Whether you’re looking for an impressive recipe for a dinner party or just want to inject some more variety into your cooking, there’s something magical about flicking through a cookbook and seeing which recipes excite you. Though, if you’re passionate about food and cooking, you may have always dreamed about creating your very own cookbook…
Writing and publishing your own cookbook isn’t only a great way to inspire other cooks, it’s also a lovely way to pass your most treasured recipes down to younger family members.
But, knowing where to start with your cookbook and how to make it stand out from the crowd can be tricky. The writing process can also take time and commitment – and then, should you wish to publish it, you’ll need to consider which publishing route to take.
So, if you’ve got an idea for an exciting new cookbook simmering away, we hope these eight key steps will help you on your way.
1. Find your focus
Behind every great cookbook is an interesting theme. If you want to write your own cookbook, the chances are you already have a concept – and if you don’t, it’s worth taking some time to think about your focus and subject matter.
You might want to concentrate on food from a certain country, region, or culture. You may be interested in writing a cookbook about hosting dinner parties, or perhaps you’d rather write a book that focuses on quick-but-delicious weeknight recipes? You might be hoping to write a vegan cookbook or a gluten-free cookbook – or maybe you’d rather write a book all about getting creative with canapés?
Once you’ve found your concept, it’s helpful if you then further narrow the focus of your cookbook. There are thousands of cookbooks published each year in the UK, but only a few hundred sell more than 100 copies – and even fewer sell more than 1,000 (in 2020, 5,000 cookbooks were published in the UK, but only 48 sold more than 5,000 copies).
You have a much better chance of success if you know how to make your cookbook stand out. So, if you’d like to write a vegan cookbook, for example, then consider what makes your book unique. Perhaps your cookbook could contain low-carb, high-protein vegan recipes? Maybe it could be about plant-based baking? Perhaps it could be about cooking vegan Italian food?
If you’re not entirely sure what your focus would be, then think about what excites you most about cooking. Having knowledge and skill is important if you want to write your own cookbook, but having plenty of passion is key too. Consider what you love most about getting creative in the kitchen: which foods do you love, and which cuisines inspire you?
Try to be honest about where your passion and talents lie, and think about how you’d be able to show and demonstrate these talents in a book. Looking at your own life and experience may be helpful for this bit. Maybe you’ve lived in another country and have a unique take on fusion food? Or, perhaps your grandmother showed you how to cook traditional recipes and you’ve added your own modern twist?
Bear in mind that the best cookbooks don’t only offer new perspectives on food and cooking, they’re also authentic and bring something new to the table – both literally and figuratively!
2. Decide on your style
Once you know what your focus will be, it’s then time to decide on your style. Do you want your cookbook to just contain a list of recipes, or do you want it to tell a story? Some cookbooks are all about fuss-free recipes, but others are interwoven with personal stories and anecdotes.
If you enjoy writing, you might also want your cookbook to contain beautiful and stirring prose. Some of the most successful cookbooks aren’t just informative – they also describe food so vividly that you can almost taste it; are evocative and can transport the reader to different countries and settings; and act as a love letter to food and cooking, rather than just a compilation of recipes.
Having a clear vision of your style and narrative will help prospective publishers to have confidence in your book, and it’ll also help it stand out. If you’re unsure what style you want your book to take, the best thing you can do is read as many cookbooks as you can. Identify the ones that interest you most, see which writing styles appeal to you, and think about whether they’d work for your idea.
To have a look at some of the best cookbooks and get inspired, you might want to check out the following articles: BBC Good Food’s The 15 best cookbooks, chosen by chefs, and Vogues’ 15 Genius Cookbooks That Everyone Should Own.
3. Create an outline and structure
So now you have an idea and style in mind, the next thing to do is to create an outline of your book’s contents. Good cookbooks aren’t just compilations of recipes, they also have a cohesive flow to them. Common ways to structure a cookbook by meal (e.g. starters, mains, desserts) or by taste (e.g. savoury, sweet, spicy), but depending on your book’s theme, you might find another approach works better.
For example, if you’re writing a book on seasonal cooking, you could structure your book by season – and if your book focuses on a certain country’s cuisine, you could structure the book by region. You could also create the outline based on key ingredients (e.g. vegetables, fish, meat) or different cooking methods (roasting, steaming, frying, etc.).
If you’re writing a cookbook full of personal anecdotes and stories, your structure can be a bit quirkier. You could have sections for comforting recipes, recipes that are good for a rainy day, post-workout recipes, recipes that’ll get you in the holiday mood, and recipes that children love.
Ultimately, you can follow whatever outline and structure you like, but it needs to take readers on a clear journey. Each recipe should slot neatly into one of your sections, making it easy for the reader to look at this list of contents and find the type of recipes they’re interested in making.
4. Compile your recipes
If you want to write your own cookbook, you probably already have a bunch of recipes in mind. So, consider which recipes are most important to you and which ones you think your book absolutely must contain. It’s best to try to include at least 10% more recipes than you think you need, as some may be removed in the editing process.
If you’ve struggled to create an outline and structure for your cookbook, you may find that compiling a list of your favourite recipes helps with this, and makes it clearer to you how your book should flow and be organised.
For example, if you realise you have an abundance of soup recipes, you may find that you want to dedicate a whole chapter to soups. And if you’re not passionate about a particular recipe, or you have any difficulty making it, then it’s usually best to leave it out.
If you’re having trouble deciding which recipes to include, speak to your friends and family and ask for feedback; what are their favourite dishes that you make for them?
5. Test your recipes
Once you have your recipes, it’s time to test them! This is often the fun part for friends and family, as each recipe should be tested at least twice – and someone will have to help you eat all this food!
