An insight into the labyrinth of food & drink book production

By   Hannah Bickerton 10 min read

whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books

Reading interests have changed since the outbreak of COVID-19 with two-thirds of non-fiction book readers and audiobook listeners having become more interested in food & drink books. A  survey conducted last February revealed that 73% of Brits said they began to really enjoy cooking over a year of seemingly endless lockdowns, with 91% expecting to continue to cook as much or more over the next year. It’s no surprise then that food & drink books are more popular than ever, the pandemic igniting a passion for cooking like never before.

What many may not realise however, is that these can often be the largest and most complex publishing projects, requiring extra services and a wider range of specialists, such as food photographers and recipe testers. It can be hard work and a long process, but with the right professionals at your side you can create a book that is truly special and visually powerful, immortalising your recipes and memories.

Imagining and planning your food & drink book

Before we can really jump into the nitty gritty of what it takes to create a food & drink book, you’ve got to write one. But don’t start typing just yet; first, you need to decide on your niche, your angle, what it is you do best, what it is that you are known for, and essentially, what it is that will make your book different from all the rest. Defining your target audience and really understanding them is key; they may be a university student learning to cook for the first time, or a strict vegan wanting to experiment with some different recipes, or perhaps a young chef looking to improve their sushi-making skills. Think about your existing customers and what they would like to learn from you that no other book could offer.

Research, identify your competitors and read all the recipe books you can get your hands on. Pay attention to the details, the structure, the underlying theme, and what you could do to improve in your own creation. Draw up a cohesive plan for your book that establishes not only some favourite recipes you want to showcase and help tell your story, but ones that are actually achievable for your audience. Finally, of course, you need to test them, test them again and maybe again, to make sure they are foolproof.

Writing the manuscript for your book

Once you’ve imagined an ideal vision for your book and drawn up a strong plan, you can start writing. This isn’t something you can rush, especially with so many different aspects to think about. If you don’t already, make sure you have a clear idea of how you will group the recipes, maybe by course or season, so they flow naturally from one to the other and your readers can follow along easily. Pin down what it is that will tie them all together, as well as the narrative and story you want to tell alongside them.

When writing the recipes themselves, it is vital that you pay close attention to weights and measurements and that these are consistent throughout your book. You should also ensure that your chapter or recipe titles are both descriptive and original, matching the style of your book while making sure readers understand at a glance what exactly the dish is. The title of the book itself needs to be even better: something that encompasses your theme and will really jump off the shelf and intrigue people while not misleading them. A play on words and puns are always great fun to brainstorm. 

It’s essential to develop a unique writing style that engages and entertains your audience, while providing coherent instructions and maintaining the same tone of voice throughout. You might decide to strike a more casual, friendly tone or a slightly quirky, tongue-in-cheek style that makes your readers laugh, or you may go for something slightly more simple, elegant and professional; whatever you do, make sure it’s authentic, authoritative, engaging, reflective of your brand, and most importantly, make sure it’s you.

The fundamentals of recipe testing

Recipe testers are often completely overlooked by those unfamiliar with the food & drink book world, but their work can make the difference between a bestseller and a ridiculed failure. At the end of the day, you can have a famous name on the cover, beautiful photography and lots of entertaining anecdotes, but if your recipes don’t work then everything else is pointless. The recipes need to be tested by an unbiased individual or group of individuals (depending on your budget and timeframe) who can judge whether they make sense to a reader who hasn’t attempted the recipe before, or who might be at a different skill level to the author, and make sure they work in a home kitchen (using a domestic oven and standard appliances).

Recipe testers will trial a number of factors, including ingredient quantities, weights for nutrition analysis (if applicable), number or portion sizes, recipe techniques and timings, as well as establishing the most efficient flow in preparing the recipe. Professional chefs and experienced cooks make a lot of adjustments unconsciously when they’re in their cooking groove, adding a pinch of salt here and a chunk of butter there. Most won’t concern themselves with specific timings or exact measurements, but when it comes to following a recipe these are vital details that can make all the difference to the finished dish. A recipe tester’s ultimate goal is to make these invisible steps visible, and – with the input from an editor – to communicate accurate and precise directions in the clearest way possible so that the recipes turn out as promised.

