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Publishing a cookbook: Answers to your top questions

My first cookbook, Nourish: Whole Food Recipes featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans, was co-authored with Chef Nettie Cronish. The cookbook features 100 expertly crafted and tested recipes with tidbits of practical nutrition advice dispersed throughout.

To share some insights about book publishing, I co-presented the “Cookbooks 101” session at the Dietitians of Canada 2016 National Conference with literary agent Sally Ekus. We discussed how to properly write recipes and collect your work into a formal book proposal for publishers. 

Since the session, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to receive many questions from dietitians about the publishing process.

Here’s what dietitians are asking:  

Q. How did you get a publishing deal?

A. It was a mix of good luck, good content, and good timing! I met Nettie – a chef and published cookbook author – and we had the same vision for a book, so we decided to collaborate. Since she had already published two books with Whitecap (our publisher), she had an existing relationship with them and it was easy to submit our proposal. They were currently looking for new titles and liked our pitch, so they offered us a deal.

Q. What’s the best way to make my pitch stand out to a publisher? 

A. I posed this great question to Nick Rundall, our publisher at Whitecap. His answer: “The idea has to be original or there has to be a built in market to guarantee the financial viability.”

With thousands of cookbooks on the market, originality is a major hurdle. You need an angle that makes your proposed book different than anything else on the market – make it uniquely you.

The second part of his answer refers to pre-selling books before the manuscript is even written. For example, let’s say you work at “Clinic X” and you want to write the “Clinic X Cookbook.” If Clinic X agrees to buy and distribute 5000 copies, that guarantees the publisher will have high sales and brings you a few steps closer to a book deal.  

Q. How much time does it take to write a book? 

A. It depends on who your publisher is and how much time they give you. After our proposal to Whitecap was accepted, we were given one year to produce a manuscript.

From start to finish (submitting a proposal to having a cookbook on store shelves), the process for Nourishtook two and a half years. There were periods of heavy work (recipe testing, writing, food photography) and periods of stagnancy, such as when the book was being edited or printed, which takes many months.

But do note, I have colleagues who write for other publishers and have been asked to produce a manuscript in as little as six weeks! (They don’t recommend it – it’s very stressful!)

Q. What’s the best way to contact publishers? 

A. Ideally, you will use a literary agent (like Sally Ekus), so you won’t have to contact the publishers yourself.

Here’s how literary agents work:
  • You submit your manuscript/proposal to the literary agent.
  • If they think they can sell it to a publisher, and you are a good fit for their agency, they may offer you representation. If they don’t think they can sell it, they will politely decline.
  • The agent is only paid if a deal happens: They take a commission from the sale of your manuscript to the publisher. So, you don’t pay an agent upfront; and they won’t accept your book unless they truly believe they can sell it.

If you don’t use a literary agent, you can email your proposal to the publisher and follow-up with an email or phone call if you don’t hear back in a few weeks. Be sure to write the proposal by following these guidelines.
Q. How did you decide between e-book and print format? 

A. Whitecap explained to us that they have better sales with printed books than e-books, so the decision was simple. Nick Rundall (my publisher) says, “History shows that people really like cookbooks and tend to keep them and refer back to them forever. With e-books this just isn't the same.”

Sally Ekus agrees. She says, “If you’re writing a cookbook (i.e. lots of images and text versus just text), an e-book is likely not the way to go. Sales reports show lower sales for e-book format in the culinary genre.”

Q. How are authors compensated by publishers?

A. Publishers pay an advance to the authors for writing a manuscript. First-time authors published in Canada can expect a total payment of $2,500 - $10,000. Yes, that’s all you make, even though it may take two years to write the book. This is key: You’re writing because you’re passionate about getting your recipes or ideas out to the public, not because it pays the bills.

Every publishing house works differently in terms of when they pay authors, but here’s one example:
  • 33% of payment on signing the contract
  • 33% of payment on submitting the draft manuscript for editing
  • 33% of payment when the published book hits store shelves
So, let’s break it down. If you are paid $5000 over two years, that’s three paycheques of $1667 each, or roughly $69 a month. As I said, book writing doesn’t pay the bills!
Publishers also pay royalties to authors. Once they have recouped their costs, they give you a percentage of book sales. Since my book is new to store shelves, I have not received my royalty cheques yet. So, I asked my co-author Nettie to weigh in on this one: For her two previous books, she gets royalty cheques twice a year for a few hundred dollars each.

Q. What did you learn from the process that you wish you had known ahead of time? 

A. I would have used a literary agent, because they are great at contract negotiation and have strong relationships with editors. I also would have learned more about the publicity process that occurs after the book is printed. Publishing a book is the first hurdle. Selling copies of that book is a whole other blog topic…

Overall, writing a cookbook was a great learning experience. It made me a much better cook, which helps in my role as a nutrition educator. I can really bond with people through food. Career-wise, the book is a good marketing tool to promote my brand. Since publication, I’ve been asked to do more recipe development, speak at conferences, and partake in charity events. Ultimately, it was rewarding to see my name on a book cover on store shelves, especially since it was something I’ve always wanted to do. If you feel the same way – if your dream is to write a book – just go for it!

Editor’s Note: Cara’s blog post sure makes writing a cookbook seem like a daunting, but rewarding, task. I found this post so enlightening. I knew little about the process of publishing a book before reading it. 

Have you published a book or are you in the process of doing so? Share your insights, experiences, or more questions for Cara in the comments section below! 
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