Book Update, Part I: The Book Deal

Book Update

Since I officially announced a few weeks ago that there was a C&Z book in the works, I have received quite a few emails asking me for more details. I would hate to spoil the surprise, but I can share a few facts: it will be a book with stories and recipes, a book that you can cook from but also read, curled up on the couch with a mug of tea (or cocoa, as you prefer). I’ve always been much more attracted to cookbooks in which the author’s voice resonates clearly and warmly, giving you a sense of who he/she is, where he/she is coming from, and what gets him/her into the kitchen to play. I believe that this is what most readers love about food blogs, and this is the spirit in which I am writing my book. My publisher is Broadway Books, a division of Random House, the manuscript is due in five months, and the book can be expected to hit the bookshelves in the spring of 2007.

This is the first book I write (not the first book I attempt to write though: like many kids with spectacles and imagination, I wrote many a first chapter for a variety of abandoned novels, mostly speculative fiction or the now very trendy autofiction [self-fiction], including one written with my childhood friend Emilie — a very fun way to make bad things happen to the kids you don’t like at school), and as a first-time book writer, I am literally making it up as I go, exploring and trying to find my way around, following my instincts and discovering the unique set of challenges and rewards that happen to be hiding under this rock I picked up.

The process of writing a book (and getting it published) is a mysterious and fascinating one. It has many folds and crevices, and the journey is no doubt very different from one writer to the next, but I thought I would share the landscapes I am riding through, the stops and stations and buffet cars, to offer my humble experience and let you catch a glimpse backstage. I am personally ever-hungry for accounts of other author’s creative process, so whether you are just curious or have an aspiration to write yourself, I hope this will answer some of your questions.

But first things first: how did the book deal land on my doorstep?

It probably won’t come as a scoop to anyone that this very blog you are reading was vastly instrumental. Creating and maintaining C&Z showed me that food writing was something I loved, something I was serious about, and something I was ready to work hard at in order to make it an actual job thing — you know, the kind that pays the bills and the shoes. This realization came early on, after just a few months of blogging, but back then it sounded completely wild and unrealistic, just a dream I could pet and play with in the privacy of my own mind.

But as time went by, and to my utter surprise I might add, I started receiving more and more encouragement from readers, people neither I nor my mother had paid, who told me I should really keep it up, and that they could totally see me writing a book. A book? The idea started to stretch tiny wings, flapping them tentatively to see if there was anything to it. I researched the matter a little, and got some inspiring advice and support from a few people, and one friend in particular, who recommended a good book about book proposals.

Some time later, on a blue morning in the spring of 2004, I was contacted by an editor in NYC who enjoyed my work and wanted to know if I had any inclination to write a book. Why, yes!, I replied. We emailed back and forth about the ideas I had, he gave me a few precious pointers, and I got to work on a proposal. After a few weeks I had a first draft completed, which I wasn’t extatic about, but it was a start. My editor-friend then said I needed to be represented by a literary agent (this is how it works in the US, not so much in France) and he offered to put me in touch with two that he could recommend.

I talked to them, they were both very kind and enthusiastic about the project, but I needed just one you see, and I chose the agent who had the most relevant experience and with whom I felt the most comfortable (I was just lucky it was the same person). I explained to her I wasn’t happy with my draft proposal, received some helpful advice, and got back to work, starting again from scratch. It took me almost a year to write that second version, my agent cheerleading me along the way (more helpful than one would realize). It felt like a really long time, but I also had a life, a blog and a dayjob that required my attention, and I found that I needed all these months, agonizing as they were, to let the bad ideas sink to the bottom while the good ones floated up to the surface, where I could skim them carefully, laying them out to dry and reveal their potential.

Two lessons I learned in the process were that 1) I needed to try and write the kind of book that I myself would want to read, not the one that I thought people would expect me to write and 2) I didn’t have to cram everything I ever wanted to write into that first book: simple is best, focus is needed, and some of my ideas could simply be kept safely in a pretty box, waiting to be included in a future book.

The proposal was finally ready in the spring of 2005 — at some point you can just feel it is ripe, it’s when you really can’t stand to read it over for the umpteenth time and it needs to get out of your sight, the sooner the better. My agent sent it to a few publishers that she thought were good fits. More nerve-wracking time went by, waiting to hear back, drinking copious amounts of tea, breathing deeply and trying to pretend nothing life-altering was going on, oh no, not at all. Eventually, Broadway Books made the best offer, and we happily accepted it.

I knew it would take yet more time to negociate the finer points of the contracts, but I took a leap of faith and — somewhat floored by my own boldness — quit my job at the beginning of the summer before the contracts were officially signed, which they were in late September. (I do recommend this course of action, it maximizes the number of occasions for a flute of Champagne.)

Weeks of giddy euphoria ensued as I began working on the book for real. A different part of the process started then, one I will write about on a future installment of this Book Update series.

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