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The murky world of culinary ghosting

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#1 Gifted Gourmet

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Posted 20 July 2006 - 04:51 AM

Financial Times of London

Many cookery writers write every single word and test every single recipe that gets published under their name. This was certainly taken for granted in the old days, when writers such as Elizabeth David and Richard Olney were not just excellent cooks but writers of exceptional talent. Others need help ... there's no law that says chefs can't be good writers... The problem is that in our celebrity-obsessed age, readers of cookbooks don't just want recipes that work. They also buy into a dubious notion of personality... A recipe is rarely a personal statement, like a poem or a painting. True originality in recipe writing is exceptionally rare. Nearly every cook relies on other people's recipes as a starting point for experimentation, and the best recipes often come from collaborative effort... 

When you buy a cookbook written by a famous chef, do you automatically assume that all of the recipes are original?

Is this an important factor in your purchase?

Does it matter that ghost writers may have "enhanced" or even altered the original recipes? or the writing for that matter?
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#2 cowpati

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Posted 20 July 2006 - 06:13 AM

Financial Times of London

Many cookery writers write every single word and test every single recipe that gets published under their name. This was certainly taken for granted in the old days, when writers such as Elizabeth David and Richard Olney were not just excellent cooks but writers of exceptional talent. Others need help ... there's no law that says chefs can't be good writers... The problem is that in our celebrity-obsessed age, readers of cookbooks don't just want recipes that work. They also buy into a dubious notion of personality... A recipe is rarely a personal statement, like a poem or a painting. True originality in recipe writing is exceptionally rare. Nearly every cook relies on other people's recipes as a starting point for experimentation, and the best recipes often come from collaborative effort... 

When you buy a cookbook written by a famous chef, do you automatically assume that all of the recipes are original?

Is this an important factor in your purchase?

Does it matter that ghost writers may have "enhanced" or even altered the original recipes? or the writing for that matter?

View Post





i have a copy of fanny flag's 'whistle stop cafe' cookbook. and it came to mind while reading your post. nearly all of the recipes are based on restaurant recipes...or so she says.

i think that today, most every recipe has come from another one somewhere in time. is there really anything new under the sun?

i have a secret recipe..one that i have never seen served anywhere else in the world. and i will hold onto it until death, ha! it is one dish i can make that no one will get anywhere else. (at least until someone else makes it.) cooking minds think alike sometimes.

#3 kendrabail

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Posted 20 July 2006 - 08:57 AM

[b][url=http://www.ft.com/cms/s/4e43dc6c-12cc-11db-aecf-0000779e2340.html]When you buy a cookbook written by a famous chef, do you automatically assume that all of the recipes are original?

Is this an important factor in your purchase?

Does it matter that ghost writers may have "enhanced" or even altered the original recipes? or the writing for that matter?

Wow, what great questions you pose, and so timely with the onslaught of celebrity chef cookbooks out this Summer (and with more coming in the Fall).

From personal experience, I just finished writing my first cookbook (no recipe testers or ghost writers involved) and after spending literally hundreds (thousands?) of hours buying the food, testing the recipes, sampling the food(great way to gain weight, writing cookbooks) retesting, editing, writing succinct headnotes and stories, taking photographs, formatting, reformatting, and then doing all of this several more times once my editor(s) made changes etc.... I honestly do not see how it is logisitically possible for certain celebrity chefs to say, run several restaurants, have multiple cooking shows, execute public appearances, and manage their own magazine while scrapping in the kitchen and in front of the computer composing with their own hands the great American cookbook. It's just not possible. Or is it?

So, to answer your question, yes, it bothers me that the alleged "author" of such a cookbook, may (or may have not--don't want to make sweeping generalizations here) done much, if any, of the writing, recipe testing (grunt work) but merely acted as a consultant or editor to their own book, while a ghost writer or "X" number of assistants or whoever did the majority of the work.

When Joe Blow walks into Barnes and Nobles, he sees a photo of said celebrity on a cookbook cover, full stage name blazing, it can be argued that he naturally assumes this celebrity created, tested, wrote, edited etc... the book. Is this a problem for anyone?

This is a major factor in my purchases. I don't own any celebrity chef cookbooks at this point (except one Paula Deen, but that's a Southern thing). Like most writers, I believe in the strength and integrity of the written word (as well as creative recipe ideas) and when that somehow gets lost amongst big names and catchy titles, it saddens me.

Moreover, as someone who used to teach college level writing, there wasn't a student in my school who would be allowed to "pass" off someone else's writing as their own without failing the class. Is there a difference here?

I would love to hear from anyone who ghost writes for a living as this is a really interesting thread.

