Inside an Author's Cookbook Advance and Expenses

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One of the benefits of being a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals is the insider information I get in the monthly teleforum for the Editors, Publishers and Writers section.

Recently a first-time cookbook author provided  real numbers about her experience. That’s rare.

While I can’t direct you to the presentation, I can give you a few nuggets that lift the veil on what happens in a food writer’s first book deal and in subsequent marketing of that book.

First, let’s look at the costs to produce the cookbook. The publisher paid the author a $15,000 advance. From that she:

  • paid a photographer $7,000
  • spent $7,000 on food ingredients
  • spent $1,000 on props and incidentals.

What was left for her? Do the math. Nada.

Her book came out in Fall 2009. The lone publicist at her publishing company handled the publicity for 40 new books. Just for this particular author, the publicist would send out 100+ review copies, write and send press releases to traditional media, and produce a postcard for a mass mailing. That’s pretty standard. The rest of the publicity was up to the author.

Now, to the author’s credit, she is an A-type MBA grad overachiever, so she wanted to make a splash with her first book. She did a guerilla media tour (translation: not willing to pay a publicist), traveling continuously for four months. During that time she accomplished:

  • 97 signings and cooking classes
  • 16 local TV and radio appearances
  • 70+ bookstore drop-ins
  • 75 “significant media mentions.”

Then she asked herself whether it was worth it.  Yes, she decided. Where she visited, sales were 7 to 10 times higher than places where she did not. She earned out her advance quickly, selling about 20,000 copies in the first season, and now she’s earning royalties. Plus, she viewed the work as an investment in her future as a cookbook author.

But she’s still recouping her PR and marketing costs. Her expenses  for those four months, including purchasing books directly from the publisher, landed her  $13,000 in the hole.

Would she do it again? She’s already working on another book.


  1. says

    And people think there’s lots of money in food writing! Ha! You do it for the passion of it all.

    I guess for me, a way to cut down costs would be to do the photography myself. But not everyone can do that.

  2. says

    $7000 in ingredients? That’s a lot of (black) truffles. Clearly she’s not shopping where I’m shopping. Or maybe Whole Paycheck’s too close by?

    Interesting piece tho! Thanks for the tidbit.

    • diannejacob says

      I’m not sure what that amount entails, but you could spend that amount not only in shopping for ingredients to develop and test, but also afterwards when bringing baked goods to signings and other events.

  3. says

    Interesting story, but I don’t think it’s necessarily typical. First, I know many first time authors who would love to get a $10,000 advance and have settled for much less. Unlike SonoSoul, I was thinking that $7,000 for ingredients was not really a lot–depends on the number of recipes and what kind. Baking books, where recipes sometimes have to be tested many times (sometimes to get the chemistry right, sometimes so all the components like base, filling, frosting, can be tried out together), and certain others can cost much more than $7,000, even double. I also wonder about the author’s costs involved in traveling full-time for 4 months. Even if expenses were (mostly) covered by cooking school fees, giving up that much work time is risky; there’s no guarantee that the books will sell and royalties will come rolling in, though in this case, perhaps they have. These days, it’s better to think of the book publishing event as just an interesting life experience and not really expect it to pay off financially at all.

    • says

      I didn’t get any advance when I did my cookbook. And I got very little from it. But to be fair, it was a small market (French speaking North America), and the publisher specialised in poetry!!! Still, we sold 10,000 copies, which ended up their biggest seller :)

        • says

          Biggest seller, maybe. But I’d rather be a medium fish in a big pond than the biggest fish in a puddle :) And let’s face it, people nowadays are more interested in cooking than poetry or theater…

    • diannejacob says

      True. I also know first-time authors who have received more. Maybe there’s no typical story, Nancy.

      Nice to know that you think the $7,000 expense was reasonable if not inexpensive.

      The cooking school fees were $4,000, as I recall. And her book’s earning royalties now.

      Publishing a book as an “interesting life experience?” Kind of sad, but much better for the mental health than to expect to make a profit.

  4. Angela says

    You have to spend money to make money. This first time author has done what sounds like extensive ground work and now has the experience/knowledge for her next book.

