9 Questions For When a Book Publisher Calls

Oct 042011
 

In the last few weeks, I’ve heard from lots of food bloggers who are getting calls from publishers, asking them to write books.

It’s thrilling to get one of these calls, but they didn’t necessarily know what questions to ask the publisher.

And of course, there’s no reason why they should know, since they have never been in this position before. So I compiled a list of questions, in case a call like this comes your way.

The most important thing is to not make commitments during the initial call. Get the answers to these questions, and then think it over.

1. What is the advance? The advance is the amount of money you are paid up front to write the book. If the publisher offers you $10,000, and your royalty rate is $1 per book (that’s high, so see No. 2. I’m just making the math easier), then you earn $1 per book after you sell 10,000 books.

Beginning advances for first-time book authors range from $3500 – $25,000, unless you’re a star. Most of the time, they’re offering you too little, but often they won’t budge. It doesn’t hurt to ask for more. “It sounds a little low” is a good response.

2. What is the royalty rate? The typical rate is 7.5 percent of the book’s retail price. One food blogger said the publisher wanted 350 recipes and no advance, but would give her a 10 percent royalty rate. I wouldn’t write a book for a zero advance. I’ve read that 80 percent of authors never see any more money after the advance. So I want as much as I can get up front.

3. How long is the manuscript? If a publisher has a book idea in mind, there might be specs. Most cookbooks have a minimum of 100 recipes. Some might give you a word count, such as 50,000 words. Envision 250 words to a typed 8 1/2 x 11-inch page, double spaced. That comes to 200 double-spaced pages. If the publisher wants you to provide the idea for the book, you will have to estimate the book’s size.

4. What is the deadline for the manuscript? I heard from one blogger who said the publisher wanted a finished manuscript in 6 months, and from another who said the publisher wanted 50 recipes in 4 months. That’s pretty crazy. See if you can get at least 9 months, unless the subject is so trendy that they want it done ASAP.

For some bloggers, this deadline is the date their photography is due as well. Which brings me to…

5. How many photographs, and what is the fee? Not may bloggers have photos good enough to entice a publisher, but if they want yours, make sure you get paid a separate fee. Determine what you should make per photo, based on time and expenses. I can’t tell you exactly what that is, but professional photographers often charge $20,000 – $30,000 per book. If you will not be the photographer, ask whether you can weigh in on whom they choose. Better yet, suggest someone whose work you like.

6. Will my byline appear on the cover? If the publisher wants you to write a cookbook not tied to your blog, it’s a valid question.

7. Will my bio, photo, and blog address appear on the book jacket? You want to make sure.

8. When will my book come out? Most publisher have two seasons for book launches: spring and fall. Gift books come out in the fall.

9. How will you promote my book? Does the publisher send out copies for review? What else will they do for you? Will they pitch your book to bloggers, print publications, and websites for review? Will they pay for you to do a book tour (most of the time, no).

Once you get past this list of questions, and you and the publisher come to an agreement, you will receive a contract. There’s more to negotiate. (And if you join the Authors Guild, you get a free review of your contract.)

The most important thing is to take lots of notes and push back for the things that are important to you. Don’t just be “honored” that a publisher called you, because it’s a ton of work to produce a book.

My last tips: Ask people you know who’ve written a book for advice. Finally, don’t feel like this is your only opportunity for a book, because it will make you desperate. You don’t want publishers to take advantage.

Okay, all you experts who have already signed a contract: What other advice do you have for these bloggers?

(Photo from freedigitalphotos.net)

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  79 Responses to “9 Questions For When a Book Publisher Calls”

  1. Love the helpful guidelines. I doubt I’ll be getting that call anytime soon, but if it ever happens in the future I’ll make sure I ask these questions! It is so true that we have to keep in mind the work involved and the practicalities of it all.

  2. to quote my grandma: “you should have such problems”

  3. Excellent questions to ask, thanks Dianne, and a couple that wouldn’t have occurred to me until much later in the scheme of things. I would never have thought o ask about photographs and promotion, but of course they are vital issues. I guess it is easy to be flattered under those circumstances and with no prior experience of publishing a humble blogger could find themselves biting off a little more than they could chew.

