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How I Became a Cookbook Editor

One of the most frequently asked questions I get, whether it's in my inbox or at a reading or at a random intersection of social circles, is how I got into cookbook publishing. I've long promised to lay it all out in a post. But each time I wanted to get started, I got overwhelmed by the prospect of telling people a story that is not at all a blueprint for how you should get into publishing; it's just my story. And I got a little overwhelmed at how long it might take me. And so I postponed and postponed and postponed, feeling guilty the whole time, instead of taking some time and just doing it and putting in all the necessary disclaimers, like "don't take this as the gospel, it's all sort of random, like a lot of life!" and "book publishing may be dying; you should become an engineer instead!" and "no, seriously, back away from the liberal arts degree RIGHT NOW, for the love of Pete." Silly me.

So today, let's talk about how I got into cookbook publishing and my advice to you, should you want to attempt the same thing. This is going to be a longish post, so put on your reading glasses or whatever and get comfy.

Okay. First of all, I never set out to become a cookbook editor. What I did set out to do was to work in book publishing. I had the good fortune to have a father who had followed his passion (mathematics) from an early age and who impressed upon me the importance of getting into a field that would interest me in the long run. Since I'd always loved to read books (I was obsessive about them, they were my whole world), in the early years of college, I thought about which line of work would allow me to spend time around books all day long and what I came up with was book publishing. In the summer between my junior and senior years of college (I went to Tufts, in a suburb of Boston called Medford), I got an internship in the children's book production department at Houghton Mifflin (which was in downtown Boston).

(Quick aside: I originally applied for a summer internship in the adult editorial department of Houghton Mifflin, but wasn't accepted. Instead, a family friend helped me get an internship at PBS's Frontline, based in Cambridge, where I was tasked with writing down keywords for each show for future use on the show's website. This was the summer of 1998, when the internet was still so fuzzy and abstract to me (and a lot of other people, yes?), so basically it just felt like an awesome gig where I got to watch documentaries all day long. It was a nice internship with nice colleagues, but two weeks into it, Houghton Mifflin called up and said something along the lines of, we know we didn't accept you for the internship you originally applied for, but in the interim, another internship has opened up in the production department of the children's books department and we'd like you to have it, would you like to take it? And because more than anything I wanted to get into book publishing and not into documentary television, even if watching as many Frontline episodes as I could every day was kind of great, I said yes and promptly quit the internship. My point being: keep your eye on the prize. Yes, it was a little flaky to quit so abruptly, especially after our kind and generous friend helped me out in a pinch, but it's nothing that a little straightforward honesty and humility couldn't fix. Book publishing was my Everest and if you have an Everest, you must climb it, even if it means quitting other things to go after the climb. Even if it means working in production or publicity or legal instead of editorial to start. Just be polite and grateful and send thank-you cards and show up and be nice. BE NICE.)

The rest of the summer was spent in a cubicle in the air-conditioned offices of Houghton Mifflin, unpacking and cataloging original art that came in from authors and artists, answering the phone for the department head, taking notes in production meetings, going to printers out in the countryside with my bosses and generally soaking up all that I could. In retrospect, I realize that the department was relatively understaffed and that they really employed me as a short-term assistant, which was amazing. I got to do and see so much, instead of just sort of hanging around on the periphery, and even though I had no intention of getting into production work (which involves all the nitty-gritty of actually making the books), I still remember so much of the wonder and awe I carried around me that summer in those nice, cool halls. It felt like the beginning of something big and something good. I'm forever grateful for that opportunity.

When summer came to an end, I was quite sure that book publishing was where I was headed. In the second half of my senior year, the career services department of Tufts told me about a post-graduate summer course in book publishing called the Radcliffe Publishing Course. It was six weeks long, held at Radcliffe (which is part of Harvard), and it was considered almost a prerequisite to finding a job in book publishing after college. I applied and was accepted. That was a pretty big thrill of a day.

And you know what? Going to the Radcliffe Publishing Course was one of the most formative experiences of my life. Not only did I learn an enormous amount about book and magazine publishing in a very short period of time, but those six weeks also introduced me to some of my closest friends in the world to this day. The fierce and driven director of the course, Lindy Hess, was the heart and soul of the operation and it was through her many connections that so many young, book-crazed people found their footing in New York City publishing. She had incredible instincts about who needed to end up where and with which publisher or agency and it was her attitude that propelled so many of us into long-lasting careers in the industry. Sadly, Lindy passed away a few years ago, but the course lives on at Columbia University. It was, hands down, the best money my parents ever spent on my education.

