Making P&A, pt.1: How to Write a Cookbook Proposal
Part 1 of a trilogy of posts about the backstage of how I created my fist cookbook, Pomegranates & Artichokes (P&A for friends). This is where it all began.
There are only three weekends left until the publication of my first book, my baby, Pomegranates & Artichokes. In these three weeks I’m going to take you backstage and show you how this book came to life. Part of the reason I’m sharing these stories is that I wish somebody had told them before me (some food writers indeed do share their publishing process, but a lot of it is still in grey). Another reason is that I hope you who are reading this newsletter will be pleased to know the genesis of Pomegranates & Artichokes, aka P&A for friends.
I started my food and photography blog Lab Noon in 2014. I came from a background of many years in graphic design, and in 2015 I graduated in Graphic Design & Photography and for my thesis project, I made a cookbook. An actual cookbook, bound and printed. I admit although that project was merely a template, so there wasn’t much of a content. Yes, the recipes were nice, but they were unconnected, rather just something to fill the pages. That project gave me the bug. (Or maybe I did it because I already had the bug, can’t remember now).
I remember one of my professors in the thesis presentation said “Well, only one thing is missing: the barcode.”
Later, someone tried very hard to make contact with one of the best Italian publishing houses so that they could publish it. I had just been nominated for a Saveur Blog Awards (remember those?). The project was beautiful. I was building on a following on social media that although not huge, was consistent. They ignored me.
I thought —and now I see how delusional of me it was— that if I just kept doing what I did, posted beautifully made pictures, developed good recipes and wrote blog posts, wrote for a few magazines and websites, I would be offered a cookbook. Someone would arrive, a literary agent or a publisher, and they would offer me a very good deal, and my professional life would change forever. After all I knew this had been the story of many of my peers, but that fairytale never happened to me.
Well, not entirely. I did get approached by no less than three publishing houses between 2016 and 2018 and turning them down has been one of the best things I have ever done for myself. I’ll explain further below.
Taking matters into my own hands
At a certain point in late 2016 I realised I couldn’t wait for a knight on a white horse to arrive and offer me the book deal of my dreams. I had to do it myself, and the first thing that comes up when you google “how to publish a cookbook” is to have a good and clear idea, and write a proposal to send to literary agents. So I started doing that.
The idea for Pomegranates & Artichokes came to me on January 5, 2017 in a moment of magic and mysticism and to this day is one of the strangest, most faithful experiences of my life. I will tell you that story in another moment, for that is a story about intuition, faith and trust.
Todays’ story is one of pragmatism and planmaking. Of how I made something as abstract as an idea into a physical, purchasable object. It’s a strange feeling. It all began with writing a proposal.
But where to begin? “Start with Why”
This is true for every project, but particularly for writing a cookbook. Why do you want to write a cookbook? There is no wrong answer to this question but the answer determines how the proposal should be, whether you need an agent or not, which publishers are suitable for you, which deals you should accept or refuse, whether you should self publish or, whether you really aren’t ready yet to write a cookbook.
It can be that you have a nice selection of family recipes that you want to share, or that you have been doing extensive research on an ingredient, a method or a region that you think can be turned into a book, or that you can convey a specific story through your recipes, or you’re the most knowledgeable person in the world baking in microwave oven, that you want to establish yourself and/or your brand an authority on a specific diet. Your why can be anything, but you need to find it, and be very clear about it.
Spend a lot of time reflecting on this because everything from this moment on depends on your WHY. Even in the best circumstances writing a cookbook isn’t easy and you will need to remember your why and cling on to it when things get hard.
My why was that I wanted to put Iranian and Italian food on the same level, one next to another, in the same book, of the same value. To talk about Iran without 1001 nights, and about Italy without dolce vita, and to say it all through the lens of immigration.
Now that you know your why, before actually writing a proposal, you’ve got work to do.
Have a platform
There’s no getting out of this. You need a platform. That’s the first thing every agent and publisher will ask for. It’s true, you see a lot of people with small social media numbers who get published, but chances are they’ll have established their work elsewhere previously (they may be well respected cooking teachers etc). For (food) writers, it used to be blogs, then instagram, now definitely also Substack. That said, not everyone with a high instagram following number is getting published (though I guess there’s some publisher somewhere who will publish them). One way or another, it’s very unlikely that with no body of work at all you will ever get published. Also start guest writing for other blogs, develop recipes etc.
