so you want to publish a cookbook


I 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.

139 thoughts on “so you want to publish a cookbook

  1. As always, excellent advice. I’m a little creeped out that people send you food and expect you to actually eat it. Actually I’m more than creeped out. I would think that is just plain common sense. Same goes for sending a proposal address to Mr. Harper Collins. Actually, that one is just plain funny (and slightly sad).

    Regarding #8, hypothetically, if a person happens to HAVE professional skills in design – including book design – is it still advised NOT to design their proposal or chapter example in the proposal? Would it help or harm the proposal if the person did design the chapter in the manner that they envision how the book would look?

    1. great question, Irvin. honestly, unless you’re what we call a “book packager,” meaning that you really will design the whole book eventually, i’d urge you not to design the proposal because most editors and publishers want to own that part of the process, and they’re really just buying words (and in very rare cases photos). but i guess i’d love to be proven wrong and receive a “designed” book proposal that really blows me away. there are always exceptions. but what i really mean by that entry in the list is that people shouldn’t use MS Word or some other amateur program to style the proposal. it won’t make a positive difference, and it could even harm your odds.

  2. Some great advice here.I have no plans to write a cookbook but am always amused when people do not realize just how big an undertaking it is.
    I have bookmarked you recipe writing guide as I need major help in that department…

    1. right, i have more than a few authors who didn’t realize the scale of this kind of project until they were already under contract and nearing their deadline. it’s a LOT of work.

      1. Can you tell me how to find and hire an agent? I am also ready to write the final copy and the photos to the book is there a software you suggest for this?

  3. Greaf tips! Writing a cookbook is always something I’ve had in the back of my mind. Still working on the community aspect of my blog. Proving difficult.

  4. Terrific advice, Justin! And some pretty funny stories, too. I’m deciding right now whether or not to pursue writing a cookbook proposal, so your timing is great! Thanks for sharing the wisdom.

  5. Great post! I’m glad I stumbled across your blog. I’ve got a food photography blog and prefer styling & photography rather than writing/recipe developing. I’m still working on my readership and exposure but would you recommend going through the same process or something slightly different?

    1. actually i think a lot of the suggestions in this post could apply to anyone, not just food writers. social media is such a great way to expand your network beyond just a few hundred people you might known in real life.

  6. While I’m not a cookbook writer — just a writer writer — I do believe I’m going to try to food-wrapped-in-foil-ball trick for my next book proposal.

    You never know: Cookbook publishers may hate it, but I’d bet on the fact that the “other” publishers out there just might fall for it!

    Or not. 😉

  7. Excellent ideas – and I’m sure many of them translate to other areas as well. Sort of funny related story, a journalist I was acquainted with decided she was going to try her hand at blogging. She sent out press releases, spammed hundreds of people on Twitter with her “announcement”. Then she wrote two blog posts and that’s it. Two. Maybe she should’ve tried for a bit longer before sending out the press release? Ugh.

    Congrats on FP! Looking forward (as an ex-NYer) to digging through some of your other posts.

  8. Great post! I try different “experiments” in my kitchen and sometimes I write books. Maybe, in the future I’ll decide to combine them and write a Cook Book and your tips are really useful in that way. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  9. I’m not going to be publishing a cookbook anytime in the near future. However, I AM working on a memoir. Think sending food would work in that context? No?
    Congrats on Freshly Pressed. This is good publishing advice, period–for many kinds of books, I imagine.

  10. I love this post, not because I’m going to be sending out proposals anytime soon (promise!) but because it’s so interesting to get a bird’s-eye-view into how people approach you, they want something, and how some go about it. Just being yourself is a common thread in being successful in all walks of life!

  11. I love this post and the advice. Also, I’m not sure If im the only one that think this post is a little humorous.

  12. I’m working on a cookbook for picky eaters. I’ve attended some writing conferences, and started a blog to “build my platform.” However, I’m still having difficulty with how to separate my cookbook content from my blog content. Any advice on that?

    1. i’m not sure i understand your question. your cookbook would reflect the content of your blog. your eventual publisher would decide what portion of the blog content could be republished though. that varies from book to book.

  13. HA! First of all… I didn’t see this post before I just e-mailed you about the James Beard Awards (still curious to hear how it was). And I just loved this post and the thought you put into this (obviously it’s a pretty personal matter for you).

