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.


12 Comments

  • Karin Anderson

    January 13, 2019

    Very interesting (and honest). I’m not intending to write a book, but I can image that there is much more to it than just writing a manuscript and dropping it off. I heard the same from Maria Speck (“Ancient Grains for Modern Meals”), who, also, was the first to write a cookbook (one of my favorites) about a topic that nobody before had written about before.

    Reply
  • Tia

    January 13, 2019

    Thank you for your insights, I’m sure many will find them really useful. May I share this in the next BREAD Magazine Newsletter?
    Cheers, Tia

    Reply
  • Patrice Halbach

    January 14, 2019

    Stanley, I own your books and have taken a class from you through BBGA. Obviously, i’m slightly biased. May I add to your excellent article a commendation for your ability to write clearly, grammatically, and with topic sentences which lead the reader seamlessly from paragraph to paragraph? Patrice

    Reply
    • Stanley Ginsberg

      January 14, 2019

      Thank you!

      Reply
      • Rachel Simon

        May 18, 2020

        Hi Stanley I have a quick question about your rye cookbook which I have absolutely loved up until
        One recipe. I am confused on stage 3 step of forming my sponge for the Franconia crusty boule. Throughout the book it always says mix or combine. But for stage 3 rye spine on day 2 it says to add stage 3 ingredients to stage 2 sponge. I mixed all 3 the first time, I don’t think that was correct. Next I mixed the medium rye flour with sponge, and I don’t think that was correct either. I have waisted a lot of flour, am I supposed to mix the 3 ingredients at this stage or just sit them on top of eachother until the sponge floats to top of water? Thanks in advance!

        Reply
        • Stanley Ginsberg

          May 19, 2020

          Hi Rachel. Add ALL the Stage 3 ingredients and mix, then let it stand until it bubbles up. Apologies for the confusion.

          Reply
        • George B. Goodman, M. D.

          June 5, 2020

          Dear Mr. Ginsberg:

          I have just received your book The Rye Baker from Amazon.com and can tell after paging through the first 50-100 pages that this is an exceptional text, and I mean that only in the most positive sense.

          But it also raised an immediate question: I want to make the recipe of the loaf on your cover, Westphalian Pumpernickel, detailed on pp. 336-338. I note that the chief ingredient is “coarse rye meal.” Here is where the trouble starts: Your index includes no entries for this item or anything close to it. No entry for “meal”, “rye meal” or “coarse rye meal.” To be fair, there are references to rye meal in the body of your text, but nothing specific about “coarse rye meal”, the principal ingredient specified in your recipe.

          I decided to go to the web site for your company, nybakers.com, which I must say is comprehensive and informative, and a pleasure for me to navigate through. I do see entries for rye meal, but not to allow a visitor to purchase “coarse rye meal.” I have looked elsewhere also and can’t be sure what product(s) to purchase. This is the sort of small but nagging flaw that troubles this reader. Perhaps future editions of your excellent text will eliminate problems like this. MEANWHILE– please advise where I can find and purchase the product I need to make your recipe.

          Thanks so much.

          George B. Goodman, M. D.

          Reply
          • Stanley Ginsberg

            June 23, 2020

            The coarse rye meal is listed and available on our website. If it doesn’t appear in the index (and frankly, I hadn’t looked that closely, since the publisher prepared it), then that’s clearly an error, but one that’s not likely to be remedied in the foreseeable future. Thank you for your kind words.

  • Jodene

    April 1, 2020

    Thoughts on how to sell a cookbook? Well, how about publishing an errata for mistakes? That would be so kind to those who have supported you and spent hard-earned cash on your book, ‘The Rye Baker.’

    Reply
  • George

    June 12, 2020

    6-12-2020

    Mr. Ginsberg:

    RE: Your Westphalian Pumpernickel recipe:
    I made this recipe, the cover photo recipe for your book, with much anticipation. It looked like a simple recipe with very few ingredients and simple, if (to me) unusual instructions. What I can’t be sure of is whether it came out just as it should, and that I’m disappointed with a correctly made loaf, or whether I made a mistake. Please advise:
    The cut surface of my finished loaf looks exactly like your cover photo. Your instructions said to press out all air bubbles as the dough was packed into the baking pan. This I did with wet hands and pressure from applying the sides of dough scrapers, and indeed there is no aeration to the baked bread at all—the cut surface resembles cut chocolate fudge in appearance and texture, rather than bread. I think the taste is typical of my usual experience of pumpernickel. I can’t criticize the taste but:
    1. There is little or no “crumb” as such—most broken fragments from the loaf are the size of raisins or even larger. Is this to be expected?

    2. I used a home electric bread slicing machine: About half the 18 or so slices I made from a 9 inch long loaf came through intact, but the rest broke about half-way or two-thirds into the slice. A residue of tacky (moist, not wet) tenacious bread (?or dough?) remained on the cutting blade and portions of the plastic housing of the machine. Is this to be expected?

    3. This is easily the densest loaf I have ever baked: The total weight of ingredients as listed comes to 750 gm coarse rye meal + 750 gm H20 + 350 gm coarse rye meal + 12 gm salt = 1862 gm. The final weight of the loaf I baked (after 48 hours of delay following complete cooling) was 1726 gm—a difference of only 136 gm from the weight of the pre-baking ingredients. Your instructions advise the user to apply crimped foil to the baking pan to prevent the escape of steam. Would less water in the recipe be advisable?

    4. I followed your instructions precisely. The only detail that I think might have been an error was that I ground my own “coarse rye meal” using a Mockmill 200 from rye berries, trying to get a product that resembled a photograph from either your book or a photograph at nybakers.com. It is possible I used a grind coarser than what you would recommend. Could that difference account for anything I have described here? I’m happy to try a slightly finer grind if you recommend.

    Any other suggestions would we welcome.

    Thanks so much.

    Reply
    • Stanley Ginsberg

      June 23, 2020

      I think that if you use a slightly finer grind …. say the equivalent of medium=coarse bulgur, you’ll have better results.

      Reply

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