  4. I would add the caveat to verify whether they want original content (new recipes) or if some you have already had on the blog are perfect.
    Sometimes, the publisher finds you by way of your awe inspiring content on the blog, but want completely new recipes.

    And if folks don’t already know, keep meticulous records of the costs of recipe testing. When the book finally starts to sell, you can deduct those costs as long as you can document them from your proceeds.

    • Very good points. It’s one thing to make a looming deadline if you already have most of the recipes, but if you have to create most, it’s tough.

      Yes, once you have income you can write off expenses. Otherwise what you’ve been doing is called a hobby.

    • Jean, I want to add what a well-published author told me… find out if you will be allowed in the future to reuse any of the original recipes that you created and developed for the cookbook in other projects as your own or if the recipe will henceforth be property of the publisher. She told me that in the past publishers have told her she could never use or publish a certain recipe again while one publisher told her she would never be able to publish another recipe of the type again!!! It just means we need to be able to read and understand a contract.

      • Excellent point, Jamie. I talked to someone else who actually had to pay a publisher to use a previously published recipe of her own in another cookbook. So yes, see what the contract says.

  5. Dianne,
    This is a great list of questions to ask for when the phone rings.
    I was wondering how you feel about self-publishing a cook book?
    The publishing world is changing so much these days and although a lot of
    authors still call it Vanity Press, do you think it is a good route to investigate?

  6. Thank you for sharing these Cinderalla stories and then giving us very practical advice to use if we get the call.

    My phone hasn’t rung. So I’m still working on proposal and two sample chapters. At first I balked at doing all this even BEFORE contacting an agent (isn’t my talent obvious on my blog?!?!) but the process has been invaluable in helping me figure out my concept and also a learning experience to see if I have the discipline to write though parts I might find boring when there are so many exciting recipes and experiments calling me back into the kitchen and my “platform” that needs to be built.

    I am curious how publishers will find working with these “unprepared” bloggers. Once the “phone call” and “book deal” glow wears off you’ve got to get down to business and ACTUALLY write!!

    Staring at a 100+ Microsoft Word Doc with no pretty pictures and keeping at it without instant feedback as to whether my recipe or technique rocks or sucks has given me a whole lot of respect for published authors!

    L

    • Nothing wrong with working on a proposal and sample chapters. That is the way to go. You will probably have to show something to a publisher anyway. And yes, you need a platform. That is more important than more recipes. But not as much fun, I agree.

      The bloggers might be unprepared, but they are already quite disciplined, so probably most of them follow through professionally.

  7. Great advice. Hopefully a problem I’ll have one of these days. I’m reading your book and loving it by the way!

  8. Thank you so much for this Dianne! This is a great list of questions. Although I haven’t gotten that phone call…I do have a meeting next week to *potentially* collaborate on a cookbook project with an established (although not top chef/rock star-level) chef who has already written one cookbook and has a publisher interested in another. I will bring this list of questions to the meeting but am wondering what I should realistically expect as a newbie collaborator or co-author?

    • Collaborating is different. You need to see if you have good chemistry with the chef, and he/she is respectful of your abilities and treats you well. Typically, fleshing out the proposal with the chef is a good way to find out. It is how I learned that I didn’t want to work with someone.

  9. I’m optimistically bookmarking this page so I can use it as a reference when I “get the call”. That’s not hubris on my part…..just hope. You gotta have hope.

    Thank you, Dianne

    • Or you could start working on a book proposal now, figuring out what you want to write about, so you’re prepared when you get the call. Just sayin…

  10. I would add to be really careful about what advice you receive. I received some terrible “professional” advice regarding my contract. People often think there is an “us” versus “them” relationship with publishers but in my experience they want the best for all parties.
    If you don’t understand what the contract says, sit down with your publisher and go through it line by line. If they want you, they will take the time to make sure you are happy with the process. I wish I had done this before seeking contract advice. So from someone who has had the best and worst of it, I have a few extra questions that might help the process.

