A collection of cookbooks. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

So so so many people tell me they have a cookbook to write, asking for advice, and I almost always do my best to discourage them, with Asian delicacy and Germanic firmness, I hope. Because I believe that there are too many cookbooks out there already and the ones so often published add nothing new.

So when writer and educator Dianne Jacob asked me what does define a successful cookbook, it got me thinking. She’s written an excellent post collating many, many responses from people in the industry. The responses are surprising in their diversity.

The first and obvious answer is, a book is successful if it makes money for the publisher and author.  And there are many ways this can happen, meaning that a book that sells 10,000 copies can be a resounding success while a book that sells 30,000 copies can be called a flop. Thomas Keller’s books, notably Ad Hoc At Home, sell in the hundreds of thousands and are a success simply by that fact: the sheer numbers make them enormously influential regardless of the cash they earn. That means more than money to Keller, the impact they’ve made. These books are very expensive to produce. The current one, The Bouchon Bakery Cookbook, due out next fall, has involved three chefs, one writer, two recipe writer-developer-testers, a photographer (and countless ancillary chefs in addition to the main ones). It involved chefs on either coast and a writer in the middle, requiring lots of travel and accommodations. Photography is very expensive. Printing is very expensive. Shipping and warehousing these large 3 to 4 pound objects are expensive. So they have to sell a lot to make money.

I asked some publishers, what they think defines success:

Bill LeBlond, head of food and drink books at Chronicle Books in San Francisco—he and I hatched Ruhlman’s Twenty—wrote: “The simple answer is that most publishers frontload the expenses of a book into the first printing, so if a book sells out and is reprinted, the book can be counted as a success. Cookbooks are one of the best backlist categories, so the very successful cookbooks are ones that backlist for years.”

Meaning they continue to earn money long after the publisher and author stopped working on them.  Chronicle’s first printing of Ruhlman’s Twenty was 25,000.  It sold out in months, so quickly that Bill wasn’t able to hit the reprint button fast enough and so Amazon has been out of stock for months (the second printing arrives this week, yay!).

So by Chronicles standards, it’s successful.  But as far as I’m concerned, what makes it successful is the fact that it encourages people to cook.  That’s my main goal. If I can inspire more people to cook, the book is a success. If it furthers and spreads valuable cooking information it’s successful. If it adds something new to the world and of food and cooking, then it is successful. Those are my definitions of success. They are not regardless of financial success—to me financial success is an indication that people are buying it and spreading the information, and it gives the publisher the confidence to keep investing in me. But a book that makes a lot of money but neither adds something new nor encourages people to cook is not a success.  In my book.

Here’s what Rica Allannic, a veteran cookbook editor at Clarkson Potter, with whom Michael Symon and I worked in publishing his Live To Cook, said: “What is a successful cookbook? One that reaches the audience we hoped to reach when we acquired the project—and maybe even beyond. And—a successful cookbook is one where the author is happy. That’s really important!”

I really like that she cares about how the author feels about it in the end. That’s a good editor/publisher.

I asked her two other questions: When a proposal lands on your desk, what are you most hopeful of finding?

“A unique voice that speaks to me,” she wrote, “and/or to an audience I can identify (whether it’s working parents, vegetarians, foodies, watchers of food tv, etc.).

In other words, she can envision a market for the book.  It is, of course, business.  She’s not going to keep her job if people don’t buy the book, no matter how happy the author is.

Lastly, and you out there who hope to write a cookbook take heed, I asked her what is the most common reason for turning down a proposal?

“There’s nothing special or new about it (i.e. no hook),” she wrote. “It lacks a compelling voice, and/or the author doesn’t have a way to make people sit up and take notice (no author platform).”

The photo that leads this post has three successful cookbooks.  I met with LeBlond in December about some new projects I’m working on and somehow the book Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi came up. Bill just shook his head and said they can’t print that book fast enough. Chronicle was not surprised by its success (they saw the same things Jay Rayner notes below), but rather by its success in the changing retail market; a world without Borders found the book selling strongly in indy bookstores, and it’s strong visual design and unique voice also made it popular in stores that don’t typically sell food-related books. (A personal example of this is that Donna recently spotted Twenty in the Houston Museum of Art store. Thank you Vanessa Dina for your killer design!)

I still had to wonder: a vegetarian cookbook by an Israeli-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi who owns high-end delis in London. An incredible seller here? Why?

I asked London-based food journalist Jay Rayner, who wrote about Yotam for the Guardian:

“Not at all surprised Yotam is taking off over there,” Jay wrote. “I can think of very few cooks who are as distinctive, whose food shouts his name: it’s all informed obviously by his Israeli roots, but in a non-doctrinaire fashion. The marketing and styling of the Ottolenghi delis is very clean and smart. And he is absolutely charming. It’s notable that his sales have been achieved with almost no TV work. Sure, he’s now made appearances, but it’s not off the back of a series. He’s smart—dumped phd studies to become a cook—urbane, witty, very relaxed about ethnicity. In, short yes, he and the restaurants he fronts—and especially the books—are very popular here.”

