Digital leftovers? Hardly. For the writers behind the websites How Sweet Eats, The Kitchn, Skinnytaste, and 100 Days of Real Food, which each attract millions of views each month, creating cookbooks based on their successful sites meant developing new recipes, getting reader input, and gearing up to hit the road. PW spoke with the authors and their editors about everything that has gone into building their sites, their fan bases, and their new cookbooks.
Seriously Delish: 150 Recipes for People Who Totally Love Food (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Sept.)
The site: Jessica Merchant, creator of How Sweet Eats, began blogging back in September 2009. She was working a desk job she didn’t care for, but had a lot of free time to surf the web and enjoyed spending time on several lifestyle blogs. She had always loved writing, so starting a blog seemed like a natural fit. Merchant initially thought about creating a lifestyle blog, but quickly changed her mind. “I was working from eight to five, and my husband worked long hours,” said Merchant. “That made my life too boring for a lifestyle blog. So I started writing about what I was making for dinner and what I was baking on the weekends, and it went from there.” Having been raised in a family where home-cooked meals were made almost every night, Merchant said she was constantly surrounded by good food. What Merchant strives for most in her recipes is food that is delicious. She doesn’t shy away from butter, sugar, or all-purpose flour, believing in the philosophy of “absolutely everything in moderation,” but more importantly, “The more flavor, the better.”
Merchant quit her full-time job in 2010, which gave her time to work on improving her photography and “putting better content on the blog.” Consistency is also important to Merchant. “I haven’t taken a day off in five years,” she said. “There’s always something going on behind the scenes, even if I’m not posting that day.” Once blogging became her sole job, Merchant added a “Crumbs” section to her website, which focuses more on lifestyle—what she does on the weekends or favorite beauty products. “When I turned this into a full-time gig, I found the time to talk about the other things I do,” she said. How Sweet Eats currently gets five to six million page views a month.
The book: “Ever since I began blogging, readers have constantly been asking for a cookbook,” said Merchant. “I thought they were crazy, because I’m putting all of my best recipes on the internet for free. But I get it, because I love to collect cookbooks, as well.” Merchant sees Seriously Delish—which is broken out into eight sections including Snack Time (Because I Said So!), Salads, Soups & Vegetable-Like Things (Ugh, If We Must), and Celebrations (for Times When Calories Don’t Count)—as “a reflection of my site. The only difference is that I enjoy cooking more than baking, so the title of the book had to be different from my site name. I didn’t want people finding the cookbook to think the whole book was treats.” Ninety-five percent of the recipes in the book are new, and Merchant said she also made adjustments to the other five percent.
The editor: Justin Schwartz, executive cookbook editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, bought the book in a preempt from agent Stacey Glick at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management about two years ago. “I recognized that her website stats were undeniable. Her social media follows were all great too, impressive for a blog that just started in 2009,” said Schwartz. “But within moments of meeting Jessica, I knew I had to work with her. She was bubbling over with enthusiasm. Unlike a lot of bloggers, who are actually a bit introverted at heart, Jessica was born for this, to be a cookbook author, to be a star.”
Key recipe: Merchant said her favorite recipes tend to change because she likes to cook in season. Right now she’s fond of the BBQ Chicken & Sweet Corn Pizza recipe. “That pizza is delicious, but there are also so many ways to change up the recipe. Sometimes I’ll add more veggies and less cheese,” she said. “I like my recipes to be adaptable, so for the most part things can be lightened up. Me and my family eat a pretty balanced diet, but we don’t want to sacrifice flavor.”
Marketing and publicity: Seriously Delish will be featured in a half-page ad in the September/Fall issue of Sweet Paul magazine, along with online advertising. Postcards were sent out for pre-pub events, and HMH is using social media for pre-order and on-sale promotions on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Merchant has been sharing exclusives from the book on her website, and will hold a cookbook giveaway contest.
The author is scheduled to do book signings, classes, and/or demos in eight cities—Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, New York City, Austin, Boston, Tampa, and Washington D.C—with the possibility for more. “We originally thought it would be a lot bigger and longer, but I’m having a baby in December, so now we’re squeezing things into six to eight weeks,” Merchant said. Despite the truncated tour, Merchant is looking forward to meeting her readers in person. “You do feel like you’re friends with them.”
The Kitchn Cookbook: Recipes, Kitchens & Tips to Inspire Your Cooking (Clarkson Potter, Oct.)
The site: The Kitchn launched in 2005 as an offshoot of the popular lifestyle website Apartment Therapy. Back then, founding editor Sara Kate Gillingham was doing all of the writing. Four other writers followed, and the site now boasts a team of writers. The Kitchn is currently overseen by executive editor (and The Kitchn Cookbook co-author) Faith Durand, design and lifestyle editor Cambria Bold, recipe editor Emma Christensen, and assistant editor Ariel Knutson. Gillingham said the Kitchn grew organically out of Apartment Therapy and became a place where people could go to find advice on meal prep, ideas on what to buy, and dinner party hints. Today, the Kitchn publishes 20 articles daily, including recipes, cooking lessons, product reviews, kitchen design, and renovation advice.
