How Cookbooks Are Made: A Peek Into a Cookbook Photo Shoot

Have you ever wondered how a cookbook materializes — from delicious idea in a writer's head to spattered pages in your real-life kitchen? It is a long process, and while every cookbook has just one or two names on the front cover, it is always the product of many hands. My own cookbook is still moving through the stages of publication, and I wanted to give you a peek inside the process of creating a cookbook, and of the photo shoot itself. Read on for an inside look at cookbook production, pudding galore, and more spoons than you could ever imagine in one place!

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Stacy Newgent, the photographer, with my agent Jenni Ferrari-Adler, who got roped into a last-minute gig as a hand model for one shot!

How a Cookbook Gets Sold
My book is called Bakeless Sweets: Pudding, Panna Cotta, Fluffs, Icebox Cakes & More No-Bake Desserts, and it will be released in the spring of 2013. Before we talk recipes, photos, or any other fun stuff, a cookbook has to get sold. Here's how that happened for me.

I realized that many of my favorite desserts (vanilla pudding, tapioca pudding, panna cotta) all fell into this pudding category. Other favorite no-bake desserts did too. That wildly popular strawberry icebox cake? No-bake. So are natural fruit jellies, made with fruit juice and plain gelatin (no Jell-O!). You know what else is no-bake? Tiramisu. My favorite cheesecake. English trifles, fools, and fluffs. That's a lot of favorite in one place.

I also realized that these desserts had some natural advantages. First of all, most of these desserts are naturally gluten-free. Also, they are easy to make, and pudding just has a nostalgic magic. Put homemade butterscotch pudding in front of a crowd of people and watch their eyes light up!

And yet, there was no one book that had all of these favorites in it. It was an oddly wide-open space. I wanted to write a book that folded them all together, and showed how elegant yet easy these desserts could be.

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A slice of Scotch Marshmallow Pie with Cornflake Crust, post-shooting.
(Looks like someone might have taken a wee bite?)

Armed with all this, I talked to Jenni, my agent, about my book idea. She encouraged me to write a proposal. A proposal tells a publisher what you want to do in the book through showing recipe categories, sample recipes and narrative, and it also tells the publisher what the competition looks like. The secret to a good book proposal is convincing a publisher that the book will sell well! I did research on other books in this same space (not finding much) and wrote an entire section about this in the proposal.

After a few weeks of work on the proposal, my agent sent the proposal to several publishers. All through this process my agent was completely invaluable. She knew what to put in the proposal, and the best people to send the proposal to. She was an advocate and a guide through the whole process.

Stewart, Tabori & Chang was the perfect fit for this book, and after we accepted their offer, I got to work actually creating it!

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How a Cookbook Gets Written
A cookbook is a collaborative process, even in writing. Natalie, my editor, suggested recipe and categories I hadn't thought of, and together we developed a list of chapters and recipes. I researched each recipe, then wrote it and tested it out, sometimes many times. It's a great deal of work — more than you can imagine. My house became pudding and dessert-central; every potluck included a couple of icebox cakes and a bowl of pudding! Every cookbook author's experience is different, but I think that we all agree that it's hard work, and the contents of your refrigerator are not quite normal for the year it usually takes to write a book!

After about 9 months, when the recipes and narrative were finished, off it went to my editor for review and changes. We passed it back and forth a few times, catching errors, tweaking wording. A technical editor added metric measurements. And in the middle of all this hard work, we also started talking about the photos.

I drew up a list of about 40 recipes that I thought would photograph well, pulled evenly from all the different chapters. I sent sample shots from my test kitchen, and Natalie and I came up with a final list.

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Stacy setting up a shot.

How a Cookbook Gets Photographed
A cookbook photoshoot can happen in all different sorts of ways. They can be simple and short, if you are just shooting the cover of a book. Or they can be long and elaborate, when a book has lots of photos. Mine will have to 40 to 50 finished shots of food, so this meant four days of shooting, and many helping hands. Natalie hired a food stylist, a food stylist's assistant, a prop stylist and her assistant, and a photographer and assistant. That's a lot of people!

When I arrived in New York City (I came for two days of the shoot) I found a bustling crew in a bright studio on one of the highest floors of a building in Chelsea. Being so high up meant that the photographer, Stacy, had daylight all day long.

A smell of sugar and cream wafted down the hall, all the way to the elevator. I knew I was in the right spot. I pushed open the door and saw Simon, the food stylist, whisking pudding in a pot on the stove, and his assistant chopping fruit. It's an odd, surreal moment to watch professionals whipping up recipes you wrote yourself!

Deborah had tables laid out with dishes, spoons, and fabric — some from her own collection, but most rented from prop houses.

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Spoons! So many, laid out for potential use in shots.

In the corner, Deborah's assistant was ironing fabric for the next shot, and my editor, Natalie, was talking to Stacy Newgent (she did the photos for one of my favorite books too!).

Each shot was set up carefully — unlike in my own more slap-dash procedure at home. Deborah and Stacy would talk about the dish each pudding would go into. Should it be shown on its own? In multiples? Sliced? Spooned? Smeared? Deborah would mark a dish, clean it up to make sure it was free of dust, then Simon would finish off the food and set it up in the chosen dish. Stacy would position it on the backdrop or surface, and shoot away. She would review on a laptop set up in a dark corner, and then, when she was satisfied, we were on to the next shot!

It was a painstaking process, and even shots that appear casual and natural were actually well-planned out, step by step. It gave me a new measure of respect for the careful eye and the skills each professional brought to the shoot.

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Dishes laid out for the next shot.

What Happens Next?
A few friends have asked me whether they can get my book yet, and I have to say no — there's still nearly a year left before it comes out! Why is this? We are still sorting through photos, working on cover concepts, and laying out the book. There will be time needed for sending the book to be printed, and for the marketing team to create materials and pre-sell the book. It's a long, long process — completely opposite to that of blogging, of course!

And yet, in the end, that long anticipation makes the final moment of enjoying that first moment with a real, solid, beautiful book all that much sweeter.

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The People Who Worked on My Book
Jenni Ferrari-Adler, my agent
Stacy Newgent, photographer extraordinaire
Simon Andrews, food stylist
Deborah Williams, prop stylist
Stewart, Tabori & Chang, my publisher


A Look at Another Cookbook Photoshoot
True Brews! Behind the Scenes at the Photoshoot from Emma Christensen, who is also publishing a book next spring!

Related: Best Food Photography Tips From 3 Pro Photographers

(Images: Faith Durand)

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