The anatomy of a cookbook photoshoot

The photoshoot can be the most exciting part of creating a recipe book for many authors. To make sure everything goes smoothly, a variety of professionals and different elements are needed to get the perfect shots. Let’s have a look at the checklist:

  • Photographer: Depending on the complexity of the recipes, the photographer will usually shoot between six to eight recipes per day, plus incidentals (the shots that aren’t recipes). They can take hundreds of photos in a day, which will then be reviewed and adjusted digitally before supplying the files for design.
  • Photographer’s assistant: The photographer often has an assistant to help with them with the equipment and other tasks throughout the shoot.
  • Food stylist: The food stylist prepares and cooks all the food on the day of the shoot, as well as ordering all the ingredients, prepping everything beforehand and cleaning up the kitchen afterwards. They will ensure that the recipes look their very best from every angle for the photographer.
  • Food stylist assistant: The food stylist will usually have an assistant to help with the preparation of the recipes and cleaning up after the shoot.
  • Art director: The designer may attend the shoot to art direct. In most circumstances, either the photographer, prop stylist or project manager will direct the photoshoot.
  • Prop stylist: The prop stylist works with the food stylist, designer and the author to get a feel for the look of the shoot and draw up a moodboard. They will trawl through prop houses and order items to be sent to the location ready for the shoot.
  • Props: A variety of props will be needed for the different types of dishes. These include not only the obvious basics such as plates and cutlery, but backdrops, linen, decorative tableware, boards and so on. On a long shoot, the props may even be swapped out halfway through.
  • Ingredients: The food stylist orders all the necessary ingredients to be delivered in time for the shoot.
  • Studio: The photoshoot can happen in a custom studio, on location or in a home kitchen. Light is essential – if the location doesn’t have good natural light then the photographer will need to bring along extra equipment to ensure the food looks as delightful and delicious as possible.
The importance of cookbook design

Over the decades, cookbooks have evolved to become so much more than instruction manuals. Emphasis on design is far stronger now, with publishers and authors constantly pushing the boundaries of the traditional cookbook format and presentation. The photographs or illustrations presented alongside recipes should express the aesthetics and amplify the beauty of the food, explore the experience of preparing and sharing a meal and convey the context, culture and location the food is rooted in while encompassing the book’s overarching theme. 

Although the content is ultimately of greatest use to readers, it is the design that will make them fall completely in love with your book while helping them to effectively read and navigate the different recipes and stories. A striking cover, then, is crucial for an impactful first impression. It’s worth doing some research into what will grab the attention of your target audience and how preferences differ across the world. In the UK, the main goal is to get the book noticed in an incredibly crowded market with a distinctive cover, something original and atmospheric that will pique the interest of bookshop browsers or online surfers. In contrast to the US, an image of food on the cover has proven unpopular with the UK market as it can compromise on quality and appear less sophisticated, and is associated more with the mass-market magazine. Ultimately, the book’s design should elevate your content, story and unique qualities in a way that immerses the reader and inspires them to create the recipes you have worked so hard to perfect.

[Image credit: Praline]

The power of a beautifully bespoke cookbook

There is much more to a book than meets the eye. Cookbooks can be both beautiful objects and essential marketing tools for food and drink brands that impressively captures exactly what makes you and your brand so special. A bespoke branded book not only supplies you with an additional stream of revenue for years to come, it can also help to build up your brand power through exploring themes in more depth, promoting key messages and providing a highly giftable piece of art that introduces you to new audiences. whitefox author and caterer business owner Jane Lovett did exactly that with the publication of her book The Get-Ahead Chef, selling over ten thousand copies through her own network and promotion efforts. The attendant intrigue of a new book can not only aid authors in increasing their name recognition, but revive interest in their business too.

Some authors choose to create an exclusive, luxury branded book for their audience to be stylishly placed upon a coffee table or proudly displayed on a bookshelf. Something special that can be treasured for years to come. James Hoffmann collaborated with whitefox to create his book The Best of Jimseven, a compendium of his best blog articles with photography thoughtfully scattered throughout. The book was a limited edition and offered exclusively to his loyal network as a beautiful object to own. All copies sold out in under two months. 

A book can also complement your existing product range and marketing activity by offering your loyal customers a little piece of what makes you so unique to take away and own. Sommelier and TV presenter Raul Diaz had a clear vision for a book to offer his extensive fan base acquired through his educational wine courses and appearances on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch. whitefox worked with Raul to craft a book that he could proudly promote, present to potential clients and use as an effective tool to complement his wine courses.

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.