As I explained above, I had done all of this, but I can tell you now that for many agents and publishers my platform and body of work was still too small.
Have a community, not just followers
This isn’t just readers who love your work, but also the people whose work you love and admire. If you’ve been enjoying the recipes and books of certain writers, let them know on their social media. Don’t be cheesy, people can always tell when people wanna make contact out of interest, reach out because you genuinely want to say hi. Build relationships, even friendships. This network will be important later when you want to sell the proposal, for the publicity and marketing of a published book.
I can tell you now that although I had been fortunate enough to have the endorsements of several food writer and author friends on my proposal, upon signing the deal I was still asked whether I knew any influential food people in a certain country, which thank god I did. I was friends with a few food writers from that country and that was reassuring to everyone on my team.
Have a vision
Some might say this isn’t necessary but I disagree. This is about the aesthetics of your book. How do you imagine it? Do you see it as super modern, something for the tiktok age that’s snappy, with the latest trend in typography as seen on the most viewed instagram reels? Or do you see it as something to evoke the old world, with a classic look and feel, serif fonts only? See a lot of books, notice how they’re different in design. Ask yourself, what is that I like about my favourite book? What do I hate about that other book? The more clear your ideas, the less surprises you’ll have with the design later.
As an ex-designer, this was my jam. I knew exactly what I wanted from the proposal right to the last edits. I didn’t get all of them, but what I got was exactly what I wanted.
Pomegranates & Artichokes was to evoke a sense of renaissance Italy and Safavid Iran (same period), which would consequently be the early Ottoman Turkey and Levant. I wanted frescoes and mosaics next to each other just as recipes where. I wanted old, delectable textures of worn and lived walls. I wanted everything in tones of earthy terracotta, and desert sand. And golden threads inspired by the manuscripts of the middle ages both in Iran and the west.
I wanted a very clean, airy layout with a lot of white space and a classic palette of fonts. No frilly little graphics or paislies and no funny orientalist fonts to represent the middle east.
From now on you’re constantly screenshotting or taking pictures. Ideas, recipes, articles, podcasts, something you eat, books, kindle, graphic design. I like to collect everything on Trello. I have a whole board on Trello dedicated to P&A, with many lists based on topics inside, each list with many cards. All my little ideas, things I saw, around, inspiration of any sort, everything is there. I even take photos of my hand written notes and add them to Trello. It’s like a big folder where things don’t get lost.
Also Pinterest of course, for anything visual. Make those boards secret.
How to write a cookbook proposal
Start by explaining the idea. Remember this is not the introduction of the book, but a chance to explain your why. Why do you think it should be published? How is it different from other cookbooks in its genre? What’s your personal angle? Can you put it into an elevator pitch of only a sentence or two? Here’s your moment to catch the attention of a potential agent or publisher. This shouldn’t be more than a page or a page and half.
Here is also the place to explain the structure of the book, how you want to divide it, and what each chapter will include. Note that the actual list of content comes later.
About the author
This is the part where you need to say everything you’ve done in this field, both in the world of writing and cooking. This is not a place for modesty, but don’t list things you haven’t done. Write it in the first person and include a nice photo. Your social media numbers and press kit data also go here.
You need to have some sense of what has been happening in the cookbook market in recent years, and of course you need to know it well in your own genre. For example if you’re writing about vegan Asian family food, you need to have researched vegan cookbooks and Asian cookbooks published in the last few years. Remember that your competition is someone who has about your numbers and a platform only slightly larger than you, not Nigella Lawson or Samin Nostrat.
Marketing and publicity
What are your plans for promoting this book? Of course things can change a lot from the time of writing a proposal to publication. Look at me, I think when I was writing mine Substack didn’t even exist. But you need to know whether you’re better at traditional media, or just a lot of social media campaigns. Can you do some collaborations? Are you planning classes or workshops? Can you name specific people or places for anything you have in mind? This would help.
Sample of writing and recipes
At last, this is the sample of the book you want to write. I suggest you write the introduction and something like 5 - 8 recipes with their headnotes. The most important thing however is the list of contents. The whole point of a proposal is showing that you know what you want to do. Chapters and a list of all of the recipes. Don’t worry, you can change these while making the book (as long as it’s still the same book). What is important is that you show you know the structure of the book.
Some extra tips
Make a landscape file, with a 2 column text, so that it looks like an open book. Most agents and publishers read these proposals on a tablet or ipad, so it helps. Use a decent size font, never smaller than 11 pts and add a line spacing of at least 1.5 pt. You don’t want to ruin your chances by delivering a hard to read document. Keep a nice Word file of everything.
