Cookbook editing (Editors BC meeting)

October’s Editors BC meeting featured a panel on cookbook editing including

When she worked at Whitecap, Marchand worked with authors to shape their books from beginning to end of the publishing process. On rare occasions, Whitecap published authors who submitted to the slush pile, but more often the company worked with authors who have an idea for a cookbook but haven’t started writing.

“We ask them to submit fifteen recipes” to get a feel for what the cookbook would look like, said Marchand. If they can’t produce those recipes, the idea won’t be viable. Cookbooks typically have twenty-five recipes at a minimum, and may have up to a hundred.

Cookbook authors are usually chefs or cooks first, not writers. Cookbook editors frequently end up ghostwriting for the author, and the number of cookbooks an author has written before isn’t necessarily a good indicator of how good the manuscript for their next book will be. Star authors with a lot of books to their name may have had their work ghostwritten and come to expect that level of editorial intervention when they submit materials for their new books, whereas some novice authors may submit clear, well-thought-out recipes. “You just never know what you’re going to get.”

Marchand focused on the substantive process, where the editor looks at the manuscript for the first time to assess whether the book makes sense and whether it has all of the components it needs. Cookbooks usually have an introduction to the book itself and introductions for each chapter. Recipes often have introductions, but if each one is similar or pedestrian—as in “This is a wonderful dish that I make for my children all the time!”—maybe they should be cut.

Recipes have lists of ingredients, methods, and yields, but they might also have preparation times, cooking times, resting times, special equipment, substitutions, or unusual ingredients that have to be explained.

“If you don’t deal with them as early as possible, you will have a mess,” said Marchand. Work with the author early, get samples, and see how consistent they are. Marchand used checklists to guide authors on what to include for each recipe.

Tone and audience are critical when publishing cookbooks. “Chefs are used to preparing food for a lot of people,” said Marchand, so the cookbook editor’s job often involves paring down the recipes and ensuring that the audience will understand the instructions. The introductions and method will be different in a book meant for a home cook versus one meant for chefs. “It completely changes how you talk to people,” said Marchand. “What do they know? What do they need to know?” Sometimes tone will be uneven, and the editor has to work with the author to make it more consistent.

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“You guys are very mysterious,” said Marchessault, whose book was one of the very few slush pile submissions picked up for publication by Whitecap. She described the submission process as long and intimidating. “You submit things in the dark, and you just hope that what you submitted hit the mark.” She followed Whitecap’s submission guidelines, preparing a letter describing who she was and why she was qualified to write the book, why the book was needed, who would buy it, and how the book compared with other titles in the market. She partnered with a photographer to assemble a thirty-nine-page proposal with fifteen recipes. “The process helped fine tune what the book was about. The more you fine tune it, the stronger submission you have.”

Marchessault recruited people to test her recipes. “Having recipe testers was the best thing, because they brought clarity to my work,” she said. “As a cook, if you’re trained, you make a lot of assumptions.” Testers asked, for example, about her instruction to serve a pork dish with a pink blush. “‘Is that a wine?’ I said, ‘No—that’s the colour of the meat!’” Without that information, “you’re working in the dark.”

After a misunderstanding about file format that delayed her submission for three months (the Ontario office had told her to submit her image-heavy files on a flash drive, and only when she called the Vancouver office did she find out that they never read submissions on flash drives), she resubmitted and heard back nine months later. From the beginning to end, her submission process took about two years.

“It’s such a nerve-racking thing to finally submit a manuscript,” said Marchessault. “You’re so concerned, you’re so nervous about how it’s going to be received.”

Once the book was accepted for publication, Marchessault worked with three editors with different approaches and personalities. She could tell that one of her editors really enjoyed cooking. Another of her editors was more pedantic. “I think the relationship should be a bit of give and take.”

She said she didn’t work with an editor before submitting and thinks that might have helped. She also believes she would have benefitted from meeting her editor in person, early on in the publishing process. “It’s such an important relationship.”

“Authors love you guys!” she added. “You’re our greatest ally.”

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Okerlund described the copy-editing and proofreading phases of cookbook publishing, highlighting some specific issues editors have to look out for beyond the usual errors and problems with consistency. During copy editing, Okerlund checks that:

  • ingredient lists and methods agree and work together,
  • preparation instructions are not repeated in the ingredient list and method (so, for example, if the ingredient list says, “2 apples, chopped,” the method should not say “chop apples”),
  • the format of the instructions—numbered steps or paragraphs—is consistent,
  • ingredients are presented clearly and consistently between recipes (for example, does one recipe say “fresh lemon juice” and another “freshly squeezed lemon juice” and yet another just “lemon juice”?),
  • ingredients are unambiguous (for example, specifying whether herbs are dried or fresh),
  • measurements are consistent, accurate, and convenient,
  • conversions are correct,
  • yields and time guidelines make sense, and
  • titles properly describe the recipe.

Okerlund read from the Editorial Niches volume of Editing Canadian English: “If you can’t cook, please skip this section and go edit something else.” You don’t necessarily have to be a great cook to work on cookbooks, but you will be more successful if you know how people work in a kitchen, shop for ingredients, and serve food. Ingredient names should be familiar to the audience (for instance, use eggplant rather than aubergine, in North America), and recipes should accommodate using ingredients in standard package sizes. Okerlund keeps a list of package sizes on her style sheet.

Very few North American home cooks have kitchen scales, she said, so although a lot of European cookbooks—not to mention trained chefs in North America—will list ingredients by weight, books for the North American market should have volume conversions for such ingredients as sugar, flour, etc., or they just won’t sell.

When she proofreads, Okerlund:

  • fills in or confirms the cross-references,
  • makes sure the photos and illustrations match the recipe, and
  • looks at colour and typography to make sure they are used consistently.

Some books will have special design elements for, say, vegan or vegetarian recipes, or gluten-free recipes. The proofreader has to make sure these are used accurately.

Recipes are interesting from a copyright perspective because, although developing a recipe takes creativity, a list of ingredients can’t be copyrighted. Only the way a recipe is expressed can be copyrighted. Marchessault said that some classics, like pastry dough, are deemed universal, and you can’t really be accused of plagiarizing it. The recipe introductions are what let the author put more of a personal stamp on recipes like those, said Marchand. She has caught overt plagiarism before, and a tipoff is usually a disparity in tone.

The panel touched on cookbook indexes—a must in my view (and not only because of my professional self-interest!). Not all indexers are created equal: some people can create subject indexes for general nonfiction but have little understanding of what is important for a cookbook index. (If you’re interested in writing your own cookbook index in Microsoft Word or want to hear from cookbook-indexing expert Gillian Watts, you might find a couple of my past posts helpful.)

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