HOW TO NAIL YOUR COOKBOOK PITCH: Experts tell all.
They say that everyone has a book in them. How often do you hear those late-night cookbook ideas from your friends and colleagues, as you share a glass of wine and talk about your dreams? How often is that person YOU, with a killer concept bubbling away under the surface, unsure where to start? From putting pen on paper for the first time (or choosing another medium altogether!), to thinking about whether your idea is even viable and what routes you might want to take, we’ve gathered three publishing experts to talk about what the industry looks like right now and how YOU can break into it.
And the one piece of advice they ALL give? Just WRITE. Don’t put it off, don’t wait until the time is perfect, just do it in whatever way comes naturally to you. And then… you never know what might happen!
Lemara Lindsay-Prince (she/they) is Head of Imprint at award-winning imprint #Merky Books, behind the British Book Award winner Keisha The Sket by Jade LB, the memoir Just Sayin’ by Malorie Blackman and upcoming The Race to Be Myself by Caster Semenya. She is also joint Editor in Chief of independent literary journal Plantain Papers, and a published writer whose words can be found in Well Read Black Girl anthology and OOMK Magazine. Honoured in The 2020 Elle List as ‘the biggest game-changer of all time’ in publishing, the guiding line through Lemara’s work is to uplift and invest in new voices and new narratives from untold places. Lemara can be found frying plantain at home.
Mia Oakley (she/her) is an award-winning marketer at Ebury, Penguin Random House (PRH) where she works across a range of illustrated and narrative non-fiction, with a particular focus in cookery and an expertise in audience development. She is also the Co-Chair of Colour[Full] PRH’s employee network for Black, Asian marginalised communities. Before joining campaigns, Mia held various positions across editorial, marketing and events management. Mia can be found on LinkedIn, X/Twitter and Instagram.
Benjamin Benton (he/him) is the force behind Cartouche Press, an independent publisher of new voices in food, committed to developing the careers of emerging food writers and cooks. He is also a cook and writer, and the co-author of the bestseller Max’s Sandwich Book, its follow-up Max’s Picnic Book, and the soon-to-be-released Max’s World of Sandwiches.
What are the current trends in food publishing, and do you think that people should be aware of these while pitching?
BB: I always think trends, and as a byproduct trying to predict trends and bend a proposal towards them, are useful and useless in equal measure. The reality is that both agents, commissioning editors and specifically sales and marketing teams within publishing houses, will have trends very much on their minds, so it’s worth staying abreast of what’s selling well and what books are due for release to see if there are any trends or patterns you can tap into, but ultimately I think the best proposals are where someone pitches an idea that is current and alive and exciting, but most importantly is a topic/theme/angle that only they can expand on, that only they can bring to life for the rest of the world to see. The reality is, the big break out successes tend to come from left field, so whilst the sales teams track trends and want more of what’s working, the best editors will be actively looking at ideas that are more esoteric, that go against the grain rather than identically with it.
MO: Over the last year I’ve noticed in particular three trends in the wonderful world of food. First, the dominance of appliance-led cookery, most notably air fryers and slow cookers. In response to the economic recession, people have been increasingly seeking affordable and energy saving recipes which these appliances offer. I’m intrigued to see what gadget will take us by storm next. Although air fryer and slow cooker instructions are being included as alternatives in lots of proposals, so these two are not going away any time soon.
Secondly, the resurgence of diet and health. In 2023 this category is shaped by books which focus on a more personalised approach which consider things like well-being concerns, nutritional deficiencies as well as educating people on the science of what we eat. Underpinning all this are recipes which are quick and easy.
Lastly, and the area I find most enthralling, is content which focuses on the connection food brings – be it recipes which connect (or re-connect) people to their culture, cooking as an act of service for the ones we love, or food filled with childhood nostalgia. The NY Times dubbed this type of content as the ‘Gentle Storyteller’. The prominence of social media has meant that more underrepresented voices and communities in the world of food are starting to be platformed and shared. I’d love to see more of this on my feed, in my inbox and on my bookshelf.
LLP: It’s handy to know what’s going on in the publishing landscape – what’s out there already, what’s upcoming and what’s tracking well in brick and mortar stores and online charts. A knowledge of trends is useful but it isn’t the be all and end all and it shouldn’t guide your proposal entirely. Instead, authors should have a good sense of who their book is in conversation with, and maybe even in competition against. That knowledge can help you place your book on the shelf better, refine your USP / pitch and how your book could potentially be marketed.
What are you looking for in a submission?
LLP: It will sound woo woo, but I’m really looking for a feeling. I want to be compelled by the proposal’s promise – that the book will deliver on ‘x’ and the proposal is a journey through how and why you can do that. Particularly in non-fiction which I mostly acquire, I’m looking for books which provide a new way of seeing. So, what is food and taste through the lens of a memoir, or a cultural history of a particular ingredient, a longer narrative where a person or place is the hero.