#4 russ parsons

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Posted 20 July 2006 - 09:06 AM

i've got a slightly different take (now THAT'S different!). I would no more expect a chef to have written every recipe in his book than I would expect him to have cooked every dish in his restaurant. it's called delegation and I applaud it.

a couple of points: 1) who is the author of a recipe, the person who created teh dish, or the person who transcribed and perhaps even translated ingredients and technique onto paper? and 2) if you have ever seen recipes that chefs write, you would thank god that they have the good sense to hire ghost writers. cooking and writing are two separate and very different skills.

#5 Darcie B

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Posted 20 July 2006 - 09:16 AM

About 20 years ago I would have been appalled and dismayed if I found out that someone other than the celebrity chef author had written most of the recipes or verbiage. Now I would be surprised if the chef had done much more than collaborate with a handful of people during a few key meetings in the beginning development/outline phase of the cookbook. Does that make me jaded or a realist? :huh:

Really, I don't care who wrote the recipes as long as they work. I generally don't buy celebrity chef cookbooks (actually, have never purchased one that I can recall).
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#6 kendrabail

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Posted 20 July 2006 - 09:36 AM

Financial Times of London

Many cookery writers write every single word and test every single recipe that gets published under their name. This was certainly taken for granted in the old days, when writers such as Elizabeth David and Richard Olney were not just excellent cooks but writers of exceptional talent. Others need help ... there's no law that says chefs can't be good writers... The problem is that in our celebrity-obsessed age, readers of cookbooks don't just want recipes that work. They also buy into a dubious notion of personality... A recipe is rarely a personal statement, like a poem or a painting. True originality in recipe writing is exceptionally rare. Nearly every cook relies on other people's recipes as a starting point for experimentation, and the best recipes often come from collaborative effort... 

When you buy a cookbook written by a famous chef, do you automatically assume that all of the recipes are original?

Is this an important factor in your purchase?

Does it matter that ghost writers may have "enhanced" or even altered the original recipes? or the writing for that matter?

View Post


On many points, I agree with what everyone is saying about recipes, but what about text such as headnotes, introductions, stories, the writing part. Does it bother anyone when the actual writing is done by someone other than the "author"?

Better yet, would anyone here feel comfortable having someone else create, test and write a cookbook under your name, especially if a large six figure advance was involved?

#7 russ parsons

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Posted 20 July 2006 - 09:47 AM

On many points, I agree with what everyone is saying about recipes, but what about text such as headnotes, introductions, stories, the writing part. Does it bother anyone when the actual writing is done by someone other than the "author"?

Better yet, would anyone here feel comfortable having someone else create, test and write a cookbook under your name, especially if a large six figure advance was involved?

View Post

it depends on what you mean by "write". the way the process usually works is that the "writer" sits down with the chef, gets working copies of the recipes, talks about the dishes, then goes home and polishes them into presentable form. this can include everything from scaling the recipes down to domestic portions and testing them to make sure they work to making the chef's comments sound gramatically correct.

there's no fraud involved here: the dishes are the chefs' and all the ghost is doing is typing them up and polishing them--kind of a combination of executive secretary and copy editor. c'mon folks, these are instructions, not poetry.

the only thing i find objectionable is when ghosts aren't credited for their work.

#8 Mayhaw Man

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Posted 20 July 2006 - 09:58 AM

2) if you have ever seen recipes that chefs write, you would thank god that they have the good sense to hire ghost writers. cooking and writing are two separate and very different skills.

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I do a fair amount of "with recipe" magazine work and I can tell you that what I receive from most of the people I work with (including my so called close or even closer friends who are chefs) is basically useless other than, most of the time, I can glean the main ingredient and PERHAPS the vessel and method for cooking. Beyond that? Lots of phone calls following up and, eventually, calls from editors wondering if I just made the whole thing up.

Currently, I am working on a book with two chefs and just getting them to WRITE DOWN the recipes is turning into a battle of will. I'll win, but we'll all need a beer or two at the end of the process.

And just for the record, the process that Russ describes is pretty much exactly how it works-unless you are lucky enough to be working for a publication that happens to have a swell test kitchen and a cooperative and reasonably well humored staff. In this case, things are much easier in the long run and the recipes usually end up getting published in some sort of usable form.
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#9 kendrabail

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Posted 20 July 2006 - 10:06 AM

On many points, I agree with what everyone is saying about recipes, but what about text such as headnotes, introductions, stories, the writing part. Does it bother anyone when the actual writing is done by someone other than the "author"?

Better yet, would anyone here feel comfortable having someone else create, test and write a cookbook under your name, especially if a large six figure advance was involved?

