If there’s one thing in life that I know I am very good at, it is procrastination. Today, instead of filing an overdue story or typing up notes from a recent trip to Irpinia, I’m turning my attention to a post that has been sitting in my drafts folder since fall 2014. Publisher’s Marketplace had announced a few months earlier that Kristina Gill and I had sold a cookbook to Clarkson Potter; Really Roman was the working title, but it would be renamed Tasting Rome. Ever since, I have gotten a steady stream of emails and calls from friends and colleagues curious about the process of writing and selling a cookbook proposal and I’m happy to share what I learned from selling Tasting Rome (I’d share wisdom on selling my next book but miraculously I didn’t have to write a proposal for UNTITLED SOUTHERN ITALY COOKBOOK, which was the only positive thing to happen for my mental health in the misery vortex that was 2016). Be sure to leave questions in the comments section if there’s something I missed! And stay tuned for a future post on how to run a successful book tour!
Get an agent
I cannot stress how important it is to have an agent. This may be the most critical business decision you make during the whole book creation process. Publishing your first cookbook might seem like a dream come true, but never lose sight of the fact that selling a book and delivering a manuscript and images are business transactions between you and the publisher. Embarking on a cookbook should be treated with the same preparation, consultation, and level headedness with which you approach starting a new business. I’m not trying to take all the warmth and fuzziness out of the equation right off the bat, but if you wish to be a professional cookbook writer and live your dream, having the best possible representation will keep you happy while doing it. Cultivating a strong, trust-based relationship with the right agent will improve a long, expensive, and arduous process–some cookbooks take years to produce–and pay professional and personal dividends.
Interview a few agents to see who is a good fit for you and who might be able to grow with you as your career develops. Tasting Rome agent Alison Fargis, perhaps the most patient human I have ever encountered, runs Stonesong, which has sold successful books like The Love & Lemons Cookbook, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, and various Forrest Feast and Baked titles. David Black, Inkwell, and ICM (my current representation) are other agencies with strong portfolios of food and beverage writers.
When it comes to the proposal stage, the agent can judge whether your idea has legs or not and can offer invaluable advice on crafting a strong proposal. You can hire an agent whether you have a book idea or not. Not all books are the product of proposals, but many result from an agency and publisher connecting a writer to a specific project. The most entrepreneurial houses are always on the lookout for authors to write titles they have in mind.
The standard rate for agency representation is 15%, which is worth every penny and covers the cost of their work on all aspects of the book’s sale. Agents receive bids for the book, manage auctions (see below), negotiate the terms of the agreement between the author and the publisher, provide advice, and generally shepherd you though the long publication process. Unless you have an insane amount of experience with literary contract negotiations, an agent is indispensable here. The publisher’s agreement will have dozens of elements that can be tweaked to your benefit, from motion picture rights to the number of complimentary copies of your book you receive upon publication. And if you do a deal with the same publishing house for your next book, the agent can improve on the established terms of the previous contract, which is great for you!
Perfect the proposal
Every agent will have his or her own ideal structure for proposals. While working on the Really Roman proposal, I consulted those of friends who had recently sold cookbooks and found that there wasn’t a universal formula. Generally, proposals included text under the bolded headings below; proposals ranged from 20 to 50 pages.
Summary: Explain what the book is about and approximately how many recipes will appear.
Explain why are you the person to write it: Spell out your achievements, unique position, and authority. If there are existing reviews by readers or tastemakers or colleagues that can be offered as supporting evidence of expertise or credibility, use them! If someone influential is willing to write a brief blurb for the proposal (or if you can pull from an existing endorsement), do it! The ideal proposal quote would highlight your expertise, how well the person knows you or your work, and something like: “This book will be the definitive book on Roman cuisine in the 21st century!”
Analyze the competition: Define how the book will fill a gap in the market. Reference books that inspired the idea (this gives publishing houses an idea of what your vision is). Similar titles that have been published within 10 years are considered competition, so this bit may be quite long if your aim is a popular topic. The essential thing is to define how your book is different.
Promotion and Publicity: This may be the most important bit. Outline the extent of your platform and your media contacts. Will you have a publicist to promote the book and can you call on influencers to support the book with blurbs and other endorsements? How do you plan to raise your profile while the book is being researched and written? Will you do a book tour (bear in mind, unless you’re a celebrity these are largely self-funded, something to take into consideration when accepting an advance).
Bio: Summarize your personal history and professional experience.
Sample text: Include an annotated Table of Contents with chapter names and descriptions, as well as sample features if applicable, and around 10 recipes. Consult your agent about whether sample photography or illustration makes sense for your particular proposal.