Have someone read it all, twice. See if there are any errors and correct them.
Now you can put all of this into a beautifully designed pdf, but it’s not really necessary. If you do have a vision and you have collected aesthetic material but can’t have the document design like that, just add another part to the proposal about the design and explain it. Use some of the images you have collected, give credit and say what you like about them. Don’t over do this.
Same is true for photos. If you can take good pictures, or you have a photographer who can do that for you, that’s awesome. But remember, you don’t have to. Not every writer has to be a photographer, you can attach a simple photo of your food that you take with your phone. For the look and feel use any photos and images you find on the internet (credit), to show how you want the book to look like. Remember your proposal shows the idea you have of your book.
If you’re collaborating with a professional photographer who is taking some pictures for free and you’re putting the name in the proposal, make sure you really do give the job to them when you get a deal.
Add a cover, and if you have a working title, use it. Don’t be rigid about the title and subheading. They almost always change. I was incredibly lucky that nothing from Pomegranates & Artichokes was changed,
A very nice bonus point
Remember the community? It would be very nice to have an endorsement section. Ask a small group of fellow food writers or other influential food people you know to give you a little blurb. It shows your strength in the publicity world. This is especially important if your platform is small.
You're now ready to send your proposal to a literary agent or a publisher. Even if you’re planning to self-publish (which I don’t personally recommend, as cookbooks are very expensive to produce) this proposal will be your map to come back to during the writing process.
Agent or no agent?
There’s no single answer for this but it has a lot to do with your WHY. I know some quite well-known food writers who have authored many internationally successful cookbooks without an agent, but from what I’ve learned, they’re the exception. Having an agent has a lot of benefits that you can easily google, but for me it is support, guidance and advice in a world of the unknown. An agent leaves you to do what matters; write and create your book (and then promote it), everything else is done by the agent. And remember, if you aspire to be a professional writer and you’re aiming at big publishing houses, it’s not possible to do it without an agent. I suggest you subscribe to agents and books newsletter. I read everything on the internet on this topic back then and I wish I had known about this newsletter.
A happy ending?
I wanted an agent at all costs. For a while it seemed impossible, I got my fair share of rejections and it felt like hell. But in the end I signed with my agent after merely 4 month of submitting. This was January 2020. At the same time we were also in the middle of talks with a good publisher. The editor was very keen but the marketing team rejected us because of my platform (what did I tell you?).
The editor got back to us in mid February saying she had had the worst flu of her life. I too had had an unprecedentedly horrible flu early in February. We didn’t know yet that it was Covid. Then my agent told me to add a couple of more recipes to the proposals (I had put too few, the only change that was ever made to my proposal). By the time I got over my frustration with that previous publisher it was early March. Here in Italy the pandemic was creeping up on us. I went out one evening to buy the ingredients for to make and photograph those extra recipes. A car hit me on the zebra crossing. My knee broke and my whole body was bruised. The day after I came home from the hospital, Italy shut down in lockdown and I was left at home alone with a full leg cast and lots of pain killers.
We went through what we went through, I did with 2 crutches and many, many physiotherapy sessions. It wasn’t until mid June, that with an incredible amount time, attention and pain, I cooked two more recipes, took the pictures and added them to the proposal.
By the time all was prepared and my agent started the first round of submission it was early July. It did not go well. I was left broke with a broken knee, unable to work when there was no work to be done.
Then, there was another act of faith —for this is a story that begins and ends with miracles and acts of faiths— and my publisher Murdoch Books fell in love with Pomegranates & Artichokes, and it wasn’t the only one either. This was late August.
I tested the first recipe in September.
Next week I’ll tell you about the photography process of Pomegranates & Artichokes.
It is a huge process -- and to do it with a broken leg too!! I am proud of you, my friend!
Saghar I can't even imagine how horrible it was for you with the accident and then being in a cast right as we went into Lockdown here. You had the extra weight of not knowing if your P&A dream would become a reality given the Pandemic. I am so sorry for this difficulty and yet it makes your story - this whole endeavor - so much sweeter. And how generous you are to share the process with us. I too am so fascinated with others' creative process, and while my WIP is not a cookbook, it helps to know that others have walked this daunting process as well. I've preordered your book and so look forward to it, especially now that I know the backstory. Brava and auguri and all the best in every way, I look forward to following along here.