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A Rare Look at The Harsh Financials of Making Cookbooks

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This is the story I've wanted someone to write for a long time. There are 5,000 behind-the-scenes stories about making cookbooks, but none of them talk about the money: how much an author gets, when they get it, how much the publisher is investing in the project, how much it costs to print a book, how much the author will spend producing—and then publicizing—the book. And then, at the end of the whole emotionally-taxing, nerve-wracking, all-consuming project, if the author makes any money at all. (Short answer: Not unless you're Ottolenghi or The Pioneer Woman.)

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The financials of publishing aren't widely reported, maybe because people are willing and want to make cookbooks, no matter what it costs. But also because it's really hard to uncover specifics. Kokonas calls it "the opaque world of cookbook publishing."

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Nick Kokonas, who co-owns Chicago's Alinea, Next, and The Aviary with chef Grant Achatz, finally spilled the beans on Medium—the budgets, the brutal realities of traditional publishing, and a new publishing path he'll be taking for The Aviary book. This is the stuff you only know if you've made a cookbook, the stuff folks only discuss at the bar once service is over.

Kokonas details his road to publishing Alinea back in 2008, which has gone on to sell successfully and win lots of awards (a rare combo). He excerpts a traditional book offer he received, and the math and digging he did to realize that a traditional route was unworkable: Between a budget for producing and photographing the book, the number of books they'd have to sell to recoup their advance, just how much—er, little—it costs to print a book ("He thought I was implying that $3.83 per book was too high!"), and all the rest, "it still didn't add up to me."

It took the trust of an intrepid publisher at Ten Speed Press (my old boss) for Alinea to be published as the authors wanted it, an experience, Kokonas admits, would never happen again. And that's okay: Some years later, self-publishing is an entirely attractive and viable option.

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It's a longish read, but worthwhile even if you never plan to write a cookbook, because it hints at why:

  • So many books have recipes that don't work. You have to pay recipe testers.
  • So many books look (are?) the same. Certain trim sizes and page counts are more cost-effective to produce. More photography means more money, so every recipe isn't always photographed. Creative and editorial risk means financial risk.
  • So many books feel thin on concept, content, and ingenuity. Substance takes time and talent to develop and hone, but no one will have the chance to start recouping an advance until the book's available for purchase. That means when an inexpensive project on a proven topic can be acquired by a publisher and released quickly (perhaps a gluten-free, 2-ingredient, vegan one), it's financially appealing.

So next time you're thinking to yourself, yawn I'm bored with this cookbook (this happens to me more often than I've ever admitted), remember: Must be the money.