View Post

it depends on what you mean by "write". the way the process usually works is that the "writer" sits down with the chef, gets working copies of the recipes, talks about the dishes, then goes home and polishes them into presentable form. this can include everything from scaling the recipes down to domestic portions and testing them to make sure they work to making the chef's comments sound gramatically correct.

there's no fraud involved here: the dishes are the chefs' and all the ghost is doing is typing them up and polishing them--kind of a combination of executive secretary and copy editor. c'mon folks, these are instructions, not poetry.

the only thing i find objectionable is when ghosts aren't credited for their work.

View Post


I guess I am talking less about recipes and more about the rest of the text potentially found in a cookbook (such as headnotes, stories, vignettes etc...if there are any).

I totally understand what you are saying about recipes. You are correct. They are fundamentally instructions and not a form of creative writing in the same sense that a piece of fiction or poetry is. And as someone who did both degrees in creative writing, I do underrstand when it comes to a book of fiction, concepts behind ownership etc... are very different than they are with recipe writing. I suspect it's my background in writing that brings out a little hypersensitivity on the subject.

I do understand, however, that all writers have to make a living so we all do what we have to do to get work :)

#10 Carolyn Tillie

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Posted 20 July 2006 - 10:43 AM

Very interesting question... I am currently working on a project where I am ghost-writing a cookbook for a Napa winery owner. I am spending considerable time testing recipes, offering suggestions, enhancing family "recipes" I have been given, and then turning them into the cookbook speak that we are all familiar with.

Guess what - once released, if that particular cookbook garners fame, attention, and accolades, NO ONE will ever know I was involved with it. My name will not appear anywhere in the book nor will anyone know that I have developed any of the recipes.

I know for a fact that mine is not first contract of this type to have been entered into -- I got the referral from another writer who had done exactly the same thing. The sad thing is lack of attribution. This particular winery owner is paying a premium for this kind of service (and silence). I'll never divulge the name of the winery but, if in a year or so, you stumble across a winery cookbook with a particularly memorable Bouillaibaise or Osso Buco, think of me...

#11 kendrabail

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Posted 20 July 2006 - 10:50 AM

Very interesting question... I am currently working on a project where I am ghost-writing a cookbook for a Napa winery owner. I am spending considerable time testing recipes, offering suggestions, enhancing family "recipes" I have been given, and then turning them into the cookbook speak that we are all familiar with.

Guess what - once released, if that particular cookbook garners fame, attention, and accolades, NO ONE will ever know I was involved with it. My name will not appear anywhere in the book nor will anyone know that I have developed any of the recipes.

I know for a fact that mine is not first contract of this type to have been entered into -- I got the referral from another writer who had done exactly the same thing. The sad thing is lack of attribution. This particular winery owner is paying a premium for this kind of service (and silence). I'll never divulge the name of the winery but, if in a year or so, you stumble across a winery cookbook with a particularly memorable Bouillaibaise or Osso Buco, think of me...

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I certainly will think of you! This is quite interesting. So, you are working directly with the winery versus a publisher (meaning, the contract was between you and the winery)? I wonder if this is happening more and more--meaning, ghost writers not receiving any credit, co-authorship etc... and certain entities being able to pay top dollar for this type of collaboration.

Good luck with your project!

#12 Pam R

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Posted 20 July 2006 - 11:41 AM

Where would one pick up one of these culinary ghost-writers .... if one was so inclined? :laugh:


I would never assume that a celebrity chef was doing it all on their own. But I would like to think they contribute something - the voice of the book, so to speak.

I know I've been working on a book for over a year now, and it's very slow-going. I have a real-life job too .. .and .. well.. eGullet! Writing a book.. and even more importantly, proofing and editing a book, take a lot of time. If you're busy with your media and restaurant empire, I guess you need help.

#13 Carolyn Tillie

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Posted 20 July 2006 - 12:01 PM

Very interesting question... I am currently working on a project where I am ghost-writing a cookbook for a Napa winery owner. I am spending considerable time testing recipes, offering suggestions, enhancing family "recipes" I have been given, and then turning them into the cookbook speak that we are all familiar with.

Guess what - once released, if that particular cookbook garners fame, attention, and accolades, NO ONE will ever know I was involved with it. My name will not appear anywhere in the book nor will anyone know that I have developed any of the recipes.

I know for a fact that mine is not first contract of this type to have been entered into -- I got the referral from another writer who had done exactly the same thing. The sad thing is lack of attribution. This particular winery owner is paying a premium for this kind of service (and silence). I'll never divulge the name of the winery but, if in a year or so, you stumble across a winery cookbook with a particularly memorable Bouillaibaise or Osso Buco, think of me...

