It seems that foodies’ appetite for cookery books is showing no sign of abatement, not even in the recession. Approximately 250 new food and drink titles were published in October 2011, and the sector is worth a staggering 10% of the £900 million non-fiction printed book market. Our love affair with cookbooks will continue to grow for the foreseeable future, say Caroline Harris and Clive Wilson of Harris & Wilson, an editorial and project management service provider to the publishing industry.
I recently went to meet them at their home and office in Larkhall, near Bath, to find out, from behind the scenes, how a cookery book is born, and what different processes it goes through from conception at the author’s kitchen table, right through to my own pantry bookshelf.
In a week when a Christmas cookbook price war is announced between Amazon, supermarkets and independent bookshops, and when the sales of Apps and ebooks are soaring, it seems to me that it must be harder than ever to make a living from writing and publishing printed cookbooks. Best selling authors, such as Jamie Oliver whose “30 Minute Meals” has sold nearly half a million copies, are very few and far between. Just over a penny in every pound spent on a book in 2011 has gone towards a cookbook written by Jamie Oliver, who alone accounts for a fifth of all food and drink sector sales in 2011 (sales figures shown on www.thebookseller.com) but he is the exception rather than the rule. If a food and drink author earns anywhere between £5000 – £10 000 per annum, they can count themselves quite lucky, and in the digital world there are few barriers to entry, because very inexperienced people can think of themselves as potential authors.
“It certainly is a very competitive market,” Clive told me, “but I think that neither competition nor the success of ebooks will mean the end of the printed cookery book at all. I think that readers still enjoy buying printed lifestyle books because of the tactile qualities, the emotional connection and the importance of holding a really lovely, well photographed and beautifully printed book in your hands.”
Caroline thinks that with regards to just consulting recipes, the online and blogging world may well continue to be of interest to the average cook, but this will in no way detract from the food and drink book market.
“When someone goes on holiday, say to a rented villa, they may well want to take a cooking app with hundreds of recipes on it instead of carrying lots of cookbooks. That is certainly a great advantage of the ebook also, but the cookery book market, as a whole is driven by printed sales. I don’t think that is going to change.”
Caroline is an author herself, having written the domestic eco-guide “Ms Harris’s Book of Green Household Management” (published by John Murray) and she has also written children’s books about the natural world for Kingfisher Publications. During her journalistic career, after graduating with a degree in History and Political Sciences from Cambridge University, she was a senior editor on the Observer and Daily Express newspapers and a content editor for websites and blogs. Caroline is also a part-time lecturer on the Publishing course at Bath Spa University.
Clive graduated with a degree in History from Queens College Oxford, and then studied at the London College of Printing, specialising in publishing production. He was a senior project manager and commissioning editor for more than 15 years. He has edited award-winning titles at Kingfisher Publications and also worked with Thames & Hudson and Oxford University Press.
For want of a better word, Caroline and Clive are “impresarios”: they find previously undiscovered talent, put together a very detailed visual and written proposal for either a publisher or a television production company, pitch to commissioning editors, and, when a deal is signed, will see the entire process of production, marketing and sales through to the end phase, and onto the next book or series after that. The relationships they manage are very long term indeed.
“When we find someone new, whether they are a food writer, an artisan or a cook, we have to consider the whole narrative of the story long-term, because we cannot just think about the first book. We are, in effect, an agent for their career, so we have to think several years down the line. We will consider many different factors before we decide to work with someone, because we underwrite the whole process with our own money.”
Caroline and Clive show me on both their iPad and in printed format the different books they have finished and are currently working on, and the level of detail is fascinating. They will have an initial meeting with a potential new author creating a whole “mood board” to take to commissioners. This highlights the background of the author, why their book is going to sell, who is going to buy it and why, where the book should be marketed and whether there are any special events that can be created around the author or their work.
In their own words they “add value” to the author, making their work presentable and viable, giving them maximum chance of success. Photography is commissioned to illustrate the work, and the writing, editing, structuring, recipe-testing, checking, indexing, design, lay out, contents list and sample paragraphs are all ready and displayed so that a commissioning editor can see the viability of the project in its entirety.