The other photographed here is Charcuterie.  This is a success that I am perhaps most proud of.  Brian and I were paid a very small advance for what amounted to two years work ($50,000, split in half, less 15% for the agent, less, oh, at least 15% for taxes.  So that’s netting $18,000 spread over two years; authors only get half up front, a quarter on delivery, a quarter on publication, typically). We wrote it because we loved the subject, no other reason.

It’s success is almost bizarre. It is a book reliant on the two main ingredients that throws fear into most American’s hearts: animal fat and salt.  The recipes don’t take 30 minutes, but rather days and even months. If you do them wrong, some of them can kill you.

The book has sold more than 100,000 copies, and its bacon recipes has, according to readers and twitter, changed lives.

That, to me, is a success more gratifying than any six-figure advance.

So tell me, what to you makes a cookbook successful? Seriously, I really want to know, because I might want to write more and don’t want to disappoint!

If you liked this post on Writing a Successful Cookbook, check out these other links:

© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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117 Wonderful responses to “So You Want To Write a Cookbook”

  • Jane Ridolfi

    Great post! It is both informative and interesting and a topic that appeals to all levels of foodies…..thanks!

  • J.B. Dixon

    Personally, I think there’s 3 main keys to a cookbook that I know I’m going to pick up and reference time and time again.

    1. Simplicity
    2. Organization
    3. Pictures!

    I reference Ratio, Ruhlman’s Twenty, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (hold your laughs, folks…..I think it’s a fantastic cookbook for busy families) and a few others so frequently because they’re organized well and easy to utilize. For the Ratio book, I reference it more now as a quick guide and confidence-builder, just top make sure I’m not messing something up that I’ve picked up from heart. Ratio also gets a pass in the photography dept. because it’s not talking about specific recipes, per se.

    Although it does make the cookbook much more expensive to produce, there is no substitute for quality photography, of virtually every recipe in a book, if possible. For many home cooks, it’s tough to visualize what that recipe is going to resemble at the end of it. Even if most cookbook photography isn’t always an accurate representation of the final product, it certainly triggers the mind of a cook to either go for it, or move on to something else. In a cookbook with no photos (Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food comes to mind), it’s difficult to get the creative juices flowing, because it’s hard to see what a successful outcome might look (and therefore taste) like.

  • Warner

    Do I want to cook from it again?

    Most of the food work I enjoy is something that my wife will use later. To this end Charcuterie is very high on my list, so high I’m about to order a second copy as you autographed the first and it is getting really messy.

    I’ve served the plate that is the cover shot, currently have a ham in the wine cooler and am about to start two pork bellies.

  • Laura @MotherWouldKnow

    The cookbooks I go back to time and again are in 2 categories : (1) those that simply convey recipes that work & provides clear, precise directions e.g. New York Times & America’s Test Kitchen books; and (2) those where I feel as though the author is creating and sharing an experience, not just a recipe. Your comment about wanting to encourage people to cook demonstrates why your books are successful in my world – you’re in the kitchen with me when I cook one of your recipes. Sometimes I buy a cookbook just because it is beautiful or the subject intrigues me, but in the end, if it doesn’t fall into 1 or both of those categories, it basically sits on the shelf unused.

    • Muthukrishnan

      We sponsored sreaevl programs featuring local chefs who showed kids how to cook good meals and snacks. There are so many great cookbooks and many kids are wanting to or needing to prepare meals for themselves. The only issue we had was needing permission for the chef to use an open flame for one of his demonstrations. Although that recipe was not kid-friendly most are and the flambe demonstration certainly caught the kids attention.

  • Nancy

    To succeed with me, a cookbook has to help me learn how to do a better job of cooking the things I want to make. Most cookbooks don’t do that: they just show you how to mimic someone else’s cooking. Ratio is probably the prime example of a cookbook that has hugely expanded my understanding of how certain aspects of cooking work, and given me the framework – and the confidence – to develop my own recipes. I still have the urge to buy cookbooks, but honestly, most of them are just pretty eye candy.

    • Wilt

      I love all cookbooks that have quick and easy recp. like croocpkt cooking…love to start in the morning and enjoy in the evenings and still get to spend quality time with my family..oh, and to make it look like I know how to really cook. Luv this blog Kat!

