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Out Of The Frying Pan
When Irma Rombauer finally found a publisher for her famous cookbook, her troubles began in earnest
April 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 2
Mrs. Rombauer wanted none of that. She was chatty and sociable by nature and saw no reason why her cookbook should not be the same. She wrote that cocktails should be served “preferably in the living room, and the sooner the better.” In a later edition, in a recipe for duckling Rouennaise (an haute cuisine dish of duck breast in which the poor animal is strangled just before cooking so that the meat is suffused with blood), she provided a substitute method if “duck-strangling will bring you into local disrepute.” My personal favorite is her recipe for puff paste. Mrs. Rombauer briskly stated that it had to be made “the same way porcupines make love—that is, very, very carefully.”
Mrs. Rombauer paid three thousand dollars, half her inheritance from her husband, for the printing of her book. With her wide network of friends and relations, she had no trouble getting it spread around, and soon friends of friends wanted copies too.
She dreamed of having her pride and joy published by a regular trade publisher (trade books are the sorts of books found in regular bookstores and tracked on bestseller lists), and she began sending around a manuscript of a revised version. In 1932 a cousin of hers in Indianapolis arranged a dinner for her to which D. Laurance Chambers, a vice president of Bobbs-Merrill, then a major American publisher with headquarters in Indianapolis, was also invited. He agreed to look at Mrs. Rombauer’s manuscript, but after several months he sent her a very polite rejection letter. Mrs. Rombauer persisted, and in 1935 Bobbs-Merrill took another look. It then persuaded her to do a complete revision of the manuscript, at her own expense, with no promise of future acceptance.
Laurance Chambers, now president of Bobbs-Merrill, did accept it. On December 5, 1935, undoubtedly aglow with her long-hoped-for success, Irma Rombauer traveled to Indianapolis to sign the contract. She had with her no agent or lawyer, and Chambers, who perceived himself as a member in good standing of the gentlemanly world of book publishing, proceeded to take advantage of her so shamelessly that it amounted almost to legal robbery. He threw a deliberate temper tantrum in order to intimidate her and forced her to sign a contract that assigned to Bobbs-Merrill not only the copyright of the forthcoming edition but also the copyright to her original self-published edition.
Irma Rombauer and Laurance Chambers, her publisher, never forgave each other. But her book made them both rich.
This meant, as Chambers fully understood and Mrs. Rombauer did not, that The Joy of Cooking became the property of Bobbs-Merrill, a fact that would cost the Rombauer family millions of dollars and unending grief. Chambers certainly recognized the value of what he was acquiring, as he intended to publish the book in only a few months, promote it aggressively, and have an initial printing of ten thousand copies. That was a very substantial number for a cookbook by an unknown author using a new style.
Fortunately Mrs. Rombauer’s chat-over-the-fence style was exactly what thousands of new cooks liked best about Joy , and the book was an immediate hit, selling more than six thousand copies in the first six months of publication. Then not only did it continue to sell (with reprintings of ten thousand each from 1938 to 1942), but sales increased . In 1943 Bobbs-Merrill decided on a new edition to take account of the changes being rapidly brought about by the war.
By now Mrs. Rombauer had learned her lesson. She had every line of the new contract gone over by a lawyer, which Chambers took as an affront to his integrity. So extended and acrimonious were the negotiations that the contract was not finally signed until a mere two weeks before the publication date. So bitter did the negotiations make editor and author that Chambers and Mrs. Rombauer never forgave each other.
But the book made them both rich. The first edition of The Joy of Cooking had sold 52,151 copies from 1936 through 1942. The following year alone it sold 61,428 copies. In 1946 both Joy and The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book were issued in new editions, and Joy outsold its rival by almost three to one. It never looked back. In only one year of the following thirty did Boston regain the lead, and that was only because Bobbs-Merrill had let the stock of an old edition run out while it prepared a new one.
Relations between the author and publisher never improved. Indeed they got worse and worse. In 1962, at Mrs. Rombauer’s funeral, her daughter and successor as author of the best-selling general-purpose trade cookbook of all time was told by a neighbor that she had seen a new edition in the bookstores. It was the first Marion Becker had heard of it because Bobbs-Merrill had simply stitched together several drafts she had submitted and published it without so much as a by-your-leave. The lesson here clearly is that you need three things to be a successful author: talent, originality—and a good agent.