Sandra Reynolds won the equivalent of the publishing lottery when she received a phone call, out of the blue, from Penguin about turning her blog, The $120 Food Challenge, into a fully fledged cookbook. Seriously, who does that happen to? Even more remarkable is the fact that Sandra began her blog after she walked out on her job after a terrible day and ended up trying to feed her family on the two $60 food vouchers that the Salvation Army had give her for assistance.
I’ve always wondered how cookbooks are written. Do they make allowances for the fact that the amateur cook might leave half her tablespoon of butter stuck to the spoon? Why do I always end up with 16 muffins when I’m supposed to have 20, and 25 biscuits when I’m supposed to have 18? The big questions.
With Sandra, I also wondered about the process of going from daily blog writer to ‘enormous project’ book writer. You know me. When I wonder, I do my best to drag that person into the Fibro to ask them. Fortunately, Sandra was happy to be dragged and she stayed for a cup of tea and a chat. A long chat. About cooking, writing, blogging, social media and the all-important Dubbo Test. So get your own cuppa before you begin…
Yours is the quintessential blog fairytale – publisher spots blog, offers book contract. Is that actually how it happened?
Sandra Reynolds: “Yes and no. Not once did I ever think strategically about this. I was responding to whatever each day brought me. I started the blog after a conversation on the Mamamia website. I was complaining about how I was doing that week [feeding my family with food vouchers], and someone said, ‘You could start a blog about this’. I was so clueless I actually Googled ‘how to start a blog’ and then followed the links. My daughter had to show me how to upload a photo. I spent the rest of the day emptying the contents of my head, thinking it would be nice if I could get 1000 hits on my blog in the first month. I got 8000 in the first fortnight.
“I settled into a daily pattern of writing and photographing the evening meal. That, and job-seeking was my daily routine, and I was content with that. I’ve never advertised on my blog and, over the two years, have done only a handful of sponsored posts. All my blog traffic is by word of mouth. At the same time the blog was hitting its straps, my personal life was taking a battering when my father died after a long illness. The day after his funeral, just three months after starting the blog, I got an email from Channel 7’s Today Tonight, requesting an interview.
“I postponed, due to bereavement, which also gave me time to think about my answer. I was terrified of being portrayed poorly. It was the first time I began to think of myself as a brand, or in terms of public image, and it crystallised my thoughts about it. After talking with everyone I could think of who might be able to offer me professional advice (surrounding yourself with mentors is one business strategy I stumbled across), I said yes.
“The story went to air on a Monday night, and I watched it through my fingers, breathing a deep sigh of relief that it was a good representation of me and my story, and I had come across as a sensible person instead of someone with a gimmick. I got 125,000 hits on the blog in the next 36 hours.
“The next morning, the phone rang. It was Julie Gibbs, the managing editor of Penguin books, who told me that she was impressed not just by what I was doing, but by who I was – my brand. She offered me a deal right there. All before my second cup of tea that morning.
“I didn’t have a book outline or even know what to put in. I didn’t have an agent. I don’t know if the deal was a good one or not. All I knew was that my intuition was screaming at me to say yes. I’ve never regretted it. Penguin are simply the best in the business for cookbook writers. I have been well looked after and mentored. But I’m under no illusion that it’s a business deal and I have to uphold my part in that business arrangement.”
Do you spend a lot of time on social media? Do you think that’s important for anyone hoping to snag a book deal?
SR: “I started a Facebook Page for The $120 Food Challenge about two months after I started the blog and it now has 5,500 followers with 20-30 people joining each week. My Twitter account started about a month after that. I have all three forums (blog, FB, Twitter) going about 10-15 hours a day, every day. I don’t have a smartphone or tablet, just a lap top, so I don’t tweet when I’m away from my desk.
“My Facebook page has been the best investment in garnering an audience for ideas and suggestions. I’ll often begin a conversation by posing a query, or making a comment, and frequently a topic there will turn up as a ‘How To’ recipe on the blog. It’s a very dynamic forum. Twitter, on the other hand, has been invaluable for professional networking and making friends with people you want to align your brand with. It’s also brilliant for self-promotion or for recording your official response to something as a brand. My tweet stream is a chaotic mix of personal tweets to friends and promoting blog and book, with a side order of chatting with chefs and cooks around the world.
