The life of a cookbook writer has got to be pretty sweet, right? Sunlit kitchen. Daily uniform of sweats and a flour-spattered apron. Something baking in the oven; something bubbling away on the stove. Laptop open, genius flowing freely from your fingers. Publicist on the phone with plans for a book tour, a few interviews, a new book, heck, maybe even a TV show.
Well, no. And yes. Some of it.
Along with his coauthor, Zoe Francois, Jeff Hertzberg has published four successful cookbooks (and, if all went well, they sent off the manuscript for their fifth today). In the six years since their first book came out, they’ve sold nearly 600,000 copies total and attracted a healthy following — about 300,000 visitors a month — to their blog, Bread In 5.
Their newest book, The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery that Revolutionizes Home Baking, is a fattened-up revision of their first, with new recipes, new photos, more in-depth explanations and — hallelujah — weights in addition to volume measures. All four books are based on the same principle: Mix up batches of wet bread dough and store them in the fridge for up to two weeks, letting time and water do the hard work of developing gluten, skipping the kneading entirely.
We talked with Jeff about life in that proverbial sunlit kitchen, doing your own PR, and what it’s like to cook and write with a coauthor.
Jeff hasn’t left his day job — or, rather, his other contract gig as a medical director for a company that makes healthcare software — but he says the books have absolutely changed his life and he would do it all over again in a second.
Tell us how this whole thing got started.
It was flaky good luck. My wife had been on Lynne Rossetto Kasper and suggested I do the same. This was in 2000, and I had been baking since I was a medical resident in ’88. So it had been 12 years — you could open my refrigerator and it was all bread dough. It was this eccentric family project.
I called in and it was this fluke because the publisher’s editor was listening. She tracked me down to ask for a book proposal, and my wife and I laughed our heads off. But we never got back to her. And then three years later Zoe and I met.
Initially Zoe said, “I’ll help you write the book, but I don’t want my name on it.” Because it’s unorthodox. Zoe is a chef and it’s not the way they’re trained.
We called the editor back, who at this point was about 83. And she’s basically right there at her desk and says, “I was hoping you’d call back.”
We did get an agent and try to sell it broadly, but the editor who had called me, to her credit, was the only person who thought this was going to sell. Nobody was taking chances in 2007 on somebody without a TV show. You couldn’t get a good advance without one. We eventually just took what we got, with an initial print run of 5,000. And it sold, because it was just before Christmas and in Minneapolis it’s easy to get that initial burst of public relations, because we all know each other.
My wife has worked in PR, and she made some connections at The New York Times and the AP. I don’t know if we’d have five books today if we hadn’t been covered by those two.
What is your partnership with Zoe like? How do two people write one book?
In the early days, we got together regularly at Quang or Dunn Bros. in Linden Hills to share samples, to walk around the lake, and to argue.
I can’t imagine writing a cookbook alone. In fact, I didn’t — I had three years and I didn’t do it. I think it would be a little boring. I don’t think it would be as creative.
For me cooking is an escape from what I do as a day job, which is data, computers, and medicine. The way the story always gets told is that Zoe is the creative force and I’m the science side. But that is not quite true, because this was my way of getting to do what she does.
In fact, one of the things that happened early on is she said, “You’re not writing down the amounts.” I said, “No, I know what it’s going to look like; it’s really wet.” And, she said, “Well, what’s the hydration?” What? That sounds like my day job!
So the partnership is an incredible blessing.
What were those early arguments about?
How many sweet recipes is too many? How much health focus should we have? How long can the dough sit in the refrigerator?
Our tastes were different. I used to keep the dough for a month, because I grew up on those Eastern European rye breads in New York that they don’t really have here. They were really dense and wet, and Zoe said most people won’t eat those.
We worked through a million micro decisions like that. It was the kind of negotiation that goes on in any good business — and it is a business. And it’s as much about the website as it is the book: What is Bread In 5 going to be like? Are we going to put our content there? Are we going to let other people put our content up?
The whole business is shifting. In 20 years, nobody is going to buy a cookbook. They’ll get their recipes online and expect to get them for free. So how do you get paid for content?
I know you’ve worked with brands like Gold Medal on sponsorship deals.
We don’t hide that we’ve got Gold Medal. [Big companies] are the ones who have the power to change the way people eat, and I want people to bake from scratch.
Our other sponsor is Red Star Yeast. Both companies found out we were using their products to test recipes. It wasn’t the other way around.
We blog and do social media for them. We blog for them on our site. We’ll mention brand names; these are the ones we were testing with anyway, so we might as well let you know. We get flour and yeast for free, and they pay us and sponsor our tours.
What’s a typical day in your life as a cookbook writer?
It’s different depending on where you are in the cycle. Right now we’re both promoting the book that just came out and writing the new book. I had to proofread parts of it this morning.
And I’m testing recipes. You try something and it stinks and you waste a lot of ingredients. You have to get used to that — you throw away a lot of food. Sometimes you get frustrated, and that’s what’s so great about having a coauthor. You say, “I hate this loaf, I don’t care if it ever works,” but the other person isn’t sick of whatever variant you’ve been working on.
How does the baking mesh with your other day job?
It’s a perfect fit. If a project comes in for my medical consulting practice, this can drop usually. Today I did two hours of consulting about what physicians experience in using a particular kind of health record. And then I came right upstairs and sat down with the book.
I’m a little disappointed, because I would love for you to be having that conversation while you’re up to your elbows in flour.
I’ve done that. I’ve also had that conversation up to my elbows in little girls. [Jeff worked from home and watched his two daughters part-time when they were younger.] I’d be wading in Lake Harriet and on the phone with Chicago and nobody cared.
And part of my day is calling media. We found out that if the publisher sends a form letter, it goes into the slush pile, so it’s better if we call people directly.
Was it a surprise how much marketing you’d have to do on your own?
My wife warned me. Especially for an unknown, the publisher is not going to hire a PR firm, and they’re not going to send you on tour. You have to send yourself on tour. We paid for one or two cities ourselves, and then the book took off and they sent us to six cities. For the third book we had sponsors who sent us to 12 cities.
What about recipe testing? I imagine some readers think publishing houses have in-house testers who make every recipe. Can you debunk that?
No, as far as I know nobody does that. We have our own testers: friends and family members.
What Lynne Rossetto Kasper told me the first time I was on the phone with her was to test and retest and test again. Because if somebody tries a recipe and it doesn’t work — well, once is okay, but if they try another recipe and it doesn’t work, they’re probably going to throw the book away. You have to know every recipe is a winner.
You said the books have changed your life. How?
It made me more secure in being a free agent, career-wise. We had a recession and a lot of people were losing their jobs and their health insurance. [Remember, Hertzberg works in medical software.] But the book did great in 2007. Home baking is what you want in a recession.
This opened my eyes to how great it is to have a diverse career. At a point in my life when there were expenses coming with kids and education, it made me feel very secure. I haven’t had a full-time job since 1993.
What did you expect, and what surprised you the most?
I expected to sell 2,000 books. It was going to be just the one and I was never going to do it again.
It’s sort of the way I envisioned it, frankly. I’m just surprised that I got to do it. It’s been a joy. I did not expect to get the chance to be in a creative industry.
Any advice for folks who might be daydreaming about writing a cookbook?
It’s tough. Our story is very lucky, and it’s not likely to be reproducible by intention. If we’d tried to do this it probably wouldn’t have happened.
I think the real question is, “Would I do it again?” And the answer is, “In a second.”