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How Do I Know If I’m Getting a Good Cookbook Deal?

Lawyer Jasmine Moy breaks down what’s really happening in a cookbook contract

A question mark pasted above a messy cooking surface with an open notebook. Photo: Shutterstock

It can feel like everyone in the food world is writing cookbooks these days — big-name chefs, burgeoning Instagram influencers, bartenders with cult followings. They make it look easy, but in truth, the world of cookbooks isn’t as glamorous as it seems, and it’s more important than ever for authors to understand the process and protect themselves before and while writing one.

Eater turned to lawyer Jasmine Moy to learn more about how cookbook deals come together.

Disclaimer: The materials available in this post are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.


Q: What should I look for when signing my first cookbook deal?

A: Short answer: a good advisor, realistic budgets, and the expectation of questionable financial rewards.

Cookbook deals typically come about in two different ways: Either an agent or publisher comes knocking on the door of a buzzy chef who has achieved some notoriety, or a chef has an idea for a cookbook, puts a proposal together, and proactively shops it around. In both cases, a proposal is the first step, and authors — for our purposes, the chef (or mixologist, or baker, or butcher — basically the “talent”) will be referred to as the “author” here — will need to put one together before their project can sell.

There are several main documents that authors will have to sign as they journey through this process: the contract with a literary agency, perhaps a contract with a co-writer, one with a photographer, and lastly the agreement with a publisher if the proposal is sold. (Note: Some authors also hire a recipe tester or developer, or even an outside publicist.) While I’ve reviewed many of the two former sets of agreements, the latter two are often in the hands of the literary agents. So I’ve turned to Sarah Smith, at David Black Agency, for some assistance filling in the gaps.

To begin, it’s worth noting that it’s very difficult to get a cookbook deal without an agent. I’m not saying this to score points with Smith — hire whomever you wish! — but not a single client of mine has gotten a book deal without an agent, so the first thing authors should do once they are serious about their projects is find one.

The value of agents

For cookbooks, authors usually sign with agents based on the author’s talent and general idea, and agents are critical to the book-creating process: Agents flesh out loose ideas and give the author direction during the proposal stage, build out the project team, and are critical to the creation and completion of the project upon which the proposal is based.

Most publishers will not even accept un-agented proposals (if a publisher is trying to work with you directly, that may be a red flag — more on that below). Putting a proposal together is a lot of work, and it comes with packaging the deal with a writer and photographer, honing the vision, and targeting the right audience and demographic. That’s not easy, and it’s exactly what agencies are for. Among their benefits, agents also: 1) have their fingers on the pulse of the market and are best able to negotiate a fair advance; 2) only make money when you make money, so they are highly incentivized to maximize your numbers; 3) lend you credibility because they wouldn’t be working with you unless they genuinely believed in you, due to how much labor goes into their work before the first dollar is exchanged; and 4) tend to have long-standing relationships with publishers who will give their (i.e., your) proposals serious consideration, which is more than they’ll give to any unsolicited submission.

The cost of agents

Smith always encourages authors to do their research before signing with an agent: “Authors should feel empowered to shop around and dig into any agency’s ethos and track record and not all agencies are created equal.”

Agency fees are fairly standard at around 15 percent of the author’s share for the North American/English rights, and 20 percent for foreign rights. There are a few things a lawyer can negotiate within an agency agreement (and, similarly, that an agency can limit within a publishing agreement), including some bits around the edges and some limiting in the scope of representation and approval over expenses, but for the most part, these are standard documents.

The rest of the team: the co-author

Many chefs who don’t have experience (or time) to do the writing partner with a writer to create a proposal. The proposal is word-heavy and the writer will likely carry most of that weight, and may ask for a flat fee for it (which the author often pays out of pocket, although they can reimburse themselves if the project gets sold).

There are finer points to these co-author agreements — beyond which size font both of your names will be in on the cover — but none more important than how you’ll both split the royalties and advance. In many cases both the author and the writer are represented by agents who do the dirty work of negotiating terms, but by and large, the author — that is, the chef or other “talent” — will take the lion’s share (or at least a clear majority) of the advance and royalties. A lot of this comes down to who is actually doing all the heavy lifting as it relates to time-intensive recipe developing, testing, and editing, as well as how much clout each person has. While Smith has seen some full equal partnerships between co-authors of a cookbook, she says a 50/50 split is typically reserved for cases when the writer is particularly well known in their own right.

The rest of the team: the photographer

It’s rare for chefs to photograph their own cookbooks, so plan to outsource this as well. In most scenarios, the author also pays for the photographer out of their advance unless it’s one of those rare 50/50 split collaborations, in which case Smith says the author and writer would typically share that cost, among other expenses. She notes that in certain circumstances, whether it’s a particular publishing house or if an author has a lot of leverage when negotiating a deal, there may be room to ask for a separate photography budget apart from the advance. The separate budget may even be non-recoupable (in that the publisher won’t insist on paying itself back for that once the book is out on shelves). But Smith also notes that photographers almost never work on a percentage basis, so you’re committed to paying them a base rate for their work, which could be as high as five figures (even up to six).

