Long Reads

A Rare Look at The Harsh Financials of Making Cookbooks

May 11, 2017

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.)

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."

Having never published a book before, I was fairly mind-blown by the terms of the offering [from a publisher] and my inability to properly and easily research the process, costs, and revenue potential of a cookbook.
Nick Kokonas

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.

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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."

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Top Comment:
“There are lots of things you can do as a culinary entrepreneur -- self publishing being one of them -- to help you earn more money than you will ever get with a traditional publisher. You just have to be willing to put your business hat on, invest in yourself (it doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg...), and learn how to build your own audience. Easier said than done, but well worth the time if you really want it.”
— Halona Y.
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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.

Simply put, reaching an audience directly for a book, without a publisher, has never been easier.
Nick Kokonas

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.

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4 Comments

kendraaronson June 11, 2017
Nick's article was the hot topic at the 2017 Food Book Fair! I've read it a few times as it brings such clarity around the mysterious cookbook industry—thank you for mentioning it here on Food52 and for linking to my self-publishing article :)
 
Aleichia J. May 16, 2017
I think this is an incredibly important conversation for home cooks and even us kitchen professionals to have. How very often have you looked at two different cookbooks with very similar "filler" recipes? Needless to say Plenty is literally a permanent fixture on our reference shelf. How many recipes did you decide to go out in a limb, that you had literally zero visual reference for turn out to hearing dud or utterly amazing? I hope more cookbook authors can self publish, and I believe many will have the crowdsourcing backing to do so, seeing as Alinea reached their Kickstarter goal in less than a week, that way we as the consumer get what they want us to get, and not some cookie cutter version of it.
 
Halona Y. May 12, 2017
I wish more culinary professionals took more of an entrepreneurial look into publishing. There are lots of things you can do as a culinary entrepreneur -- self publishing being one of them -- to help you earn more money than you will ever get with a traditional publisher. You just have to be willing to put your business hat on, invest in yourself (it doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg...), and learn how to build your own audience. Easier said than done, but well worth the time if you really want it.
 
Nora May 11, 2017
I read the Medium post. Food and the publishing business occupy a lot of my waking hours, so of course I was fascinated and very glad to see a creative, take-charge approach to both.