how to write a cookbook: editing #weeknightbakingbook
My first cookbook, Weeknight Baking, is out in exactly a week and I can hardly believe it—I’ve been working on this damn thing since 2017, and I am equal parts excited, relieved, and frightened to finally have it out in the world, lol. And in case you missed it, I’ve been dealing with my neuroses celebrating by sharing a ton of behind-the-scenes stories of how the book actually came together. So far I’ve talked about the concept behind the book (what IS weeknight baking, anyway?), how I wrote the proposal for Weeknight Baking and sold it to publishers, how I developed recipes, and the photography process I used when shooting the cookbook. And today I’m going to be talking about one of the least glamorous parts of the cookbook writing process: editing.
How The Cookbook Editing Process Works
Most authors usually know who their editor will be before the book writing process even begins. This is because book proposals are directly sent to editors at publishing houses; it is the editors who vet the book proposals, and decide whether or not the proposal is worth turning into a book. Personally, this is where my relationship with my editor, Emily Graff at Simon & Schuster, started—Nicole, my agent, had sent my book proposal directly to her. After reading the proposal, Emily invited me to a meeting to discuss my ideas further in person. I don’t remember what the specifics of the meeting were (I mostly remember nervously blasting Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo” album while trying to find a subway route that would enable me to stress eat a bagel from Ess-A-Bagel on the way over to the meeting), but Nicole did advise me to try and get a feel of what it would actually be like to work with the editors I was meeting with since I would end up working with one of them in the future. I was already impressed with Emily—I’d done some light Google stalking of her beforehand, and discovered that her last cookbook project was Samin Nosrat’s immensely successful Salt Fat Acid Heat cookbook. And for our meeting, Emily baked the chocolate chip cookie recipe I’d included in my proposal.
Before I started my cookbook writing journey, I always assumed that an editor at a publishing house would actually, well, edit—that is, my editor would be sitting down with my manuscript and correcting grammatical errors and spelling mistakes with a red pen. And while Emily certainly did some of that, she mostly functioned as a project manager. Because once an author signs a contract with a publisher, the author is basically given a team to help bring the book to life. In addition to an editor, the author will have a copyeditor (the person who does the grammar and spelling edits I had expected Emily to do), a book/page designer (the person who designs the book and lays out the pages), a materials designer (the person who picks the materials the book is made with), a production manager (the person who makes sure the book is on schedule and helps coordinate the different moving parts from different departments). Not to mention later, when the book is assigned a marketing person AND a PR person. Despite having all those resources dedicated to my book, I spent 90% of my time talking and coordinating with Emily; she was my point of contact at the publishing house for everything, especially since many of the other folks weren’t brought in until much later in the game.
Because typically, before the book even begins to undergo the design process, it needs to be edited at least twice. The first is supposed to happen after you turn the manuscript in for the first time—at this point, your editor reads the whole thing through and makes what I like to call “Big Picture” edits, like comments and suggestions on how to make the content fit the overall theme of the book better (e.g. some of the comments I received from Emily were queries like “Does this recipe fit the overall theme of the book?” or prompts like “Describe why this recipe is good for a weeknight instead”). After the Big Picture edits, the manuscript then undergoes copyedits by a different copy editor. The copy editor then edits the manuscript for grammar, spelling, and typos—mine even provided some light fact checking. Only when both the editor and the author are happy with the manuscript does it move on to the next stage, design/production. This is also when the rest of the team then gets involved.
How It Really Went Down
Most books are given a rough timeline of production: I was given a year to turn in my manuscript upon signing with my publisher, with the expectation that the book would take around a year to edit before being published in the spring of 2019. Yep, you read that right, spring. My book’s official release date is next Tuesday, October 29th, 2019. As you can see, we did not meet some of my deadlines, lol.
I accepted my publisher’s bid for my book in June of 2017 and was given a manuscript deadline for July 2018. But I only officially began recipe development and testing in October of 2017, after my publisher returned the signed contract back to me. In retrospect, I should have started the work much earlier, given how time intensive it really was. But without a contract, a part of me still didn’t quite believe that the book deal was real—I didn’t want to invest a ton of my time and money without anything official in place!
In the early spring of 2018, Emily asked me for some sample recipes, photos, and chapters for the sales team at Simon and Schuster. She explained that they’d be using these samples to pitch the book to their contacts at book sellers and bookstores, and that it was common for these meetings to happen a year before the book is officially released. I legit PANICKED. All I had was a ratty notebook full of (well-tested!) recipes and a Google Doc of headnotes that were incomprehensible to anybody but myself. And it was at this point that we decided to push the book’s original release date from spring of 2019 to the fall of 2019 instead, lol. Between you and me, I don’t think my publisher was too happy with that decision—but I personally was elated. Not only did it give me more time to work on the book, but I felt like the book’s weeknight baking story would play much better in the fall when folks were deep in the thrall of the busy school and holiday seasons and were looking for something fun to do on long winter nights.
