How does a cookbook evolve from idea to finished product? And what motivates a person to write one? Talking to Dr. Joanne L. Mumola Williams, who recently published her first cookbook, Health Begins in the Kitchen, I learned these questions can have complex and surprising answers.
Joanne spent 27 years working for IBM and nine years as a CEO for Ampro Computers before changing careers, and in our Q&A below, she discusses the challenges and benefits of self-publishing, the process of finding collaborators, and the dangers of leaving baked goods unattended. You can read more about Joanne and her book on her blog, Foods for Long Life.
After three decades in high tech, you decided to pursue a Ph.D. in holistic nutrition—what motivated you to change careers?
In the height of my career, my life-long best friend got pancreatic cancer. She died two years after the diagnosis at the age of 54. I felt pretty helpless and wished I could have done more for her. Shortly thereafter, while still a CEO, I began my studies in holistic nutrition. In 2008, after receiving my Ph.D., I ended my career in high tech and planned to devote the rest of my life to developing delicious and healthy recipes. My new mission in life was to teach people the connection between diet, health, and longevity. It was too late to help my dear friend, but I felt it was my calling.
Making the transition, what challenges did you face?
My entire world changed that year. My husband also gave up his high-tech career to farm organic Pinot noir grapes and make wine. We sold our home and moved from San Jose, California to the small town of Sebastopol, population 7,500 (that’s how many kids went to my high school in Brooklyn!). I went from 10 hours of scheduled back-to-back meetings each day, or traveling all over the world, to burying myself in research and recipe development…all on my own without any colleagues or employees. I had to become totally self-sufficient. I learned to blog, set up a Facebook page, and created Pinterest boards. I switched from being a life-long PC user to using all Apple products. The nutrition research and recipe development was the easy part. After all, I’m Italian. All I think about is food!
You’ve been writing your blog, Foods for Long Life, since 2009. To what degree did the blog influence the book, or your decision to publish?
It was actually the other way around. My goal was to write cookbooks with healthy recipes…but I had lots of recipes to develop and I needed an audience. Over 4 1/2 years, I published more than 400 blog posts. I had hoped to get a certain readership by the time my book was published, which I have. The blog allowed me to see what kind of recipes readers liked most, and I’ve included many of the blog favorites in my book.
Can you summarize the book’s journey from idea to finished product? How did you decide an e-book was the right format?
It was a long journey. At first I intended to write a series of cookbooks, each on a narrow topic (raw food, soups, vegetarian favorites, etc.). I then realized that this approach was not practical. I decided to do one book. I had two goals: one, that the book be affordable (under $20) and two, that it be printed locally (almost every cookbook today is printed in China). Turns out, that was impossible. By the time all was said and done, the book was massive—160 recipes, 145 photographs and over 100 pages of nutritional information. In fact, the printed book would be closer to $75! So I considered doing an e-book.
Once I became more familiar with e-cookbooks I was hooked. The pictures are more vibrant, and readers can quickly navigate through them by simply touching the links. An iPad can sit up nicely in the kitchen while you cook, and on an iPhone, you can easily look up the ingredients you need to buy at the grocery store! What’s not to like? As a publisher, you don’t have to worry about having thousands of books printed only to discover the dreaded typo.
The growing popularity of e-books…takes printing costs as well as the logistics of distribution out of the equation. Self-publishing also greatly increases the amount of commission the author gets for each book sale. iTunes gives the author a whopping 70% of each book sale and Amazon gives from 35% to 70% depending on the commission plan you select. The downside is that the author is responsible for all marketing but I’ve heard plenty of authors complain that their publishers don’t do as much of the marketing as they would have liked.
Clearly, this was a group effort, with your husband Doug testing recipes, photographer Cody Williams (any relation?) snapping thousands of photographs, and friends and collaborators lending their expertise. How did you assemble and manage your team?