(Another aside: this was in 1999, when publishing was not in the terribly dire straights it is today. There were lots of publishers and lots of magazines, there was money and there were jobs. I can't tell you if a Columbia publishing course degree will guarantee you a job in publishing today. I do know that people working in the industry really appreciate the knowledge that course graduates bring to entry-level positions and the networking inherent in the attendance is always important. But times have indeed changed, so remember that grain of salt.)

While most of my Radcliffe classmates headed straight to New York City for their first jobs after the summer ended, I had a little detour ahead of me. Months earlier, I had applied and been accepted to a year-long graduate program in French Cultural Studies in Paris and had to go do that before I could move to New York. Lindy's scorn was immediate and palpable. She thought I was wasting my time. You don't need any graduate degrees in book publishing, she said, and then questioned my seriousness about the industry. Lindy didn't tolerate anyone who wasn't serious about publishing.

But I ducked my head and went to Paris anyway, where my graduate program turned out to be deeply disappointing. After several weeks of soul-searching about what I had gone to Paris to do, I decided to leave the program. The landlady of the little studio I was renting knew an editor at Flammarion and when she caught wind of the fact that I had left the program and was at a loss as to whether I needed to leave Paris, too, she told me to go see her friend. To make a short story shorter, Flammarion was looking for an intern to read the slush pile and they hired me on the spot. For the next several months, I shared an office with another intern, a young French woman, and read piles of manuscripts that authors sent to the publishing house. Our task was to weed out the few promising manuscripts that came in and pass them along to the editors who worked one floor above us. A few months into it, the editor who ran the English-language department at Flammarion caught wind of the fact that a native English speaker was ghosting around the building and she asked me to transfer to work for her.

And so began my first real editorial internship. It was just Sophy and me in the department and we worked on cookbooks and monographs and everything in between. It was quite the education and if the position had been paid, I might have even stayed on (readers of my book will know a little more about what was going on in my Paris life at the time). But when the year was up, I was terribly anxious to get a real job, to start earning money and to feel like I was moving forward with my life. All my Radcliffe friends were nearing the end of their first year of employment and Lindy's finger-wagging had gotten to me. I needed to go to New York.

(Phew. Are you still reading this?? You deserve a pee break and a cool drink. Go ahead. I'll wait.)

I left Paris (with a detour in Berlin to say goodbye to a certain guy named Max) and flew to my father's house in Boston. I called Lindy to tell her I was back in Boston with an eye towards Manhattan. I bought a blue suit at Talbot's. And I started hunting for jobs. Over the next few weeks, I took the train down to New York a couple times for interviews, crashing on my friend Becca's couch for the night before going back to Boston the next day. I interviewed at Knopf and at Martha Stewart Living (with this incredible woman) and at Time Warner Books (it's called Hachette now) and a few other places that I don't even remember, before I interviewed for a position as assistant to the publisher of Simon & Schuster. The publisher, David Rosenthal, who now runs Blue Rider Press, offered me the job and I accepted and spent a year and a half working for him.

It was general assistant work: answering the phone, taking notes in meetings, bringing coffee to guests, dealing with agents, trying to get the accounting department to release royalty checks on time for one Very Important Author, opening mail and sometimes, every once in a while, getting to read a manuscript. David was a kind and funny boss and Simon & Schuster was a nice place to work. Once Hunter Thompson even left me a sweet voicemail (that I didn't delete for months) after I did him a silly little favor. The assistants went out to lunch together or for drinks after work, we went to book parties with our bosses and we all lived through the horror of 9/11 together. To this day, I can't think about my time there without also remembering that morning. My friend Terri weeping in the lobby, our utter confusion about the gravity of the situation, David stuck in Brooklyn incommunicado because the subways had stopped running, all the editors and assistants watching the collapse of Tower 1 on live television together and the later evacuation of the building because of our proximity to 30 Rockefeller Center, suddenly the tallest tower in Manhattan.