View Post


I certainly will think of you! This is quite interesting. So, you are working directly with the winery versus a publisher (meaning, the contract was between you and the winery)? I wonder if this is happening more and more--meaning, ghost writers not receiving any credit, co-authorship etc... and certain entities being able to pay top dollar for this type of collaboration.

Good luck with your project!

View Post



My contract is with the winery owner. After considerable work, a publisher became involved (it was initially going to be self-published and only given to wineclub members and sold through the winery). They may or may not have to edit the book. I've got editing experience so I'd like to think the book stands pretty well on its own merit, but that will be left to be seen. Many publishers like to re-work books so that they reflect their current offerings; i.e., themes, lay-outs, production, etc.

#14 ludja

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Posted 20 July 2006 - 12:37 PM

Very interesting question... I am currently working on a project where I am ghost-writing a cookbook for a Napa winery owner. I am spending considerable time testing recipes, offering suggestions, enhancing family "recipes" I have been given, and then turning them into the cookbook speak that we are all familiar with.

Guess what - once released, if that particular cookbook garners fame, attention, and accolades, NO ONE will ever know I was involved with it. My name will not appear anywhere in the book nor will anyone know that I have developed any of the recipes.

I know for a fact that mine is not first contract of this type to have been entered into -- I got the referral from another writer who had done exactly the same thing. The sad thing is lack of attribution. This particular winery owner is paying a premium for this kind of service (and silence). I'll never divulge the name of the winery but, if in a year or so, you stumble across a winery cookbook with a particularly memorable Bouillaibaise or Osso Buco, think of me...

View Post

Congratulations, Carolynn. Sounds like an interesting project.

If part of hte contract is to be a completely "silent" ghostwriter, how does one handle using this work/experience on your resume in order to garner future projects or opportunities?
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#15 Carolyn Tillie

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Posted 20 July 2006 - 01:13 PM

Very interesting question... I am currently working on a project where I am ghost-writing a cookbook for a Napa winery owner. I am spending considerable time testing recipes, offering suggestions, enhancing family "recipes" I have been given, and then turning them into the cookbook speak that we are all familiar with.

Guess what - once released, if that particular cookbook garners fame, attention, and accolades, NO ONE will ever know I was involved with it. My name will not appear anywhere in the book nor will anyone know that I have developed any of the recipes.

I know for a fact that mine is not first contract of this type to have been entered into -- I got the referral from another writer who had done exactly the same thing. The sad thing is lack of attribution. This particular winery owner is paying a premium for this kind of service (and silence). I'll never divulge the name of the winery but, if in a year or so, you stumble across a winery cookbook with a particularly memorable Bouillaibaise or Osso Buco, think of me...

View Post

Congratulations, Carolynn. Sounds like an interesting project.

If part of hte contract is to be a completely "silent" ghostwriter, how does one handle using this work/experience on your resume in order to garner future projects or opportunities?

View Post


Well, its a small enough world that word gets around; like from the person who gave me the referral. Also, the winery owner will give me a reference so I can put it on a resume with a signed NDA (non-disclosure agreement) and future prospective clients will be able to talk to the winery owner and read some of my work.

#16 SuzySushi

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Posted 20 July 2006 - 01:40 PM

Maybe it's just me, but being in the writing biz for over 25 years, I've always assumed that all celebrity books are ghostwritten, unless the celebrity is a journalist/novelist, etc. and was known for his or her writing before becoming famous. Most magazine articles by celebrities are ghostwritten as well, even those in trade publications.

I wouldn't mind doing a bit of ghostwriting. I hear it can be quite lucrative, because celebrities often are less concerned with making money off the book or article than with the fame it produces so the contract's financial terms can be favorable to the ghostwriter.
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#17 Gifted Gourmet

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Posted 20 July 2006 - 06:08 PM

there's no fraud involved here: the dishes are the chefs' and all the ghost is doing is typing them up and polishing them--kind of a combination of executive secretary and copy editor.  c'mon folks, these are instructions, not poetry.

View Post

Thanks for this insight, russ! If one isn't in the business personally, it is difficult to see how the entire writing process actually works. You have clarified that here.

So, was the Financial Times on target with their comments in this article? Or were they possibly missing the point ?
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#18 russ parsons

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Posted 21 July 2006 - 09:20 AM

So, was the Financial Times on target with their comments in this article? Or were they possibly missing the point ?