  14. Excellent and ridiculously great advice for cookbook or any other kind of book authors. I will heed your advice when I go to pitch my “Decorating with Contact Paper” book. I still haven’t decided if I am joking about that or not but your post gives me a lot to deliberate!

  15. Stumbled upon this post through Freshly Pressed — Congrats. I’m a new food blogger (my midlife reinvention), longtime writer/editor, and I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a cookbook/memoir of sorts. I’m new to this blogging/social media/author platform/publishing world, so I will save your sage advice here for future reference. Thanks for the tips!

  16. Thank you for your valuable and interesting information about publishing a cookbook…or any book. In one of your paragraphs you mentioned that one needs “an agent…and one needs to have one of the best…. even if it cost a pretty penny.” How much is the “pretty penny?” And how much is the cost to publish a book with a traditional publisher? I am not afraid of the work involved and I am not afraid that it would take a long time…I am more concerned of the cost in $ amounts that I would have to spend to publish my book. I have researched this subject for several years…and am an IACP member for the past 17 years. In conversations with some of my cookbook authors I have asked them how much the publishing cost them…… one wants come out with a $ number. It was a popular and very successful author who was a panel member on “Book Publishing” during an IACP Conference who said that to perfect her proposal with an editor cost her a mortgage.
    This book publishing business is quite interesting to me…one cannot get a price tag before one signs a contract…or ?????? For example…when you purchase a dress or a shirt …or a house, one knows the price in advance…why not in the publishing business?
    In essence I buy my own book from the publisher….yet, I am not told the price until I am deep into the process! And at the same time I am to market that book of which I get pennies back as royalties…$3 to $7 a book…if and when it is sold….What am I not understanding here?

  17. Some of those things are quite funny- but what matters most is the taste, right? I would guess that as long as you are organized with your proposal and your recipes are very tasty, publishers would “eat the idea up” so to speak.

  18. Justin–You know you could publish this: COOKBOOK WRITING FOR DUMMIES!:The Succinct Version! Really good information here, sir!

    Greg (going to look to find out who besides Amanda and Meryl won Beard Awards)

  19. Yes! Finally! You wrote the post…ever since you got the cookies, or whatever it was, wrapped in foil…I’ve been waiting. And it was funny. I think you are a humor writer at heart. Love it, Justin!

  20. Thanks for the post Justin, gave me a great direction as I adventure into the cookbook world! Also, look forward to visiting some of your “gluten-free NYC” spots when I escape LA this summer to visit the big apple!

  21. Great pointers here on what to do and what not to do if you are seriously considering writing a cook book. There are many many excellent professional and amature cooks in the world but in order to produce a worthwhile recipe book that people will want to read and will benefit from you have to give due care and attention.

  22. Really useful post, Justin. You did a great job of laying out the facts straight, but in a way that comes across as gentle guidance, not annoyance or anything negative. Quite impressive given that you deal with these situations on a regular basis.

    I’m always a little shocked by how many people don’t take #19 to heart. I think that applies to all industries across the board, and you only have one chance to make a first impression. Best not to go down as “that person I run away from at parties.”

    Number seven made me laugh out loud. I sometimes don’t recognize food people in real life because my mental image of them is as a giant cookie or something. Although, I’d still be friends with a giant cookie. 🙂

  23. Do you feel a publisher would consider a book that has already been self-published (through Kickstarter) or would that make the project less desirable? Is a book that has been previously published and sold in a small run considered damaged goods?

    1. i think the only time that would work is if the self-published work was very successful. unless you can prove really strong sales, it’s probably going to hurt your chances if you’ve self-published the book with a very small run. sorry i can’t be more optimistic about that.

      1. Thank you for the answer. The book in question has not been published in any form yet, so no damage done at this point. It’s not my book, but I am researching for the author. A lot of work has been put in to the project. It is definitely beyond the development point that a publisher would expect (or desire). As you mentioned, a publisher will likely scrap the work put in so far even though the photography and design are of a very high level. It seems a shame to have that work on the cutting room floor.
        So, would she be better off crowd-funding this book (to recoup production costs and establish a fan base) and pitching a new book to publishers?

  24. Although I don’t even want to publish a cookbook, some of these points sound applicable to publishing in general. Now I have to go before your header/banner makes me hungry.