  • Ed Butdorf

    A cook book is successful to me if it inspires me to do or try something new. Several years ago I bought a book called Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman. It changed my cooking life. It changed the way I looked at food and the way I cooked. For me it was a tremendous success. After reading Bread and trying many new techniques and styles at my home I started to read cookbooks in my spare time. The next real success for me was Charcuterie. This book again changed the way I looked at food! I have tried countless recipes from it and have enjoyed the outcome of most. I continue to read cookbooks in my spare time and have recently picked up a copy of Twenty. Here is hoping that it too is a “success” and here is to your continued quest for the NEXT “success”.

    • Chaitanya

      Our adult services lirrabian is offering a cookbook exchange (bring a cookbook, take a cookbook). We seeded it with cookbooks from our donations. She’s also doing a summer salads program, bring a salad to share. Teens are invited. I’m planning to do some simple cooking with kids next summer, but don’t have any specific ideas yet.

  • Natalie Luffer Sztern

    Well first I have to say and will continue to say that THE BEST layout of a book I have ever read is Ripert’s Life On THe Line. I am sure in childhood I had a learning disability never discovered and so when I read I have to sometimes read and re-read a page to get the illustration to form a picture in my head/memory. With that book, I didn’t have to because like a child with ADD each page of that book kept me wanting more; glancing in all directions and ultimately remembering much more of the book. It is also a book one can go back to time and again as each page is akin to a Where’s Waldo type of fun. Reading that book was fun.

    However I am thinking of my kids: Young Adults and their friends some of whom are married and with young babies and not necessarily anxious or ‘into’ cooking. They need books that are minimal in instructions and have few ingredients plus they are not entirely familiar in a kitchen. Of course they need Julia Child who we all had or most of us. It is important to go back to the basics the main problem though is that these same people do not buy or read cookbooks but they live online and some – the single ones- don’t usually watch anything but their computers when at home.

    Personally I believe we are hitting times that require not just a printed book but a whole interactive system like television shows that have companion cookbooks the next step is internet video with companion cookbook and I think this has to be the wave of the very future. Financially how it would work shouldn’t be hard to figure out;

    That is also what I would love to see to. I am right now delving into the Washoku cookbook and would love to see Elizabeth online cooking the companion cookbook; however she is instead running a written series in conjunction with the book elaborating more in her website. It’s a beginning.

  • brad barnett

    I love cookbooks. I could peruse them all day long. I gauge a cookbook’s success by how long they linger in the back of my head. I rarely, if ever follow a recipe exactly. Unless of course there is an obviously compelling reason to do so…like baking or manslaughter charges. I don’t use cookbooks for that. I learn, get inspired, ponder, investigate further, and generally mull the good ones over for an extended period. Over time, all this information gets nestled into your subconscious and your skills continually improve out of seemingly nowhere. If I need immediate nuts and bolts information I turn to my Ipad not cookbooks so much.

    Favorites for vastly disparate reasons:

    The Encyclopedia of Cajun and Creole Cuisine by John Folse
    Salted by Bitterman
    Sauces by Peterson
    The cooking of SW France by Wolfert
    Knife Skills by Hertzmann
    Charcuterie of course
    Au Pied De Cochon by Picard
    Joe Beef by McMillan&Erickson
    Momofuku by Chang
    The Complete book of home preserving
    All Books Keller
    The multitude of random books that are specific to places I’ve traveled to and enjoyed around the world. i relive the experience every time I look them over.

    Craziest book in the collection:

    My 1987 edition of The Congressional Club Cook Book. The recipes contained within are submitted mainly by the Wives of various congressman. A more appropriate title would be “A Catalog of Horrors” A more complete collection requiring name brand processed food ingredients you will not find. Heralding from the Great State of Colorado:

    Hominy Tamale Casserole
    2 15oz cans tamales
    2 15oz cans Hominy…drained.
    1 OR 2 cans mushroom soup
    1 15oz can pitted black olives
    1 package of Kraft “coon” cheese, (whatever the hell that is) Grated OR Shredded.

  • sheiladeedee

    At this point in my life I don’t buy cookbooks unless they credibly promise a doorway into a new experience I would enjoy or find useful. Something like a travel-and-food book with recipes from a place I’d like to go, or a new take on something that interests me like grilling or breadmaking or cooking from one’s garden. I have the big basic technique books, the dozens of cookie books because this little treat fascinates me, the classics on Italian and French cooking, enough of the big restaurant books that I know I don’t really want any more of them. It’s hard to think of something that I would actually buy.

  • Michael Storey

    To me a great cookbook is one that captures an essential technique, skill, or theory that can cross many recipes and make you rethink a recipe you’ve already made multiple times.

    I prefer a cookbook where the recipes come 2nd, if at all.

  • Elizabeth @MyCommunalTable

    I have Plenty and love the cookbook because it has taught me some new approaches to veggies, but you can not believe the typos in that cookbook. Most I have ever seen. Come on, how does that happen?

