A Good Cookbook Starts with a Good Idea

Published on 06/27/2016
By Marcy Claman, Callawind Book Publishing

Recently, I was asked the following question: I love cooking and dream of publishing my own cookbook. But, how in the world do I go about choosing the right idea?

Like any new product, your cookbook should fill a need or want of an identifiable group of cookbook buyers. It should also be distinctive enough to stand out from existing cookbooks. Following are helpful suggestions that will help you move from a blank page to a viable cookbook idea.

Overcoming the Blank Page Blues: If you have the desire to publish a cookbook but don’t know where to begin, ask yourself the following questions:

What foods am I really passionate about?

What foods do I already have experience working with?

What foods am I curious about and would enjoy researching?

What foods do I most enjoy cooking?

What types of cookbooks do I enjoy most?

What do I know about food or cooking that’s special?

Maybe you’re consistently praised for your soup-making abilities, or are a whiz with a crock pot or fondue set? Perhaps you spent time in Portugal, and developed an appreciation for and first-hand knowledge of Portuguese home cooking? Make a list of possibilities, and then rank the list to determine your top choices. Sometimes it helps to put the list away for a few hours or even a few days, and then revisit it with a fresh eye. Brainstorming with fellow foodies is another fun way to get the creative juices flowing.

Researching Your Cookbook Idea: Once you’ve decided on a cookbook idea, you need to find out how well it fits into the current cookbook landscape by researching food and cooking trends and competing cookbooks, and talking with cookbook experts and potential readers of your cookbook.

Magazine and newspaper articles: To identify food trends, Writing Cookbooks author Judith Comfort turns first to food magazines because they have short lead times and can react quickly to new food fashions. Weekly food sections of major newspapers are another timely indicator. And, don’t forget to check out the many Internet food sites and food bloggers.

Online Internet bookstores: “Ideally, you want to write a book on a topic that is new, so the book is really needed,” advises Comfort. Here’s where online bookstores come in handy as a research tool. Do a search of your topic or keywords to find similar cookbooks that have already been published. Is there still room left in the category or has it been done too many times? Can you improve on the way the topic has been handled? Is there something missing from these cookbooks that you can bring to the subject?

Of course, it’s not always easy to come up with a completely new idea. “Seeing what’s out there may discourage you at first. But take heart. There’s almost nothing new when it comes to cooking and eating,” writes Comfort. The challenge then, is to bring something original—a new approach—to the topic. Find that special something that will make your book different from the rest. Perhaps you can organize the book by menu or combine recipes with a crossover theme, such as poetry or gardening?

You can further differentiate your book from the competition using format, printing, and design. For example, if your book will feature recipes using bottled hot sauces, you could consider printing the book in the shape of a hot sauce bottle. However, custom die-cut printing such as this can significantly increase your production budget. Therefore, it’s important to get a feel for how your cookbook should be executed, then get a few production estimates. Can you execute your book as an inexpensive yet attractive softcover book with one-color printing? Or, does your topic require expensive full-color printing and many color photographs, such as a half cookbook, half travel book about resorts and their cuisine?

Another differentiating factor can be your “voice.” A recent Publisher’s Weekly article about cookbook publishing states that cookbook editors are looking for an author who comes well equipped with a personality and a platform. Make your voice different from everyone else’s by personalizing your book with interesting anecdotes, experiences, and observations. The article goes on to quote Rux Martin, senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, who wisely observes, “As much as works of fiction, cookbooks are about the power of language. It’s the power of a title or an introductory note that makes you say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to make that recipe.'”

Retail bookstores: During a quiet time in the day or season (definitely not during the weekend or around Christmas!), arrange to meet with a few local bookstore buyers or cookbook sales assistants to discuss what they think about your idea. Most will be flattered to be considered as a cookbook expert, and will be happy to talk with you. If possible, try to contact a few independent bookstores that sell only cookbooks. If people seem confused about your idea, refine it until you can clearly describe your book’s “hook” or “unique selling proposition” (a marketing term) in a sentence or two. Don’t get discouraged if your idea isn’t getting rave reviews. Rather, use the opportunity to find out what trends are upcoming in the cookbook market so you can later revise your idea or choose another.

Target audience: Another consideration in judging your cookbook idea is to determine your cookbook audience and its approximate size. Ask yourself who will be interested in your book? Does your idea have mass market appeal or highly targeted appeal? Develop a profile of your target audience, and then research the estimated size of this group. Writing Cookbooks includes a helpful worksheet that helps you define your audience. If your topic is highly specialized, such as a diabetic or New Age cookbook, you will also need to research what specialized marketing and distribution options are available to reach these niche markets.

Once you’ve defined your target audience, it’s time to talk with them to gather as much objective feedback as possible about your idea. In the process, you’ll probably get some ideas for content that you didn’t think about yourself!

Letting go of an idea: Abandon your idea if: the majority of cookbook experts and members of your target audience are unenthusiastic; it seems out of fashion; the category doesn’t have a good sales track record; your target audience will be difficult or expensive to reach; or the estimated production costs are over your budget. Remember, it’s better to stop at this point—all you’ve lost is some time—rather than push on with a risky idea that might end up costing you both time and money.

With that, I’ll leave you with a few more words of advice from Judith Comfort, “Good ideas for cookbooks arise out of the same fertile ground as good ideas for any book—the creative mind of a person with a passionate interest in the topic, someone who has conducted thorough research and thoughtfully considered readers’ needs and interests.”


Writing Cookbooks, by Judith Comfort (Vancouver : Self-Counsel Writing, 1997).

For more information, head over to our Books about Cookbook Self-Publishing section.