    1. With respect to royalties, it is great to ask if there is a sliding scale. For example, if you sell x amount of books you get 7 % then for every copy sold after that, seeing the royalty increase. Set the scale as part of your contract.

    2. It is also important to ask your royalty rate if they create an e-book or electronic versions. Common practice is a higher royalty for electronic versions. Ditto for alternate use – tv, movie etc. You need to account for every eventuality.

    3. Ensuring copyright stays with the author – you don’t want to see your work in another book production without your name associated with it.

    Hope this helps

    Katrina

    • Excellent advice, Katrina. These are very good things to bring up. Often 1 and 2 re negotiated by the agent, but since these bloggers may be negotiating for themselves, they have to know those questions.

      Sorry to read that you had a bad experience. I am surprised the publisher went over the contract with you. Nice of them to make the time.

  11. One thing that I think is important to note is that even if you get called by a publisher, you need to write a proposal. It will probably be an abbreviated proposal, without the sample chapters, but a proposal just the same. So, writing a proposal even if you dont’t have an agent or a book deal is extremely important–it gives you the experience of writing one. I was contacted by a publisher and they wanted a proposal in 1-2 weeks. Also, most agents want to see your proposal before considering you as an client–again, writing a proposal is important.

    If you are interested in writing a book, I highly recommend getting an agent. Do research, ask friends, etc. So, even if you do not have an agent when/if a publisher contacts you, you can go to an agent and say, “a publisher has contacted me to write such and such book, would you consider taking me as a client?”. The amount of work my agent has done in terms of negotiating my contract (which is quite complicated) and supporting me in this process is well worth the percentage agents charge. She has got my back.

    Also, most likely publishers will be calling to ask you to write a specific book–not just any old thing you want.

    • Stories like this make me mad. Who can write a good proposal in 2 weeks? I often work with people for 6 months or longer before sending it out. I suppose this is different, because the publisher’s already interested. But jeez. And I suppose they wanted you to write a book in a few months as well. (Okay, end of rant. It’s just that creating a quality product is difficult under these circumstances.)

      Regarding getting an agent, the answer is: it depends. Some smaller publishers are contacting bloggers directly, and they cannot pay the advances that interest agents. You must have have a big enough platform — and a good enough book idea — to interest an agent. The bloggers I spoke to who prompted this post did not. On the other hand, a blogger just hired me because she has a very big platform, and publishers have begun contacting her directly. She knows that she should write a proposal for the book she wants and find an agent. And she will have no trouble finding one, once we are through, and getting a big advance.

      Re writing the book you want, some smaller publishers come up with book ideas and then find a blogger who’s willing to write them. I recently worked with someone in this situation. A packager had contacted her out of the blue to do a rush job on a cookbook whose subject she had never written about. It didn’t have anything to do with her brand, and the deadlines were not reasonable. She said no, and now we’re working on a book idea that makes more sense for her.

      • Um, let’s see. I was able to write the proposal in 2 weeks because I had another proposal in place, ready to go when the publisher contacted me. I knew the process and was able to use a lot of the same information for the proposal the publisher asked me for. Also, as I said, I didn’t need sample chapters–that significantly cut down on the time required. Also, my agent looked at the new proposal to make sure it was good enough to send into the publisher. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have sent it. I am working with a quality agent, quality publisher, on a quality product. I did not let anyone undersell me or my abilities.

        Dianne: don’t make assumptions as to the quality of my work until you see it. I was trying to share my experience to be helpful.

        • You are taking it the wrong way, Jeanne. I was not making a comment on the quality of your work, just on the impudence of publishers to ask for a proposal in 2 weeks! Fortunately, you were prepared, and it sounds like you already had an agent, so the timing was excellent. Additionally, I admire that you did not undersell yourself. That is a big problem for some bloggers that makes it harder for the rest of us.