While Gillingham and Durand said the audiences for both Apartment Therapy and the Kitchn were the same at the beginning, traffic for The Kitchn has steadily grown as the site has found its own readers. “There are now many different perspectives on the site,” said Durand. “We actively seek out diversity in the types of food we feature and the level of cook we write for, because we want to be an advocate for cooking for everyone, not just the people who are already into cooking. We also want to reach those who are just starting out in cooking or may be afraid to cook.” The Kitchn gets 14 million unique visitors a month.
The book: Gillingham and Durand agree that the challenge in a cookbook based on a blog is that’s they’re inherently opposites. “The site is always changing,” said Gillingham. “We wanted to have enough about the site to capture our loyal audience, but have it be different enough that they might want to buy the book.” Durand added that they want the book to reflect what the readers want. “We didn’t have a hard time coming up with new recipes,” she said. “Quite the opposite—we had a hard time whittling the ideas down. We wanted a mixture of things like first-timer recipes, healthy comfort foods, and vegetarian all in one place.”
While the book may be called a cookbook, it certainly isn’t just that. One half of the book is recipes, but the other half is what Gillingham and Durand are calling a handbook to a happy kitchen and loving your kitchen more. “A good portion of the book deals with things like organizing your pantry, dealing with challenging kitchens, and feeling more confident in the kitchen, for cooks of all levels,” said Gillingham.
The editor: The Kitchn Cookbook’s publisher, Clarkson Potter, had previous success with The Apartment Therapy Big Book of Small, Cool Spaces in 2010, which became a New York Times bestseller. Senior editor Aliza Fogelson said her fellow Clarkson Potter editors were all looking forward to a follow-up book featuring the Kitchn. “From the beginning, we felt that the Kitchn team could offer something really unique,” she said. “It’s a two-in-one book in that there’s a full cookbook’s worth of recipes, but also guidance and inspiring ideas for setting up, organizing, and beautifying your kitchen.” As an editor, Fogelson appreciated the thoughtfulness Gillingham and Durand put into the book. “When they showed me their working recipe list, I saw that they had sifted through thousands of reader-favorite recipes to figure out which ones to update for the book, as well as brainstorming tons of original recipes for the book,” she said. “They had considered flavor, ingredient, course, type of cuisine... anything a recipe-seeker could want.”
Key recipe: Gillingham said the one-pot dishes are her favorites, such as the One-Pot Coconut Chickpea Curry. “Those dishes are really good for people who are afraid of cooking or don’t know what to serve when having people over,” she said. “They’re also good for weeknights, because you can pull it together with stuff you probably already have in your pantry.” For Durand, the Skillet Roasted Whole Chicken is a favorite because “Everyone should know how to roast a chicken. Well... everyone who eats meat.”
Marketing and publicity: National coverage is planned in men’s, women’s, lifestyle, and food publications, as well newspaper coverage and a Food Radio campaign. The book will naturally be cross-promoted on The Kitchn and Apartment Therapy sites, along with features on Random House’s TasteBook, Crown Publishing, and Books for Better Living sites.
Gillingham and Durand will head out on a seven-city book signing tour beginning in New York City on the book’s release date, October 7. They will then travel to Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Columbus, before the tour concludes October 18 in Philadelphia. All of the signings will be held at West Elm stores.
The Skinnytaste Cookbook: Light on Calories, Big on Flavor (Clarkson Potter, Sept.)
The site: Gina Homolka, creator of Skinnytaste.com, began blogging in 2008. She worked full-time as a photo retoucher in New York City and was soon to be married, so she embarked on a weight-loss plan. “I was in Weight Watchers and began to play around with recipes because I love to cook,” she said. “The blog was an experiment, but it became an addiction for me. I would come home after a long day at work and make up a recipe. It was something I really enjoyed.” After just eight months, Homolka began getting emails from people who had been losing weight thanks to the recipes she developed. “Once I began to get feedback, it was like ‘Wow!’ It wasn’t just about me having fun anymore. It changed my thought process. I wanted to create recipes that my readers would love.”
Homolka strives for “perfect” recipes that readers will find delicious. “My daughter and husband are my taste testers, so if they don’t think something I make has the ‘wow factor,’ then it doesn’t go on the blog,” she said. Skinnytaste gets five million visitors a month.
The book: Publishing a cookbook was an idea Homolka had from the very beginning, but it wasn’t something she thought would necessarily happen. “From early on, I was getting requests from readers to do a cookbook, but I just didn’t know how to go about it,” she said. “Then my friend, Heather K. Jones, who is an R.D. [registered dietitian] and had previously had nutrition books published, suggested I talk to her agent, Janis Donnaud. It worked out well because Janis thought Heather and I should work together on a book.” The Skinnytaste Cookbook was co-written with Jones, and each recipe contains full nutritional information, as well as dietary restriction labels for gluten-free or vegetarian eaters, for instance.
Of the cookbook’s 150 recipes, 25 are favorites from the website, and 125 are new. Homolka said she doesn’t have trouble coming up with recipe ideas, because her readers are always asking for lighter versions of various favorite dishes. “My readers help me,” she said, citing requests for a lighter version of tuna casserole. “I never had that growing up, so I had to make it the traditional way, then figure out a way to make it lighter.”
