve never used WeChat. But it feels now like Twitter is on its way out”. “Yes, I’ve heard that too”, confirms Felicity.
Making your writing pay without being compromised
Michael talks about the problem of being compromised by accepting money. “You have to guard the artistic integrity of what you are doing – what you started out to do”, he says. He gets sent parcels of goodies, and valuable contract offers all the time which are, of course, all tempting. “I think I’m protected from a lot of it by having such a strong brand… many products just wouldn’t fit in to what I’m doing… it would look ridiculous” he says. “I’ll publish maybe one post a month which is paid, but for each one there’ll be 30-50 that I’ve turned down, it’s a fine line between what’s appropriate and what isn’t.”
“I’ve formed a partnership with Sainsbury’s, for example, but that seemed very natural – I shop there anyway, and they publicise my writing too”
Don’t be afraid to write about difficult subjects
Felicity asks, “what’s the secret to success on social media” and Michael’s answer is surprising.
“Don’t be afraid to tackle difficult subjects” he advises. “Food is very political. If I write about Israeli food, for example, I know I’m asking for abuse. But you can’t be bullied by these people. If you tackle these subjects you will become respected, and considered knowledgeable.
It’s not only controversial subjects which help build authority. If you put up a well-researched post on a 17th century first Thanksgiving recipe people will like that extra level of depth.”
Getting ideas and inspiration
Felicity’s next question to Michael is about where he gets his inspiration from and he replies that he tries to be creative. “There’s no Marmite…. I hate Marmite… and there’s no avocado toast” he laughs. “But really the sources are endless. In America they eat pancakes, fine. Then you drill down, and you find that there’s a different cuisine in each state, the food varies from city to city, town to town, village to village; food in each family home is different”. He’s not short of inspiration on the props side either, “I’ve got a collection of over 2,000 plates and bits of ceramic, and I’ve just spent over £1,000 on pans… it’s an addiction.”
Do you need a fancy camera?
A member of the audience asks Michael if it’s true that he shot all the images in Symmetry Breakfast on his phone. “Yes,” he confirms, “I shot the whole book on an IPhone 5S. The format was set by the maximum size for the resolution it supports.
More on structure
There’s one final question about structure and Michael agrees with the previous speakers – a book needs a logical approach. He spent a bit of time trying out different approaches for Symmetry Breakfast. “The A-Z had already been done by somebody else” he says to Felicity, raising an eyebrow (her latest book is The A-Z of Eating) “so in the end I organised Symmetry Breakfast by time zone”.
Tips from Michael Zee
Don’t allow the integrity of your work to be compromised by gifts and money
Don’t be afraid to tackle difficult or contentious subjects
You don’t need a fancy camera
Get inspiration by drilling down, by investigating the detail
The Arvon Foundation offers courses for those aspiring to write a cookery book.