Because cookbooks are so visual, the publisher will generally want the right to approve or veto the author’s choice of photographer. “This is always a compromise,” Smith says. “Some publishers have more of a decided aesthetic, and they’ll want the photography to be in line with what other books from their shop look like. Other publishers are more flexible on this.” When putting together a proposal, it can be helpful for authors to include images that convey how they imagine their books looking, but it’s also important to keep an open mind. Smith’s recommendation: “Think about what design elements are non-negotiable to you, and which ones you can be more flexible about.”

The offer and the math

So you’ve got your team, you’ve put together a beautiful proposal, and your agent has secured you an offer. Now what?

Well, evaluate that offer. How much is the advance that’s being offered to you? Advances vary wildly and are based on levels of fame and what sort of built-in audience an author has for selling their book. Some advances are six figures, and some come in below that, in the four-figure range. Advances are usually paid in installments, so authors will see that money in segments over the lifespan of creating and publishing the book. But how do you tell if an advance is enough?

Advances are usually paid in at least three installments, and up to five or six total; typically about half is paid up front, then a quarter more when the manuscript is submitted, and the rest upon publication. From the first installment, take out 15 percent for your agent and subtract the amount you’ve agreed to pay your writer. Then take 40 percent of what remains and set it aside for taxes (don’t forget the taxes!). Is the amount that’s left enough for you to hire the photographer you want AND have money left over to compensate you for your time and all the ingredients you’ll need to develop a book full of recipes? If it’s enough and then some: Congrats!

If not, Smith says it’s not impossible for an author to finish the process slightly in the red (although she adds that a good agent will help you budget and source contractors within the confines of your advance so this won’t happen). If the advance negotiated falls short, then you seriously have to consider how much you want or need this book to exist.

”Most authors, of cookbooks or otherwise, are not going to get mega-rich from publishing books,” Smith says. “This particularly applies to cookbook authors, who usually have to pay all of the expenses to get their book done out of their advance. However, there can be non-monetary reasons to publish a book. It can make a statement, contribute something to the cultural conversation, and become a calling card of sorts for the author, leading to other opportunities.”

So for some, it might be worth the investment from a brand-building and reputational standpoint. How badly should you want to work with a publisher who offers you a paltry advance? Smith advises caution in evaluating offers. “Publishers should really be prepared to put their money where their mouth is — if they say they believe in an author, they should be giving that author the resources to put together the best book they can.”

Royalties

Royalties are the author’s cut of a cookbook’s sales.

For sold cookbooks, royalties are often in the range of 8 percent to 10 percent of the cover price. The advance the publisher gave the author is an advance against future royalties, so publishers pay themselves back before authors see any money. Most authors never see royalty payments, because the books don’t sell enough for publishers to have fully recouped the advance. “If you see a royalty check one to two years from your date of publication, you’re lucky,” says Smith. And remember — even if your book does sell well enough that you start to earn royalties, those checks are cut straight to your agent, who takes their share (usually about 15 percent) and then distributes the remainder to you (or, if you’ve hired a writer who has negotiated to receive a share of your royalties, to you and your writer according to your negotiated split).

Working directly with publishers

This brings me back to the idea of working with a publisher directly. It may sound nice to cut out the middleman, but be wary of offers like this. Some publishers will jump at the chance to work with authors directly, but may offer them a lower deal than what an agent would be able to negotiate. Publishers are also generally not in the business of packaging and focusing an author’s vision for their project, so authors risk not getting the support they need. Also, unless authors hire a lawyer to review their documents, working directly with a publisher means they’ve got no one protecting their interests in the deal — which means they could end up signing away far more rights (to this work and future work) than they intended.

Copyrights

At the end of the day, authors still retain ownership of their book copyright. However, how it’s used moving forward may be limited by the publisher for the term of the copyright — the author’s lifespan plus 70 years — and the agency may continue to receive royalties from subsequent deals involving works derivative of the initial book, i.e., sequels or TV shows based on the cookbook’s premise using the cookbook’s title, regardless of whether you are still with that agency or not. Also, the publisher generally has to be offered the first option to buy the new work if it’s a book. That said, publishing agreements (if you’ve negotiated them well) may have terms which provide for the reversion of the publishing rights back to you. That means that after a certain amount of time, if sales drop below a certain threshold, you can ask that the publisher revert the rights to you, and you’re free to edit, reprint, and/or reissue with a different publisher going forward.

The upshot

This sounds like a lot, especially considering how hard the actual work of writing a cookbook is to begin with. Of course, the returns are better if you’re a strong writer with a strong following. And it doesn’t hurt to know a writer who is also a bang-up photographer (a backdoor way of getting photography for a percentage fee). It might also make sense to call in favors and try to get a proposal done on the cheap, so you don’t have to come out-of-pocket before you know if your book will sell. Cookbooks aren’t ventures anyone should head into half-heartedly and certainly not if your end goal is seeing extra (or any!) dollars in your pocket. But if you have a passion for something that you think others need to see, or an idea for a book that you just cannot shake (and are prepared for the hundreds or thousands of hours it’ll take), there are ways to make this work for you. Just make sure you’ve got people looking out for you before you put your name on that dotted line.

Jasmine Moy is a business attorney whose practice focuses on chefs, restaurateurs, and hoteliers.

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