The Ingredients For a Standout Cookbook, According to Publishers

May 12, 2017

What are the ingredients necessary for crafting a well-loved cookbook? How much time is needed to produce a book worthy of adding to our personal collection? What do publishers look for when they're acquiring a book? We asked some heavy hitters at some of the top cookbook publishers for their recipes for cookbook success.

the main ingredients

The most essential ingredient in any successful cookbook—besides the precise food styling and photography, and the clever editorial layout, and the imperative cover image and unique jacket treatments, and the marketing strategy and game-changing press mentions—is of course, the author. Their perspective, their passion, their personality.

“I’m drawn to authors who are creative outside of the kitchens—artists and designers, musicians and illustrators, writers and photographers. People with personalities for days. You can turn to the internet if you want a recipe for lemon chicken. You buy a book because you want to be in another world for a while, whether it’s feeling like you’re at a dinner party in the woods with Erin Gleeson, author of Forest Feast Gatherings, or you are traveling the world eating with Action Bronson, whose book, F*ck, That’s Delicious, is the perfect blend of awesome food, hysterical writing, and THC.”
Holly Dolce, Executive Editor at Abrams Books

“We don’t approach things as to whether the topic is niche or general, but as to whether the chef’s point of view is highly original and specific. We like to say that if someone else could have written a book, it’s not for Artisan. Our interest in Jeni Britton Bauer’s book Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home, for example, wasn’t because ice cream has mass appeal, it was because she had developed an entirely new technique for making it.”
—Lia Ronnen, Publisher and Editorial Director at Artisan Books

So if you’re deciding which topic your cookbook should cover, don’t be afraid to get as niche as possible—and think about what you are best at. By bringing your readers into your world by sharing your expertise, your book will stand out on the digital and literal bookstore shelves.

cook time

This part varies wildly across the publishing industry—just like any recipe would in the kitchen. Take cookies, sometimes they need a cool 72 hours-worth of refrigeration before baking, while other cult classics only require 1 hour—both yield equally delicious results, but the prep time is significantly different. Same goes for cookbooks; they can be churned out in as little as 6 months (Dovetail Press), on average one and a half to two years (Abrams Books, Artisan Books, Chronicle Books, Ten Speed Press), or upwards of several years (Phaidon Books).

Ultimately the length of time depends on the process and scope of the book being produced. For example, Phaidon Books publishes many hundred page books like Tacopedia (318 pages) and Noma (368 pages), whereas Abrams Books hovers 200 to 300 pages with titles like Simple Fare (192 pages), Salad for President (272 pages), and Everything I Want to Eat (280 pages), versus Dovetail, which focuses on smaller, yet sizable titles like ¡Buenos Nachos! (166 pages) or Brew (160 pages).

“One of the ways Dovetail might be different than larger traditional publishers is speed. So far our projects have all taken about six months from idea to market—and that includes printing. This sounds insane to most folks in the publishing industry—and this kind of timeline doesn’t work for all book projects, but I grew up working in magazine publishing, so the idea of creating a couple hundred pages of great content in a month or two is business as usual for magazine folks.”
—Nick Fauchald, Publisher at Dovetail Press

“It typically takes a minimum of two years, as it’s common for proposals to be rethought once we’ve begun the process of working with an author on developing her idea. Together, we get to the true heart of the project—the singularities that should be brought out. It’s of course common for authors to want to publish a book faster, but we remind them that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
—Lia Ronnen, Publisher and Editorial Director at Artisan Books

“The timeline really depends on the complexity of the book and can range from a minimum of two years up to several years. First we need to conceive the book in all its parts: content, structure, format, design; then once we have the manuscript, we need to decide how to communicate the content through the design, font, and photography. We always choose designers who we feel can deliver the book’s vision, then we choose the paper (that is a very important element of the book process), design the cover, and then the book is ready for our production.”
—Emilia Terragni, Cookbook Publisher at Phaidon Books


Like a dish crafted with thoughtful intention and calculated balance, a cookbook cover must make an immediate and intriguing visual impact. Cookbook covers are paramount for an obvious reason—they will make or break sales.

Sqirl’s Everything I Want to Eat cover took three to four months, multiple conference calls, and hundreds of iterations before landing on the final design; and Food52’s very own single-subject cookbooks, Vegan and Baking, went through multiple directions and cover treatments before landing on the ones that felt right. Covers are the portal for communicating the inner content, you’ve got one shot (no pressure)—so make it count!

“At Chronicle, we like texture and tactile details that inspire a feeling of ‘I must touch that.’ Of course, textural details usually can’t be appreciated online, where so many books are sold. A good cover bridges the online and retail worlds, is strong in both forums. It immediately telegraphs the story inside the book, the feeling or tone of what’s inside. It draws the eye and allows the reader to place themselves in the world of the book, makes him/her think ‘I wish this was my life,’ or ‘This book would look great on my table at home.’”
—Sarah Billingsley, Senior Editor at Chronicle Books

“Covers are massively important. Not only do they need to represent the whole vision of the book in just a few elements, but they are also the first reason a lot of people look at and buy a book. The cover of Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine is one of my favorites. With very few elements it gives you the sense of the book, the sense of the restaurant, and the sense of René Redzepi all in one. It is about the color, the texture, and the fact that it is bold and subtle all at the same time. The cover is the door into the book—a must have is to make the reader want to open it.”
—Emilia Terragni, Cookbook Publisher at Phaidon Books

the eaters' appetites

To all you fellow cookbook aficionados out there, what are elements that make you pull the trigger in purchasing a cookbook? What criteria is the most important to you—the engaging writing, the tried-and-true recipes, the delectable photography, the eye-catching cover? This recipe is meant to get you to grab the cookbook, and publishers want to know what you’re craving…

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On Black & Highly Flavored, co-hosts Derek Kirk and Tamara Celeste shine a light on the need-to-know movers and shakers of our food & beverage industry.

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Kendra Aronson is the Founder of Pregnant and Hungry, the only searchable collection of pregnancy-friendly recipes on the internet.