so you want to publish a cookbook

cookbooksI had a great time at the James Beard Foundation cookbook, broadcast and journalism awards last night. No winners this year for me -- as they say, it's an honor just to be nominated out of the hundreds of cookbooks published every year. Speaking of which, you might be wondering how you can get your own cookbook published. There's no one easy answer, but I can think of a few things not to do. Some of this is meant to be humorous, and some is meant to be helpful, but sadly, every tip is based on a real life experience (or several) I've had as a cookbook editor.

  1. This first entry is the inspiration for the post. Don't send food in the mail with your cookbook proposal unless you know the editor personally (or your agent does) and you're certain the recipient is at the office and will be receptive to it. If you do send food, make sure it's not highly perishable because it could be sitting in a mailroom for a while. Don't pack soft items in a padded envelope. And don't wrap the food in a mysterious tin foil ball. Seriously, would you want to eat what's inside these packages sent from a total stranger?
  2. Don't tell me about your grandmother's (mother's, aunt's, etc.) amazing recipes and how you wrote the proposal because you want to preserve them for future generations. Everybody says this.
  3. Don't tell me you want to write a book because you have a lot of dinner parties and all your friends say how great your cooking is. Everybody else says this.
  4. At the very least, don't send out a cookbook proposal until you've read this post, especially if you're a blogger. I know authors who have already published books with major publishers who need to read that post.
  5. Don't send proposals with links to huge 50+meg files to download. And don't send 8 attachments with one email. Send just one file, not too large, not packed with massive hi-res photos on every page.
  6. Don't go the other direction and send a 1- or 2-page cookbook proposal unless you're already a superstar (in which case you're probably not reading this post). A book title and list of chapters is not a proposal.
  7. Don't leave a photo of yourself out of the proposal. I see a lot of bloggers who use logos or graphics for their avatar, but a publisher would be investing in you as a brand, and that's hard to do if you're hiding behind the scenes. Don't worry, you don't have to be a supermodel. Put your face out there.
  8. Unless you take photos like this, don't fill your proposal with photography and insist on shooting the book yourself. Shooting for print is much different than the web when everything is backlit on a computer screen, and sometimes mediocre photography can be the thing that costs you the deal, despite a great concept or wonderful recipes. On that subject, don't "design" the proposal unless you have real skills. Publishers will hire people to do that for you.
  9. Don't include photos of kids in your cookbook proposal. Or to be more specific, don't Photoshop those kids into illustrated make-believe settings, dressed like characters from popular movies, cooking each other alive. It's incredibly creepy. Yes, this has really happened (more than once).
  10. I don't care what those "get your book published" guidebooks say, do not send your proposal to a publisher without a specific person's name on it. Don't address it to the President or CEO of the company. And don't address it to "Mr. Harper Collins".
  11. In fact, don't try to navigate the world of publishing without an agent. I'm pretty consistent about this advice. If you can't find an agent out of the hundreds of them to represent you, then you're going to have an impossible time finding a book publisher. A good agent knows all the editors and how to play by the rules. A good agent is your foot in the door and worth every penny.
  12. Don't tell me about your Twitter/Facebook/Pinterest/Instagram followers unless it's really worth mentioning.  If you have just 424 Twitter followers, you need to keep working on your social networking strategy before trying to sell a book (or doing any kind of business, quite frankly) because your community is probably still just your personal network of friends.  Have you seen this funny SNL video? This is what I think of when someone sends me a proposal with a link to their Facebook fan page with almost no following.
  13. On that subject, don't tell me about your web site that you haven't launched yet or have links on your blog to sister sites or social networking platforms which are not up and running. Sure, you came up with a great idea and bought a URL for it, but that's not enough to attract a publisher. We want to see traffic, steady growth, followers, and lots of comments. We want to see the community you've built over time.
  14. Don't write a post about bacon on your blog the same week you send out a vegetarian cookbook proposal to every editor in the business. On that subject, seriously, don't try to sell a proposal that has nothing to do with your platform or reputation. I'm a big believer in specialization. If your web site about gluten-free food gets 100,000 views a month, that's much better than a general-interest food blog which gets 200,000 views a month. I could write a long post about this subject to explain it better, but just trust me for now. Also on this subject, if you claim to be an active blogger, you'd better be posting more often than twice a month.
  15. Don't specialize too much. Gluten-free, vegetarian, low-fat, and pressure cooking are great categories, but not all in one book. And I may have broken this rule myself before, but just because there is nothing published on a given subject (The Best Carrot Recipes Ever!), it doesn't mean there is a void in the cookbook category that needs to be filled. If you think there is a void, at the least you should try blogging about the subject first to test out your logic.
