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cookbook writing

Thoughts on How to Sell a Cookbook

Recently, someone asked me for advice on how to get their cookbook published. On rereading my response, I thought that others might find it helpful, so here goes:

Above all else, publishing is a business and, like any business, publishers are intereste3d in selling enough product to cover their expenses and generate a profit. Thing is, in publishing, as in movies and other industries, all the costs have to be paid before the first sale, which heightens risk. And, like Hollywood, most books don’t make much, if any, money for publishers, so they’re dependent on blockbusters or well-known quantities like Peter Reinhart, Ina Garten, Yotam Ottolenghi, etc.  Obvious? Of course, but also something  prospective authors tend to forget.
So with that in mind, here are my thoughts on getting yourself published by appealing to a publisher’s business/profitability concerns:

Subject matter: Propose something that no one has done before (e.g., my book The Rye Baker, which no one in the US had written about), OR a subject on which you are an undisputed and widely recognized expert OR a book that adds significant new information or novel approach to an existing topic; For me, the perfect book is one that will make it onto Costco’s book tables.

Branding: Publishers are looking for name recognition in the marketplace, so the piece about celebrity chef, TV program, blogger, etc, is accurate, but it’s also not the only way, especially if your subject matter is compelling enough. I was fortunate enough to have some street cred because of Inside the Jewish Bakery, which was published by a tiny nickel-and-dime publisher, but which won an IACP cookbook award in 2012. Since then, I’ve used The Rye Baker and my expertise in rye to teach classes, give workshops and get myself invited to present at a variety of conferences. I’ve also become active in the BBGA, to the point where I’ve just taken over the chairmanship from Jeff Yankellow — which again will only expand my name recognition.

Promotion: Publishers these days have limited promotion budgets (except for giant tell-all guaranteed blockbusters like Michelle Obama and James Comey). They want to see not only a willingness to go out and promote your book, but some idea of how you propose to do it: blog? personal appearance? web page? email? media? Remember, publishers want sales and need to know that you’re gonna reach out to your market.

Deliverability: Your book needs to be readable and entertaining, and if it’s a cookbook, the recipes need to be clear and accessible. Here’s where the proposal is critical, because it’s going to show not only whether you’re a good writer with a unique voice, but also your knowledge of your target market, competing titles, and your ability to organize and present your information. Your proposal will also give the publisher an idea of both cost (length in words, typically 50,000-70,000, number of photographs and drawings) and time frame (how much time from signing your contract you’ll need to deliver your manuscript). There are a bunch of decent proposal templates on the web; you might start with a Google search.

The Payoff: Most authors don’t make a lot of money from their books, but a well-written and engaging book that presents new information or old information packaged in a new way, can help to raise your profile and the profile of your business, and establish you as an authority on your subject matter. For me, The Rye Baker produced both PR benefits and business benefits by increasing the rye sales of my flour business (nybakers.com) and also established my bona fides as America’s rye authority, which in turn has enabled me to put together and lead rye bakery tours to Europe.

The key to all of this is to recognize that not only is your publisher a business, but that you are as well, and that every piece of what you do should be related to every other with one single goal: increase your sales and your profits.