Mishaps–like melting cakes–are part of the cookbook production process!
Have you heard? I self-published my first e-cookbook last week! It’s called Sweet Spot: Modern, Better-for-You Dessert Recipes, with Clever Tips to Bake (Mostly) Dairy Free, and it is full of sweet treats that are leaner and more nutritious than regular desserts, but still taste sumptuously indulgent. If you want to learn more, feel free to check out the book’s page (it’s on sale right now!). But today, I want to share a little about the behind-the-scenes process.
The idea of writing a cookbook came to me in the spring of this year. To learn more about the backstory of the book, take a look at the post I wrote for Food Bloggers of Canada. The idea of going through the process of writing and publishing a cookbook probably wasn’t too daunting for me because I knew I could pretty much do it all myself. I’m a graphic designer, and I have handled magazine layouts by myself before, so I kind of knew what I was getting myself into. I was most worried about the food photography. I could take pictures I liked enough to publish on my blog, but could I pull off shooting photos for an entire book? When I shared my cookbook idea with a talented food photographer friend of mine, Catherine Côté, she immediately offered to shoot the book. Having the opportunity to work with a pro was a huge relief! It all suddenly sounded totally doable. I would create recipes, have them photographed by my friend, execute the layout of the book, and voilà: it would be out in the world.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Well, let me tell you, it was a ton of work. The timeline went like this:
- Over the summer: General brainstorming
This mostly means I thought about the book during my off hours, for example while I was taking a walk. During that period, I also polished up my book’s theme, did research online and at the library, took notes when recipes came to me, and jotted down title ideas. I used Evernote to group all my notes in a single place. I snapped pictures of dairy-free products at the grocery store, restaurant menus, or dessert displays and sent them to my Evernote notebook with a caption so I could remember the place or idea a photo sparked. I filed away articles about e-book writing and publishing so I could remember which key steps and tools to use. Finally, I bookmarked informative sources about nutrition, lactose intolerance, and dairy-free baking.
- Early August: Recipe development and testing
I started by determining chapters (special occasion cakes, cookies, and so on) and deciding how many recipes would go in each chapter. I made a list of my favorite baking ingredients to make sure I used them all in my recipes. I went over my personal recipe notebook and my blog to pick out some classic recipes I wanted to revisit in my book. Then, I made a list of my favorite types of desserts so I could be sure to cover them in the book, either in classic or reinvented form (carrot cake or lemon meringue pie, for example). I came up with a long list of recipe titles with notes for each recipe, sorted them by chapters, and weeded out the ones that felt redundant. I researched the recipes I wanted to expand further and wrote drafts that I later used to test the recipes. I tested the recipes once and made my final pick for the 20 main recipes included in the book.
- First week of September (4.5 days total): Styling and photographing the final products
My friend Catherine had a full schedule in the fall, so I booked the week she was free, even though I wasn’t finished writing and testing the recipes. It was important that the general idea of each dessert was set and that the result actually looked like the final product. I saw making the recipes for the shooting as one more recipe-testing opportunity, and I took notes of what I still needed to improve. A crust was too chewy; a cream was too liquid; a frosting was too sweet. All that was fixed after the shooting, but you can’t notice my mishaps in the pictures—I’m so grateful for that! Shooting 20 recipes in less than 5 days meant my oven was probably on 24 hours a day during that period: I would spend all night baking, then all day at Catherine’s shooting the desserts I made the night before. Did I mention there was a heat wave the week we photographed the book? Let’s just say the whole process was a workout.
Choosing props was one of my favorite tasks during the food photography process.
I like textured backgrounds and my friend has plenty of those, but for one shot, we even ended up using her dining room bench as a background! Be creative, they say.
Sometimes, we shot outside on the photographer’s balcony, to catch the best light–and a refreshing breeze!