          • Dianne: Ah, got it. Sorry, I jumped to the wrong conclusion (tough week–bleh). Yes, I agree with you. Publishers are asking bloggers to do crazy things and bloggers will do them to get the deal. I think it would be awesome to have a post on some of the unsavory practices that the publishers are engaging in with the bloggers. I have heard crazy stories from people–ridiculously low advances, requirements to do the writing and the photography within the same low advance, extremely short writing periods, etc. It might be good for folks to know that the good publishers will pay for quality work and that the bloggers shouldn’t sell themselves short.

          • That was my goal in this post, Jeanne. I didn’t want to get into too many specifics, but it’s good for bloggers to know that they don’t have to jump through those hoops or take whatever is offered.

  12. As always, great advice Dianne.

    I haven’t gotten “the call” yet, and I’m not assuming I will. Instead I am taking the bull by the horns and writing a thorough proposal, and then I plan to find an agent. Baby steps, right?

    I was stumbling a bit, trying to figure out the BEST proposal-writing procedure, then someone suggested I talk to Jeanne — who’s comment is listed here before mine. Fortunately Jeanne was more than willing to discuss the dos and don’ts of this beginning phase of getting a cookbook published. Lucky for me it’s a small world, full of kind-hearted people.

    Thank you Dianne, for your on-going words of wisdom.
    Thank you Jeanne, for taking the time to share your experience with me, and for your encouragement. (So glad we live in the same city!)

    Now, back to writing that sample chapter….

    • That’s wonderful that Jeanne was willing to talk with you, Brook. I love how much people help each other in this community. You’ll also find lots of information on writing book proposals in my book, Will Write for Food, and on this blog.

      • Yes, I’ve read your awesome book cover-to-cover; I bought it quite a while before I even met you in person. Armed with your book and Jeanne’s answers to my many questions, I should be able to whip this book proposal out like a pro! Hopefully this positive mental attitude (which my father simply shortens to PMA) helps me through the process too.

  13. This is great. I would add that prospective cookbook authors might want to ask if the cookbook will be published electronically/digitally? And if the publisher does intend to create an e-pub file (and I hope they see the advantage), it’s important to find out where it will be released (Nook, Kindle, iBooks, etc.) I also recommend cookbook authors negotiate a different royalty rate for electronic/digital rights, separate from print royalty rates. Usually they are addressed separately in the contract.

    • Very good points about the electronic rights. I am hoping that the bloggers who move forward with the contracts pay for someone to look them over. An attorney who specializes in publishing will do if you don’t get the assessment from Author House. It would be tough to get an agent involved if the advance is small, but otherwise, a literary agent could negotiate the contract.

  14. As always, thanks for the fantastic post, Dianne. My phone hasn’t rung yet but maybe one day in the future. I plan to bookmark this post on the off-chance my phone does ring. Have a wonderful day!

  15. I’m surprised agents weren’t mentioned in this discussion. This is what they do–even if they get a percentage, their efforts may help you secure a better deal.

    • Good point. I didn’t bring up agents because most of the time, it’s the smaller publishers who call up food bloggers and they don’t offer enough money to interest an agent. I spoke with one blogger will took a deal with no advance at all, for example. But it’s true, if you have a big audience and brand on the Internet and publishers are calling, best to get a proposal together and find an agent.

  16. Newly diagnosed the order viagra infectious tuberculosis 5.

    What fantastic advice! This post is definitely a keeper (really, all of yours are Dianne). I sort of envy those who have fearlessly (or fearfully) treaded this path before those of us just starting out. It sure helps. Makes it a bit less scary. I’d better get back to my “homework”, working on my table of contents and recipes.

    Looking forward to meeting some of you at the IFBC in Santa Monica in November.

    • Thanks Sally. Yes, see you soon at IFBC!

      Re the bloggers, I don’t think you should envy them. Some people jump into these arrangements without doing enough research, just because they are “honored” to be contacted. As a result, publishers take advantage of them.

      • Hi Dianne, not envy because they were contacted. I meant the authors who have their first book under their belt, who know how tough it is but did it and succeeded. For those of us hoping and planning to write a cookbook, it is daunting…well, maybe not for some but for me for sure! Your post should help us newbies not get taken advantage of.

