Publishing Lessons from Julia Child’s My Life in France

by Amanda Polick
published in Community

You can’t mention Julia Child without thinking about Mastering the Art of French Cooking. If you’ve seen the film Julie & Julia based on Julie Powell’s memoir, you’ve already seen much of Julia’s story from her autobiography with Alex Prud’homme My Life in France.

The surprising part for some admirers may have been that Julia Child’s masterpiece wasn’t entirely her own doing. Two French writers and chefs she met while living in Paris brought Julia Child on to help them complete their masterpiece.

At the advice of a good friend and American author, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle were told to: Get an American who is crazy about French cooking to collaborate with; somebody who both knows French food and can still see and explain things with an American viewpoint in mind.

Enter Julia Child.

After Julia Child signed on, it was nine years before Mastering the Art of French Cooking would hit stores. While the trio knew the entire process would be a major commitment, most writers think it’ll be a few years, tops. Tell them it would take almost a decade like it did Beck, Bertholle and Child, and they’d throw in the towel. However, a few publishing lessons from their journey may help reframe your own and give you the inspiration to push ahead.

It’s Not Personal, It’s Business

Beck’s and Bertholle’s cookbook was 600 pages when they invited Child to be their partner, and they were swimming in overwhelm. A freelance editor had been working with the two for a few years with the goal of releasing a series of recipe pamphlets to build excitement about their full collection. He published a small version of the project without their permission and quickly disappeared — along with their publisher.

With no signed contract, the duo was left to complete “The Book”, as they called it, on their own. Which is why they needed Child more than ever. 

Through an unlikely series of events stemming from a Harper’s column and a set of knives, Child sent their chapter on sauces to Avis De Voto, the wife of a Houghton Mifflin published author. When Beck and Bertholle’s original publisher came back, Child was firm that they owed him nothing and should move on without him.

Houghton Mifflin bought the cookbook, but ultimately decided it was too long to publish in the end. Child and company had previously agreed to condense their work, but the completed work was a staggering 750 pages. However, their champion Mrs. De Voto believed she could have luck sending the manuscript to another publishing house, Knopf. 

Besides that, Houghton Mifflin broke down the cost, and it didn’t make sense on paper. They believed what the three women had accomplished was extraordinary, but they couldn’t justify getting behind such a large project at the moment. 

As much as the publishers had to do what was best for them, Beck, Bertholle and Child also had to keep their interests in mind. They were open to new opportunities and finding the best possible home for “The Book”, which led to their success.

Publishing is All in the Timing

Not everyone is going to like your work, and even if they do, it might not be the right for them at the time. It was 6 years between the time the book was sold to Houghlin Mifflin and when they decided to end the agreement. At the time, Houghlin Mifflin cookbooks were kitschy themed ones, rather than “serious” books for home cooks.

It brought up some valid questions for Child:

  • Was it too late for a book of their caliber?
  • With simpler cookbooks on the market, would home cooks want to master intricate details?
  • Did Americans even care about French cooking?

Some books are breakout hits because they enter the market at the right moment. While others may be brilliant, but not what the public or publishing houses are looking for.

However, at Knopf, they didn’t have any cookbooks slated for release. The manuscript landed on the desk of editor Judith Jones, who brought The Diary of Anne Frank back to life from the slush pile. Jones made a few of “The Book’s” recipes and was hooked. She also had lived in Paris after World War II, so she shared the group’s passion for the project. Another editor who was behind The Joy of Cooking hopped on board too. Finally, the pieces were fitting together.

Timing is a tricky beast. It’s hard to remember when you’re not getting the answers or movement on your project. Knowing what’s happened for other authors though can give you some hope as you’re figuring out the timing.

Be Your Own Publicist

When you imagine your work on bookstore shelves, your dream probably also includes a press tour. You can’t wait to get on your favorite podcasts or local networks to gab about your book and why folks should pick it up. The hosts will find you charming, and the listeners will love it and you. So, let’s get on with it already!

What you probably aren’t imagining is that you should be prepared to make all the above happen — on your own. Depending on the project and contract, publishers may be able to put a solid publicity plan in place for you. However, publishers also want to know that you plan on helping with the marketing for your book. 

In fact, when Mastering the Art of French Cooking was released, Knopf ran some ads, but the rest of the publicity fell to Child and Beck (Bertholle had taken a smaller role by that point). They were clueless as to how to create a promotional tour. So, they bootstrapped their efforts for multi-city pop-up cooking classes and signings with help from friends in said cities. The power of a good network!

Within a month of the book’s release, a second printing was ordered. Yes, timing plays a role in every release, but you also don’t know who could see or share your work. 

This is why an author platform is a key to getting your book sold. As much as you love the craft of your work, book writing is a business. Learn to love promoting your work. Know how to talk about it and pitch it. The worst thing that could happen is someone tells you ‘no’.

Publishing is ever-evolving and can seem hard to pin down. It requires specific amounts of passion and detachment, which become elusive in a long process. Knowing expectations and having a positive mindset can be the difference between success and “failure”.

As Julia Child said best: “…all I know is this—nothing you ever learn is really wasted, and will some time be used.”


Amanda Polick

Amanda Polick is a writer and book coach for food and entertainment professionals based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has been featured by Cooking Light, Food & Wine and Time, and she’s currently working on her first novel. To connect with Amanda or to get weekly writing and life inspiration, you can find her at http://amandapolick.com

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