Design: Our proposal featured a cover with light design–nothing major–but that’s not necessary and may even turn a publisher off. Consult your agent to see what works best for your proposal.
After the first proposal draft, your agent will suggest changes. You may go back and forth with the agent a few times before it’s ready for sale. We worked on the Really Roman proposal for 2 or 3 months before it was ready for submission.
Shopping the proposal
Once you have a polished proposal, your agent will put together a submission list of publisher with whom to share the proposal. If there are specific editors you know personally or those you would like on the list, be sure to share before the ball is rolling on this step. Depending on the topic, the agent may cast a wide net. The Really Roman proposal was shared with a total of 17 editors/publishing houses.
Connecting with editors
Interested editors will reach out to the agent to set up meetings. In person meetings were out of the question since we were in Rome, so we had conference calls with Alison and editors. The request for a phone call is a sign of interest, but doesn’t necessarily mean equate to an offer. Editors want to get an idea of how you handle questions, how much you know about the proposal topic, and how personable you are. They may be lukewarm or enthusiastic about the book. This is an opportunity to win over the editor and make them as excited about the book as you are. It’s also an opportunity to get a feel for the person you may end up working with. Be prepared for hard questions and have questions of your own! Solicit their thoughts on how they see the book.
Be prepared to answer questions on the look and feel of the final product: jacketed or unjacketed, trim size, and paper. It’s important to be flexible on these points, as each of those factors has a cost to the publisher and the kinds of design elements they are willing to invest in ranges wildly from one house to another.
Editors get a lot of proposals and may not have read every word, so be ready to deliver an appealing elevator pitch for the book and don’t skip over something that you assume they have read in the proposal. Reiterate your unique idea, your connections, and your strengths. It doesn’t hurt to practice! And be prepared to have multiple people on the other end of the line. Most of our calls were just with the editor, but one agency had marketing and PR reps in the room, too.
After the calls, the agent will select a closing date when publishing houses interested in the book will decide whether or not they will formally bid on it. This is a super scary time. Of the 17 houses, several dropped out citing some discouraging reasoning: sales of Italy titles had been soft; concerns a Roman cookbook wouldn’t stand out; their catalog has too many Italy books already; doubtful the book will break out in a big way. OUCH! In the end, 7 publishers wanted the book, so we had an auction!
Approaching the auction
An auction occurs when more than one publisher makes an offer on a book. Sometimes (but not in our case) a publisher will make a pre-emptive offer to stop the auction and claim the book for itself. Alison selected and shared the closing date (June 3, 2014 — I can hardly believe it was so long ago!) and shared the rules and terms of the auction. At this time, some editors may drop out. I think we lost 1 at the time, but there were still numerous interested parties, so we had a round-robin auction. If only 2 houses had expressed interest, we would have gone to a 2-round best bid situation.
On June 3, 6 publishers bid on the book. In the second and subsequent rounds, the lowest bidder was the first person contacted by phone. Alison let the editor know the bid information of the highest bidder from the previous round and waited for this person’s response before contacting the next lowest bidder.
Weighing the offers
There were lots of offers to choose from, each of which included key info: the advance, payout, royalties, e-book royalties, and a non-binding description of the physical package of the book. Most houses will make an offer on World rights, which alleviates the author and agent from selling the book into foreign markets. Some publisher like Rizzoli have sister companies in Europe, while others (like Potter) sell to un-affiliated houses abroad. The income for foreign rights–80% of the sub rights income on UK sales and 75% on foreign translation sub rights–go towards earning out your advance.
We went into 4 rounds of bidding, with offers both increasing in payout as well as improved terms, but ultimately it came down to which publisher was the best fit and which editor had the most enthusiasm for the book.
Generally, the choice comes down to the advance offered and the payout (ie when the installments of the advance are paid and in what percentages. The advance that you accept will likely have to cover all the research and travel expenses associated with writing the book, food expenses for recipe development, photography (including travel for the photographer, studio time, props, and food styling), PR (even though Potter has very pro-active publicity and marketing departments, I hired my own representation and took lots of time off to promote the book through interviews, lectures, and events…I look forward to sharing what I learned in a future book tour post).
You’re probably not going to get rich writing cookbooks, so you’re going to need to weigh the offers against the cost of producing the book. But frankly, this part isn’t purely about the money. Ideally you should be satisfied with the advance but also eager to work with the editor and publisher, to whom you will be bound for a long time. In the case of Really Roman, the timeline from sale to publication was 21 months but it flew by thanks to editor Amanda Englander who was as dedicated to making a great book as I was. Strong professional relationships have their own immeasurable value and working with her again on my next book is priceless.