    • Jill, The Veggie Queen

      Having written two cookbooks that have been edited many times and still contain typos, I can only say that there are typo gremlins out there waiting to get into your book. Cleaning up the book takes almost as much time as writing it. It happens. The first printing is often the roughest so sometimes it pays to wait.

  • Mantonat

    I use Ratios and Twenty fairly regularly when cooking, just to remind myself of the basic science and execution of cooking. The best indicator of a successful cookbook is how stained and warped the pages are. Some cookbooks are pretty to look at and fun to read but rarely get opened when the knife hits the cutting board or the flour starts flying.
    One of my favorite cookbooks is “The Four Seasons of Italian Cooking” by A.J. Battifarano (no other credits that I could find) and Alan Richardson (who unfortunately seems to be on a cupcake bender lately). It is organized by the seasons and by regions of Italy and focuses on farms and producers of regional specialties along with food stories and recipes. I got this book as a gift a dozen years ago and it taught me to think about where food comes from and when certain things are available. It really put Italian food in context so that I understood how dishes are built (based on local availability and seasonality) rather than just throwing together a typical list of Italian favorites. It made me realize that all food should be considered this way, not just Italian food. Lots of great photos too.

  • Rachael

    Okay. Wait. I’m baffled. You mean to say, if a book doesn’t earn as much as they advanced you, you owe the publisher the difference back? Oh. WOW. That’s a good deterrent! Yikes. (Eyes naively popping out of head.)

    • Michael Ruhlman

      No, the publisher eats it. this means the successful books pay for the unsuccessful ones.

      • Jill, The Veggie Queen

        I know of at least a few well known authors who didn’t earn back their advance (one of them was a good sized advance) and it has hurt their careers as cookbook writers.
        Anyone who thinks that a mere mortal, like me, can write a book and get rich ought to just save themselves the trouble and play the lottery instead. It might be more fun and exciting.
        If you want to write and publish to say that you have, you still need a platform, or you can go print-on-demand and invest very little and have keepsakes for friends and family. That’s OK, too.
        It all depends upon your goals.
        I am an educator, as you are, and want to teach people how to get into the kitchen. Not everyone wants the same thing. And as they say, “That’s what makes horse racing, or cookbook writing (and publishing).”

  • Jill, The Veggie Queen

    When you self-publish a book which is becoming much more popular, you don’t get an advance but you earn whatever you earn from the book. This means that you need to make your book successful at all costs.
    My latest book The New Fast Food: The Veggie Queen Pressure Cooks Whole Food Meals in Less than 30 Minutes is something new for many people so I figure that initially it will take a lot of work to get it out into the world but it will just continue to grow.
    My first book, The Veggie Queen: Vegetables Get the Royal Treatment would not be called a commercial success by a standard publisher but I am happy with the sales, and continued sales, and started turning a profit within a month or so.
    I took all the risk and I reap all the rewards.
    To me, a good cookbook provides ideas, stories and recipes that work. If a book doesn’t have at least 6 recipes that I like, I won’t even buy it. I am into content, and even bad design won’t keep me away.
    Without a traditional publisher, anything is possible. And there will be fewer bad books because they just won’t sell.
    Great post and even better comments. Thanks.

  • Zalbar

    What makes a successful cookbook to me is one that tells a compelling and interesting story in addition to the recipes. Jacques Pepin’s The Apprentice:My Life in the Kitchen is a perfect example. A bit long on story and short on recipe, but the overall idea of what I consider a great cookbook is there..

    I appreciate a lot of your books, but I wish there was a more real side to them. Instead of ultra-high end dining and cooking. Take it to the trenches of the everyday linecook. Take it down a notch. I’m not saying give me a recipe for grilled kraft singles between wonderbread, but maybe something a bit more real. The Making of a Chef was great, awesome. Tacking recipes onto the backs of chapters would have really lifted it. It would even have been a natural progression as you moved through the classes. Though I do realise that most of that is covered in your book…

    …Ratio. Probably the greatest and most influential cookbook that I own. Simply because I get it. It makes sense. It is cooking boiled down to it’s essence.

    The Soul of a chef just seemed a bit too fluffy for me. It was interesting reading, but it was a 1% thing. I will never cook at that level, with those ingredients, or have access to that equipment. Still, I’m getting away from the question.

    From my readers perspective, a successful cookbook should be entertaining, informative and educational. It should tell a story, unadorned with all the bumps and bruises to make the lessons and recipes memorable and real.

  • Adam Jaskiewicz

    I buy from an independent bookstore. They had three copies of Twenty in stock when I casually strolled in a month or so ago and saw it on the shelf. When I took it to checkout, the clerk was familiar with it, had cooked recipes from it, and was familiar with your blog. So yeah, I think the indy bookstores are always going to be a good market for you. The people who shop at indy bookstores are the same people who go to the farmers’ market (actually there’s a weekly farmers’ market in the lot outside this bookstore…), and they’re the same people who are going to buy your books over _Even More Thirty-Minute Meals_.