To test your recipes, be sure to use proper scales, measures, and temperatures, and write as detailed a description of each step as you can. The more information you have, the better; if it’s too long, that’s what the editing process is for. So, rather than write “beat the eggs”, write “beat the eggs for around a minute, until they are light and fluffy”.
Triple check your measurements, as while editors will be able to keep an eye on typos, they won’t know if 150g was really meant to be 250g – and if your measurements aren’t accurate, your recipes won’t be a success. It’s a really good idea to ask friends or family to test your recipes themselves, so you know exactly how clear your instructions are and how the food comes out.
As you test your recipes, you should think about what other information you can include, aside from the recipe itself. Are you going to introduce each recipe, or give some background as to why you’ve chosen to include it? Perhaps you can include substitutions for certain ingredients? Is there any way you can encourage the reader to cook this specific recipe?
For more on creating, developing, and testing recipes, you might want to read this useful article by Bon Appetit.
6. Factor in photography
While including photos in your cookbook isn’t absolutely necessary, studies show that readers generally prefer cookbooks that contain photography. If you just want to include a few photos, rather than a photo for each recipe, bear in mind that when cookbooks only contain a few photos within each section, the reader tends to focus on the recipes that come with images.
If you’re hoping to have your cookbook published by a traditional publishing house, be aware that the publishers will probably want to hire professional food stylists and photographers – but even so, it’s still helpful to take your own high-quality photos if you can. This will make sure the editors are able to imagine the end result and may help them feel more enthusiastic about your book.
If you’re planning on self-publishing your cookbook, you may want to think about paying for professional food styling and photography. If you’d rather take the photos yourself, take some time to brush up on both your food styling skills and your photography skills. Your photos should be high-resolution, well-lit, and of good quality.
Do bear in mind, however, that you don’t have to include photos in a cookbook.
7. Publish your cookbook
Once you’ve planned your book’s structure, compiled and written your recipes and introductions, tested them multiple times, and taken your photos (if you’re including images), the final step is publishing your cookbook. And of course, this is often easier said than done!
Ultimately, you have two main publishing options: traditional publishing and self-publishing. Before deciding which avenue is right for you, you may first want to read our article, How to write a book and get it published, which examines the pros and cons of each method and offers detailed advice on how to pursue each option.
However, below we’ll explore each option as they relate to cookbooks.
Today, self-publishing is quick and easy, and online self-publishing is absolutely booming – so if you already have a food blog or are interested in publishing an ebook, this might be the right option for you. Self-publishing is also your best bet if you see your cookbook as more of a personal project, and you want to have copies to give to friends and pass down within your family.
However, it’s possible to achieve wider success via self-publishing, too. The benefit of self-publishing is that you have full control over your book, from the timeline to the cover design to the price – and because print-on-demand tech has become so popular in recent years, the cost of printing is low but the final product still looks smart and professional.
If you’re self-publishing your cookbook, it’s a good idea to hire a professional editor, as well as a cover designer. The cover of your book is incredibly important when it comes to sales and marketing. Plus, because Amazon doesn’t differentiate between self-published and traditionally published books, having an attractive cover can mean your cookbook holds its own among the cookery heavyweights.
Even if you have high hopes for your cookbook, it’s still worth considering forgoing physical copies and publishing online only. By self-publishing ebooks, you won’t have to think about things like supply and delivery, and can keep costs even lower.
Amazon is easily the world’s largest self-publishing platform, and publishing there is quick and easy. Even if you’re planning on working with another self-publishing company, most of your sales will almost certainly be coming through Amazon, so it’s worth taking time to familiarise yourself with it.
For more details on self-publishing your cookbook with Amazon, have a read of this handy guide.
If you’re hoping to find a wider audience for your cookbook, you may be hoping to get a book deal and be published by a traditional publishing house. The publishing process for a cookbook can be different to that of a work of fiction, and large publishing houses don’t tend to accept pitches from individuals. So, if you have a literary agent, your chances of getting a book deal are much higher.
If you’re interested in getting an agent, you can find and contact agents on sites like Publishers Marketplace (for a monthly fee), though you can also check out this list of UK literary agents. You might also want to check the acknowledgement section in your favourite cookbooks. The author may often thank their agent, so you can use your detective skills to contact them and message them!
While you don’t have to have an agent to get a book deal, according to Ione Walder, Publisher at Penguin Michael Joseph, it’s a good idea:
“It’s generally beneficial to all involved. Particularly as an agent can help manage an author’s cookery career beyond their book; helping them to pursue TV or media roles, get booked for food festivals, launch merchandise, or generally support them in building a brand – all of which can, in turn, help their book reach a wider audience.”
If you can’t get an agent, you could consider reaching out to small, independent, or local publishers. These companies are much more likely to accept pitches from individuals rather than agents, but you’ll usually need to put together a book proposal or pitch. This should cover the subject of your cookbook, the recipe list or chapter breakdown, and information about yourself and your audience.
For more information on putting together a proposal for your cookbook, check out this informative article by Penguin.
And, to find out more general information on getting a book deal with a publishing house, as well as securing an agent, have a read of our article on getting your book published.
Writing a cookbook takes work and can be a real labour of love, but the process can be incredibly enjoyable too. Finding your focus, compiling your recipes, and testing them on loved ones is both challenging and rewarding – and researching other cookbooks may mean you discover plenty of exciting new recipes along the way!
Whether you’re hoping to get a traditional book deal or are planning to self-publish, writing and publishing your own cookbook isn’t only a great way to share your most mouthwatering recipes, it’s also a deeply personal way of passing something down in your family. And who knows, you could end up inspiring the next generation of chefs…