Food + Drink

This Is What It’s Really Like to Be a Cookbook Editor

You may think that a person who reads, writes, and thinks about all aspects of food every day of her working life would be committed to making every meal an occasion. You may imagine that a person who immerses herself in the line-by-line editing of special diet books is juicing kale, making “pasta” with a spiral peeler, and consuming raw foods to promote happiness and glow. Or you may imagine that a cookbook editor takes leisurely lunches at temples of gastronomic importance on a regular basis.

Let me disabuse you of these notions.

I just finished a slice of leftover pizza at my desk in between meetings, while alternately answering emails, brainstorming a subtitle, and trolling for a recipe that 1) uses up all the Tokyo turnips I bought (too many!), 2) requires very little else, 3) can be made in 30 minutes, and 4) might magically appeal to every person at my dinner table (husband and two small children).
Sarah Billingsley, Chronicle Books Cookbook Editor
It’s not glamorous, people, but it is fulfilling. I’m able to read, write, and shape the way food is written about, as well as talk to other people who are as interested in food-related things as I am.

The broad category of food is a subject both romantic and practical—rich with forays into history, social and cultural commentary, health, and humor. I learn something new or surprising every day. I nerd out on gram weights and the order of recipes. I think about the people who need recipes and love recipes—both readers and cooks—and imagine them discovering the perfect weekday soup or learning how to toast nuts or ferment beets in my books.

So what, exactly, does a cookbook editor do?

Some parts of the job aren’t blog-worthy, and some aspects are just as you might imagine:

  • I look for authors and book projects through various channels. agented submissions, meetings with potential authors, thinking up ideas and finding people to write them, and occasional stalking.
  • I edit. Starting with structure, I decide how the book is built: are there chapters, and what’s in each chapter? How is each element on the recipe page adding something meaningful? How will someone use this book? I try to establish a world within each book where the recipes make sense and relate to each other in a meaningful way.
  • I edit for tone, style, consistency, and grammar. In the spirit of full disclosure, a copyeditor does considerable line-by-line lifting, but I need to point out strengths, weaknesses, idiosyncrasies, patterns, and so on. I think about the reader who opens up the cookbook (often picturing my father, a great lover and user of cookbooks), and as I edit, I imagine how the book works for them.

Sarah Billingsley's edited papers

  • I collaborate. Creating every book takes a (very small) village of dedicated people—design, production, marketing and publicity, managing editors— each of whom bring their expertise and passion.
  • I project manage (this is the sexy part). I keep my books on budget, and I keep my books on time.
  • Occasionally I email or talk with readers who have questions (or complaints!) about books I’ve worked on—also known as customer service.

Does a cookbook editor test recipes?

Yes! I look at recipes all day and I cook many of them at home. I make the recipes I’m working on most often when they seem amazing, when I simply have the ingredients on hand, and, least often, when they seem impossible or insane.

Cooking from the books I work on is how I’ve learned the most about how to build a cookbook. I’ve learned:

  • How to use new ingredients (black garlic and fermented honey, thank you Nick Balla and Cortney Burn’s Bar Tartine)
  • How to perfect a go-to recipe (perfect chocolate cupcakes, thank you Joanne Chang’s Flour)
  • How to feel better about homely, buckled, or lopsided baked goods (powdered sugar, thank you, Zoe Nathan’s Huckleberry)
  • New techniques I now use just about every time (getting a cast-iron pan super-hot before adding your vegetables for maximum crispness, thank you Travis Lett’s Gjelina)
  • How simple meals can be still be the most satisfying (thank you Cree Lefavour’s Poulet, Fish, and Pork).

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Oh, and remember in the beginning when I said I was looking for an easy recipe to use up those Tokyo turnips I bought? I found this gem from Melissa Clark—just substitute turnips for the broccoli.

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To learn more about the nuts and bolts (or backbones and headbands) of the publishing business, you can read about…

Photos by Irene Kim Shepherd

Sarah Billingsley

Sarah is a senior editor at Chronicle Books. When her nose isn’t buried in a cookbook (or manuscript), she is romping with her two tiny kiddos, baking a pie, or enjoying a (rare!) yoga class or run on the Embarcadero.
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3 Comments

  • Beth Goehring January 29, 2016 at 6:12 pm

    Great peek inside your day! I love Chronicle cookbooks, and so do the members of The Good Cook book club.

    Reply

  • Sarah January 30, 2016 at 5:26 am

    Fantastic writeup! I would LOVE this job; I’ve been a cookbook reviewer for about a decade, have contributed reviews to various online outlets, recently branched out to blogging,and have five years’ experience as a full-time writer and editor for textbooks (including working in InDesign). I’ve also taken over 100 cooking classes in the US, France, Japan and Taiwan. My dream is to one day be a cookbook editor!

    Reply

  • Sous Sheffer February 19, 2016 at 11:44 am

    This is wonderful. I’ve been eating food almost my whole life. I’ve found it’s not just option but something I really need to live life. So when someone as beautiful and smart as this comes along to explain the building blocks, the foundation, of how I might learn to eat better, well, it just makes me hungry! I’m so lucky for this editor and teacher.

    Reply

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