So You Want to Write a Cocktail Book...


If you're considering writing a cocktail book, you've probably already started doing some research about how the process usually works. You probably already know, for example, that you should start by writing a book proposal. You then take the proposal to an agent (or two or three or ten) and shop it around. The agent, if he or she loves your proposal, will take it to a publisher (or three or ten) and negotiate your advance and residuals and so on. You'll sign a contract, and then, at some point in this crazy process, you'll have to sit down and actually write the thing. You'll get a little money and eventually, you'll see your book listed at Amazon and Powell's.

That's how it goes, say the experts. But let me tell you a funny story.

I went to the Manhattan Cocktail Classic last year, hoping I'd somehow find a way to kick my career into higher orbit. I hit up a bunch of events, met a few people, reconnected with others. I took copious notes and filed away possible article topics in my notebook. I kicked around some thoughts with my wife, and discussed ideas with friends at MCC, thinking about some way I could maybe pick up an additional client or consulting gig or something.

But not once during the weekend did I ever think I'd write a book.

Then, on a sunny morning a couple of days after MCC, I was walking my son home from the playground, pushing him in his stroller. While he chattered at passing dogs and had a snack, I took a moment and checked my email. I saw a message from someone I didn't know, and the subject line was, "Want to write a book?"

The sender was Ann Treistman, an editor at Countryman Press (a division of W. W. Norton). Ann thought there might be a book in shrubs, a topic I'd covered on these very pages, and she wanted me to come in and discuss it with her. A few days later, I met with Ann. She had done a Google search on shrubs, looking for possible writers. Guess who popped up.

We talked for an hour or so, and I came home and squealed like a little child.

Ann printed out my Serious Eats pieces on shrubs and took them to her next editorial meeting, along with a blueberry shrub she made at home. Her fellow editors tasted the shrub, reviewed my writing, and just like that, approved the book.

I supposed I worked backwards. While I waited to hear from Ann, I spoke to an agent, first on the phone and then in person. I explained what shrubs were, talked about how they're used in drinks, and discussed what Ann and I had covered in our initial meeting.


Then, before I had any sort of final approval, I sat down and started writing the book. The book is Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times. It comes out in October.

As I write this, my attention is divided. Ann is finalizing the book for the bound-galley stage, so I'm looking at PDFs of the layout, trimming text that runs too long for the page, making tweaks and nips and tucks here and there.

Are you thinking of writing a cocktail book? Today I'd like to provide some advice and observations of the process based on my experience so far.

Find a Niche

For a couple of years before I met Ann, I felt like every cocktail book that needed to exist already existed. Somehow I never thought of covering shrubs; the topic seemed too esoteric for a mass market. But my editor didn't think so, and working together we found an approach that we think will make the book accessible to the general public and not just cocktail geeks and bartenders.

The cookbook market is crowded, and though the cocktail book market is a little more open, it's also becoming more crowded every year. If you want to write a book, what makes your approach different? What makes the idea unique? You'll need to explain your niche when you put together a proposal, so start now.

Read Bad—and Good—Cocktail Books

If you want to write a cocktail book, start reading other cocktail books—bad ones and good ones. Study them, even the ones you hate. Figure out what makes good books work and what makes bad books fail. That cocktail book from the hottest new bar in, say, Los Angeles (or Austin or Seattle) might be truly groundbreaking, or it might just be a way to promote the bar, offering no new content.

Learn from books you hate, and learn from books that work, too. For Shrubs, I studied books such as Market Fresh Mixology and Artisanal Cocktails, both of which take a garden-to-glass approach to cocktail writing. However, I also closely read histories such as David Wondrich's Punch and Wayne Curtis's And a Bottle of Rum, to try to understand how to approach the history section of my book.

Write a Proposal

While I'm testament to the fact that not every book starts with a proposal, I recommend writing one. The proposal gives a publisher a sense of your topic and your voice. But a good proposal isn't just for the publisher—it's also for you. Writing a proposal helps you to hone your thinking about the material, to sift through the details and find the ideas that are most relevant to a wide audience.

How long should your proposal be? They vary. Jim Meehan (writer of the PDT Cocktail Book) and Kara Newman (Cocktails for a Crowd) both wrote about 20 pages. Brad Thomas Parsons (who wrote Bitters) did a 60 page proposal.

The proposal is your blueprint for the book. For a cocktail book, you should generally include a sample chapter, a few recipes, a full list of all the recipes you'd want to include, a preliminary table of contents, and a short author biography detailing your experience with the topic.

You'll also want to do some market research. Are there already books out about your topic? If not, you'll need to demonstrate that the market is ready for your book. If there are, you'll need to show what sets your book apart from the others. You want to write about punch? Great, go read David Wondrich's (excellent) book and figure out a fresh approach.

This all might take a while. When David Lebovitz wrote his ice cream book, the proposal stage alone took eight months.

Get an Agent

Seriously. Get an agent. My agent is a personal friend of a professional contact. I assumed her role was primarily to negotiate the advance and royalty rate, but boy, was I wrong. Now, she did do that for me, I have to say. My financial deal is working out better than it would have had I been flying solo, and I believe in the long run, the deal she struck will more than pay for her services. But money was only part of what my agent has done for me.

My agent did several things that matter to me more than money. Primarily, she ran my contract through the finest sieve imaginable. The original contract was fine, but she made it better. She renegotiated, for example, the length of time Countryman/Norton can have exclusive rights to make an offer on my next proposal before I can send it to another publisher. She renegotiated the rate I'll get from Kindle and other e-book formats of my book.