“Again, I don’t think strategically about social media in terms of snagging a book deal, but that probably means I’m disingenuous. The reality is that publishers are looking for content from as many different areas as possible. It’s silly to ignore the power of social media for the audience it can bring you, particularly if you are targetting people (who will read your book) who are technically savvy, and have strong social media literacy, such as 18-40 year olds. There are dozens of published authors who have built their brand and reached their target audience through just using social media, then used their writing skills to expand it into the long form of a book.
“Good writing is good writing and publishers will see that. The traffic or demographics you can bring to your book deal are invaluable.”
Did you develop your own recipes for the cookbook? Do you have a background in that? How much do you make allowances for the experience or inexperience of the home cook?
SR: “I don’t have any background at all as a chef or professional cook. I have always enjoyed cooking and have learnt through trial-and-error like everyone else. There are some basic cooking skills that I rely on that form the basis of every recipe. I stick to what I know and make no claims to haute cuisine – my dishes are very simple and very orientated to a mid-week family meal.
“So when I get an idea for a recipe, I write down all that I know and make an educated guess as to what flavours it could be combined with, what cooking processes it would respond to, and then I test it. Only then do I photograph and post it. Sometimes recipes are trialled several times until I get it right. All recipes have to pass the Dubbo Test, meaning ingredients are readily available in regional areas.
“I’m a teacher by training, and spent 20 years teaching adults by breaking down complex tasks into their simplest forms, which is the essence of all good recipe writing. A good recipe MUST be unambiguous, clearly set down. I intentionally write for those people who may feel less than confident about their skills, just in case. You can’t assume that they will know what you mean if you use a technical term.”
I know frugality is an important part of your message and the book – do you think that it gave you a point of difference that allowed you to stand out in a crowded blogging market?
SR: “The cooking and budgeting came first, by at least two decades. There is nothing new to anything that I advise. My mother and her generation all nod approvingly at the budgeting advice I give – to them, it’s second nature. However, there has been a huge disconnect to that information in the last 20 years. A generation of cooks are relying on pre-processed, ready-made meals, simple heat-and-eat dinners – and they really struggle when their backs are to the wall financially. I thought everyone knew how to set a household budget and make from scratch, even if they didn’t always do so. Again, disingenuous.
“With no strategy in mind, I didn’t look at the crowded cookbook/celebrity chef market and spot a point of difference. I simply wrote about what I knew. As it turned out, the single best thing I ever did was simply being honest with my readers. This is who I am. These are my circumstances. This is what I know. Any good writer will tell you that every good story starts with those three pillars.
“One crucial point of different – I HATE the word frugal. I find it a measly, negative word and it taps into the feeling of helplessness that people feel. A fundamental point I make is about doing it with a little flair, some dignity, a bit of self-deprecating humour and inviting people – metaphorically – to come to the table and share. Psychologically, it makes a huge difference to people’s crisis management. It gives them encouragement. It implies generosity. I love that.”
How different was pulling the book together to putting out a regular blog?
SR: “I wrote every day doing the blog, but as soon as I had signed the deal, my efforts to write the book fell into a massive slump. I had writer’s block for about two months. I was side-tracked by blog traffic and commentary, wasted hours and hours doing nothing.
“I solved this problem by heading to my local library every day. A simple change of setting strangely gave me focus. I would sit for four hours each morning and write a couple of recipes every day. In the end, the recipe compilation came together in about four months. The front section of the book, based around household budgeting, came together in another six weeks or so, based on setting aside time and just blocking out all the internet white noise.”
The $120 Food Challenge (Penguin, $29.95) is available at leading and independent booksellers, KMart, Target, Big W, and online through Booktopia. Visit Sandra’s wonderful blog The $120 Food Challenge here, and go say hello on Facebook or Twitter.