The editor: According to Ashley Phillips, associate editor at Clarkson Potter, acquiring The Skinnytaste Cookbook felt like kismet. “I first heard about the Skinnytaste blog from friends and saw it all over Facebook,” she said. “People were praising the easy and delicious recipes that were surprisingly low-calorie, so I checked it out, loved the blog, and planned to reach out to Gina. At about that time, though, we received a proposal from agent Janis Donnaud.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Author and editor used input from Homolka’s readers to help with some big decisions on the book, including vote on the cover design. “We tried lots of different directions, and it finally came down to three designs, each of which had many fans in the office,” said Phillips. After posting all three options online, 12,000 comments came in through Facebook for the cover design vote, and the photo of the book’s shrimp and grits recipe was the winner.
Key recipe: Homolka’s favorites include Fettuccine Alfredo with Chicken and Broccoli (“Fettuccine alfredo is one of the dishes people have wanted me to lighten up for years,” she said) and the Buttermilk Oven “Fried” Chicken. “This one is special because fried chicken is my weakness—I love it,” said Homolka. “I tested this one eight times to make sure it was perfect.”
Marketing and publicity: As part of a partnership with Harry & David, Skinnytaste Cookbook recipe booklets will be included in 800,000 of the company’s pear boxes, which go out to customers who place orders between September 2014 and January 2015. Clarkson Potter will also promote the book on myfitnesspal.com and advertise on parade.com, blogher.com, and The SAY Media Network.
100 Days of Real Food: How We Did It, What We Learned, and 100 Easy, Wholesome Recipes Your Family Will Love! (William Morrow, Aug.)
The site: Lisa Leake had the wakeup call of her life in January 2010. “I saw Michael Pollan on Oprah, and he was talking about where our food comes from,” she said. “Once you hear that information, you can’t unlearn it, and it changed my life. Before that, I had never bought anything organic or been to a farmers market, and I had never read an ingredient list on any food.” After a few months of intense research into “real” food, Leake began the blog 100 Days of Real Food in May 2010 to share the information she found. “I decided to do a 100-day pledge, just to see if we could do it,” she said. “We didn’t eat any white flour, white sugar, or anything in a package with more than five ingredients. We also avoided conventional produce and ate only local meat.” Despite some rough times and a big learning curve, Leake’s family did it, and they still follow the strict rules of eating real food 95% of the time. “The difference now is if the kids go to a party, they can have cake,” said Leake. “We do have one treat a week because I don’t think being super-restrictive is a good model for anyone, especially kids.”
Leake admits that her site wasn’t an immediate hit, but after some local press, attention on Food Inc.’s Facebook page and the Yahoo homepage, as well as Leake posting a meal plan on her own Facebook page, the blog found a large, consistent readership. 100 Days of Real Food now gets four million monthly page views.
The book: Leake said she originally imagined that if she were to write a book, it would be about her family’s 100-day pledge. But after working with agent Meg Thompson of Einstein Thompson Literary Agency, 100 Days of Real Food morphed into its present form, divided into two sections—The Plan and The Recipes. “It’s like two books in one,” said Leake. The plan includes how to shop for real food, getting one’s family on board, budget tips, and meal plans. There are 100 recipes in the book, 70 percent of which are new. “I had a pretty good list I came up with to play around with,” said Leake, “but not all of my recipes made the cut. I sat down at the bitter end with a critical eye and decided what to cut based on the feedback I got from my family and my 100 volunteer recipe testers.”
Leake hopes the book will help reach readers who haven’t found her site. “I’m providing resources for people who want to make these changes,” she said. “I think people can relate to me because they know that I used to be just like them. I’m not too hardcore—I won’t ever say you can never eat another piece of bread in your life. I think the book shows a realistic approach to making pretty dramatic changes.”
The editor: Cassie Jones, v-p and editorial director for William Morrow, said that after she received Leake’s book proposal, she “immediately fell in love with Lisa and her passion for bringing the joy of unprocessed food to mainstream families.” Jones believes the book is an important addition to the healthy cookbook market. “As much information as she has on her blog, I thought people would want to have an actual cookbook in their hands—to use in the kitchen, but also to help explain to their families and others the kinds of changes they’re making in their lives.”
Key recipe: One of Leake’s favorite recipes is Shortcut Eggplant Parmesan. “My family loves that one,” she said. “It’s especially good because it’s quick and easy to make.” Sweet and Tangy BBQ Sauce is another favorite. “So much of store-bought barbeque sauce has refined sugar or high-fructose corn syrup in it, but this one has none of that.”
Marketing and publicity: William Morrow is offering a pre-order incentive to the author’s fans, who will receive a free 10-recipe e-book with proof of purchase. There will also be dedicated outreach to other food bloggers leading up to and at publication. Leake will appear the Bookmarks Book Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., on September 6, as well as have a book party and signing at a farmer’s market in her hometown of Charlotte; Park Road Books will sell copies at that event.