Ever 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 Compete.com 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.