  17. Good questions. However, if I got a call from an editor out of the blue I think I’d save those questions until after I decided whether I wanted to work with the publisher. I’d be asking, what book do you want? Why? Why me? Who do you think is the market for my book? Why? What sort of presentation do you envision? That is, are you looking for only a collection of recipes; a lot of explanatory material; anecdotes – in other words, exactly what do you want in the book? And so on.

    I used to be an editor (not cookbooks) and I always told prospective authors that working with an editor was a little like marriage – both sides have wants, needs, expectations. You have to be on the same wavelength regarding those before you even talk contract. I didn’t want to work with authors who didn’t share my vision; and I absolutely knew authors wouldn’t want to work with me if I didn’t buy into what they were doing. Once you’ve mutually agreed on a plan for a book that makes sense to both of you, some of the questions you suggest – how many photos, for example; the answer is the number you need to write the kind of book you both want – will take care of themselves.

    But the list of questions is great, and it’s a list any prospective author should be thinking about.

    • Oh these are wonderful things to consider. Thank you. When someone hired me to help her assess an opportunity, we went online together and looked at other books the publisher had produced, to see what the styles, whether it was a good fit, etc. So you are exactly right, that these issues all come into play.

      I’ve found, though, with these smaller publishers, that there is minimal contact and a tight deadline. What you’re describing sounds like what happens with bigger publishers who are paying higher advances. Still, bloggers have little to lose by bring up these questions.

  18. This basically summarizes the essentials. It is always better to ask the right and important questions so you won’t miss anything. The information you’ll get from these queries is very helpful in setting the direction of your publishing venture.

  19. That’s really helpful Dianne. I appreciate that you included real numbers. If you’ve never done a book before, it’s hard to know what is reasonable both in terms of an advance, royalties, and deadline. I think bloggers can become so dazzled by the notion of doing a book, they might give themselves away.

    • Thanks Katie. The numbers are a guide — I worked with one writer who got $5,000 and another who got a $100,000 advance. And I have heard of other writers taking less than $5,000. So it varies, but at least I put something out there. There are real numbers in my book as well.

  20. Extremely helpful and practical advice from this article and within the comments. Can I hear the phone ringing….?!

    • Thank you for saying so, and for appreciating the commenters. They are the BEST! May your phone ring off the hook, Sally.

  21. Hi Dianne! Another really great and helpful post. This happened to me a while ago and happily it did not work out (why happily? that’s another discussion!) but I wish I had had this list in front of me. Sometimes we are so taken by surprise and flattered to be approached that we don’t have the gumption or the information (much less the time to do our research) and end up accepting whatever is proposed, fearful that if we don’t they will turn to another eager blogger! I must add that just being contacted in this way gave me the courage to push ahead with my own projects knowing that somehow I am on the “radar” and there are publishers out there interested in me. And now, thanks to this post, I am armed for the next project!

    • Thanks Jamie. Yes, it’s very easy to be flattered and surprised, but in the end, you thought it through enough to decide it wasn’t for you. I’m glad you’re not trying to second guess yourself about whether it would have been right, etc. but are now working on a book idea that you can get excited about.

  22. Very interesting article Diane. Thanks for providing such in depth information. Out of curiousity, what is considered a ‘big’ platform for bloggers in terms of numbers (ie, hits or subscriber numbers) in order for a publisher to approach a blogger?

    • I don’t know the exact number, and publishers don’t always either — I doubt that they will know your traffic when the approach you. They probably look to see what kind of response you’re getting from people on the blog and if you know how to market and understand social media. I’ve seen some smaller bloggers get book deals, mostly from smaller publishers.

    • Sukaina: I agree with Dianne–what the publishers are looking for seems to differ from blogger to blogger. I don’t have anywhere near to what would be considered a gigantic following. It’s decent and steady, but not huge. And I was approached by a couple of publishers (my book comes out Fall 2012). I think they are looking for all sorts of things–what you post, how your readers respond, whether or not you’re doing different things or are just “adapting” other people’s recipes, etc. Also, I think it’s important to be active on Twitter and Facebook. Those are also parts of your “platform.” And don’t forget getting out there and attending conferences and gatherings. Those also allow you network and make connections.

