A New Book Deal and What it Says About Chefs and Restaurants with Literary Aspirations
I’m delighted to announce that Grand Central Publishing (specifically the imprint Grand Central Life & Style) has picked up the proposal I recently wrote with Battersby chefs Joseph Ogrodnek and Walker Stern. The book, BATTERSBY: Extraordinary Food from an Ordinary Kitchen, will be published in 2015. (For some backstory on the project, check out this recent piece about a day and night in the Battersby kitchen.)
Here’s the official Grand Central announcement:
“Karen Murgolo, VP, Editorial Director of Grand Central Life & Style, has acquired world rights, with Amanda Englander also editing, to the first cookbook by Joe Ogrodnek and Walker Stern (chefs and co-owners of Battersby, the beloved restaurant in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood). Set for publication in 2015 and won in auction, BATTERSBY: Extraordinary Food from an Ordinary Kitchen (written in collaboration with Andrew Friedman) promises to help readers prepare and serve sophisticated, satisfying food, with advice on what to prepare ahead and then how to finish later, a boon for those of us with limited time and space. Represented by David Black of the David Black Agency.”
(In the small-world department, Grand Central also picked up the other collaboration I’m working on, Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook.)
Collaborating on this proposal, and taking it to market, crystallized a few recent evolutions in the process of conceiving and selling books based on chefs and their restaurant work, so I thought I’d share a few impressions along with this news:
1. With few exceptions, it can’t be just a restaurant cookbook. When I first started writing with and about chefs, selling a restaurant cookbook was a layup. A toque armed with two or more New York Times stars could more or less put forth a proposal for the So-and-So Restaurant Cookbook, load up the resulting tome with photographs of signature dishes (prepared to the restaurant’s exacting standards, with ring molds, countless sub-recipes, and a litany of expensive and hard-to-procure ingredients), and find publishing success. No longer. With very few exceptions, chefs who want to write cookbooks need to identify and focus on what I call “the bridge” – an aspect of what they do in their restaurants that ties into what people do at home, and to be willing to strip down and/or simplify their restaurant repertoire in the process. In the case of Battersby, the book’s focus will be how to cook and serve sophisticated food that isn’t overly complicated and which can largely be prepared in advance, then finished and served with a modicum of time and effort. The concept grew organically out of how the restaurant functions; the open kitchen is famously cramped, with room for just three cooks, so the guys have had to develop a repertoire of dishes that fit that description. Although the book is titled after the restaurant, it is most definitely not a restaurant cookbook. The truth is that we couldn’t come up with a different title that summed up the concept and also fit the personalities of the two young, Brooklyn-based chefs in the author seat; in this case the subtitle “Extraordinary Food from an Ordinary Kitchen” (which Joe devised during a meeting with our agent), is as important as the title itself.
2. Do proposals need to be visual? I’m phrasing this one as a question because the jury’s still out, but recent events have caused me to wonder. When I first started writing for a living, I was stunned to learn that book proposals, even for lavish, coffee-table-scaled books, were presented as simple Word documents, with no photography or graphics whatsoever; they looked so dry and lifeless that I took to calling them “business plans without the numbers.” Recently, though, some friends have had success with art-directed proposals that give a real sense of what the book they have in mind will look and feel like. We decided to do the same thing with the Battersby proposal, enlisting the help of a talented and exceedingly generous friend to come up with a proposal that brought the words to life with graphics and photography. How much did this matter in the end? We’ll never know. But at a time when selling books is harder and harder, you want to do everything you can to set yourself up for success and when our agent took this thing to market, we definitely felt like we were putting our best foot forward. Personally, while I could see selling a non-fiction book the old-fashioned way, I can’t see going out with a non-art-directed cookbook proposal again.
3. Chefs and photographers. Photographically speaking, the day of the dog-and-pony show is over. Once upon a time, when a chef (or chefs) sold a cookbook project to a publisher, one of the first ensuing steps was to enlist a photographer, usually by calling in a handful of photographers, who came to meet us with their “books” – outsized portfolios that they walked you through as they discussed how they saw your project. Today, more often than not, chefs have preexisting relationships with photographers for the simple reason that they spend more time with photographers than they used to .. . where a photo session was once a rare and special thing, chefs are now regularly shot for blogs and food sites, and hire their photographers directly for their own websites and other special projects. Where a book’s editor and I used to recommend photographers to the chefs, on the last several projects I’ve been involved with, the chefs have come to the table with photographers in mind: both Paul Liebrandt and Michael White had a relationship with Evan Sung and brought him on board for their books, and Harold Dieterle told me early on he wanted to enlist Daniel Krieger. The Battersby boys were no different: they were so committed to using Finnish shutterbug Tuukka Koski that we actually put his name in our proposal . .. that was a first for me, but surely not the last time I’ll do it. As with these other developments, I suspect that the exceptions are fast becoming the norm.