When I'd moved to New York to start at S&S, I'd rented a room in an apartment along with a couple of my Radcliffe friends. One of them, Betsy, worked as a foreign rights assistant at ICM. Foreign rights agenting meant working with lots of foreign publishers and literary scouts and Betsy was always pushing me to look into that side of publishing because of my language skills and background. One day, she told me that a literary scout named Bettina Schrewe was looking for a new scout to join her agency. Bettina is German and Betsy thought we'd hit it off. So I went to meet Bettina and to learn a little bit about literary scouting.

(In a nutshell: Literary scouts in the US work for foreign publishers. They scour the US publishing scene for books that can be translated and published abroad. The job entails lots of networking with agents and editors so that you get your hands on new, hot manuscripts before your rival scouts do, then reading those manuscripts as quickly as possible (SO MUCH READING) and writing reader's reports to email to your overseas clients as soon as you can. Based on those reader's reports and recommendations from the scouts - and a few other factors - foreign publishers then try to buy the rights to publish books in their country. For an international bookworm, there could literally have been no better job. Here's a nice little story about literary scouting.)

To my great delight, Bettina offered me the position and I started a few weeks later. I would spend more than five years scouting for Bettina, reading hundreds of incredible manuscripts, attending book fairs in Frankfurt and London, sending emails back and forth to Israel and Milan and Munich and Buenos Aires and Barcelona and Copenhagen and feeling generally like I'd hit the employment jackpot. I mean, I got to read books for a living. Not the slush pile, but manuscripts that had been bought by publishers already and were on their way to becoming this and this. I was living the dream. My dream. (Just to keep things real, with all this dream talk, I did still need help paying the rent. I was making more than my counterparts at publishing houses or literary agencies, but publishing pays terribly in general and New York is insanely expensive, even if you are living with two roommates and a few dozen cockroaches.)

It was several years into my literary scouting gig that I started The Wednesday Chef. As much as I loved my job, I'd gotten to the point where I could do it with my eyes closed and I wanted a new challenge, a new creative hobby. I'd discovered food blogs a few years earlier and suddenly, in the summer of 2005, I had my own. I blogged anonymously for the first two years, cooking and writing after hours and in the early morning before work. Friends knew about my double life and one day, one of them, a former fellow assistant from my time at S&S, told me about a cookbook editor job that had opened up at Stewart, Tabori & Chang. I'd actually interviewed for an editorial assistant position there years earlier, when I still worked for David, but the job had gone to someone else. Now the position of senior editor was open. And after five years, I'd hit a ceiling with the scouting agency. Didn't I want to apply?

I thought it was too much of a long shot. But, as my friend pointed out, I did have experience in illustrated books (from Paris) and I certainly had a huge network of agents (from scouting) and the blog had given me access to many people - chefs and bakers and writers - in the food world to draw upon for new projects. Actually, I was a pretty great fit for the job. Couldn't I see that? Plus, this would be a step forward into a whole new chapter of my career. Buoyed by her enthusiasm and encouragement, I applied and to my utter astonishment, was offered the job. I left literary scouting with a heavy heart - it had been the job of my dreams and Bettina and my colleague Dave had become as close as family (Dave actually married us in Italy in 2011!) - but I entered cookbook editing with so much joy about moving forward into a new world and a new chapter of my life.

And that's how I got into cookbook publishing. Hoo! A mixture of focus and determination (always keeping my eye on the publishing path), a bit of random serendipity (my roommate introducing me to foreign rights), the urge to be creative and follow my heart (starting a food blog), support from my parents (without whom I couldn't have survived financially for the first six years in New York) and a little bit of chutzpah (applying for a job that I wasn't sure I'd be qualified for).

If you're still reading, I salute you. I hope this was in some small way helpful to you. There is no one way to get into cookbook editing. This was just my serendipitous experience. Working in publishing is both deeply gratifying (if you love books) and very frustrating (the struggle to survive in a rapidly changing world is epic). Now that I exist on the other side of the author-publisher divide, I feel both relieved and sad to no longer be in that part of the game. But life moves on and you just have to keep moving forward, always trying to figure out what that next chapter in your life will be. I've been so lucky to have so many wonderful jobs that I have truly loved. I can only hope that that trend continues as my life goes on.

Okay! I think that's about it for now. I'm happy to answer any more questions you might have - just leave them in the comments below and I'll answer them there.

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