how to write a cookbook: designing the front cover of #weeknightbakingbook
My cookbook, Weeknight Baking, is coming out in FIVE days and things are getting REAL. A big thank you to the folks over at Business Insider, Chowhound (for multiple features, too!), and NBC News for naming Weeknight Baking as one of the Best Cookbooks of Fall 2019 or something similar. And in case you missed it, my favorite column on Bon Appetit magazine, Basically, featured an excerpt from the book where I ramble on about one of the steps you can pretty much always skip to save you time when baking (and no, unfortunately, it’s not waiting for the bake to cool or even dishes, as some of you
sassy clever folks suggested on Instagram, lol—head on over to the article to learn more).
As a sort of
cathartic release celebration, I’ve been spending the last few weeks sharing behind-the-scenes stories from the making of the book. Most of the posts have been about the struggle and ugly nitty gritty that comes with writing a book (see: Writing and Selling a Proposal, Recipe Development, Photography, and Editing, lol), but today I’m sharing one of the funner parts from the whole process—designing the cover of Weeknight Baking.
Designing A Book Cover
We started talking about the front cover of Weeknight Baking pretty early in the process of making the book. Emily, my editor, brought it up sometime in the fall of last year as I was waiting for the first set of edits for my manuscript. She asked me to see if any one of the recipes was particularly representative of the book’s weeknight baking concept; if not, could I possibly make a cake that looked like a clock for the cover? Emily wanted a visual that would immediately tell the story of time-strapped baking.
Prior to this moment, I’ll admit that I really hadn’t thought too much about what the cover of my book would look like! But I did know that a clock cake wasn’t really up my alley. It wasn’t necessarily a bad idea per se, but in order to pull off a cake worthy of the cover, I’d have to mess around with a cake design involving lots of fondant tools and complicated piping techniques that I’d actively avoided using in the book. I thought it would give people the wrong impression of the simple and accessible recipes inside.
I spent the subsequent weekend examining the cookbooks in my extensive collection and realized I was drawn to three types of covers:
Bright and Modern Non-Photo Based Covers
I loved how the bright solid colors really grabbed my eye—I could easily visualize myself being drawn to these covers when idly browsing in a bookstore. Even online, where I admittedly do most of my shopping these days, I loved how these colors popped on a digital screen.
But in addition to being eye-catching, I also knew that choosing a non-photo cover would take an immense amount of pressure off my back, freeing me from the responsibility of having to bake and shoot something specifically for the cover. Coming up with a cover photo is ten times the pressure of coming up with photos in the book itself (which, in case you missed my post about the photography process for my book, trust me—it was already already a LOT). I’d need to style the photo—designing the right lighting conditions and picking the right props—to make it more timeless so that people immediately wouldn’t take a look at it and think to themselves, “Oh! Millennial pink and brass hardware. How very 2017.” Ugh. I was convinced that choosing an illustrated cover over a photo-based one would guarantee that the book’s cover would better weather the trends.
But I also knew that publishers, especially American cookbook ones, usually advised against non-photo covers. Several of my friends and peers had tried to get their illustrated covers approved by their publishers, with no luck. As a back-up, I pitched my publisher my second choice:
Minimalist Photo Covers
Okay, I genuinely don’t know what to call these types of covers beyond “minimalist photo covers”. I liked that these covers followed the bright and modern non-photo covers I was drawn to, despite using a picture. I think it’s because of the way the photos are styled. The photos use minimal colors themselves, and three out of the four covers zooms in on the subject to keep the framing tight—it almost looks like a background pic on an iPhone or something. I dug it. I imagined doing something similar, but with swirls of chocolate frosting or a pile of sprinkles.
And finally, because I am
a neurotic person an overachiever, I pitched a third idea to my publisher:
In many ways, the tablescapes are the exact opposite of both the Non-Photo and Minimalist covers. But I thought that a messy tablescape of my baking area—including a partially finished glass of wine and maybe even my laptop nearby—would be really true to the book’s weeknight baking theme. I envisioned having “Weeknight Baking” and my name in bold letters in the center of it all.
My Jacket Designer
Surprisingly, my publisher LOVED the idea of a non-photo cover. They even hired a really talented illustrator, Ben Wiseman, to take on the job. After some light Google stalking, I was surprised to find that I was already familiar with his work—he draws many graphics for several of the major news sources that I read on a daily/weekly basis.
After my editor fielded my weirdly-specific-but-also-incredibly-vague ideas above (“I don’t know, something modern, maybe feature a tool or an ingredient that indicates “BAKING” somehow? Does that work?”), Ben presented the team with the following four covers:
I legit SQUEALED out loud when my editor sent over Ben’s work. I really thought that, even with my very bad art directing, he’d captured exactly what I’d wanted.
I had a whale of a time deciding between the measuring spoons and the sprinkles versus the whisk with the dollop of cream. In the end, after surveying close friends and family—all of whom provided very different opinions from one another, so it honestly ended up complicating things more than clarifying them, lol—I chose the measuring spoons.