    1. that’s a tough one. first i think you need to have some evidence that you’re skilled at proofreading, like maybe you’ve taken classes on it. then any big publisher will want references for proofreading work you’ve done for other businesses. lastly, and this is where it gets tricky, they’re going to want to know that you have experiencing proofreading food copy in particular. but in all honesty, i don’t know how people break into that line of work.

      1. Thanks for the reply! I am currently a professional freelance proofreader (mostly computer manuals and law textbooks) and I want to combine my profession with my love/knowledge/experience of food and crafts. I’ve tried sending my resume to Chronicle and other publishing houses numerous times but I think it just gets lost in the giant resume pile. I guess I should follow #10 and work on getting the name of a specific person to send it to. Thanks again for taking the time to answer.

  25. You are a wise and gentle editor. Such great advice. I thought this was going to be easy! Many twists and turns, bad offers, good advice and finally an agent. Still, who knows what will come of the enormous effort.
    It all is terribly daunting. I think many of us want to just write the book ––– but there is such an art to getting there. Thanks for pushing us in the right direction.

  26. Thank you for this post! My mother and I are working on a cookbook venture together, and we weren’t thinking of going down the agent route (although I have written a work of fiction and I’m going down the agent route for that one). I’ll get her to read your post as well. I have to admit that we weren’t even thinking of mailing people food (eek!) and I’m surprised that people have done that. Having said that, I currently have my fiction book out there looking for agents and I more than understand the nervousness and the fear of rejection.

    I’ve no idea how to ‘grow my social network’ as you put it, so if you have a post like that up your sleeve (or if you’ve already done that), I’d love to read it. I presumed (rather naively) that all you needed to do was to be intelligent, witty, and have something relevant to say, but it’s an intensely slow process and I’m not making much progress at all. Woe, etc.

    Congratulations on being freshly pressed. 🙂


  27. Fantastic post. An editor told me not to write a cookbook geared toward a particular demographic, unless that demographic NEEDS particular foods and ingredients. (My idea was a thematic, self-help type cookbook, but the anecdotes and stories were more important than the ingredients…) Any thoughts on this? (Presuming I’ve made sense… ;))

  28. I’m trying to imagine what people could have possibly done to get you to write those kinds of tips, but I’m having a hard time 😛 Maybe you should write a post of the weirdest pitches you’ve ever gotten, I’d totally read that.

  29. Hi Justin,
    This is a great list of tips! I’ve been blogging for two years now, and have been contemplating the whole cookbook thing since I’m constantly seeing updates from other bloggers who have cookbook deals. I’m glad you pointed out just how much work it would be – gives me a lot to think about. I bake and photograph food because it makes me happy and it’s something I want to get better and better at, and I’m not necessarily sure I want to turn it into something that’s so stressful that it no longer makes me happy, but at the same time, I would love to make some money doing the thing I enjoy the most…

  30. Thank you for your advice. However, my cousin does have a website published in Florence, Italy. What would stop anyone from copying it and using it themselves to right a cookbook? Sorry if this is a dumb question. As you can tell, we are new at this. Any advice would greatly be appreciated. Thanking you in advance.

  31. Hi Justin, Is there space in today’s market for an anonymous cookbook writer without a blog? I have some ethos (with both food and writing) but not necessarily anything too quantifiable. Can the material stand on its own two feet? Thanks!

  32. Great post! I am interested in publishing my cookbook, but only because it is a hobby. I have no intention of becoming the next food network star or some famous blogger. I just want to get my recipes in a book form. I have looked into self publishing, but the only cookbook self publishing companies I can find are the cheesy church spiral bound cookbooks. I am not afraid to spend some money, but I am thinking that an agent is overkill for me. Do you have any suggestions? Do you have a sample proposal? I am new to this game so I am not sure what else is necessary in the original e-mail besides my attachment of my recipes (with the notes with them), my intro page, index and a little bit about myself. Does it need to be in Word or more fancy? I do not have a website or blog. I am a full time mom of three boys and just want to get my favorite recipes for family dinners, parties, brunches, holidays… into a book. I know this sounds as if I am not hard working or am not dedicated to getting this done, but I am. I just don’t have time to make it a full time job for the next three years to get a book published. What would be the best avenue to go down? Thanks in advance!!!