      • Good advice, Jeanne. And it’s nice for readers to know that “good and steady” traffic is good enough to attract a publisher. We can’t all be Deb Perelman!

  23. I agree with Jamie 100%. I think often when bloggers get approached on these topics they don’t know what is fair to ask for or are afraid to ask for anything because they think they might lose out on the deal. Your perspective is as always, sage advice.

    • Thanks Kelly. That’s why I wrote the post, because I have heard some stories. It does catch people off guard, but if, as Jeanne says, they’ve already started work on a book proposal, at least they’ve thought through what they might want.

  24. Spot on ! and yes, it is an incredible amount of work if you envisage your book being full of passion.It is a labour of love and a large investment in time and money, but incredibly rewarding process. My book comes out in April 2012 and I am more than happy to help anyone out with advice too. I would have like to have found this post six months ago :) http://www.lyndelmiller.com.au and you can find me on facebook :)

  25. this post couldn’t have come up at a better time for me… so thank you so much for posting this! i am currently working with a small publisher but i haven’t signed anything, nor are their communication skills very strong – i did inquire about an advance and how i would be paid but i feel like i’m being kept in the dark a bit? this is really so valuable to me, as are all the comments above. particularly the thoughts on photography and e-publishing.

  26. Great article! I posted it on the Writing Platform Facebook page.

  27. Excellent detailed advice. Thank you for posting it.

  28. I am grateful that I have gotten the call from a publisher and appreciate the advice. There is a caveat for me… I have been offered an advance, however not enough to cover the costs of how many photographs they want in the cookbook (plus sequencing steps as well). Oy! They are assuming for me to pay and hire the photographer.
    I have taken photographs of all my dishes, but I believe most will not be good enough.
    To expect me to hire a food photographer at $$$ is absurd. When negotiating a contract, I now realize there should be a separate fee for photos or at least a separate budget for photos. For the publisher to expect me to pay a photographer and not pay me an advance enough to cover the costs is not lucrative at all and expolitive. Has anyone else encountered this experience?

    • I hope you have not yet signed the contract, Dahlia. If not, find three reasonably-priced photographers, get their fees for the photos, and present them to the publisher, to be added to your advance. See what they say. What do you have to lose?

      Most publishers are very picky about the quality of the photos. If yours is not, perhaps this publisher is not a good match for you. Unless you can tolerate a book with no photos, and they agree to that. Good luck.

      • I did sign the contract… I know, not smart. The publisher is trying to make the best of my photos, and quite frankly if they don’t (and I did not receive my advance yet) I will back out. If they are not going to be supportive in the slightest then I can’t go through with this. Fees for a food photographer run between 10k-15k.

  29. When a publisher wants to know if you have contacted any other publishers. What are they making sure of or want to know?

    • They are just wondering if anyone else knows about your book idea. If you say yes, it might make them take action sooner. I think it’s a more valuable position than “no.”

  30. Okay thanks. I wish I would have seen this before I replied back to the publisher. I thought they ask to make sure there wasn’t any legalities with other publishing company were on the table. I said no. Do I want to look competitive? Hard to get? Maybe not email back right away? Any suggestions. I just figured honesty was the best answer.

  31. Hi Dianne, I have read this over and over and I have asked a few of the questions suggested here. Thanks for that. I have just been sent a contract and even though I negotiated I still think the advance is low. Mind you, the company is pretty new, and they are giving ample time for the project, 9 months to be exact. Do you know anyone that can take a look at the contract and let me know if there are any red flags? Especially with the royalty rates and all of that. Thanks so much.

    • Sure, you’re welcome, Miryam. Many literary agents or attorneys will look at a contract for a set fee.

  32. Thank you very much for this post. I was approached by a publisher 3 weeks ago and still we are negotiating. I have never published any book before and am learning a lot about the publishing world. Boy, it is complicated. Your post is very helpful for me and my husband to go through the tough negotiations and thank you so much!

    • Publishers often approach bloggers who have no experience with publishing, and who are happy to take any deal. Good for you for educating yourself.

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