I’ve been doing this for 18 years and it’s the first time I’ve actually made money

Jun 06, 2023
Golden age Hollywood film expert drinking cocktail from a shoe

Jenny Hammerton began collecting vintage movie star recipe pamphlets soon after graduating with her Masters degree in Film Archiving. But it wasn’t until 2006, when living alone on a houseboat, that she took up cooking and turned to the celebrity recipes she’d amassed. Bette Davis’s Boston baked beans were so good that she kept at it and has specialised in ‘Silver Screen Suppers’ ever since.

And it’s because Jenny’s niche is so clearly defined and quirky that self-publishing has worked brilliantly for her. Murder She Cooked, her latest book, based on the hit tv detective series Murder She Wrote, received a flurry of attention when actress Angela Lansbury died last year, becoming an Amazon bestseller.

Here she talks to Jenni Muir about juggling writing with her day job, her adventures in self-publishing and experimenting with Substack.

 

Murder She Cooked wasn’t your first brush with crime drama. Tell us how your previous book, Cooking With Columbo, came about, because prior to that you were very much focused on stars of Hollywood’s golden age.

I had a dvd player in the kitchen, started watching Columbo, and soon realised that I had a recipe for almost every guest star villain in it – Patrick McGoohan and Robert Culp were the only two I didn’t have! I also had quite a few for Peter Falk, who obviously knew how to cook and I think quite enjoyed it. So for all 69 episodes, I either had a recipe from Peter Falk or one of the guest stars, and that’s when I realised I should do a combination of episode guide and recipe book.

People like episode guides because they help them extend their knowledge and enjoyment of the show. Another advantage of it is that my books are in Amazon’s Television Guides & Reviews category, so I’m quite often in the Top 5 and selling to people who wouldn’t necessarily buy cookbooks.

And you’re sticking with detectives for your next one…

Food is used a lot in crime fiction because it tells you so much about the characters. There are books like Murder on The Menu, as well as cop shows with recipes attached to them.

Cooking the Detectives will probably take a couple of years to put together. I’m getting better and more organized, being very meticulous with the research and writing. I watch the tv shows and choose one episode to focus on. Then I select the main actress or actor’s recipe and test it to see if it’s something you’d actually cook; I want them all to be doable and tasty – they’re only occasionally put in for novelty value. So, for example, Ricardo Montalbán’s calves’ brain soup was featured in the Cooking with Columbo book because he played a bullfighter, so it seemed appropriate. But I did make it clear that I hadn’t been brave enough to try it myself!

Crowd testing has become a key feature of your books and their marketing. Tell us how that works.

I tested all the dishes for the Columbo book myself but Murder She Cooked had so many more recipes, 130-ish – it was going to be a lot of test cooking for me to do alone and it would be years before I’d get it finished and published.

So, I tried crowd testing and found it works on a lot of levels, not just saving me time and effort. Some of the celebrity recipes really don’t work and when that happens I’m apologetic and stop at that point rather than putting the recipe in the book. Writing recipes is not easy, not everyone knows how to do it, and most movie stars definitely don’t know how to do it!  

If you’re not a food writer, it’s thrilling to be included in a cookbook and that’s a sale for me, because the testers are mentioned and quoted and the effort they put in is acknowledged. It’s lovely. Those people then become connections and get excited when the book comes out, and they come to the watch parties and online cookalongs.

One of my favourite things now is when people write to me and say: ‘My husband loved it and the dog loved it and here’s a photo of us eating it.’ During lockdown, it kept me alive receiving comments from people in faraway places like Berlin, saying it took them five days to find a green pepper but they did it and they made the dish.

Self-publishing isn’t right for everybody but it has worked brilliantly for you. Tell us how you came to it.

With my first book, Cooking with Joan Crawford, I dabbled a little looking for a publisher but I knew my stuff was too niche and no big publisher would want to produce a book of thirty Joan Crawford recipes.

Around that time I also found a book called Self-Printed by Catherine Ryan Howard, which said that if you were bashing your head against a wall and thinking you’d never get published, forget it and just do it yourself.

