Laura Nickoll is a freelance project manager and editor, specialising in non-fiction food, cookery and lifestyle illustrated titles and TV tie-ins. A member of the Guild of Food Writers, her recent contributions include restaurant reviews and chef biographies for the Where Chefs Eat series and Where to Eat Pizza (Phaidon Press). She has over 15 years’ experience in the publishing business and has worked with numerous high-profile authors and production companies, including Rachel Allen, Mary Berry, Annabel Karmel, the BBC, Neal Street Productions and Masterchef. She launched her publishing services business in 2011, and clients include Hardie Grant, Ebury, HarperCollins, Bluebird (Macmillan), Phaidon Press, Simon & Schuster and Orion.
Tell us about how you got into editing and project managing food and cookery books.
I knew not long after graduating in humanities that I wanted to work on books, but my enthusiasm for food and cooking and my profession didn’t connect until I moved from Thames & Hudson to the editorial department at BBC Books in 2004. There, I started to project manage TV tie-ins with the celebrity chefs of the day and got the bug. Completing a distance-learning professional copy-editing course with The Publishing Training Centre gave me the skills and confidence to work more closely with text, and after a three-year stint at DK, I took the plunge and went freelance, joining the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and – last year – the Guild of Food Writers, which are invaluable for networking and professional support. I work on cookbooks for a number of clients, either as a project manager or editor, while also writing about restaurants. The range of subjects I get to immerse myself in, from raw cakes and Bake Off bakes to Lisbon’s food culture or recipes from the kitchens of the ‘real’ Downton Abbey, never fails to keep me feeling thrilled and fortunate to be doing what I do.
You’ve worked with amazing chefs and TV cooks, from Nuno Mendes to Ping Coombes and Mary Berry. How does working with chefs differ from working with food writers?
Working with professional chefs can be a rewarding experience, especially when they put as much heart and soul into their writing as they do their food. You can tell pretty quickly when you leaf through a cookbook affiliated with a big-name chef or restaurant whether they have approached it purely as a commercial conquest and marketing tool, or whether it was a labour of love; a special and original book that will stand the test of time. One of my personal favourites, which I wish I’d worked on, is Richard Corrigan’s The Clatter of Forks and Spoons. The difference is that a chef’s first priority is their kitchen or restaurant business, so there will often be a food writer or editor helping them out, usually a recipe tester too (professional kitchen kit is worlds apart from what you find in a typical home kitchen), which makes the books more time consuming to edit and produce. The same goes for TV chefs. Food writers, on the other hand, typically test their recipes at home before delivering their manuscripts, and write with a stronger awareness of what the publisher requires (clarity, ingredient quantities where required and well-worded methods) and what a reader wants to know.
How do you think about the relationship between text and image in your work? Which is more important?
Working with text is what I do. I fully acknowledge that beautifully shot images draw readers in and help to sell books (the cookbook sector is publishing more illustrated cookbooks than ever before), and I’m often working on shoots with great food photographers, but if the book is being sold as a book to cook from rather than to simply pore over (and there’s nothing wrong with a good coffee-table food book), then it’s such a let-down if the appetite has been whetted but the recipe doesn’t work. However, a well-written recipe without a picture, while it may not appeal to some readers, will at least offer those who want to try it a good chance of being rewarded by a great plate of food. Two of my grubbiest, most well-worn cookbooks are The Riverford Farm Cook Book by Guy Watson and Jane Baxter and The Geometry of Pasta by Jacob Kenedy, which are largely unillustrated but hugely accessible. From an editorial perspective, it’s imperative that a picture of a dish in an illustrated cookbook matches the text it sits with (garnishes mentioned in the text, and so on) – providing photographers and food stylists with edited, tested recipes is ideal, but tight schedules frequently don’t allow for this luxury!
What are the current trends in cookery books, and which ones are here to stay?
It’s a crowded marketplace, and bookshop table displays and supermarkets are groaning under the weight of big-name books selling the secret to being ‘lean’ and ‘strong’, but from what I can see, the ‘clean eating’ trend is on a downward trajectory, following bad press over the last year or so. Restaurant books, however, appear to be back in favour (the excellent Palomar Cookbook, for example). I think the trend for eating less meat has longevity, and the rate of Instagram big-hitters landing book deals (the Joe Wicks phenomenon, Miguel Barclay’s One Pound Meals) shows no signs of abating.
As I’m in the business of working with words, it’s heartening to see longform food writing and specialist cookbooks elbowing their way onto the bestseller lists, too. And I can’t get enough of the stunning Persian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European cookbooks (The Saffron Tales, Sirocco, Mamushka). In terms of publishing business, I’m intrigued by the self-publishing and crowdfunding platforms Kickstarter and Unbound, where authors pitch an idea and people pledge money to fund publication. Two cooks I admire, Rowley Leigh, of the sadly closed Le Café Anglais, and Jack Monroe, have funded their projects this way and books are (hopefully) imminent.
What are the biggest misconceptions about your job?
A common misconception about freelancers that I’ve found harder to shake off than most is the idea that because we work from home, we must be sitting around in our pyjamas and getting up late. I can’t deny having once tried the pyjama route, but it wasn’t conducive to high productivity… If I don’t approach work at home as I would in an in-house office environment, it’s much harder to ‘plug in’ and be efficient. Being a freelancer can present a few challenges that you need to be swift to overcome in order to succeed, from keeping on top of your accounts to managing workflow effectively. Planning ahead can be particularly tricky when you have multiple clients and work is delayed or brought forward, or proves more complex and time-consuming than expected: you need to be prepared to be flexible (though I try not to let that stop me booking much-needed breaks!).