Behind the Book – Cocktails for a Crowd

Photo credit: Teri Lyn Fisher

Photo credit: Teri Lyn Fisher

Note: This is adapted from a guest post I wrote for  Monica Bhide’s A Life of Spice blog.

If you like my new book, Cocktails for a Crowd, you can send Michael Ruhlman a thank you note.

Not that Ruhlman had a hand in writing the book. In fact, we’ve never met.

But in part, the book came about because I was inspired by his “Ratio” app, which posits that every recipe starts with a basic ratio of ingredients – like cookie dough is 1 part sugar, 2 parts fat, and 3 parts flour – and variations take off from there.

Right away, I recognized that the same is true of cocktails. Most of my favorite drinks comprise 2 parts spirit, 1 part sour and 1 part sweet. The classic Margarita is often a 3-2-1 configuration (3 parts tequila, 2 parts Cointreau, 1 part lime juice). Not to mention drinks like the Negroni – a perfect equilateral triangle, made with a ratio of 1-1-1, three ingredients in equal measure (Campari, gin and sweet vermouth), plus a splash of soda on top.

Why was I inspired by the app based on Ruhlman’s Ratio book, instead of the book itself?  Because my initial concept was for a Cocktails for a Crowd app – not a book.

I had just returned from the IACP conference in Austin (yes, that’s two years ago– still about how long it takes to shepherd a book from proposal to print at a traditional publishing house), where I’d attended a seminar on apps.

The idea for Cocktails for a Crowd crystallized during that seminar. Right away, I visualized a tool that would scale drinks from a single cocktail for one up to “cocktails for a crowd,” with the swipe of a finger. It would convert between ounces (which bartenders prefer) to cups (which home cooks prefer). It would even generate a shopping list – since further complicating what I’d come to refer to as “cocktail math,” liquor bottles are sold in 750 milliliter or 1 liter sizes, neither ounces nor cups. Only later did I realize this was a book idea too.

The app idea drove the book idea, even the book’s name. The app was a central feature of my book proposal, and I’m fairly certain it helped sell the project to Chronicle Books.

So as soon as I’d hit the “send” button on the manuscript, my next email was to inquire about the companion app.

“What’s next?” I ventured.

There would be no app, said the disappointing reply, although my publisher agreed that an app would have been a perfect extension of this particular book concept. “The trouble is that no one (publishers or developers) are seeing the sales levels we need to justify the production expense that’s required to make these products great.”

The hard truth is:  people still expect apps to be free, or nearly free. Naturally, publishers are focusing their energies on profitable products – books, not apps.

Today, there still is no “Cocktails for a Crowd” app — and likely will never be, unless I pursue it independently.

Which brings me back to the app-tastic Ruhlman. I turned in my manuscript in January 2012. A few months later, I joyfully noticed that Ruhlman had begun “Friday Cocktail Hour” posts, starting with the classic Martini (8 parts gin to 1 part dry vermouth) and the Old-Fashioned (6 parts bourbon or rye, 1 part sugar, 1 part bitters). He hasn’t yet broken down cocktails into his “Ratio” format, but I say it’s just a matter of time. (If you’re impatient, I’d recommend picking up a copy of DIY Cocktails, which emphasizes the ratio aspect of cocktails.)

Are apps related to cookbooks dead in the water? I’m starting to think so.

Perhaps I should grease the wheels of optimism a bit and send a copy of my new book to Ruhlman. Because I see a “Ratio: Cocktails” book in his future. And possibly an app to go with that, too.

4 tips on cocktail book publishing – MCC recap

At the recent Manhattan Cocktail Classic, I organized and moderated a seminar, “Is There a Book Idea on Your Cocktail Menu?” As an author (and now, a hired gun for book proposals and book co-writing), this is a topic close to my heart.

My seminar was part of the “Industry Invitational,” meaning the room was packed with those in the trade. And I do mean the room was PACKED — I suspect that had a lot do do with the all-star panel, which included Jim Meehan of PDT and the PDT Cocktail Book, and Brad Thomas Parsons, author of Bitters — both fresh off of their respective James Beard wins! — Maks Pazuniak and Kirk Estopinal, bartenders and authors, and Hang Time publisher Lori Narlock.

A few key takeaways from the panel:

1. Be prepared to write a lengthy book proposal.  This is the document you need to sell a book to a traditional publishing house — it outlines the scope of the book. Jim’s proposal ran about 20 pages (that’s about the same length my proposals tend to run for cookbook projects too). Meanwhile, Brad created a detailed book proposal that was 60 pages long. 

Lori Narlock explained why the proposal is key:  “That’s your blueprint,” she said. And from an publisher’s standpoint, “if you can’t write a proposal, you can’t write a book. You need to commit.”

2. Your agent is not your mom. Apparently some people get that confused.

3. Options exist outside of traditional publishing houses. For example, Maks and Kirk, who describe their Beta Cocktails book as “a punk rock complilation album,” went the self-publishing route. It took a $3,000 investment to get it done, but I’ve seen that lovely little volume sell out every time I go to Tales of the Cocktail, so I’ll assume they’ve recouped the expense (or are darn close). And even inside publishing houses, the “book” format has become fluid.  I love what Lori has started: innovative mini “e-books” of 10 cocktail recipes each, as she ramps up Hang Time’s full-length book offerings.

4. Your publisher won’t sell the book — you have to do it!  What I found most interesting here was how other people promote their books. For bartenders (Jim, Maks, Kirk), having the platform of the bar seems to be effective. Jim is also a proponent of using video to show how drinks are made and to build excitement. However…while social media has proven to be an effective tool for Brad for keeping Bitters in the conversation, Jim is emphatically — I might say gleefully!– not on either Facebook or Twitter.