What Julie & Julia Tells Us About Publishing and Marketing in 2010

by Kendra Bonnett on January 1, 2010

catnav-book-business-active-3Post #15 – Women’s Memoirs, Book Business – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

As we start the new year, Women’s Memoirs wraps up its Julie & Julia series. We end by asking the question, What does Julie & Julia tell us, as authors

Mastering the Art of French Cooking v. The Julie/Julia Project

Mastering the Art of French Cooking v. The Julie/Julia Project

and aspiring writers, about getting published and marketing our books in 2010? There are lessons. On the surface, Julie & Julia is a charming movie based on two women’s stories. Upon further reflection, however, I think it’s really the story of a book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, that helped two women find themselves and set their careers on track–one a cook, the other a writer (that’s an important distinction, as you’ll see). From this perspective, we can also say that the back story is a history lesson about old media versus new media.

Julia Child, The Serious Cook

When it came to getting published, Julia Child and Julie Powell had very different experiences: Julia Child spent eight years writing, rewriting, editing, testing recipes, and trying to get a publisher before Alfred A. Knopf (convinced by editor Judith Jones) published Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961. And this was after Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle had already spent several years on their original project to create a French cookbook for American cooks, before they asked Julia to collaborate.

I think it’s fair to say that Julia Child was made for this challenge. She loved food, had recently graduated from Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and, in her own words, had been looking for a meaningful career. She found it in the book project. Julia had a vision for Simone and Louisette’s original manuscript that took a loose collection of French recipes and whipped it into the definitive cookbook on French/Western cooking for the American home cook. Julia Child really did teach generations of American women to cook.

As part of the book’s marketing, Julia Child appeared on Boston’s WGBH television where she demonstrated how to cook an omelette. Her audience was captivated and clamored for more. The French Chef debuted in early 1963 and ran until 1973 then continued in rerun for decades, and now is available on DVD. Julia followed The French Chef with other cooking shows, and she was the inspiration for countless TV chefs, including The Galloping Gourmet, The Frugal Chef and Emeril Lagasse.

Knopf published the original “Mastering” (Volume 1) in 1961 and Volume 2 in 1970. While never out of print, today, almost 50 years later, the book is a bestseller, thanks to the popularity of the Julie/Julia Project blog and the film Julie & Julia. In it’s lifetime, “Mastering” has sold more than a million copies, but Julie & Julia turned it into a bestseller. In August 2009, Nielsen BookScan reported that the book had sold 22,000 copies in a week and made its debut as Number 1 on The New York Times bestseller list (in the advice and how-to category). That’s something Julia Child did not live to see.

Julie Powell, The Serious Writer

In 2002, Julie Powell was looking for a way to make her mark as a writer. She had a half-finished novel in her desk that no one was interested in publishing and was spending her days at a dead-end administrative job working for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. The one-time creative writing major at Amherst turned to blogging on August 25, 2009. Her Julie/Julia Project was a public diary, of sorts, that chronicled her experiences as she attempted to cook her way through the 524 recipes in “Mastering” in 365 days.

In fact, Julie’s blog was more than a cooking chronicle. It was the (almost) daily commentary by a young woman living in Long Island City, NY, who wrote about cooking, her husband, visiting local markets, putting up with the vagaries of commuting, watching movies and, well, living. Julie herself admits that writing the blog gave her an opportunity to develop a unique voice. It’s a voice that’s authentic, a bit raunchy and very opinionated.

Slowly her blog caught the attention of readers, foodies and journalists. But her life didn’t really begin to change until after The New York Times’ Amanda Hesser came to the apartment for dinner on August 13, 2003, and wrote about the experience in her “Dining & Wine” column. After that journalists took notice and the media avalanche began—radio, television, print. Her online popularity grew too. But even with the interview opportunities, she still had to pursue the book deal and write a book proposal that she called “the worse piece of shit book proposal ever” (September 3, 2003). She got her deal and quit her secretarial job in November.

So What Do the Experiences of Julia and Julie Mean to Memoir Writers?