  16. Just because you write about Italian food, don't compare yourself in the proposal to Giada. Or just because you're crafty or love entertaining, don't claim to be the new Martha unless you have huge following of some kind. I know this is tough advice, but everybody says these kinds of things in every proposal I see. Focus on being yourself.
  17. Speaking of TV stars, don't promise you're starring in your own TV series until it's a done deal. I can't count how many people, including many of my current authors, have been approached by TV producers, shot pilots (or even a few episodes), and waited months or years, without luck, for those shows to be sold to a network. In fact, any publisher would rather wait for the show to start airing and pay you a lot more money to write a book if the show is a hit. You'll also likely have agents begging to represent you if the TV deal goes through.
  18. Don't assume your 9th place finish on Season 7 of that cable TV show means anything to a publisher. I guess it's better than nothing, but everybody who appears on those shows is trying to write a cookbook. If you're lucky enough to appear on a show like that, you'd better at least make sure you were really memorable, preferably not for being a jerk or drama queen.
  19. This is a long one -- don't be inconsiderate. You know the old joke about meeting a doctor at a cocktail party and asking him to look at that weird mole, or meeting a lawyer and asking her for some impromptu legal advice. It's a little annoying for them. Cookbook editors (or agents) at writer/blogger conferences are fair game -- of course you should try to meet them. Find a comfortable way to introduce yourself or be introduced, hand them a card (you have business cards, right?), make your elevator pitch if you can, and then read the signals. If the editor asks questions in response, then great. If they politely offer to check out your site and then excuse themselves from the conversation, respect that. If it's a social event where you're meeting, try to be a little more understanding. They might be there to have fun. Don't keep pulling them away from their friends, interrupting conversations, and going on and on about your passion for food and your whole life story unless you want to risk burning bridges. See if the editor is doing a "meet the pros" session and sign up for that, or if the editor is speaking on a panel about publishing, try to introduce yourself after it's over. Believe it or not, I speak on those kinds of panels because I want people to pitch me on book ideas. But at a random weekend meet-up among local bloggers, I might just be out to have a good time.
  20. This is a weird one, but if you do meet or get to know an editor, don't ask them to take an early look at your proposal unless you're offering them exclusivity. I imagine some agents won't agree with me about this, but when I see a not-quite-finished proposal, if I like it, I might give the writer some advice. If you take that advice and then try selling the improved proposal to another editor, well, it's really not cool.
  21. If you have great recipes but your writing isn't very strong, don't try to do it yourself. Even the pros use co-writers. A proposal full of typographical errors is going to get rejected, no matter how great the recipes might be. By the way, a good agent won't let you make these kinds of mistakes.
  22. That being said, don't send your proposal to an editor until it's the best it can be. You might not get another shot at this. Take the extra time to build your platform, hone your craft, and make the proposal something you're proud of. I'm sure there is some applicable cliche about how "winners are doers" and that kind of thing, but I like another cliche -- "patience is a virtue." Just because your best friends keep telling you how great you are on Twitter, it doesn't mean you're ready for the big leagues. Take the time to get it right. Seek feedback beyond your personal network. Push your boundaries. Attend a conference or two. Work with a mentor. Keep writing that blog (or for bigger web sites or print publications) and building your platform. Take a writing class or a photography class. Embrace social networking. Invest in yourself before you take the next big step.

when is a cookbook deal too good to be true?