  • burkie

    an interesting subject, but both human nature and the concept of success are too abstract to be reduced to the point you have taken them, i think. for example, just writing a cookbook and getting it published or self-published can be a huge success for the writer. it doesn’t have to go through multiple printings, it doesn’t have to change the way people cook or shop or eat. the simple fact of completing a project can change the author’s life. that is success enough for many. in fact, writing the book and not being able to find anybody to publish it can change the author’s life, too, and for the better.

    then, once the book is published, how do you measure the impact? it’s noble to say that it’s not by sales, but rather by how it changes the way people cook. i like that. but…then numbers get in the way again, don’t they? does it have to change the way thousands cook? tens of thousands?

    or, is it rather on whom the book has an impact? is it more successful if the impact is on professional chefs and foodies, or on the single mom on a low-income budget? what about books with great narrative about food, but has lousy recipes, but nevertheless inspires its readers to go out and read more about food and cooking?

    sorry to ramble, and i’m certainly not criticizing or judging; just trying to add to the discussion. for the record, some of my favorite cookbooks are All About Braising by molly stevens, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by peter reinhart, Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen by rick bayless, and The New Best Recipe by cook’s illustrated.

    • Medo

      YEAH, Amy! I post my recipes on my BigOven ancouct. I’ve included links all over the place to get to them. Easiest? Go to the recipes tab and click on the BigOven ancouct link. It will take you to my home page there with all of the recipes I’ve posted to date. Otherwise, the underlined menu items in my post will take you to that specific recipe. You may have to sign up for BigOven to see the whole recipe though. Will be posting on Thursday for next week’s menu.

  • karen downie makley

    I am sure initial sales plus projected and actual future sales define a successful cookbook for the author and publisher, but for the reader and cook…?? Well, I like a cookbook in which the recipes have been tested. It’s incredible to me, but some cookbooks are chock full of untested recipes. I can finally kind of tell which recipes are losers just by looking at them now, having a vague notion of ratios/proportions/chemistry, but I prepared a lot of failures before I sharpened my recipe x-ray vision. I like a cookbook that isn’t too trendy (one of my favorite cookbooks has recipes that purportedly go back nearly 500 years!) The occasional picture keeps the reader engaged and lets them preview the finished dish. I also LOATHE wasted steps in recipes. The cooking magazines are full of these time-sucks…I think the magazine publishers are trying to maintain a certain mystique of the gourmet, a la “you must be an ambitious and high-faluting time waster to attempt to attain our elevated tastes.” I totally understand that a cookbook should underscore that vitally important details should be attended to with near-religious fervor, but if they get too bossy with the minutia, it’s just too much pedantry for this girl.

  • Michelle

    I adore cookbooks, own hundreds and read them like novels, but seldom find any new ones these days that interest me. Present company excluded, of course (and in this household we love Charcuterie particularly), cookbooks all seem to be either too restaurant-y, too Food Network-y, or way too limited in scope (you know, like the cooking of ABC province of XYZ country on Wednesday afternoons). I miss the days when you could just become immersed in somebody’s interesting point of view. Perhaps that’s why Ottolenghi’s books are so popular—though, I guess I’m in the minority as I like the first one much better than Plenty.

  • Will J

    I agree with your idea “Does it make me want to cook?” Elizabeth David’s writing makes me want to cook and gives me the idea. But I turn to Mark Bittman, James Beard or Marion Cunningham to get me started.

  • Jan

    Thank you for your many thought-provoking posts, including this one. I love to read cookbooks to get ideas, and although I love a good photo, the cookbooks I go back to are ones that don’t have any or hardly any photos. They have recipes that actually work and turn out really nice dishes, but at the same time are simple enough to make at home. How many recipes do we actually make from one cookbook? Which is why online recipe sites and food magazine websites are so popular, not to mention free! That’s also why books like Ad Hoc at Home and Ruhlman’s Twenty, which include techniques, are invaluable.

    • Sandeep

      Favorite cookbook of all time has to be the red and white giaghnm Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook. You know the one. It has been around forever and it was one of my firsts and will always have a place in my kitchen.

  • Annamaria Settanni McDonald

    I understand exactly what you are saying. I have been taking a long time to write my own cookbook but not for the sake of getting noticed or making money but for the fact that it’s for me and for my family. I see tons and tons of Italian cookbooks out there, all geared towards this type of Italian cooking that is mainstream, but not what the real Italian cooks. So many of my mother’s cooking I have not seen in cookbooks including the desserts. I have looked in so many Italian cookbooks and can tell you I haven’t eaten 3/4 of what is in those Italian cookbooks. So I am trying to focus on the foods we eat at home, what real Italian mothers and wives cook. I hope with that people will notice the real soul/comfort food of Italians. There are indeed so many cookbooks out there but I hope to always find those that stick out. I have found many and some of the unique ones at garage sales that are so old as well. Those are the gems for me!