I’ve taken the time to read Julia Child’s autobiography My Life In France. I’ve read a good chunk of Julie Powell’s blog posts, and I’ve read interviews and reviews. Here’s what I think is the takeaway for you:

Don’t Give Up:

Julia didn’t. She spent eight years on “Mastering.” She wrote, rewrote, edited, tested, tested, tested. She studied with chefs. She sought out recipes. She had a vision. The fact that her first publisher Houghton Mifflin didn’t appreciate what they had didn’t cause her to give up. She saw what few others could see, until “Mastering” was actually published. I recall the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer quote: “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

Stay true to your vision. Keep writing. Get yourself a good editor, if necessary. Read, read, read. Take classes; hone your skills. And if you see something others can’t, don’t assume you’re wrong.

Find Your Voice:

Julie didn’t give up either. She wanted out of her mundane job; she wanted a career as a writer…she wanted to be an author. Julie saw her project through (even though for several months she received very few comments). She built her online following, submitted her book proposal a couple weeks after the project ended. And, as we know, she got her book deal, which led to a movie. She has now published her second memoir, Cleaving, A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession. How’s it doing? The reviews are good, and she currently holds the 1,178 position among Amazon bestsellers; she’s #34 among women’s memoirs on Amazon.

But it took Julie a lot of writing to find her voice. If you read her Julie/Julia Project posts, starting from the beginning, you’ll see her voice growing stronger, more assured, more distinctive.

Here’s a little snippet from her August 27th post:

“I got yer quiche here. It’s pretty goddamned good. Sort of an odd texture — I think I didn’t let it cook quite long enough. It’s like a savory creme brulee.  Odd.  Yummy.  The green beans taste like green beans, only with butter.

Holy shit. I’m going to gain 50 pounds this year, aren’t I?

You know, I have alway considered Paul Prudhomme a martyr to the culinary arts. Can I ask any less of myself?”

Use the Media:

At the beginning of this post, I said that this was also the story of two medias. Julia’s book helped launch her television career. “Mastering” would still have been a great cookbook without The French Chef program, but television brought Julia Child into women’s homes. It was through television, I believe, that she literally taught America to cook and became the icon we love today. In the `60s, WGBH executives could afford to test out the concept of a cooking show without going into debt or ransoming their first born children. That was the new media of the time.

Today the Internet offers a similar opportunity to experiment, find one’s voice and, most importantly, find one’s audience and market. The message to writers is to stay attuned to media and use it. Both these women did. What’s changed is the need to find your readers before you get the book deal. Even with Julie Powell’s success, she hasn’t given up blogging. You’ll find her blog What Could Happen? Musings from a “Libidinous Shrew” here.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Start your blog the day your start your book. Julie is proof that it takes a good year to get recognition and build a respectable following. Your experience won’t be any different. Throughout 2010, Women’s Memoirs will be using its “Book Business” column to explore the technology, marketing strategies and tactics you can employ. We’ll be writing a lot about all this.

One bit of advice: With the advent of Julie’s success, several publishers signed bloggers to book deals. Most of the books have been publishing failures. The reason being that their books were little more than their blogs captured in print. They didn’t chart new ground. Clearly, this is not the formula for success. You want to use your blog as an extension of your work…a place to play, experiment, connect with people. You want to build the kind of interest that will have readers clamoring for your book. This is what agents and publishers are looking for today.

And one more thing: Blog authentically. Be yourself. Readers will know if you’re a fake, and that doesn’t fly on the Internet today. I’m not saying that you have to use four-letter words to succeed, but you do need to be natural and open yourself up to your audience. Marketing today is a two-way communication. So when people do start commenting on your blog, reply. Start a dialogue.

A Burning Question Answered

By now, many of you know that Julia Child was NOT Julie Powell’s biggest fan. If you’ve seen the movie, you have probably wondered if Julia actually ever read Julie’s blog. Well, I have the answer for you. According to Julia’s editor and friend Judith Jones, yes, Julia did read the blog. Julia’s opinion was quite measured: She didn’t like it. She felt that Julie was not “a serious cook,” which in her mind meant that the whole thing was more of a stunt than a serious cooking experiment.

Julie doesn’t really disagree for while she loves food and cooking, she is a writer first and foremost, and the Julie/Julia Project was her creative device. From my perspective there is some beautiful symmetry here: The Book (“Mastering”) begot a career for Julia Child and became the focal point of Julia Powell’s blog, which, in turn, begot a book and a writing career for Julie Powell.

One Bonus Question Answered

Yes, Julie and her husband Eric did smuggle butter into the Smithsonian, which she left on the shelf below Julia Child’s photograph.

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