by Maralyn D. Hill

There are many reasons for writing a cookbook. Some are as easy as the desire to create a history of family recipes, while others wish to write a best seller. There are many questions you need to ask yourself, but knowing why you want to write a cookbook is at the top of the list.

Rather than start with the difficult, I’ll start with what would apply to either category.

•  Your cookbook should have a niche, whether it is family, community, cooking for one, quick and easy, ethnic, or whatever you dream up.

•  Let your book tell a story about each recipe or region. Readers enjoy knowing the background.

•  Generally, those who write the most successful cookbooks have a love and passion for food. This should shine through. When I type a recipe, I can taste the combination of ingredients in my head. Of course, that is not a requirement, but an added bonus.

•  Go to your local bookstore or go through your own cookbook collection and study their formats. Which ones are easier for you to follow and more enjoyable? Use that as a guide when figuring out how to format your recipes, as they should all be formatted the same.

When writing your recipes, keep them clear and simple. There are some basic rules to follow:


•  List the ingredients in the order they will be used.

•  When listing, be sure to say what to do with them and what size, i.e. 1 medium onion, chopped fine; 1 large lemon, peeled and cut into wedges; A 13 to 15.5 ounce can of tomatoes, etc.

•  If you are going to use a ingredient in parts (3/4 in the beginning and ¼ later), make reference to it, i.e. ¾ cup of sugar (keeping ¼ back for topping).

•  Make sure all of the ingredients you list are used unless you say optional.

•  When possible, list the size bowl or pan to use. This is quite important for baking—an 8” square pan takes longer to bake than a 9” square pan.

Baking, deep-frying, broiling or grilling:

•  Specifying preheating to a certain temperature before using.

•  Provide a doneness test if available.

•  If a pan needs to be prepared, be sure to indicate how: Spray with non-stick coating; grease and lightly flour the bottom and sides; or make sure the oil is hot before you submerge food.

•  Instructions should be easy and quite clear. The more complex they are, the less likely they are to be followed accurately or the recipe would be selected. However, do not shortchange how to do something specific, i.e. clarifying butter. You should always spell out a process like that, unless your book is aimed towards chefs.


Layout of book:

•  All recipes should be formatted the same throughout the book. The exception would be recipes from chefs, as you would need permission to change their layouts. Frequently, chefs often write recipes in an individual style, which does not help the ease of a well-formatted book.

•  Color photos of finished dishes add a tremendous value to your book. However, they also drive up the cost. If a photo is grainy leave it out.

•  Determine chapter headings before you start. In the first book I co-authored with Brenda C. Hill, Our Love Affairs with Food & Travel, we divided it by continent, country, state or providence, city and chef.  An standard alternative could be: Appetizers; soups; salads; main dishes; vegetables and sides; sandwiches; and desserts (cookies, pies, etc.). However, you may want something still different: Breakfasts; brunches; lunches; dinners; holiday dinners, and then categories within. Various alternatives work, it just is best to decide ahead of time.

•  When possible, try to keep one recipe to a page.

•  You want a table of contents as well as an index.

•  My suggestion would be to have at least 50 recipes and no more than 300. Larger books become quite costly to produce.

Things to avoid if you are self-publishing:

•  Bulleted lists do not always convert easily into publishing programs.

•  Fancy fonts may be pretty, but are difficult for the reader.

•  Make sure the title can be read from 5 to 10 feet away.

Sources you should read first:

Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Reviews, Memoir, and More‘ by Dianne Jacob. This was updated in 2010. I have the older version and wish I had it before we did our first and second books.

Recipes into type: A handbook for cookbook writers and editors‘ by Joan Whitman. This book is out of print, but I found my copy on Amazon. ‘The Recipe Writer’s Handbook’ by Jane Baker.

If you are self-publishing:

•  Many people who produce cookbooks for fundraisers use I have not used them, but I know they are quite successful and they provide many tips.

•  We used Infinity and they were good. Now that they offer color, they are even better. You only need to order a few with Infinity, as they are print-on-demand.In addition, the quality of their paper is good and the color quality is excellent. Infinity offers you more options, as may cookbook publishers insist on templates.

•  You’ll need a very detailed marketing plan. I can’t over emphasize its importance. This is true if you self-publish or use a traditional publishers. Marketing matters, as you book will not sell without it.

If you plan to have a traditional publisher:

•  Remember, there are over 15,000 cookbooks a year that get submitted and the number keeps growing. What hook will your book have that will make it worth the investment by the publisher?

•  If you feel your book should be traditionally published, you will need: An agent, a good book proposal, and an exceptional marketing plan. You will also need to show statistics on similar books. It generally takes months for an agent to find a publisher and then 15 months to two years to get it published.

This is not meant to discourage you, but rather to be sure you are realistic in what you want. Even though we did have a small publisher lined up, we chose to publish independently, as we did not want to wait two years. We are happy we did things our own way. Did we make mistakes, yes. However, we have learned from them.

If you are doing this for your love and passion for food, I’d say, “Go for it.”

Maralyn Dennis Hill, The Epicurean Explorer, is President of the International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association and Editor-at-Large for CityRoom. She contributes to numerous publications.

The majority of Maralyn’s articles are now geared to the luxury market, spas, corporate retreats, business events, and culinary tourism, from simple to gourmet.

Maralyn’s description of herself: I was born to travel and tell the tale. I’m energized by different cultures in every aspect of their lives, from food, wine, and destination, to how they conduct business. Travel represents a continual geography lesson.

Maralyn D. Hill

About Maralyn D. Hill

Maralyn Dennis Hill, The Epicurean Explorer, was born to travel and tell the tale. From local cuisine to Michelin Star, simple to gourmet, Maralyn enjoys it all. Discovering flavors, spices, and trends worldwide, from Bocuse d’Or to being a judge at the Turks & Caicos Conch Festival, Oregon Chocolate Festival and others, or interviewing chefs, she is intrigued by all aspects of spa and culinary tourism. As a professional food, wine and travel writer, through guest spots on monthly radio shows, to being editor and contributor to over eight publications, print and online, she reaches several million on a continual basis, domestically and internationally. Maralyn’s years of writing incentive programs and meeting planning expanded her talent for digging below the surface for the unusual. She thrives on discovering different cultures and customs and feels it’s the best geography lesson ever. Also, she derives great satisfaction applying her organizational development skills. She has co-authored three books and hosted a television show for Time Warner Cable from 2002 to 2006. She is past president of The International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association (12-2008 to 12-2012) and continues as a board member and co-chair of the Conference and Media Trip Committee. Maralyn is always ready to explore different flavors of various cultures and share their tale. People she meets along the way are the best part.