  33. Justin I want to thank you for taking the time to help us out with useful tips. I myself was lucky enough to stumble on your page and was glad I read what you had to say before I start the adventure of ” trying to get my cookbook published ) lol however keep in mind I would never send food. Well I just wanted to say thank you for the tips. Wish me luck I’m off to find away to get my cookbook published…

  34. I posted a question about crowd-funding a cookbook back in May of 2012. I thought I’d come back and share my experience. We ran a campaign on Indiegogo, it was a roaring success and was fully funded after 4 days. By the end of the campaign, we hit twice the dollar amount we had intended. We were successful for a few key reasons.

    1. We had a fully designed book and we ran off a test copy through a self publishing company. People were really happy to see the product before buying.

    2. We consulted specialists at Indiegogo on the best campaign strategies. One thing they recommended was making sure all your key supporters (friends and family) make purchases right away, as soon as you launch. This gives the campaign momentum.

    3. We spent months building interest with Social Media…facebook, instagram, twitter.

    4. We promoted the book by taking part in local food events and handing out business cards.

    5. We secured a TV appearance on a morning news show’s cooking segment. That appearance was a hit and our author was invited back several times.

    6. We had a professional looking video on our Indiegogo campaign.

    Now, at the end of the day we are still talking about a very small run of books (500). We only have a few dozen left. No one is getting rich off of this book, but we are all very proud of the product and the campaign.

    Thanks to our success with the campaign, we now have an opportunity to meet with a publisher about future books.

  35. Son of a…
    You totally just bursted my happy bubble. I’ve been working on a recipe book proposal for a while now, without an agent, and I really wasn’t relying on social media to get me famous or have my book be acknowledged just cuz I have followers or not on my blog. I was hoping that my book would sell on its own cuz Vegan, gluten free and raw whole foods are trending right now and I’m on mission to make the world a healthier place. I guess if I want to be taken more seriously I need to blog for another 2 years and up my stats….lame but true.

  36. I know I’m way too late on catching up with this post but I have to say Thank you n I love it!
    N also I can only imagine what all you get in mail…lol
    Food in mail = Eeewww!

  37. a reality checker! thank you, this is just what i needed, i am cosmetic dentist by profession and an incidental home-baked cheesecake blogger. A dreamer of beauty beyond fifties, wishing to publish a book not to be famous but as a memory of my “sweet tooth” 🙂

  38. Hi, I think your points are valid, especially for those like me who thought this venture was going to be a walk in the park. Many of the points would have never crossed my mind. But right now I’m kind of trying to feel my way around with a cook book that is in the ready to print stage, photo, design all in place. The recipes are from a community in South India know for excellent food. What would you advise me at this point? The PDF version of the book will be ready in a week from now,

  39. Do you still stand behind #15 – specializing in gluten free all in one book is a no no? I would hazard a guess that anyone looking for gluten free recipes in a cookbook, does not want to sift through 200 recipes to find the few that are exclusively gf. I was under the impression that people looking for gf recipes sought out gf cookbooks?

  40. This is an AWESOME post, as well as those linked from here! Thanks so much. I would love to hear your opinion…we’ve been approached by an agent (unsolicited) to help us create a book – not a publisher. Should we be cautious? We don’t have a proposal, just a successful blog and cooking channel on Youtube. We know nothing about publishing a cookbook but I wonder if working with an agent so early in the game is wise. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge!

  41. I just stumbled upon your page. Very good advice, I will admit it burst my “I am on book 2 and I really want to get published bubble” (in a good way). I will look into an agent and pray for the best. Always a great idea to put your best food forward, thanks for the info and pointing me in the right direction!

  42. I have been on the cookbook trail for just over a year and I signed up with my agent last month. I wrote a cookbook proposal based on the great outline in the book by S.J. Sebellin-Ross (How to Write about Food: How to Become a Published Restaurant Critic, Food Journalist, Cookbook Author, and Food Blogger), and I added a few of your tips to polish it off. My agent thinks it is ready and she is planning to send it out after the holiday. Great post, thanks tons.

  43. Great tips! I have a question regarding blogging recipes. If you’d like to include a really great recipe a book proposal is it a good idea to leave it off your blog? I’d like to get back into blogging and would love to know your take on this.


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