Cody (and yes, we are related—he’s my nephew) was on the project the longest. We were snapping pictures together well before I decided which recipes would make the book. He had just returned from Paris, where he received an advance degree in photography, and was looking for a project involving food. He lives in San Francisco and made countless trips to Sebastopol (a tedious 1 1/2 to 2 hour drive) over the 4 years it took to shoot the book. He is so creative and such a joy to work with.
I picked a wonderful graphic designer who works in San Raphael, Mary Ames Mitchell. At this point, we were still planning to print the book, so I looked for someone with experience in Adobe InDesign. We almost immediately realized that the print version would be too expensive. Luckily InDesign can generate an epub file so we were able to publish an e-book, although this is not a trivial process…the different requirements for Kindle and iTunes took extra design work.
After completing the book, I looked for an editor. Although I read The Recipe Writer’s Handbook twice, cover-to-cover, I wanted an editor who had lots of cookbook experience. I hit the jackpot when I found Helen Martineau. Helen is a freelance cookbook editor and has worked with many experienced chefs—she edited about six of Rachael Ray’s books, for example. I contacted her and she suggested we meet for coffee in the East Village that afternoon. I laughed and said that although I used to live in NYC, I presently lived on the opposite coast so I might not make it for coffee! Working across the country was easy as both Helen and I are organized and would send detailed documents to each other. Her recommendations were priceless and I’m grateful that I had that kind of talent on the project.
It was a huge project, much bigger than I initially imagined. But the advice I would give anyone is to make sure your team has a good level of knowledge and experience, especially if you are working on your first book. Listen to their advice and be open to their suggestions. You’ll end up with a much better end product if you do.
What cookbook features matter most to you?
To me, photographs are the most important feature of a cookbook. That’s why there are so many pictures in Health Begins in the Kitchen. I’m a very visual person and when I see a picture, I can tell if it’s a recipe that I would enjoy. Pictures also get me motivated and excited about preparing the dish.
After I prepared a dish for shooting, I’d usually stay with Cody while he shot the dish, and then would leave to prepare the next. One day, when we had quite a few recipes to shoot, I just left the plate of German Chocolate-Chocolate Chip cake in the studio and ran up to continue cooking. We had been nibbling on this all afternoon…we barely had one complete piece for the picture. When I came back down to the studio, all I saw was a plate of crumbs and pictures of this mostly eaten piece of cake!! Luckily he got a great shot of the intact slice of cake before he consumed the last remaining morsel.
What kinds of cookbooks do you most enjoy reading or cooking from, and will you name a few favorites?
Of course I love healthy cookbooks like The New American Plate by the American Institute for Cancer Research. But I read all kinds of cookbooks for inspiration and then try to figure out ways of making the recipes healthier. I love ethnic cookbooks like Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking. I also enjoy books that teach me something. I bought a lovely book, Tartine Bread, by Chad Robertson, when trying to master the art of baking bread. Paletas is a cute little book I purchased to get some ideas on making Mexican ice pops before my grandson’s last visit.
Which recipes from Health Begins in the Kitchen are you most excited for readers to try?
With 160 recipes, it’s almost impossible to say but I always love turning people on to chia pudding. These little seeds soak up milk and seasonings and turn into a delicious tapioca-like pudding. My favorite recipe in the book makes them with a raw non-diary milk made from blended cashews and dates. Chia seeds are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which are one of the most important nutrients in the diet.
I also have a raw, non-dairy “Parmesan” Topping that is simply addictive. I remember having over my neighbors who are real “foodies.” I made the Ultimate Vegetarian Lasagna (also one of my favorite recipes in the book) and bought a lovely Parmigiano-Reggiano for them and made dairy-free “Parmesan” Topping for me (I never eat cheese since I’m lactose intolerant.) My neighbors didn’t touch the cheese and finished off the entire bowl of the vegan topping!
This Q&A has been edited for length, and all images are courtesy of Joanne L. Mumola Williams.