By Jody Shee
Trained culinarians with recipe-development know-how and a gift and passion for communication might consider the career path of cookbook author. Though it is seldom a self-supporting profession, it can supplement your income and add credibility to your culinary calling.
Pros and cons
Producing a cookbook may fulfill your drive to share recipes of your heritage or expose an under-represented niche, like healthy Southern cuisine with a French emphasis.
That was the aim of Jennifer Hill Booker, culinary educator and author of two Southern cuisine-themed cookbooks, living in Lilburn, Georgia. Her first cookbook, Field Peas to Foie Gras: Southern Recipes with a French Accent, dissuaded the unhealthy image of Southern cuisine. Her second book, Dinner Déjà Vu: Southern Tonight, French Tomorrow, was to show she had more to tell and that she was not just a one-hit wonder. She uses cookbook authoring as personal PR. “It adds authenticity,” she says. “It gives me [credibility] as an author and chef.”
But it doesn’t mean she can quit her job. “It’s a lot of hard work, and you’re not going to get rich on your first cookbook, or even your third,” she says.
Gale Gand, Chicago-based pastry chef, cooking teacher and TV personality, has authored eight cookbooks. In typical fashion, publishers pay her an advance toward royalties to write the books. Once book sales exceed the advance amount, she receives regular royalties. So far only two of her books have sold well enough to earn her royalties beyond her advance, she says.
Money is not the object, but rather to make her world bigger and reach more people with her food than she could with a demo or cooking for people at a restaurant, Gand says. It’s also proof that she knows how to cook certain dishes and documents her thoughts and talents for posterity.
Necessary for success
Writing skills are paramount, but production, sales and networking prowess also help. To meet tight deadlines, good time management is important Gand says. It’s also important to be flexible, as everything takes longer than expected, and photoshoots invariably go wrong.
Attention to detail, especially recipe formatting, is important, Booker notes. “Know your formulas. If you are trying to explain how to make a quart of pickles, you have to know how to get all the ingredients to equal a quart. Cooking is chemistry,” she says.
Public speaking is also part of the job. “At some point, you need to engage with the public to sell books,” Booker says.
But none of that matters if you don’t first have an original idea and voice that will interest today’s reader, says Michael Ruhlman, author/co-author of 25 books, based in New York and Providence, Rhode Island. “Humans relate to food through story. It has to tell a story somehow. Be able to answer why this cookbook needs to happen—what it adds to an already overcrowded field of cookbooks.”
The publisher determines the author’s advance against future royalties. The negotiations begin after the publisher combs through the author’s book proposal that must first be submitted, and that nearly always through an agent the author hires to pitch the proposal.
Publishers base the advance on their estimate of how many books they think they can sell and at what price, Ruhlman says. “Advances aren’t as high as they used to be. If it’s a great idea and the author has a strong social media platform (to help sell it), the advance may be $70,000 to $100,000, though $50,000 is more common.”
Gand notes that she receives her advances in three chunks — when she signs the publishing contract, when she turns in the manuscript and on the publication date.
For the experience, if you’re in an internship or working at a restaurant, volunteer to document the recipes, Gand says. She also advises contacting the food editor of the local newspaper to present yourself as a recipe-writing resource.
To gain inside knowledge and networking contacts, volunteer to help another cookbook author test recipes and prep for photoshoots. In the process, you may get the contact information of a book agent along with the author’s recommendation.
To come up with a cookbook topic, pay attention to food trends. “Be at least with the trends or ahead of them. People are looking for that next thing they want to cook,” Booker says.
Next, decide who the audience is and begin building a fan base that will recognize your name in conjunction with the topic. After picking Southern cuisine as her topic, Booker began doing cooking demos around the greater Atlanta area, giving out samples and recipe cards. She started a weekly newsletter and began posting photos and recipes daily to social media.
“Most younger people are on Instagram, but it’s so saturated, you have to find a way to get to the top of the pile,” Booker says. Consider posting regular videos, for which YouTube is also a good platform. But be consistent. Perhaps spend a weekend preparing 20 or so videos and space the posting of them at regular intervals.
“Being an author may simply be an aside to your cooking as a chef or in R&D. It’s a wonderful way to get your voice out through the medium of food,” Booker says.
Jody Shee, a Kauai, Hawaii-based freelance writer and editor, previously was editor of a foodservice magazine. She has more than 20 years of food-writing experience and writes the blog www.sheefood.com.