Cover Story: The Sweet Life in Paris
Or, what I did during the nationwide strike
Yesterday in France there was a nationwide strike as people protest pension reform, which includes raising the retirement age to 64. Since I just turned 64 and am still working, I decided to share a little about my job, because I’m not ready to throw in the serviette just yet.
One of the unspoken secrets of the publishing industry is that authors don’t have any control over the covers of their books, even very famous, big-time bestselling authors. At least that’s what they tell me every time I ask them to put “cover approval” in my contract.
Back in 2007, I began work on a memoir, The Sweet Life in Paris. I’d written two cookbooks but never a memoir. Readers were asking me to write about my story, and while I wasn’t really a writer, I decided to buckle down and tell the story of how I arrived in Paris and what my life was like for those first few years.
My previous book was The Perfect Scoop, which had been turned down by a big New York publisher who begged my agent for first dibs on that book. After getting the proposal to them, they turned it down, telling me (on the phone), “Because you don’t have a show on Food Network.”
Ouch. Way to rub it in…
I had met the (then) editors at Ten Speed Press, Lorena Jones and Aaron Wehner, at a culinary event, and we hit it off. They were miffed that someone at Ten Speed passed on my first book, Room for Dessert, and they wanted to work with me. So they snapped up The Perfect Scoop, which I’m told has become the bestselling ice cream book of all time. (I don’t know about that, but they had so much success with it that they asked me to do an updated 10th-anniversary edition.)
At the time, Ten Speed Press was an independent publisher, operating out of a brick warehouse–type building in Berkeley, California, and the owner, Phil Wood, wore tie-dyed outfits with matching shirts and pants around town. While small in size, they published What Color Is Your Parachute?, The Moosewood Cookbook, a bicycle repair guide called Anybody’s Bike Book (which was the first book they ever published and reportedly sold a thousand copies a day, hence the “ten speed” name), and White Trash Cooking. Despite their successes, things were precarious at Ten Speed Press and my (now deceased) agent didn’t want anything to do with them. Later it turned out that the author of White Trash Cooking was involved in a number of lawsuits related to the book, and in spite of all the money it made, a lot of it went to legal expenses, including a plagiarism suit the author lost.
Ten Speed did a great job with my ice cream book, but for The Sweet Life in Paris, since the book was a memoir, not a cookbook, it needed an editor who specialized in food memoirs, which requires entirely different skills. The New York publisher that had turned down my ice cream book ended up acquiring the book (…say what, David?!), and it was a precarious sprint to the finish line. As much as I liked working with Ten Speed (and still do), I thought the book would be better off going with a more prestigious, big-time New York publisher, and I might even someday be on the Food Network. Hope sprung eternal.
Truthfully, it’s easier (and you get criticized less) if you write a fluffy book about how wondrous it is to live in Paris, a city filled with croissants, macarons, walks along the Seine, women with scarfs effortlessly tied around their necks, and comely fishmongers…
…than if you write about some of the other aspects of my adopted home. But that was where I was a few decades ago, and that was my life. I was having fun, but I was also adapting to my new life, which wasn’t always easy, and figured I’d be honest about it in my book, throwing in some humor along with some tasty recipes. And it also gave me a chance to work with a team of hunky fish sellers under the guise that I was writing a chapter about it. Which was true, but they were also worth waking up at 5:30 am for.