- Late September: More recipe testing, tasting, and fixing
By now, I knew almost all my recipes by heart, and I had overextended the bellies of my friends and family by handing off desserts to everyone who said yes to a taste. But I was proud of all my desserts and excited to start working on the layout of the book.
- October: Writing the recipe headnotes and all the remaining cookbook content
Before anything else, I needed to get the writing done. I wrote all the headnotes one after the other. One cookbook author recommended this to me, and I thought it was very productive instead of writing them at the same time as writing the recipes themselves. Then I drafted long-form chapters, saving shorter assignments for the very end of the project (table of contents, acknowledgements).
Our feline “assistant”.
Creating a scene.
Looking over the pro’s shoulder.
- Late October: Copyediting
I sent all 25,000 words to be reviewed by a trusted editor I’m used to working with. I took a break while I waited for the text to come back to me (but I should have started working on the layout instead!).
- Early November: Graphic layout of the book and additional photography
I did some visual research to identify what kind of cookbook layouts I liked (answer: simple and minimalist). I then opened InDesign and spent the next two weeks immersed in it. The only breaks I took were to shoot basic recipes and variations. I did not ask my food photographer friend to take those pictures because they needed very little styling, and I preferred using her time for the visuals that were crucial to the overall feel of the book. I usually spent the morning on the computer, made the recipes during lunchtime, shot them in the early afternoon, processed the pictures, and integrated them into the book as they were ready.
- Mid-November: Cookbook release
I first scheduled the release of the book for November 16, but there was still so much to do I needed to push the release date back by a week. The details that needed to be dealt with at the very end of the project seemed insurmountable. All my available time was spent on the book. I did not go out at all that week, and I may even have forgotten to take a shower a few times. I wanted to get things done and release the book before Thanksgiving in the United States so it wouldn’t be drowned by the upcoming wave of holiday-themed publications. At midnight on November 24—the release date—I was generating the final e-book files. The morning of the release, I tested my e-commerce solution, which I was thankfully already using to sell other e-books so there were no last-minute surprises. With a sigh of relief (and disbelief), at 11:30 am on the release date, I published the book’s page and shared it on social media—it was finally out!
While I feel like I laid out a pretty realistic timeline and things went pretty smoothly, one aspect of the project I underestimated was the time I needed to spend on projects with other clients (you know, those who pay the bills!). I also had outings planned in the fall—such as a trip to Portugal—that pulled me away from my cookbook project. Thus, I didn’t work full time on it, and as a result, the last few weeks ended up feeling like a mad rush to getting the book out. Surprisingly, I wasn’t bored by the book by then. I loved it even more now that it existed physically, and I was just impatient to be done and eager to present it to the world.
The fact that I published a digital book had two major advantages, production-wise:
- I could still fix things until the very last minute before publication; and
- I can and will easily keep on updating the files if I catch more typos and mishaps (which, of course, I will).
Publishing an e-book also limited the production costs because I didn’t have to advance printing fees. However, another aspect of the project I underestimated was the total cost of writing a cookbook: grocery bills racked up much higher than I expected—and I am not even willing to calculate the total cost in working hours. I stopped logging the time I spent on the book after hitting 150 hours, and that was before the rush at the end of the project (I’m probably close to 300 hours spent on the project by now). This had a direct effect on my freelance workload, and I could never have dedicated most of my time to getting the book done if it had not been for E’s emotional and, especially, financial support.
This cookbook project is far from done. The marketing strategy is usually developed before the release of a book, but I had no time to dedicate to that aspect before I released mine. This might sound like a terrible oversight, but I figured this was my first book, so I would take my time to get the word out. I am currently in the process of contacting friends and bloggers I admire to try to get Sweet Spot into the spotlight. At the same time, I’m working on a book proposal because my plan and hope is to find an editor to publish an extended print version of Sweet Spot. I already have 40 more recipes in mind and lots more information about dairy-free baking to share. Fingers crossed I can carry this project even further. I’ll keep you posted!