cookbook pileEver since I was on a panel with my buddies Shauna and Nancy at Blogher Food 2010 about publishing cookbooks, I've been getting a lot of questions and emails about how to get a cookbook deal. Simply put, it's complicated. I could probably write ten posts about the subject, but one thing is coming up more and more often. What do you do when someone approaches you (a blogger) about writing a cookbook? Sounds pretty good, right? And yet there is no easy answer. Here is how the questions usually go:1. I was contacted by an editor at a book publisher (or e-content company) I've never heard of, and they want me to write a book. What do you think? Check a site like and look at your site stats. I know it's far from accurate when compared with your Google Analytics stats, but then look up the stats for a major blogger who you know has book deal with a big publisher like Random House or Harper Collins. If your stats look pretty low in comparison, ask yourself why this publisher is contacting you now? Do they simply believe in you, or are they possibly taking advantage of you? Publishers love bloggers because they are awesome self-promoters. Small publishers tend to have no publicity staff, and they want you to do all the work for them. (I work for a large publisher, so of course I'm ridiculously biased -- do not listen to anything I say.)2. The advance is low (or there is no advance), but I make my real income from my day job, so why should I be worried about the money? This is a tough call, and ultimately I can't tell you what's fair. But do make sure they are offering you an advance against future royalties. And then make sure you're being offered royalties on every copy sold. Don't accept work-for-hire (one-time payment) deals unless you put no value on your ideas. If the publisher makes money from your book, so should you.3. They want the manuscript in 8 weeks. Is that normal? No. I bet they're promising to publish the book in 5 or 6 months too. Will they even edit your book? Sorry everyone, but I've never met a blogger who doesn't need heavy editing. Books are different than blogs. If you've got high standards, then make sure your publisher and editor do too. Rush jobs are risky, and you're putting your reputation on the line. You should want to partner with someone who will push you to do better work.4. Since the publisher approached me directly, why do I need an agent? I could write a book about this. Yes, it seems weird to give an agent 15% of everything you make. But a good agent isn't just there to take your money. They will help you negotiate a fair (or better) deal. They will help you negotiate your next deal. They will help you when things gone wrong. A good agent is an investment.5. I heard I have to write a 50-page proposal to sell a cookbook, but this publisher says it's not required. Doesn't that sound a little too good to be true? Look at the above questions again? Are they paying you almost nothing to write a book on a crash schedule and advising you not to get a literary agent? Those all sound like red flags to me. I ask prospective authors for written proposals because I figure if they can't write me 10, 20, or even 50 pages, then how are they going to write an entire cookbook manuscript on a deadline. Keep in mind that a good literary agent will help you write a book proposal. You don't have to do this alone.6. You're being kind of negative. Isn't this deal my "foot in the door?" Yes and no. Is the publisher going to do anything to promote your book? Do they have the financial resources to get your book into stores where people will be able find it? Those cookbooks you see on display tables in the store didn't get there by accident. Someone paid for that placement. (Remember, I work for a big publisher, so I'm terribly biased and cannot be trusted.) Will they print enough copies to keep the book in stock? Do they have publicity and marketing staff to promote the book?7. I have 10,000 Twitter followers, so why does any of this matter? Because if your first book is a flop, getting a second book deal is going to be difficult. In fact there may be no second book. Other publishers have access to your sales data. It's sort of like transferring colleges. You went to a state school but you have your sights set on something better. After your first year, your GPA is just okay at the state school, and then you try to transfer. But you can't hide your grades, and they still know what you scored on the SAT in high school. The fancy university of your dreams may not think you're living up to your potential. Sure, you've got a whole list of excuses, but it's too late. You've already done the damage. Your record (or reputation) is tarnished.8. So am I supposed to give up just because the big-shot NYC publishers (and agents) won't pay me any attention? Of course not, but ask yourself if this is the right time. Be patient and invest in yourself. If you really want a book deal, make sure you have a faithfully maintained blog, growing site traffic that compares to other bloggers with book deals from prominent publishers, loyal commenters, growing Facebook fans and Twitter followers, possibly some financial sponsorship, and preferably some visibility beyond just the internet (you know, in the real world). Make sure you're saying something different, because there's an awful lot of competition out there. And keep it personal because a good publisher wants to invest in you, not a machine or a clone.9. So there is hope? What else? Make sure you're writing about something that sells books. I can't tell you all the tips and tricks, but if you want to know what people are buying, just look at the Amazon top-100 cookbook list every now and then. You probably won't find any cookbooks about Minnesota-style cooking there.  Maybe you're thinking, "There's nothing else about Minnesota cooking yet, so my book will be unique and sell like crazy!" Unfortunately, that's not how it works.  Sometimes being unique is a bad idea. And don't slice-and-dice. Just because you eat organic, vegan, gluten-free, low-carb, and nut-free, that doesn't mean there is a huge, untapped market for your cookbook on the subject. Finally keep in mind that some book categories are just too crowded. How many desserts cookbooks are published every single year? Too many.10. I mentioned I have 10,000 Twitter followers, right? Remember, there is a world beyond blogging. Get out and meet real people because even if 20% of those Twitter followers buy your book (even though they're getting your content for free on your blog), that's still not enough sales to make any book publisher happy and get you second deal. You're going to have to reach way beyond your fans on the web. Go to food conferences and events. Start small if you have to and write for even obscure, local magazines at first, just for the experience. Write for other more popular hub web sites to grow beyond your normal audience. Teach a class -- again, start small if you have to. Organize events with local foodies like a restaurant or neighborhood crawl. Enjoy yourself. And keep blogging.Sorry if this seems a bit negative. I've just been hearing this kind of story a lot lately, and I thought maybe this could help a few people. But the reality is, no single blog post is going to answer all of your questions. So my last bit of advice is just to be careful. If your gut instinct tells you something might be wrong, listen to it. Ask around. Do some research. And don't sign away your creativity without understanding what you're getting into.