Then, of course there’s potential. Can I imagine the reader for this book, and will they buy it when I publish it? We can’t divorce the business of it or how much it’s a business which values metrics of success like bestsellers, high in charts, retailer book of the month / year, top picked in curated lists and selling well week on week. An Editor needs to convince a division of publicists, marketers, sales folk and more that this book will connect with readers and sell well in the long run.
There’s also some building blocks when it comes to writing a proposal which are a loose rule of thumb to follow. What is your book about? Why does it need to be read? Why are you the person to write it? Where are you going to take the reader with every page or chapter? I really want to feel like I’m going on a journey with you and there’s a spark as an Editor knowing this is the one you want to tell your entire division about and every reader too. Sometimes, some of those things aren’t clear and that’s where an editor comes in – we sense that this book could be something and we want to shape it with you.
BB: Be it as an editor or as a writer when pitching, I am always looking for an idea that is new, or at least a new angle on an idea, and I am looking for a writer with an idea that they, and they alone, can bring into reality. Be it your upbringing, your obsession, your niche, or anything unique about you and your relationship with food/cooking/etc, that is your route in and that is what will make the proposal come alive for an editor. You’re looking for someone who can write too, I know that sounds obvious but it’s not always a given, or at least not always on show in a proposal.
Write the whole proposal in the tone of voice you’ll use in the book, take time to discover or develop your style, and then include a chapter sample, include recipes in your distinct voice, make sure every sentence in that sample is the best you can write, make sure every sentence is working in service of the idea, of you as a writer. Finally, I’m looking for a submission that shows me what the book will be. Often people pitch with an idea, but in reality that idea might only be a chapter, or a section of a book. I like to see a well thought out breakdown or chapter summary of what will likely be in the book and what will likely be included in each chapter. It just cements the fact that there’s a book in this idea that’s being pitched, and that the author knows their subject well enough to wring a full book from it, no matter how seemingly niche or specific their idea/situation might sound.
What are the biggest no-nos in a pitch?
LLP: I don’t think there’s any obvious no no’s… I’ve had experience of some authors including comparable titles ‘comps’ to show me what their book is similar to in content /style. However, they include them just because and don’t really think about the question I state above – is your book in conversation with that author enough to warrant that comparison… It’s ok if it’s not. So you want to really think, what are the elements of each comparable title you are using in your proposal, which translates a sense of your work for that Editor.
Honestly, this is a hard question because I sense a lot of budding authors will think they’ve done something so wrong at the proposal stage that means they won’t get an offer or email back from a Publisher, and that’s not the case. There’s a world of detail that goes into that decision. I think authors should take time to refine their pitch in a proposal – is that hook and promise clear. Can I get it or see the shape of what it can become and champion the promise / vision of it through with confidence.
BB: I think the only no-nos are when someone hasn’t put all of themselves and all of their idea into the proposal, otherwise nothing is off limits. Just don’t be boring. Catch the attention. Make the first paragraph of the introduction so electric that the editor simply has to read on just to find out everything you’ve got about this magic little idea you’ve come up with.
What is the best advice you can give to someone wanting to get into writing?
BB: Write. It sounds obvious, but really, write. It can be for yourself, or writing that you put out into the world, but write. I see a lot of proposals with no writing included in them. I mean the proposal has been written, obviously, but no writing in a narrative sense, no chapter sample, no excerpts of how the author will sound, will approach their subject, will develop a point and reveal this magical idea to the world. If you think you’ve got the next big idea for the next big cookbook, or food memoir, or food travel book, then start exploring your subject and writing about it. Start recording recipes and writing them in your style, start writing introductions to recipes that make them yours, start writing little essays around your subject, just write though.
LLP: Write! I know it’s easier said than done, and removing all mental and physical obstacles that prohibit the act of it are not easy, but work on the muscle it takes to write as often as you can. I’m a big believer that writing stretches across all mediums – from the novel, to a lengthy Instagram quote, a journalistic piece, to scribbles in the margins of a book. It’s all a valid form of writing. I think also you have to be clear who your writing is for and how comfortable you are sharing it with others. Are you writing for yourself first, free from an audience in mind. Or, are you writing to be read and published.
Also, don’t be afraid to stretch language and storytelling to a place / way you’re comfortable with it. For some people writing can be a huge barrier but can you share your intention another way, maybe visually or through audio? I’m interested in the writing yes, but more than that it’s the power of the story and seeing that is important too.
LLP: I’d always add that there’s so much potential authors can do before it comes to putting pen to paper and writing a proposal. What are other ways they are sharing their knowledge and stories? Have they produced a radio programme, do they have a podcast, do they utilise social media to share their work, have they written longform on a platform. Are you getting your story out there. Publishers are switched on and savvy, we’re looking for you as much as you’re looking for us. If I can see or hear something I think would make a great book, it’s because the work was accessible meaning out there and I caught the spark of an idea which could be something bigger.