While the aim of cookbooks may be to elucidate the process of cooking, how exactly those books get made in the first place can appear opaque to anyone who hasn’t spent some time navigating the world of literary agents, publishers, and royalties. Does anyone read unsolicited manuscripts? What makes for a cookbook idea that publishers want to bid on, and that readers want to clear their shelves for? Is all the time and effort even worth the advance?
Eater turned to cookbook authors Priya Krishna (Ultimate Dining Food Hacks, Indian-ish), Molly Yeh (Molly on the Range, Yogurt (Short Stack)), and Von Diaz (Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South) to find out how they got their first cookbook deals (spoiler: There is no one right way). The following answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
How did you get your first cookbook deal, for Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks?
Looking back, I can’t believe I did what I did: I was a senior in college, and after working for my school’s dining hall and visiting dining halls across the country, I had a trove of dining hall hacks. So I literally googled “how to write a book proposal” and found a template, which I spent my winter break filling out. Then I googled a list of cookbook publishers. I printed my proposal, and my dad and I went to the post office together and mailed off 50 copies unsolicited. For the publishers that had email addresses, I later followed up with a PDF of the proposal.
Around March, the rejection letters started coming in. But right after I graduated, Workman Publishing got in touch, telling me: “We really like this idea. We think it could be a great idea for a cookbook.” It’s funny — you know in Legally Blonde, where Elle is just like, “Well, I’m going to Harvard, it’s not even a question”? In my mind, I thought, “Well, this book is getting published. I sent it to 50 publishing companies. I can’t have all of them say no. One of them has got to say yes.” So when this publishing company contacted me, I was like, “Yes, of course, all I need is just this one.” I got really lucky.
Was your experience with your second book, Indian-ish, much different?
Yeah, it was like night and day. I had an agent, for one. I wrote the proposal — to be honest, I used a really similar template to my Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks proposal; it wasn’t a bad proposal! — and then my agent went out with it. We had a bunch of meetings with publishing companies, and then there was an auction, where people bid on my book. I ended up going with the highest bidder, which also happened to be the publishing company I was most interested in.
Can you share a ballpark of how much you were offered for each of your books?
My first book deal, for Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks, was $6,000. My second cookbook deal, for Indian-ish, was $100,000.
For most deals, you get an advance and you’re expected to use that to pay for photography, illustration, all of that. But what was interesting about my Indian-ish deal, which was smart of my agent to structure that way, is that we had a separate budget that was exclusively devoted to photography and illustration. I didn’t have to pay for any of that out of my own pocket, and I was recipe testing in my parents’ kitchen, so I was able to keep expenses pretty low.
What is the key to generating buzz about a new cookbook, besides, obviously, just having a really quality book?
A Rolodex of contacts. A lot of the places that covered my books were places that I had already freelanced for, where I knew the editor and I had a relationship with them. A PR person can send books and follow up until they’re blue in the face, but unless the publication feels a personal connection to the author, it’s tough. Either a publication’s staff knows and really likes the author, or they just think it’s a really extraordinary book worth calling out. I think it’s more often the former than the latter. It sucks, but it’s the reality of cookbook publishing.
I was talking to my friend, who writes keto books, and she was like, “Why am I not getting any press in Bon Appetit?” I said, “Honestly, your books are going to sell circles around my book, because they’re keto books sold at Costco.” Press is helpful, but the week my book came out, I think the top three books on the list before mine were all keto diet books. I didn’t want my book to be just a book that food media cared about, I wanted it to be a book that the general public cared about. It’s great to be on the Food & Wine cookbook list, Eater, Bon Appetit, but I wanted my book to be sold in Costco. That was just as important to me. My dad saw my book in Costco, and that was far more important to him than my book being in the New York Times’s spring cookbooks list. He was so excited.
Molly on the Range (2016), Yogurt (Short Stack) (2018)
How did you get your first cookbook deal, for Molly on the Range?
I had been blogging for a few years when Jonah Straus, my now-literary agent, reached out to see if I’d consider writing a cookbook. At the time, I didn’t feel ready; I was still getting adjusted to life in the upper Midwest, and I was still finding my recipe voice. But I loved the idea of making a physical book and telling stories that better fit that format than a blog format. So I took the next few months and worked really hard on my recipe style, my photos, and my voice, and after that time I felt like I could start taking the idea of a book more seriously.
I called Jonah back up again and also talked to a few other agents to find the best fit. Ultimately, I chose Jonah because we were on the same page about what we saw for this book. I took a good, long time to write my proposal — a few months — and then we met with publishers in New York and had phone calls with publishers in San Francisco. There were a lot of publishers that I loved, so the book went to auction. An auction is where you sit nervously by your phone and eat potato chips for two days waiting for your agent to text you numbers of the highest bid for each round. I ultimately went with Dervla Kelly at Rodale Books. She had recently made a handful of books that I loved and used as inspiration for Molly on the Range.