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As is so often the case, both. and neither. i'm afraid they took what is a very murky subject (ethically, anyway) and in trying to make a succinct story, oversimplified it somewhat. i stand by my original point: the "creativity" in a recipe book is the devising of the dishes, not the quantifying of the ingredients and techniques. and i think that is the understanding that most book buyers have when they make the purchase. That said, i do think the honorable thing to do is to give credit to the "clerk" who did the quantifying and typing. But there is a wide range of ways this happens, beginning co-billing and ending with none at all. in the middle, you run into a bunch of "withs", a few "ands" and a whole lot of "with grateful thanks" in the acknowledgements.

contrary to the author's argument, i think this is about the same as most other areas of ghosting, and i hardly think any of them rise to the level of "deception." now, if the "ghosts" were creating the recipes and the "chefs" were the ones who were just typing them up, than that would be another matter.

#19 JasonZ

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Posted 21 July 2006 - 10:00 AM

Fascinating topic ...

I'm not involved in the food writing business, but part of my job in a pharmaceutical company is reading, reviewing and approving every document (abstract, poster, slide set, manuscript) for scientific and medical content and accuracy that comes out of several of our product teams ... as well as being the final corporate/ethical sign off for anything that goes onto governmental (and publicly accessible) registries dealing with our clinical studies. As a matter of course, we use medical writers to assist, but the creative work and final responsibility for the contents of the documents are with the authors ... and there is full internal recognition of the medical writers in assisting very bright scientists achieve accuracy and clarity, which may not be their best skills.

When I buy a celebrity cookbook, I assume that the recipes are theirs (even if someone else has recomputed restaurant quantities to family size quantities) and that the personal anecdotes/life stories are their as well. In some cases, the ghost writer isn't a ghost ... they're acknowledged on the jacket or on the Intro page ... in other cases, I can tell there's a ghost writer simply because the diction of the chef on TV and the writing style of the book are so clearly different (unless some chefs are also schizophrenic with a multiple personality disorder!!). I don't expect great chefs to also be great writers ... but I expect them to be ethical enough to acknowledge when the 'work product' has included a significant contribution from someone else. The front matter usually acknowledges tasters, family and friends, editors, publicists ... why not also "xx, who helped convert my thoughts, recipes, and memories, into the lucid and entertaining form you, the reader, are holding today"?
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#20 Gifted Gourmet

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Posted 21 July 2006 - 10:07 AM

Fascinating topic ...

When I buy a celebrity cookbook, I assume that the recipes are theirs (even if someone else has recomputed restaurant quantities to family size quantities) and that the personal anecdotes/life stories are their as well. In some cases, the ghost writer isn't a ghost ... they're acknowledged on the jacket or on the Intro page ... in other cases, I can tell there's a ghost writer simply because the diction of the chef on TV and the writing style of the book are so clearly different (unless some chefs are also schizophrenic with a multiple personality disorder!!). I don't expect great chefs to also be great writers ... but I expect them to be ethical enough to acknowledge when the 'work product' has included a significant contribution from someone else.

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Exactly my thinking as well .. thanks for reinforcing my beliefs on this, JasonZ!
and, yes, quite fascinating! but it is, after all, the Financial Times here ... :wink:
Melissa Goodman aka "Gifted Gourmet"


#21 Ohba

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Posted 22 July 2006 - 04:14 AM

The idea of the chefs not writing their own recipe books doesn't bother me hugely. And I think that "celebrity chef" is too much of a catch-all term, as well: to give some examples, there are chefs who are celebrities (Jamie Oliver), people with TV cooking shows who have become celebrities (Delia Smith), TV hams (Floyd), and interpreters/propagators of national cuisines for people in other countries (Madhur Jaffrey). They're quite different in what they do, and even in the nature of their celebrity, although they're all quite influential. What's contained in the recipe books is also quite important: quite a lot of these people will have thrown in a recipe for something really basic and traditional for something like tomato sauce for pasta, or vinaigrette. Now as a chef, it's pretty difficult to bring your own spin to that in black and white text, however good you might make it taste when you cook it; and you certainly can't claim to have invented it or even to be making it in a way that no one else has tried.

I can't quite see where the college course parallel applies, either. That's fine for college work to expect and indeed demand that the student has produced their own writing. (Though having edited written output from academics, I think it should be pointed out that a great many are incapable of writing work that doesn't require heavy input from an editor before it's fit for print - and we're talking simple linguistic matters here like grammar and coherence. You really don't want to know...). However, academic principles don't and needn't apply in the real world. It's quite well understood by the public that ghost writers are brought in when the "author" isn't up to scratch (autobiographies, for example), and it's not unnatural when that author is not a professional writer.

I'd rather see the celebrities knocking out cookbooks, which at least tell you how to make something for yourself, than stamping their name on cookware and sauce bottles, which to me is just the ultimate sellout.





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