    Happy Eating,
    Annamaria

  • Adam

    A successful cookbook to me is one that can compete with the internet. For my tastes this involves instruction, innovation and inspiration (that wasn’t supposed to come out alliterative…).

    I don’t need another book full of basic recipes, I have google for that. It is far easier and cheaper to google “traditional buttermilk biscuits” and let the search algorithm and reviews pick the best classic. Books like Ratio (hey, didn’t you write that?) teach me how to create, not assemble. What happens if I swap out the 2 parts liquid with a mixture of bourbon and water, for example?

    I’m generalizing, of course. I love ‘classic’ cookbooks too, they certainly have a place in my kitchen, but the internet has been the biggest influence on the new books that I buy.

  • Stephanie

    For me, what makes a cookbook successful is two things:
    1) Does it inspire me to cook?
    2) Does it teach me something or make something more clear?
    The Ratio did both. It took the fear of baking bread for me – a process I’d done for years, but had enough mystery in it that I was afraid to deviate from the recipe at all. (Thank you, Michael!) And it made me want to experiment. There were lots of 1/4 lb cakes while I experimented with techniques for pound and sponge because I just couldn’t believe the difference the technique made in the exact same ingredients. (I had more fun in my kitchen after The Ratio came out than I’ve had in years.)
    For a normal “recipe” book, great photos and interesting flavors help with inspiration – I reach for those books when I feel like I’m in a rut with what I’m making for dinner.
    Finally, you can tell the successful cookbooks in any home – it’s the one that you tried to steal from your mother when you left for college (she actually found me my own copy in a junk shop because I needed the same edition she had) and its one that has pages stuck together from actually being used in the kitchen.

  • James O'Connell

    I think the best– or most successful– cookbook you have is the one you use.
    For years, my wife and I had recipes handwritten on index cards from our grandmothers (and one great-grandmother), newspaper clippings with Mom’s annotations, and plain notebook paper with recipes hand-copied from god-knows-where — all held inside the cover of an old Betty Crocker hardcover with a couple of rubberbands. It just got to be overwhelming with the eventual addition printouts from the internet.
    For the past year I’ve been typing all of these ‘family’ recipes — as well as new ones that we have in our regular weeknight menu rotations — for our kids. One of them is heading off to college in the fall, and is expecting to take a printed copy with him. The nice thing is that I can explain why and how we used certain ingredients or techniques, and it’s targeted directly at the readers: family members.
    Of course, new versions will be e-mailed, and shared, and even sent back upstream to Grandma (who is already pleased to see her favorites transcribed from index card to html and PDF forms!).
    I’ll consider the book ‘successful’ when I know it’s being used.

    • Nicole

      I love this. We did the same thing when I moved away. It’s nice having all of our family favorites on hand. Consider scanning them too. It’s sometimes nice to have grandma’s original hand written recipe for a personal/sentimental touch.

  • Sam Breach

    I think Plenty is in my top 5 favourite recipe books of all time. I have now tried 27 different recipes from this book (many of them repeatedly) and I think that has to be a record. I think the appeal is that so much of it can be cooked with what I have in my pantry, it’s a great way to use up vegetables from my mystery vegetable box and that most of them just turn out so damn tasty. I have plenty of “popular” cook books that sit on my shelf unloved, I agree that the successful ones, are those that are well-thumbed, covered in splashes and used over and over again. Others in my top 5 would probably be The Cooks Book and Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich. The remaining two slots are still open.

  • Nancy G.

    Cookbooks are like crack to me – I can rarely walk away. That being said, there are only a few that I consider to be a success, ones that I come back to time and time again, for a recipe, technique or inspiration.

    My top five include: Baking with Julia by Juila Child, Ratio (still my favorite book of yours), Tyler Florence’s Real Kitchen, Dungess Crabs & Blackberry Cobblers by James Hibler (no pictures in this one), and The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen which I picked up in a second hand store. Each of these taught me something new about food or technique and they are all stained, tattered with many notes in the margins. I am not much of a recipe follower but each “showed” me a better way to do something.

    On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, I self-published a cookbook with my office staff to give as gifts to my clients (not an inexpensive proposition) and they were a huge success both in the appreciation from our clients and the satisfaction of creating a unique and personal gift.

  • Todd

    A cookbook has to be a game-changer, one that changes my whole philosophy. Adam Perry Lang’s Serious Barbecue, ratio, Ad Hoc at home, Momofuku, and Breath of a Wok are my top 5, in order.