It’s different for me because I’m very, very niche – a niche within a niche – but I love my little niche and other people seem to, too. If you spoke to me this time last year, I’d be in a very different place, but selling so many books in the past twelve months has made me really happy.

Catherine advised setting a little sales goal, so for the Columbo book I gave myself a goal of selling 100 copies and to date I’ve sold over 6000 on Amazon.

I love the fact that I don’t have to do anything – no boxes of books, no trips to the post office. You set how much you want to make per book – on Columbo I’m making around £4 a copy and on Murder She Cooked £5–6 a copy. The back end is fab. They make everything easy. I can tell you how many I’ve sold today right now...

You’re doing all this around your day job. How do you fit it all in?

I write before work, so from 6am till 9 or 9:30am. I get up, make coffee and write in bed, then I put on a jumper for my 10am work meeting so I don’t look as though I’m wearing pyjamas!

I try to do focussed writing in the morning and cook the recipes in the evening. Today I watched an episode of Charlie’s Angels where Farah Fawcett goes undercover as a rollergirl. I have the episode on my laptop or mini-DVD and take notes on my Freewrite, which is only a word processor so no distractions! I write up the recipe, and the experience of cooking the dish, and write about the series in general.

It's typed in a Word doc which I then load into one of the standard designs in Amazon’s system and Bob’s your uncle. It’s a very efficient and cost-effective way of getting your work out there. I paid a photographer and a cover designer at mate’s rates – then the only cost was 5-6 quid for a proof copy.

And now you’re writing on Substack too…

I think Substack is better than Medium and a lot of important writers are moving there, including Margaret Atwood. It’s an interesting model for writers.

At first I started a free Substack because I saw it as a promotional tool that would help get people interested in Murder She Cooked. It’s a lovely community thing to do. Only people who subscribe to your Substack can join the chat so it’s like a private party for your readers. People post photos of their cats watching Jessica Fletcher at work solving crimes and the things they have cooked from the book.

For Christmas I threw a Murder She Wrote watch party as a way to thank people for subscribing to my newsletter. Christmas jumpers and snacks were encouraged, we played Cabot Cove bingo. I sent out instructions that you had to have the episode lined up via dvd or streaming, that if you knew who pulled the trigger you weren’t allowed to say, and that you had to be nice in the chat – but I didn’t really have to because I’ve never met a Murder She Wrote fan who’s not nice.

I’ve recently started another Substack called Dinner and a Movie. I propose a classic movie each month and share recipes from the kitchens of the stars of that film to prepare alongside. I film movie-star cocktails and canapés demonstration videos, and I am having lots of fun with them. I think Substack is great for finding your tribe. I feel as though I’ve got my own little cinema club for filmies and foodies there. It makes me so happy when folk tell me they've loved the movie I’ve chosen and send me photographs of their Bette Davis canapés!

You encourage people to subscribe not by offering more things to read but by curating lots of different events, making the subscription experiential.

I set them both up as though they’re a club. As Farrah Storr said in her talk to the Guild of Food Writers: on Substack, people are paying for Premium You. The watch parties are a big thing because people love getting together with like-minded people to chat in a private room. It’s not like being on Twitter – they know no one’s going to come and gate crash it.

People also love the cookalongs, which take a bit of organising but are really fun to do. And they like competitions. I ran a Vincent Price cucumber crocodile competition where people sent me photos of the crocodiles they’d made from his cooking show dvd and the winner received a Vincent Price knitted finger puppet that I’d commissioned. It was hilarious – we had entries from all over the world – New Orleans, Sri Lanka, the Okanagan swamps of Canada…

So I’m planning more of that sort of stuff – we’ll do one on Angela Lansbury’s exercise video, and for my new revised Joan Crawford book I’ll have a virtual reality cocktail party with Joan Crawford’s salami sandwiches and her peanut butter and bacon canapés. People need more fun in their lives.

Follow Jenny on Instagram @silverscreensuppers and Twitter @silverscreensup

📸 Nicolas Laborie

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