Saturday, November 24, 2007

An interesting book for writers

I just finished "Stand Facing the Stove: the Story of the Women Who Gave America the Joy of Cooking," by Anne Mendelson.

Several aspects of the book are especially fascinating to anyone who either works in an editorial capacity in cookbook publishing (as I did) or is a published author (as I am).

We are so spoiled these days by computers that it's hard to imagine how daunting book production (particularly cookbooks) must have been in the early and middle part of this century. Creating and following a consistent style guide for a massive and intricate cookbook without even the aid of photocopiers is incredible, but that's how it was done. And the idea of indexing a cookbook without the aid of a computer is a bad dream -- indices are awful even with a computer.

Add the difficulties of creating and publishing a cookbook to an absolutely intolerable relationship with a publisher for years and years of drama. Irma Rombauer, who originated the "Joy of Cooking," made a rookie mistake when she signed the contract for the first edition with Bobbs-Merrill, granting the copyright to the book, as well as to an earlier, lesser edition, to the publisher. This one detail robbed Irma Rombauer and her daughter Marion Becker (who eventually overtook the book's subsequent editions) of perhaps millions of dollars as well as control over the book.

Things didn't get any better for future editions -- in 1962 Bobbs-Merrill published an edition of "Joy of Cooking" "without a contract, an act of stunning recklessness that left the receipt of income from sales something like the receipt of a live bomb." This edition was very badly edited in every way -- in the key to the symbols what was originally parenthesis intended to highlight optional ingredients morphed into a circle, and then later to a solid circle. Ingredients were spelled incorrectly, recipes chopped up but not reconstituted correctly, etc. Anne Mendelson compares the work finding and listing all the errors to "counting locusts in a Scriptural plague."

It's enough to keep an author with a book in production up at night, and a good reminder to check any contract carefully.

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