Can you reveal a ballpark or range of how much money you were offered for the book?
The official title for the range is called a “significant deal.” [Ed. note: Publishers Marketplace defines a “significant deal” as $251,000 to $499,000.]
Where do you think a food writer or recipe developer or someone in this field has to be in their career to get a cookbook deal?
They should be at a place where they have something to tell us. A story, a new skill to teach, a unique perspective on a cuisine, a cool new aesthetic to share, etc. And they should know enough about it and be confident enough in their authority to make it truly worth it for the reader. Writing a blog that is free to read on the internet is one thing, but taking up physical space in the world with a product that costs money ups the ante, so the quality has to be at a high enough level for that.
What’s the biggest thing you learned from your first cookbook deal, whether from negotiating the deal itself, writing the thing, or seeing it through to publication and promotion?
That the world wasn’t ready for za’atar scratch ’n’ sniff in 2016. And that pop-up books are expensive. But hawaij temporary tattoos are totally a good move for promotion. Also, not to try to do everything myself. Having an agent who had been through the process a million times and who could walk me through the process freed up a lot of mental space for me to just focus on the creative. I also worked with recipe testers, photographers, and assistants who were invaluable in creating a book that I’m truly proud of.
How did you get your first cookbook deal, for Coconuts and Collards?
I moved to New York to go to journalism school at NYU. When I graduated, I was living in East Harlem — which is still a heavily Puerto Rican neighborhood — surrounded by the sights, smells, and sounds of my people and my childhood. I started a project where I would cook my way through my grandmother’s classic Puerto Rican cookbook Cocina Criolla. I found a publishing platform for the project and wrote personal essays that would include a recipe. I produced a few YouTube videos and a radio story for NPR’s Latino USA. I was exploring the territory and trying to find my voice as a writer, all while freelancing my ass off.
In 2013, Kathy Gunst, a prolific cookbook author and now a beloved colleague of mine, who had a Newsweek column at the time, asked, “Would you be open to me doing an article about this project that you’re doing?” So I made a meal for her, she wrote this lovely story, and the very next day, my now-former agent called me on the phone and asked me if I wanted to write a cookbook.
How did you then go from the seed of an idea to a published book?
I took a couple of months to work on the proposal and came up with this idea to write a culinary memoir with recipes that reflected my having grown up in Atlanta and Puerto Rico. My agent really liked the proposal and began to shop it. The first round of trying to sell my cookbook went very badly. There were some concerns surrounding my abysmal social media presence at the time; I had like 600 Twitter followers. That took the wind out of my sails.
I took the next year to revise the hell out of the proposal, continue to write articles, continue to cook. I started to connect more deeply with people in the food world and make connections. My agent started to shop my revised proposal, and publishers were still hesitant. At the end of the day, it’s not about if it’s a good project, but: Can the author really sell it? And then I had some interest from the University Press of Florida. There was an editor there who just really got what I was trying to do. She saw something in me.
Can you reveal a ballpark of how much money you were offered for Coconuts and Collards?
The advance was much less than $10,000. I kept my full-time job as a radio producer for StoryCorps, and I worked freelance jobs on top of that so that I could pay for the book. I grew up in a low-income family, so there’s no one in my family I can borrow money from. I had to hustle to get funding for my trips back to Puerto Rico.
Was your book publishing experience ultimately rewarding, despite the challenges that came with it?
This project was incredibly challenging, but also the most significant and fulfilling creative project of my life. On a personal level, I have gotten dozens of messages from Puerto Rican women on the mainland who are my age, telling me things like: “Thank you for putting these into words. This is my story, too.” It was so meaningful for me to honor my grandmother, my mother, and these women in a significant way, and to get to make a contribution toward Puerto Rican cuisine.
Professionally, it’s been an absolute boon. I am in community with a beautiful collective of food writers, including some of my heroes. I’ve been invited to be a visiting professor at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in the spring. An editor from a significant publication reached out to ask me if I was interested in writing another book, so I am currently working on a concept for my next cookbook. I now have a clearer idea of what my next book should be about, and to be perfectly frank, I know what it’s worth, and I’ll hold out for a little bit more of an investment from the publishers.
What’s some advice you would give to someone who is looking to pursue their first cookbook?
Take a close look at yourself and stick closely to what you are uniquely positioned to speak to. Not only will you create something that is unique, but you will also be fulfilled while producing it. That combination — of uniqueness and meaning — is something that people will genuinely see in the work and respond to.