After that hurdle was cleared, things went by pretty smoothly on my end—I ramped up my recipe development to give me a month before my deadline to finish all the recipe headnotes and work on my front matter. I turned in all 300+ pages of the manuscript in July of 2018, 100+ photos a month later, and was finally able to put up my feet and rest while I waited for my first set of edits to come in.
And I waited… and waited… and waited.
The first set of my edits finally came in sometime in late November, almost five months after I’d turned in the first draft of the manuscript. I’m not going to lie—it was frustrating, waiting that long. Throughout that time, I checked in constantly with both my agent and editor; neither seemed particularly concerned about the time it took to edit the manuscript. Emily also assured me that her edits wouldn’t be too major, and we’d still have plenty of time to get everything sorted before the book went to the printers.
Unfortunately, November was the worst time for me to receive the edits. For most bloggers, October, November, and December are the busiest months of the year. In addition to balancing the typical familial holiday obligations, many brands want to work with us at this time to promote new products for the holidays. As a result, I literally had no time to look at the manuscript until January or so.
I’d also made the mistake of accepting a part time job while waiting for my edits. Because busy season hadn’t started yet, I had a lot of down time while waiting for the manuscript. And at that point, I figured that the majority of the work (recipe development, photography, and writing) were complete and I had the 28 hours per week required to dedicate to my new job. I figured that I could edit my manuscript during the evenings while dividing the rest of the day between my new job and Hummingbird High.
But once the edits came in, it was immediately apparent that I couldn’t handle all three. Despite what my editor had assured me earlier, I realized I had a gargantuan task ahead of me: all my recipes needed to be edited to fit a recipe style guide of my own creation (because my publisher doesn’t publish many cookbooks, my editor advised me to develop one of my own). In addition to the recipe edits, there was a fair amount of conflict between my vision for the book and what my editor wanted. While I had envisioned the book to be a reference book, focusing on tips and techniques on how to make classic baking recipes fit within your schedule, my editor wanted it to be more autobiographical and for me to include personal stories about balancing my finance/tech jobs while baking.
To get the work done, I quit my new job (less than three months after I first started—needless to say, it was not my proudest moment and that company was less-than-thrilled with me). To this day, I still regret the position I put them in. For the recipe edits, I hired a good friend of mine, Michelle Carroll, to help develop a style guide for the recipes, and to edit them accordingly. While she edited the recipe instructions, I tackled the edits for the front matter and headnotes. This arrangement worked well because Carroll is one of my good friends through and through; she knew my writing voice and blog really well, having supported Hummingbird High since its early days. She is the Natalie Beach to my Caroline Calloway, lol. We were also former coworkers, having worked on the same team at a tech start-up several years prior; we applied some of the project management techniques and tools that worked for us back in the day to get the work done as efficiently as possible. I don’t think there was anybody else who could do the job that Carroll did; if my book had a co-author, it would undoubtedly be her. And even with her invaluable help and the time freed up from quitting my job, it was a TON of work to get the manuscript ready for copy edits.
The manuscript was finally ready for copy edits in March. But unlike the previous editing phase, where a lot of the edits felt subjective and personal, the copy edits felt more like solving a set of problems with clear right or wrong answers. Unlike the previous process, where I felt that every edit was a compromise to my original vision, I actually enjoyed the copy editing process! I learned/re-learned a lot about grammar rules and sentence structures that I hadn’t thought about since I was in school. That being said, it was still a LOT of work, too. You’re given a very short amount of time to fix the manuscript—I had a week and change to go through the 360+ pages of my manuscript, and almost every page had something that needed to be reviewed. Furthermore, because the copy editor is also given a short time with the manuscript (my copy editor had about a week to go through mine), I found other mistakes and/or inconsistencies that she’d missed throughout the text that I then needed to fix. To meet my deadline, I pulled a few all-nighters, heading to my old college campus library to take advantage of the quiet and free myself from the distraction of Netflix and my cat.
After I made the changes that the copy editor had suggested, the book was sent to the designer for her to layout the manuscript into the book design. Prior to this point, the manuscript was a Microsoft Word document full of comments and tracked changes. My designer, Suet Chong, put together several different layout options for me and my editor to choose from—it was at this point that the book started to feel like a real book. From the beginning, I wanted the layout to be very clean, minimal, easy to read, but with some character from little pops of color (e.g. a yellow page element to match the book’s spine, the ingredients in blue font to match the book’s cover) for personality. Suet knocked it out of the park with her designs:
It took Suet about a month to lay out the entire manuscript. Once she was done, I was given the official “1st Pass” of the manuscript. It was at this point that Emily, my editor, looped in the rest of the production team, who then provided me with a production schedule. Officially, I would be given two passes of the manuscript to review and edit before it went to the printers. My production team scheduled exactly a week for me to look over and edit each pass. Because the manuscript had already been through so many rounds of Big Picture edits and copy edits, the changes to the text are supposed to be minimal… in theory.
But it turns out that when you take a Microsoft Word document and officially lay it out in the book, it quickly becomes apparent how much you actually missed in the prior editing processes. It was here that I noticed that I repeated the same phrases or words all in the same two page spread of the book (which makes sense, since five pages in a Word doc can easily turn out to fill only two pages in a book layout). Much to the dismay of both my editor and production team, I ended up editing and rewriting a LOT of the text at this time.