  • JMSemiz

    Let me preface my response by stating that I’m assuming that the so, so, so many people that ask Michael Ruhlman about cookbook advice are not accomplished, professional chefs and icons in the culinary world, but rather your (maybe above) average weekend/weekday warriors that have the ability to put together a meal that people enjoy. These are the kinds of people that cook for their friends, have a ‘signature’ dish or three, and consider cooking a hobby. An infatuation even. These are the kind of people that don’t have the ability, or desire, to hack it in a professional kitchen. They just like to get home from work, open a bottle of something, and do more than hit minute-plus and wait for the beeps.

    And despite my preface running into the body of my response,- a rambling preamble, if you will- let me continue it by also saying that I like Michael Ruhlman. I read this blog often. I retweet him. I think his guest spots with Anthony Bourdain show a personality that I find amicable. And I *read* Charcuterie. Like a novel. Like a preteen who can not put down the Twilight series looking for a deeper meaning in their twinkly, true love.

    But when I read people tell me they have a cookbook to write, asking for advice, and I almost always do my best to discourage them, I was taken aback with utter disagreement. His argument that, basically, people shouldn’t write a cookbook unless they have something earth shattering to say or have a felonious collection of food porn to (expensively) add to their composition is far, far from something I can get on board with.

    By buttressing his argument with his own books as examples of successes (which I am in no way disagreeing with), he comes across as a self self serving bastion of the old guard yelling, ‘Get off my lawn,’ to the new comers that, while probably lacking the same talents, share the same passions. They’re not realistically setting their expectations on book tours, celebrity and piles, upon piles of money. They’re following a dream in which, perhaps, just maybe, they can see their work for sale on a shelf somewhere, and even cash a small check.

    I offer this critique not as a straw man easily knocked down, but rather as someone who got about 100 pages into writing his own cookbook and found, well, that I didn’t really have much of a book at all. I became exactly what Michael Ruhlman knew I would become. But what I gained, however, is an organized list of refined recipes, a kickass chili mix, and the experience gained from a semi rigorous process of trying to develop a publishable list of ways to cook a half decent meal. And I believe I’m better in the kitchen because of it.

    Which leads me to this quote; as far as I’m concerned, what makes it successful is the fact that it encourages people to cook. I. Completely. Agree.

    Perhaps this is what struck such a strong chord with me. How can Michael Ruhlman begin his post with ‘advice’ that would diminish someone from pursuing their passions while defining success by something that does just that?– getting people to cook.

    I suspect that most people that come to this blog are somewhat similar to me in regards to the enjoyment they get by creating something in the kitchen. To them I say, if you want to, WRITE. Be it a blog, a failed cookbook, or even one that gets published, WRITE about what you do. You will probably not make money. I doubt that you’ll get to run your hands through Mario Batali’s beard. But I can say that you’ll learn about how you cook, why you cook, you’ll try new things and get better. And that, in Michael Ruhlman’s own words, is a success.

    • mantonat

      Well said. Most aspiring writers will get more than their share of rejection from the people actually in charge of making publishing decisions. But more power to those who read discouraging words and still struggle on. Maybe Ruhlman is just taking a cue from Bourdain’s advice to young cooks who think they want to become chefs. To paraphrase: don’t do it, it’s too much work for too little money and there’s too much competition and no glory for the vast majority and you’ll probably be worse at it than most, and you’ll end up washed up, broke, old, and tired with nothing to show for your skills. But if you still want to do it after reading all of this, you’re probably the kind of person who will try it no matter what.

  • Mark

    How appropriate that you mention Ottolenghi as this is the topic of my recent blog post. “Plenty” has become my favorite cookbook. I think there are a number of reasons why this book is so successful. First, Ottolenghi’s story is extremely fascinating which is what drew me to the book in the first place. The ingredients throughout this book are exciting, healthy, vibrant in color, and very appealing. Each recipe has an associated picture that is beautifully displayed in such a way that begs the reader to try it. I have now cooked 8 recipes from the book and each recipe has been dead on accurate. The recipes are quite simple, yet result in elegant dishes. Finally, turing the pages of this book just makes me want to run into my kitchen and cook. It’s that inspiring.

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  • Margaret in NJ

    Speaking of cookbooks, do you know that Barnes and Noble.com has been out of your “Ratio” book since mid-December with no end in sight?? VERY frustrating!!!

