The Dude Diet: Making The Cookbook Part 1
T-1 WEEK to DD Day, friends!!
With the launch date creeping up, I’ve been thinking a lot about my book journey, which began wayyyyy back in the fall of 2014. (Just threw up in my mouth a little bit typing “journey,” but I couldn’t think of an appropriate synonym. Sorry.) Bringing The Dude Diet to life has been a long, stressful, awesome, horrible, hilarious, and illuminating learning experience, and while I’ve shared bits and pieces along the way, I realize there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that I’ve kept in the dark. And since I get a decent number of questions about the cookbook process, I thought this week would be the perfect time to take a stroll down DD memory lane and pull back the curtain on what really goes into making a cookbook. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m hoping that this oversharing will provide future cbook authors with a tiny bit of guidance (i.e., do not have 60 recipe testers!) and the rest of you with some solid entertainment and insight into the cookbook publishing world.
Because the road to book is long, this post will be broken down into two (still obscenely long) parts. Today shall cover all things leading up to turning in my manuscript, and on Thursday we’ll talk photos, design, and fluffing marketing.
Are you ready for this??!!!
Sidenote: All photos in this post are jacked from Instagram because I apparently did an excellent job documenting this process!
In order to get a cookbook deal, one has to first write a proposal. This is essentially an outline for the book and typically includes an overall summary, bio, basic marketing plan (Who is the audience? What hole are you filling in the market? What makes this book unique? Etc.), annotated table of contents with chapter summaries and recipe titles, and a handful of sample recipes. The proposal is sent out to publishers, who will then decide whether or not you get to be a published author. Dun-dun-dunnnnnn.
Luckily, I already had a book agent in my corner (Hi, Eve Attermann! I love you!) when I started working on my proposal, and she guided me through every step of the process, offering thoughtful feedback and helping me refine The DD message. (I’m forever indebted to Eve, as I originally sent her a document with a billion Logan stories and random pearls of Dude Diet wisdom, which would have definitely scared off any rational publisher.) It took me close to 2 months to get my proposal shit together, and when all was said and done, the final pdf was a 50+ page monster with 12 sample recipes. The good news? I knew that if I got a deal, I’d have a solid roadmap to work from. Fingers crossed…
Once the proposal was locked and loaded, things moved pretty fast. In mid-January 2015, my proposal was sent out to a wide range of publishers who were given a couple of weeks to decide whether or not they were interested in meeting with me in person re: The Dude Diet. Needless to say, this waiting period was terrifying, especially since I knew that my book would be slightly “controversial.” Expletive-laced rants on chicken fingies and “Just The Tip” sidebars obviously aren’t for everyone, but I was hopeful that someone would understand my passion for improving the health, happiness, and man boobs of dudes the world over.
By some miracle, several publishers agreed to take meetings with me, and I sat down with all of them in the span of a very intense 3 days. Some of these powwows went better than others, but pitching The Dude Diet to peeps with the power to bring it to the masses was thrilling, and I was fascinated by the different ways each of them envisioned the book coming together. In a perfect world, I’d get to choose which publisher I wanted to work with right then and there, but that’s not the way the game is played. First, you have to wait and see who actually wants YOU. (Heyo, anxiety!)
After all these meetings, there was more waiting. Interested publishers had 10 days to make a bid for The DD, which was nerve-wracking, but I took comfort in the fact that I would soon know my fate. After those 10 days, I would have a book deal, or I wouldn’t. In either case, limbo was finite.
Ultimately, the fine folks at Harper Wave (an imprint of HarperCollins) made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I was Logan-style psyched since they had been my first choice. FATE. Contracts were drawn up, the deal was inked, and The Dude Diet suddenly became a tangible reality. Now all I had to do was write the fucking book!
How does one start writing a cookbook? Excellent question! I still don’t have a good answer because there are probably a million ways to do it. My first thought was to break the book down by chapter. I would test the recipes in each chapter, write the intro and headnotes, and then send a draft off to my editor for compliments feedback! Yes!
At our post-deal lunch in late February, my editor very nicely informed me that under no circumstances should I send her one chapter at a time, and she looked forward to reading my entire book in December. So, I gave her a hug and said I’d catch her on the flip, while secretly dying on the inside and wondering how the fuck I was going to pull off writing a whole book without regular feedback. (FYI, I was the kid that met with my TAs in college about every single paper. Not for help—I’d usually written the whole thing already—but because I needed the moral support. I’m Type A.) Working in a vacuum is not this kid’s style.
Having no other choice, I decided to take a new approach to birthing my book baby. I would spend 6 full months testing the book’s 125 recipes, and then spend the 4 months leading up to my deadline just doing the writing. To stick to my schedule, I needed to perfect 5 new recipes a week, which was daunting but doable. So, I set to work.