Clive and Caroline then research very carefully the premier league of suitability with regards to publishers, analysing if they have already published work within a similar genre, and if so whether what they are bringing to the table is new, fresh and exciting. The editors have to persuade their sales and marketing team that the new book is going to sell well, and when that is successful the contracts are signed. The whole process can take up to a whole year from start to finish in some cases.
“We call ourselves “book packagers” and that does sum our activity quite well: by the time we arrive at the publishers’ table, after months of work, the book is more or less packaged. It just needs finalising, printing, distributing and selling. But we invest speculatively in the entire process until that day: both in terms of time and money, which means we have to believe in that author completely.”
So far, their judgement has been proven right. In the food and drink section of their stable “Pieminister”, written by Tristan Hogg and Jon Simon and published by Bantam Press, was bid for by no less than three top publishers at auction, and has received rave reviews, selling remarkably well after just a few weeks of launch. Designed by A-Side Studios and photographed by James Bowden, it celebrates the versatility and beauty of pies of all shapes and sizes, from savoury to sweet, across the seasons. “Bread Revolution” by Duncan Glendinning and Patrick Ryan, the brains behind the very successful Thoughtful Bread Company, showcases artisanal bread in all its glory, and is due for release soon from Murdoch Books. They have also been filmed for a television programme that will be released shortly. “Melt Ice Cream from Ginger’s Comfort Emporium” by Claire Kelsey is a wonderfully colourful, jubilant paean to the world of homemade ice-creams, and “I Heart Tea” (I love tea) book by Shayne House, founder of the hugely popular Tea Appreciation Society, are both in the marketing phase.
I asked the couple what advice they would give to aspiring cook book or drink writers that wanted to be published, or to feature on television. Clive believes that it is impossible, in the current economic climate, for someone to survive from the income derived just from being a food and drink writer: they need to have a portfolio career which means they might also be running a business, or teaching cookery or working in a full-time, salaried position which can then help them finance their passion for writing.
“I would not advise a new writer to contact publishers directly,” Caroline told me, “because all their unsolicited submissions just end up on a massive slush pile. The most important thing is to write a really good, well presented and well written Blog: this is how agents and editors will find you. Make time for enough social media to market yourself and to promote others, in a collaborative way, but also consider how you might get your local paper or regional magazine to write about you and your work, whatever that may be. Timing is critical. When we put together proposals for “The Natural Wedding Book” by Louise Moon (published by Alastair Sawday), and “The Make Lounge” by Jennifer Pirtle (to be published by Conran Octopus for launch in the autumn of 2012), the timing for those books was just right. They resonate with the frugal, sustainability and creative zeitgeist. The timing can be just a few months too early or too late and you have lost that moment in the schedule which means you will have to wait until the next cycle. Age is not important, as wiser, more established voices are very important in this industry. ”
Being a lecturer at Bath Spa University also gives Caroline a very good view of the future of publishing. She tells me,
“Nowadays students leave University with skills in Photoshop, InDesign, Dream Weaver, WordPress and social media: a whole new world is opening online and those are the skills that are needed to survive. The future is exciting. It’s also scary, but very exciting.”
Harris and Wilson website: www.harrisandwilson.co.uk
Follow Caroline and Clive on Twitter: @harrisandwilson
“MELT – ICE CREAMS FROM GINGER’S COMFORT EMPORIUM”
Author: Claire Kelsey
Photographer: Emily Dennison
Designer: Anita Mangan
Publication. date Spring 2013
Publisher – Simon & Schuster
“PIEMINISTER – A PIE FOR ALL SEASONS”
Authors: Tristan Hogg and Jon Simon
Photographer: James Bowden
Designer: Ross Imms at A-Side Studio
Published in September 2011
Publisher: Bantam Books
Authors: Duncan Glendinning and Patrick Ryan
Photographer: Jonathan Cherry
Designer: Olly Barnes at A-Side Studio
Publication date: Spring 2012
Publisher: Murdoch Books