I figured that the measuring spoons more exclusively signified baking (since whisks were also frequently used in savory cooking too). Ditto with the sprinkles versus the dollop of cream, since you don’t really use sprinkles on anything beyond baked goods. I also noticed that many cookbooks had already been published with a whisk on their cover. But measuring spoons? I couldn’t find any. I was proud to be the first author to do so (I think… but let me know if you know of any!).
Emily also pointed out that the placement of the measuring spoons subtly suggested the hands of a clock, tying everything back to the weeknight baking theme. I was sold.
That Pesky Secondary Title
After nailing the illustration and the colors for the cover, it was time to figure out text placement. In addition to the title of the book, the cover would need to display my name, my blog name (the sales team at Simon & Schuster also requested that we have my blog name somewhere on the cover), and a secondary title that gave a little more flavor as to what the book was actually about, too. It was a lot.
The design team provided me with the following options:
Personally, with the secondary title “75 Recipes to Make Any Night of the Week”, I liked the third option best. But Sze Wa, my friend who helped edit the designs for the book, told me that the third option was “technically imperfect” since the secondary title wasn’t center-aligned like the text in the other options. Once she pointed that out, I couldn’t unsee it. But I didn’t like the way the first two options read (if read from top to the bottom, it jumped from “Weeknight Baking” to my name to the secondary title), and I thought the final option was too cramped.
I was having second thoughts about the secondary title, anyway. It seemed like “Recipes to Make Any Night of the Week” was redundant and almost directly contradicting “Weeknight Baking”. I wanted it simplified to “Time-Saving Recipes” instead. Although my editor preferred the longer secondary title and thought that “Time-Saving Recipes” was too cold, she gave me the green light. And with that simplification, the final option looked best:
Everything with the cover was hunky dory for a few weeks. I thought that we’d all happily agreed on the cover… until my editor ran it by the sales team. They wanted the old secondary title back. Except this time, they wanted it longer—they wanted to include the “time-saving” aspect in it too. It now read “75 Time-Saving Recipes to Make Any Night of the Week”.
The longer title looked AWFUL on the cover design we’d settled on.
I wanted to push back and keep my original edit of “Time-Saving Recipes”, but my literary agent warned me that going against the sales team would be against the best interest of the book. In the end, I was given a choice: stick with the above cover, or come up with a secondary title that would satisfy me, my editor, AND the sales team while looking good on the cover, too.
I got this news while I was on vacation in Europe. Erlend and I spent one of our precious vacation evenings brainstorming a series of replacement titles for the book. Some were serious; others, not so much. In the end, the winning replacement was “Recipes to Fit Your Schedule”:
Not only did it look good, but “Recipes to Fit Your Schedule” actually matched the content of the books better. While most of the recipes are quick and accessible to make on a weeknight, the more complicated ones required helped you figure out ways to break them down to fit in the time you had. Despite the drama, I was really pleased with how the cover turned out in the end.
Designing A Book Spine
After the text placement was settled, we tackled the spine next. When we were designing the front cover, I’d let everybody know early that I wanted a bright yellow spine to contrast with the blue of the book. I thought that the yellow would be attention-grabbing, but not overwhelming or obnoxiously so. With these directions, the design team drew up a plain yellow spine, and a yellow spine that incorporated some of the sprinkles from the front cover as well:
I personally liked the plain yellow spine from the get-go, but did appreciate the thought of incorporating the colorful sprinkles too. I asked the designer to mock up a spine that would have “Weeknight Baking” written in the rainbow colors of the sprinkles (similar to Ben’s original designs for the front cover):
To be honest, I had a REALLY hard time choosing between the plain yellow spine and this rainbow version. I ended up printing both samples and folding them like the book to see which one would catch my eye the most. The yellow spine won by a hair. A HAIR.
Designing A Back Cover
After the front cover, the process for the back cover was almost like an afterthought. My publisher liked to use a template for back covers, cramming the back cover with as much information as possible:
As you can see, it’s a little busy, lol. There were also a lot of redundancies—not only was there an intro paragraph explaining who I was, but there was an author bio, too.
I recommended that we move the author bio to the inside of the book and nix everything except the blurbs. My editor and I had worked hard to send early copies of the manuscript to fellow bakers and food folks to get their endorsement for the book. In the end, I was really proud of the blurbs that Claire Saffitz (one of my heroes at Bon Appetit magazine), and my friends Erin McDowell and Molly Yeh had provided—the three of them had said such wonderful things about the book, and I wanted their quotes to shine. My editor, however, insisted that we keep the introductory paragraph about me. That paragraph would be for the potential buyers and readers who didn’t already know me from my blog.
In the end, this was the final result:
As you can see, like everything else, designing the book’s cover was not straight-forward or easy. But I do think that the hard work and stress paid off—I’m incredibly proud of the book’s overall jacket.