A good agent will also help you navigate the book writing and publishing process. I didn't know what to expect when I started, and my agent was there to answer every question and ease every worry.

Sock Away Some Cash

Dollars photo: Shutterstock

Contract negotiations take time, and until the ink is dry, you won't get a penny from the publisher. I didn't have the first part of my advance in hand until a couple of weeks after I signed the final contract, and yet I was already writing the book, gathering ingredients, developing recipes, buying glassware and props for photos, and so on. These outlays hit at a rough time for my young family, when we had expenses for our son, health-care copays for my wife's second pregnancy, and the high cost of living in New York City to contend with.

Assume you won't see your advance until half (or more) of your book is written, assume you'll be turning down other work so you can focus on the book, and assume you'll need to go out and buy stuff so you have something to write about. If you don't have savings on hand, things can get a little hairy.

Get a Professional Photographer

Jennifer Hess

Some publishers cover the cost of a professional photographer (and might even assign someone to you); whereas other publishers expect you, the writer, to pay the photographer.

Hire a pro, even if you have to pay. I asked my wife to shoot the book; she's talented and has a great eye for food and cocktail photography. But we ran into a lot of problems. First, she was pregnant during many of our photo shoots, and photography has certain physical demands that were hard on her. Second, I didn't always know what I wanted the photos to look like, and so it was difficult to communicate to her what I needed. A pro would have experience talking writers through all of that. Third, in terms of submitting the photos, I didn't even know the right questions to ask. RAW? TIFF? Size? Dots per inch? We reshot some material just because we didn't have the first format correct. A pro would have locked all that stuff down from the beginning. Fourth, since we shot at home, we had to work around our children's sleep schedules. One day, we didn't quite finish up before the eldest woke up, as you can see in the photo below.

If you don't hire a pro, talk to someone who's done a book before, and be sure you know exactly what questions to ask of your editor before you get started.

Jennifer Hess

Expect Thing to Change Midstream

When Ann and I developed the book, we had in mind a summer 2014 release, to hit at the peak of the farmers' market's bounty. The book was going to be a squarish format, softcover, organized by season, and aimed at crunchy-granola Greenmarket fans (like me). Then Countryman/Norton's sales team went into action and decided the book had potential to be an end-of-year shopping-season success, aimed at a broader market. So now we're launching in October, and we're no longer going for a seasonal approach. The book will be rectangular and hardcover. You might ask why it matters whether the book is square or rectangular, hardcover or soft. For one thing, it meant that photos we shot for a squarish format needed to be recropped (or reshot) for the new format.

While not every book will go through such major changes, you need to be ready to stay flexible. Don't get married to your favorite headnotes or recipe names—they might turn out to be too long for the page once the design is set.

Got Tools?

Jennifer Hess

Before you write a word, think hard about your writing style, your research needs, your source materials, and your writing environment. Then think about what tools you'll need to use for your writing. By "tools" I mean computers, laptops, tablets, smart phones, word-processing programs, and so on. I found it easiest to dictate my recipes into my phone as I developed them, and then paste them into my word processor once I was back at a computer. This left my hands free for chopping fruit and mixing drinks, plus tending a child or two.

Will Microsoft Word suit your needs? It might, especially if your manuscript is straightforward. My book was completely reorganized midway through writing, and copy-pasting the recipes into a new chapter structure and a new order would have taken awhile and possibly introduced all kinds of errors. Instead, I used Scrivener, which works as a management system for organizing a complex manuscript. I was able to just drag and drop the recipes into their new chapters and then organize and reorganize them as necessary.

And then, of course, there are the tools you need for developing the recipes, if your book is, in fact, a recipe book. I needed more fridge space than we had available. An extra dorm-sized fridge, tucked into a corner of the kitchen, might come in handy for you.

We bought jars, bottles, and glassware, plus such photo props as napkins, placemats, and shiny new cocktail tools. Mason jars are available in bulk from Amazon and some hardware and kitchen supply stores, and if you're writing about syrups, infusions, or bitters which require sealed storage, I'd advise going that way.

The shrub ingredients themselves were my biggest expense. I went shopping two to three times a week to get fruit and vegetables for shrub-making. We bought sugar like crazy, at least one box of granulated sugar or bag of turbinado or Demerara sugar every week, sometimes more. And vinegars, oh boy. Luckily, a large bottle of Bragg's apple cider vinegar goes a long way, but we also bought red wine, white wine, balsamic, and rice vinegar—easily two bottles a week.

Sit Down and Write

The best muse any writer has is the muse named "Sit Your Ass in That Chair and Write." Waiting for inspiration? Let the sofa inspire your buttocks as you pick up your laptop and write.

My schedule for most of 2013 looked like this: I got up each morning and took my kid for a long walk to the playground. As I pushed his stroller, I thought about the book. When we got home, I'd check email and all the myriad online distractions while he chattered, watched a little TV, and ate lunch. Then I'd put him down for his nap, and at the very moment I knew he was asleep, I started working.

The only way out is through. You won't write a book while poking through Facebook waiting for inspiration.

Don't Get Discouraged

All of this might sound overwhelming. It is overwhelming. Are you up for overwhelming? Still, somehow I developed dozens of recipe and wrote a book while being the fulltime caregiver for a toddler during the first half of the process, and for a toddler and an infant during the back half. If I can do it, you can too.