    • diannejacob says

      Yes, typically 10 percent for hardcovers and 7.5 percent for trade (vs. mass market) paperback, based on the retail price.

  5. says

    I want to send this to all my friends who (a) think I can run off to the movies or the beach any day because I’m not going to an office every day and (b) think that once I get a publisher we’re all going to be on easy street…and able to run off to the movies or the beach because I’ll be pulling in money like the NYT bestsellers she reads about.

  6. says

    This sounds about right–I’m writing my first cookbook right now, to be published next year by HarperCollins. Mine won’t have photographs, which saves me a bundle, but I’m still not expecting to make a lot of money on the project–it’s about establishing a reputation and growing from there, pursuing whatever opportunities may come as a result.

  7. says

    This is a great lesson for all cookbook authors, first-time or multi-published. You’re responsible for your own publicity, and that’s just the way it is. So get on your togs and get going both literally and virtually. It can be a great ride.

  8. says

    My first cookbook, 100 Perfect Pairings, came out in April and I’ve already turned in a second in the series that’s scheduled for next spring – and this writer’s numbers approximately reflect my experience. I don’t expect these books to put a lot of money in my pocket per se, but the way I figure it, the more books I do, the more magazine articles I can write, the more classes I can teach, the more books I can do, etc, etc. In other words, successes in each area help me get more and better successes in the other areas, so I figure it pays off in the end.

  9. Candace says

    Thank you for sharing this topic, Dianne. It contains valuable information for anyone wanting to publish their first book. I found it refreshing to hear your perspective. I guess it all depends upon how you look at things: Chuck Swindoll once said, “I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me, and 90% how I react to it.” I must need an attitude adjustment!

  10. says

    Good information to know. I enjoyed reading all the comments too. Each road is a little different and each perspective enlightening. If I ever get my book done I am sure there will be a tale to tell.

  11. says

    Dianne, I emailed you directly, but wanted to put a comment up too, because I frequently read the comments on your blog (just did) since they are always helpful.

    I think many authors, including those above, shouldn’t discount the option to self-publish. I didn’t pursue a publisher, I just went straight to market on my own, and I hit break-even and went straight to profit after two months. I was considering going with a publisher (another benefit of self-publishing, if your book does well, then getting publishing offers is that much easier), but from what I am reading here, publicity, which is what I want help with, is not what you get.

    Once you get the hang of distribution, it is really quite easy on your own, and there are even new self-publishing options that require very little outlay, but are much more profitable than prior print-on-demand models. If you can do it, offset printing is as few as 500, and allows you to go with a “real” printer of your choosing. It is a big little-tapped market for authors, and the digital age is making it so much more feasible.

    • diannejacob says

      Definitely, self-publishing is coming into its own. Thanks for chiming in, Alisa.

      What you would get with a traditional publisher is wider distribution of your book.

  12. says

    And this is only the US, remember. In Canada we can drop those numbers a lot. Including what makes a best seller (5000). It can also be tough for Canadians to access the US market.

    • diannejacob says

      And tough for Americans to access the Canadian market. Or do you think not?

  13. says

    As someone who grew up in America and has lived in Canada for almost four 4 years now I have to say it’s much easier for an American to break into Canadian markets because Canadians hear about the U.S. every day. The newspapers and news stations regularly have stories about what’s happening in America, the same brands are popular and a lot of the same stores are out here.

    Regarding self publishing, I’d like to know how much work it takes to get in with a good distribution company. If an author self publishes should they give up the idea that their book would be in stores like Walmart or Costco?

    • diannejacob says

      Agreed. I lived in Canada my first 22 years and most of the media was American.

      Re self-publishing, I was under the impression it would be next to impossible to get into big box stores if you had a self-published book, but recently I got an email from someone who did it. I plan to investigate this with her further. Stay tuned!

  14. says

    Another great post, Dianne ~ I really needed to see this! I have always wondered really what could be made in writing a cookbook. It always seems like so much work for the amount of money you would/might receive especially if writing isn’t your primary profession.

    I do agree you have to do it for the passion of doing it, but, you also have to be able to foot the bills :)

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks Danica, but being a cookbook author is actually not a good way to foot the bills, as the author points out!