In addition to proofing the text, I also had to edit the book for design issues like widows and orphans, weird spacing and note placement, odd photo cropping, and more. As you can see, it was a LOT to handle for one person—especially in a week’s amount of time! I ended up enlisting another good friend, Sze Wa Cheung, to help with the design edits. Like Carroll, Sze Wa and I were former coworkers and had a history of working well and efficiently together (in fact, she helped me design an e-cookbook many years ago!). It was Sze Wa who noticed a lot of stuff that had flown over my head completely—things like recipe sidebars having uneven spacing from page to page, photo grids that were slanted and askew, and note placements in the margins that were off and didn’t make sense with the rest of the page.
Sze Wa also helped bring one of my dreams for the book to fruition. From the beginning, I was insistent that the book have a recipe icon key. At the beginning of the process, my editor had helped me flush out the six tenets of weeknight baking. These are recipes that:
- Come together quickly…
- … or come together quickly over a few nights.
- Use ingredients you have in a well-stocked baker’s pantry…
- … or can easily be substituted with other similar ingredients.
- Stores well for baking, decorating, assembling or serving in the future…
- … or are made with parts that do.
I wanted to create an icon for each of the principles, and attach them to the recipes so that a baker could quickly figure out what he or she was getting into based on the icon alone. However, my designer had a WHALE of a time figuring out an appropriate icon key; both she and my editor were convinced that it wasn’t necessary and focused their efforts convincing me otherwise.
Unfortunately, I was stubborn and refused to let go of my incredibly nerdy vision. I also had an advantage: I studied economics in school, and had a ton of background on information design and data visualization (not to mention that I did some of this sort of work in my old job in tech, too). After being told that my icon key wasn’t going to happen for the sixth time in a row (lol, I told you I was stubborn), I headed back to my college library to bury myself in Edward Tufte books. A few hours later, I had a few models for an icon key. The only problem was that I’d drawn up with stick figures and really bad doodles—I’ve never been much of an artist, and I knew that I wasn’t going to win the fight with my editor and designer with chicken scratch drawings. This is where Sze Wa came in and saved the day. Sze Wa works as a graphic designer and has an extensive background on helping tech companies design their visual look. After showing her what I’d drawn up, she helped me refine my ideas even further and went ahead and actually created the icons you see in the book!
You’d think that, with all the work that was needed to be done, we were using some fancy software and tools to keep track of all the edits and design changes. Hahahah, let me tell you how it all went down: all changes were made by pencil. Yep, you read that right—pencil. My production team would overnight me a printout of the manuscript. I would then have to manually write all my edits and changes with a pencil (pen wasn’t allowed!) directly onto the manuscript, using a special proofreader’s code. When I was finished, I’d then overnight the manuscript back to the production team, who would then electronically transcribe my edits. Often times, I’d actually request for two printouts of the manuscript so I could transcribe my edits to both, and keep one as a reference for when they sent over the corrected version (because keep in mind that I was editing a 300-page document, and sending it back to somebody else to apply the edits; as a result, the production team would sometimes incorrectly apply my edits, or even fail to apply them at all).
Because of all my rewrites, the design issues, and some things getting lost/delayed in the mail, we finally wrapped things up in July. That was when my production team officially sent the book to the printers. In the end, my editor had to cut me off—a few of my edits weren’t applied because we were up against our timeline. She promised to apply them in the second printing.
All in all, the editing process was much more intense and involved than I was prepared for. Nicole, my literary agent, told me that nobody ever feels happy with their editing process; most authors either feel like they were over- or under- edited. I was surprised by how much of the work fell onto my plate, and how little resources and support I had from the publisher throughout it all—without Carroll and Sze Wa, I really don’t think I would have met my deadlines!
I was also disappointed by the inefficiencies with regards to timing and deadlines. It seemed like my publisher was operating under the assumption that the book was the only thing I had going on in my life—and even after re-prioritizing my life and quitting my job, it still wasn’t enough time to do it all. I definitely pulled a lot of all-nighters to meet some of the deadlines. Some of them were frankly insane: for the 3rd Pass, my manuscript was delivered to my house on Saturday morning, with the expectation that I would have my edits in by first thing Monday morning. Another pass was delivered to me electronically on Wednesday afternoon; I was told to turn in my edits on Thursday morning. I don’t think this is typical.
I know that a big part of the delays was because I was an incredibly harsh critic and ruthless editor, too. I drove myself to the ground to make sure that phrases like “strained freshly squeezed juice” were consistent throughout the manuscript and “sifted if lumpy” was always attached to the right ingredients. Truthfully, between you and me, I don’t know how much of the work I did will get noticed even. Because that’s the thing about good design and writing; you really only notice them when they’ve gone awry. But still—I’m glad that I invested the time and resources that I did to edit the book as carefully as I did. I know that several years from now, I’ll look at my book in wonder and think, “Huh—I can’t believe I did all that.” Lol.