In 1985, baking expert Nancy Baggett of Ellicott City got a call from a major publisher. A fast-acting yeast was coming on the market, and the publishing company wanted a cookbook that would use the new product in recipes for quick yeast breads.
"They gave me an impossibly short deadline, but the advance was pretty good for that time -- over $15,000," Baggett recalls. So she worked day and night for about four months, eventually hiring a tester to help her, and turned in the book.
"I think it sold maybe 15,000 copies," she says with a laugh. The publisher had hugely overestimated the popularity of the new yeast.
But the experience taught Baggett, 62, some good lessons, including how paying a tester can eat up a lot of a writer's advance. "I also learned that to make money with a cookbook, you have to sell a lot of copies -- which means you better have an idea that appeals to a lot of people."
Her next idea did. "I noticed that a book on European cookies in my local library was very popular, even though the recipes weren't written very well. I had lived in Europe and knew I could do better."
Her international cookie book, published in 1988 with gorgeous photos, was a hit, eventually selling more than 100,000 copies.
She went on to write the 2001 top-seller "The All-American Cookie Book," which took four years to research and test recipes. Her newest book, "The All-American Dessert Book," includes traditional favorites from cheesecake, which dates from Martha Washington's time, to the current craze for indoor s'mores.
How successful is she? "Three years ago, my kitchen got a $60,000 makeover, including three ovens, two stove tops and more storage."
As for cookbook authors just starting out, Baggett has some rules: "Don't quit your day job -- you won't get rich quick." And, "your recipes have to work for everyone -- even people who don't follow them exactly."
She's also a big believer in serendipity. "I've had a book flop because the economy went into recession and no one wanted a $35 book. And I've had a book become a big seller because I was fortunate enough to get interviewed on NPR. Sometimes, it's just pure dumb luck."
-- Candy Sagon