  • Vicki

    I have around 300 cookbooks and have run out of space to keep them so tell myself I can only have one new cookbook per year. So I’m very selective about what I buy. Year before last I got Dorie Greenspan’s Around my French Table Cookbook. This year it was Ottolenghi’s Plenty. My purchases now tend to be cookbooks that teach me about foreign cuisines and new ways to cook vegetables. I am trying to learn to eat healthy and I don’t eat many sweets or meats. I research before I buy and look at the reviews of experts and buyer’s comments on Amazon. That said I have three of Ina Garten’s cookbooks because the food from her recipes always taste so good. I tend to cut way down on the oil and substitute milk for cream whenever called for when it comes to her recipes, but they still taste good to me. Sometimes I can’t keep my one year rule and I buy cookbooks that show me how to make a specialty like bread or tamales. I usually buy from an expert in the field like Peter Rhinehart bread books, etc. Since I try to cook healthy I purchased a tamale cookbook that had recipes for vegetarian masa dough. My main interest over the past few years has been learning how to cook vegetables so they don’t taste like the bland dishes I ate as a kid. So I have purchased quite a few vegetable cookbooks from Deborah Madison. And I have Peter Berley’s Modern Vegetarian Kitchen.
    I have a friend who absolutely will not look at or buy a cookbook unless it has lots of beautiful food photographs in it. I don’t understand this even though I am a designer so very visual. What matters to me are the recipes and who wrote them, but I do love a beautifully designed and photographed book — who doesn’t?

  • Vicki

    PS — (how could I forget) Your book Twenty has been an amazing source of information to me on “how to cook” — almost like a chef’s course — very helpful.
    I love the design too — especially the colored squares on the spine and the continued theme of the colors and squares throughout the book, and of course the instructive photographs. Very nice.
    I have Ratio too and it’s had a tremendous influence on my cooking.
    I am thinking that I really don’t need more cookbooks but if I buy new ones I hope they are in a format that I can download to my ipad(I literally have no more storage space). I like the ecookbooks on Epicurious since it is the complete cookbook along with photographs. I’m not crazy about the kindle versions.

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      there this website and they have cokkbooos also its called hungrygirl.comi use this website for everything. it gives you healthy versions for all the foods we love. it has all nutritional info for every recipe and its super easy.you will love it

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  • Vicki

    One of my favorite new cookbooks is Alain Ducasse Nature: Simple Healthy, and Good. The drawings and photos are amazing — I wish more American cookbooks incorporated illustration like this one does (very French looking).
    But the thing I most love about it are the healthy inventive recipes incorporating vegetables, fruits and grains. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Alain is a michelin-starred chef, but the book is uncomplicated and simple — my kind of cookbook. I can’t wait to make the recipes using vegetables from my garden and herbs this spring.

  • Adriana

    Great post and timely too. I’m just about to write my next proposal having now published two cookbooks. The first was a joy to do and something I am truly proud of as it shares lots of family baking recipes. It was a labour of love and although I earned no royalties from it, I did earn out my advance. Second cookbook, very different experience, a specialist subject (a gluten free cookbook for kids) , but one very dear to my heart. Once again, so much hard work went into writing it and it has been successful commercially. Design wise it lacked everything which makes a book covetable, and despite my banging on and on about being underinvested in, it rang on deaf ears. I am proud of the book, but always look at it with a slight heaviness of heart as I know if the publisher had followed my original proposal including photographs of the food the book ‘may’ have been much more successful. Now looking to do cookbook number 3 and thinking long and hard about what sells in the ‘intolerance’ market. Free from is big here in the UK and so many books on the subject with beautiful glossy photos which underdeliver in terms of content. It makes me want to pull my hair out with envy but somehow, I still want to do it all over again. Why? Because there is nothing more gratifying then seeing your work in print and knowing you are passing on your skills, knowledge and love of cooking to others. It’s not a geat way to earn a living, but it’s rewarding in so many other ways.

  • Betty Bake

    thank you for this informing and thought inducing post!
    I have always wanted to write a cook book but I think I will give it a second thought and decide if I have something new to give or a way to be different to others … otherwise there is no point

    thanks again
    Bernice AKA Betty Bake Blog

  • Julie T.

    Loved this post. I would never deign to write a cookbook, but I have about a hundred, mostly inherited from my late step-mother, a notorious foodie. I have everything from a 1956 copy of Fanny Farmer to early Martha Stewart to the “Cooking with Campbell’s soup” book. I have a Persian cookbook that I fawn and ooh over like a man might the Victoria’s Secret catalog. I have never tried to make a single thing in it — completely beyond my abilities.
    All this said – my favorite cookbooks are the ones that make it easy and feature recipes that mostly work out (because I’m still learning…one miserable mistake at a time): How to Cook Everything, by Bittman, (tattered and torn and held together with a big rubber band…) and Simple Vegetarian Pleasures by Jeanne Lemlin…good food made easy. Important to not discourage the beginners. :-)
    I’ve got your Elements of Cooking, and something tells me I should also procure Twenty…

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