While everyone’s recipe testing methods are slightly different, my approach was as follows. As I mentioned, I created a full list of recipe titles for the proposal, but I had never actually made the bulk of these recipes before. Up to that point, these meals only existed in my imagination. So every week, I would write down a preliminary ingredient list and instructions for 5 of the aforementioned recipes and attempt to bring them to life in my kitchen. I tested each of them an average of 3 times (some as many as 6 to 8), making any necessary tweaks to ensure that the recipe was as delicious and easy-to-follow as humanly possible before putting it in the “tested” bucket to be sent to outside recipe testers. (We’ll talk about outside testers in a second.)
Full disclosure, this personal recipe testing was hands-down the hardest phase of the book process for me, and whipping up 5 new book recipes a week (plus 2 for this site) was both creatively and physically exhausting. You know I don’t like to exercise, so just being on my feet in the kitchen for 8-10 hours a day was rough, and looking back, I probably should have invested in some super sexy orthopedic shoes to take the edge off. There was a lot of sweating (especially from May-August), crying, and stress-related health issues during this period (which were exacerbated by the fact that I would exclusively eat things like meatballs and cookies for days at a time), but I’m very lucky to have had an awesome support team in place that helped keep me semi-sane. My roommate was always there to make me laugh and koala hug me when necessary, and my NYC besties regularly stopped by to pick up extra food and offer feedback and encouragement. (My friend Lara even came to sit on my gross kitchen floor and keep me company multiple times a week while she was in nursing school, and for that I will always be grateful.)
After personally testing all of the book’s recipes, it was time to solicit outside feedback. I had heard that some cookbook authors use professional recipe testers (yes, that is a real job), but this first-timer decided to go rogue and simply ask blog readers to help me out. I figured I’d get maybe 10-15 interested peeps, but instead, I got, wait for it…60 RESPONSES. I was blown away and incredibly flattered that so many readers wanted to be involved, so I ran with it. Some people seemed to think that being chosen as a tester was some sort of honor/competition and would list their qualifications for the job, which I LOVED. I didn’t have the heart to admit that everyone got the gig (if you are one of those people, I’m sorry to break this to you), and instead I was like, “CONGRATULATIONS!!! You’ve been chosen to be part of The Dude Diet Recipe Testing Family!” It was all very exciting.
The outside recipe testing process was pretty straightforward. After gathering info on a tester’s likes/dislikes and allergies, I would send them 3 recipes at a time along with a feedback worksheet for them to fill out after making each recipe. This worksheet included questions on timing, tools, and taste, and I would then use the feedback to re-test/tweak the recipes that were lacking in any way. (In cases where major changes were required, I would re-test the recipe in my kitchen, and then send the new version out to a different set of testers.) This feedback was incredibly helpful, but interpreting it was sometimes tricky given people’s very different palates. For example, I had 2 testers make the exact same recipe for chili. One said, “Loved it, but thought it could use more kick!” while the other said, “WTF?! This stuff was so spicy it burned my face off!!!” What’s a girl to do? In general, I trusted my gut (and prayed it was right).
In hindsight, I probably should have realized that coordinating feedback from 60 recipe testers was a batshit crazy idea—and I’ve since learned that most authors use an average of 5-10 testers and have an intern deal with feedback—but whateva. While I may have spent hours tearing my hair out over feedback forms and making spreadsheets, I had the best time getting to know so many amazing people via email, and I have no regrets. To the fabulous members of The DD Recipe Testing Family, YOU ROCK, and I’m forever in your debt.
Once I had all the book’s recipes tested by outsiders and had gotten them as close to “perfect” as I possibly could, it was time to move on to the writing phase. (As some of you may remember, I did some Walden Pond-ing at my dad’s house in Maine to get my storytelling juices flowing.) The Dude Diet is heavy on the narrative, so there was quite a bit to get through, but writing one chapter a week seemed manageable, and that’s exactly what I forced myself to do.
I did the food chapters first, since those only required chapter intros and recipe headnotes, and then I left myself roughly 6 weeks to write the Introduction and the first couple chapters covering the finer points of The Dude Diet lifestyle. Sure, writing had its ups and downs, but overall, it was my favorite part of the book process thus far. I love me some Logan stories and nutritional knowledge bombs, and it felt natural to share all of The Dude Diet’s best tips, tricks, and recipes in the same place.
As you can imagine, the final week before my December 31st deadline was a total shitshow. I frantically edited, re-tested a handful of recipes for the infinitieth time, and generally panicked (I was an absolute peach during the holidays last year!), but somehow it all came together. And on New Year’s Eve 2015, I pressed send on an email to my editor containing my 250+ page manuscript, popped a bottle of champagne, and chugged toasted my greatest professional achievement to date.
TO BE CONTINUED…
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