Read Local: When It Comes to Cooking, Judge a Book by Its Cover

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New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe every Wednesday for Read Local, a new series which exclusively focuses on books produced in the Bay Area.

We're told "don't judge a book by its cover" before we can even read, but that aphorism has no place in the world of cookbooks. Sure, we care if the the interior is well-written and organized, full of perfected recipes and helpful hints, the kind of great work a cook can revisit time and again. Perhaps we even entertain loftier goals, imagining that the meals the cookbook inspires will eventually hold a sentimental value, reminding the owner of intimate family gatherings.

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Of course, we're getting ahead of ourselves: First you have to buy the book. In a bookstore displaying no less than 20 titles per table, it is the cover that draws you near, invites you to linger over the pages and contemplate a future together. Cooking appeals to the all of the senses, and that begins with sight.
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Ten Speed Press is perhaps best-known for their perennial bestseller, What Color Is Your Parachute, but most of their list consists of cookbooks, where they take cover design to a whole new level. When it comes to book publicity, designers rarely make an appearance, so we were delighted when Betsy Stromberg, the Managing Art Director at the Berkeley-based press, agreed to speak with us.

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Betsy Stromberg

The cover projects a book's identity and entices readers. That's a lot of pressure. Do you feel invested in, or partly responsible for, a book's success?

I definitely feel like a cover can determine how well a book sells. As a cover designer I take some of the blame if a book doesn't do as well as predicted, although there are so many factors that affect sales over the life of a book.

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When you're working on a new cookbook cover, do you test recipes at home? Are you ever tempted to march into SPQR, for example, and request a four-course dinner in the name of research?

I love discovering new recipes while designing a cookbook, it makes me feel like I have a private preview of the author's food. I try to pay attention to how the recipe is written, and whether the writing is casual and simple or more formal, since the writing can impact the look and feel of the book.

If I'm lucky enough to work on a book for a local restaurant I pay them a visit to get a feel of the ambiance and energy. Right now I'm designing The Mac and Cheese Cookbook (coming in summer 2013) and I frequently run over to Homeroom in Oakland to get inspired by the atmosphere, and to enjoy the amazingly delicious comfort food. That is definitely one of the perks of the job.

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