I recently attended the second, and hopefully annual, installment of the Roger Smith Cookbook Conference in New York. Attendees were an eclectic and passionate group of people who publish, write, edit, represent, research or simply buy, use and adore cookbooks.
As a working chef, food blogger, avid cookbook consumer (with some of my own cookbook ideas) I was excited to interact with fellow bloggers, award winning cookbook authors and culinary historians who see recipes and cookbooks as more than a list of instructions to make dinner.
I had originally planned to attend sessions to hear sage advice from the Grand Dames of traditional cookbook publishing - people like Judith Jones (Julia Child’s editor) and Madhur Jaffrey. I was, however, quickly drawn into the sessions which focused on the ways technology and new media are influencing and shaping the form of cookbooks, including how we use those forms. Developers and managers of sites such as Epicurious, Cookstr, Yummly, Eat Your Books and Keep Recipes discussed how they implement and use concepts like metadata, CMS (content management systems), chunking, atomizing, deep diving, and enhanced content. The sessions felt a bit like listening to CBC Radio “Spark” host Nora Young doing a show on how technology is changing the culinary publishing landscape.
Traditional cookbook authors, agents, editors and publishers seem both concerned and keenly interested on how these new forms of media are affecting their industry but also how they can be incorporated and adapted into their publishing model. Food blogs are often early indicators of new culinary trends. Cookbooks, on the other hand, are often behind the trend due to time lag to produce and publish a hard copy version. Since you are reading this, you are most likely already blogging and using various forms of social media and so you are already ahead of the curve.
Blogger - Publisher Collaboration
I attended a fantastic session called Working With Bloggers chaired by blogger advocate Casey Benedict, co-founder of Eat Write Retreat (Food bloggers take note that there is a contest currently underway with Canadian Beef to cover the conference fee for the next session in Washington D.C. May 4-6, 2012). The panel consisted of four engaging bloggers who either have one foot in traditional publishing and the other online or both feet firmly ensconced online: Maggie Batista (EatBoutique); Pam Anderson (Three Many Cooks); Abby Dodge; and David Leite (leitesculinaria). Some of the lessons I took away from this impressive panel:
- A successful blog requires constant attention. Your blog is like a new baby and needs regular feeding, changing, and nurturing. Sometimes it falls down, gets bruised and requires immediate emergency care. Other times, it smiles and fills you with a sense of satisfaction and happiness.
- Decide where your heart is and interest lies. Become an expert in an area and bring something new to your subject matter. Knowing your authentic self and writing passionately about your niche area will facilitate the expression of your unique voice.
- Your blog does not have to be labour intensive – mix it up and try something new. Each post does not have to be about exclusively a recipe. Post a photo, review a restaurant or post about a newly found ingredient, farmer or recent food related trip.
- Reflect on lessons learned - recognize what works and what doesn’t. Allow your blog to morph and change. Your blog is a living and breathing business card so it is important to be truthful while sharing your enthusiasm for your subject.
As the form of the cookbook evolves online bloggers are increasingly becoming a central community of great importance in the food industry. Publishers are starting to work and collaborate with bloggers as part of a larger social media strategy. Whatever side you are on, publisher/author or blogger you need to be conscious of the opportunities and challenges. One key consideration is that partnering publishers/authors need to recognize that bloggers are not freelance writers, journalists or cheap/free labour. Potential partners please take note:
- Bloggers wear many hats: we are publishers; editors; photographers/ stylists; social media experts; marketers/ public relations; entrepreneurs.
- One size does not fit all: Yes we are all bloggers but we all do not have the same target audience. If you want to work with a blogger learn about the site, the blogger and who they are writing for.
- Bloggers are about community: Bloggers and their readers, in general, tend to share like minded interests and thrive building relationships and sharing experiences. In this community a built in audience and following exists.
- Respect bloggers and their community: Because of the way people interact online bloggers tend to be more approachable than traditional media. As cookbook authors are writing their book they should use social media to build and follow a community. Reach out to bloggers to help in promoting your cookbook perhaps through recipe or cookbook reviews. That being said, bloggers and their community dislike to be taken advantage of or misled. Build authentic, consistent and mutually beneficial relationships with bloggers.
And for bloggers interested in partnerships with marketers/ publishers/ authors, some words of wisdom from some of the very thoughtful commentators at this conference:
- Don’t pursue relationships which don’t align with your blog’s purpose or your personal values. Your readers will see right through it.
- Be your own PR firm. No one else is going to do it for you so be proactive in building relationships in different forms of social media. Remember to keep your voice consistent and do not over promote. For example, perhaps 15 percent of your tweets promote your blog/work while the other 85 percent promote your other interests and your authentic self.
- Reach out to cookbook authors/ publishers or food producers. Share with them how your blog can be a good testing ground and promotional tool in letting the public know about an author’s new fantastic book or new product. The worst thing that can happen is that they say they are not interested.
- Think out of the box. Again, your post does not need to be a recipe. Perhaps you have the opportunity to spend the afternoon cooking with a fellow blogger or author and instead you can share some culinary tips they divulged during your time together.
Are You Ready to Publish A Cookbook??
One of the overriding themes of the many conversations and workshops could probably fall neatly into the category “So you want to publish a cookbook”. Editors and publishers agree that just because you blog doesn’t mean that you should immediately push the button to publish. While your blog may be the best platform to share your ideas, what are traditional publishing types looking for?
- Blog once or twice a week and do it really well as opposed to blogging four poorly written posts each week. The editors at this conference agreed that quality reigns over quantity.
- The voice of the author is paramount. One editor suggested having someone regularly act as your ‘editor’ who can be constructive and helpful but warned against over editing. Your voice needs to remain present. On the other hand, another editor noted a preference for reading the raw work of the author. It is their job to edit. They want to see what you have to say and whether or not they can see the potential in working together to further sharpen your voice. They want your blog to have a fresh, inviting voice and to bring a unique perspective to the subject you are writing about.
- Consider new and alternative publishing avenues. You’ve written a cookbook proposal, sent it to publishers and have received rejection letters or no response at all. Disheartening yes but it doesn’t necessarily mean that your idea is not a good one and should be not published. The traditional publishing industry is unsure of what the future holds and getting a publishing contract with a mainstream publishing house has never been more difficult. If you have not been on TV, are an up and coming chef in a major urban centre, or have an overwhelmingly successful blog (101 Cookbooks; David Lebovitz) it is unlikely you will get a deal with a major publisher. There seems to be an overwhelming consensus that the cookbook as we know it will not disappear but a recognition that people are gathering recipes and food information from different sources. Consider approaching smaller, independent publishers; self publish; or look to new publishing houses such as Amazon.
The Roger Smith Cookbook Conference was a stimulating few days bringing academia, traditional publishing and new media together helping to promote discussion on how old and new forms of the cookbook can coexist and thrive in our evolving publishing world. Bloggers are at the heart of this discussion and I highly recommend participating in future conferences.
Videos of many of the sessions from the conference will be up at by the last week of February.
Bloggers In A Cookbook World was written by Cameron Stauch, a professional chef based in Ottawa and who has lived and traveled throughout Asia. His current blog, India On My Plate, focuses on bridging your kitchen with India’s kitchens. He and his family were the inspiration for the main characters in the feature film Cooking with Stella. He’s excited to be moving back to Asia and to switching his membership category to Canadians Blogging Abroad (Hint: Anthony Bourdain said he was going to move there- but hasn’t yet). Cameron can be found on twitter or Facebook.
Images courtesy of Cameron Stauch