Most Book Deals Originate with Publishers Not Authors, Says Cookbook Agent

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Literary Agent Lisa Ekus of The Lisa Ekus Group

Want to get your book published, and think you need to write a proposal? Maybe.

I spoke with Lisa Ekus, a literary agent who represents food-based books exclusively, about what’s new, what editors want, how she works a deal, and what writers need to do to attract the attention of an agent like herself.

What she said about the majority of her book deals might surprise you.

Q. You’re entering your 11th year as a literary agent specializing in cookbooks. What kind of changes have you seen in the publishing world during this time?

A. There’s no better time to be a food writer. There are fewer obstacles to have one’s voice heard because of the proliferation of blogging. In the past it was very challenging to break in. Now anyone who has something to say is online, and many editors who are looking for content can find it.

So how do we separate the wheat from the chaff? More talented writers have opportunities, but there has to be a system of building credentials and credibility, of putting the same diligence to your writing in an e-format: doing your own research, having ethics about where you get your material, having recipes tested, and having copy editing done before it gets posted. You still have to market yourself because there are 120 million blogs out there.

There’s more interest than ever before in food and travel and ethnic cuisines. People are now looking for people to weigh in, and writers have such an opportunity.

People keep saying that print is dead, but it’s not. It’s shifting. Highly illustrated books are harder to go electronic successfully and e-books won’t take the place of coffee table books. In two generations, no one’s going to know the difference, but for now, it’s good to think about the variety of platforms to share your work. For example, how music was transmitted and shared has changed, but the music never went away. Now we have more access to musicians than at any other time in our history and we can mirror that in our food world.

Q. Not all book ideas come from authors. Do editors tell you about a type of book they’d like to publish, and then you match them with an author?

A. It’s harder to sell a first-time writer because you need brand, platform, and followers. We used to take ideas from our client base and pitch them to publishers. Now at least 60 percent of our projects are generated between a publisher and us.

We know the publisher wants a certain topic or genre, or the publisher’s following a blogger, so we will discuss a project or author and help make the book happen. Or we see trends and we talk about them with the publishers, or we help ID the expert and create the proposal.

Bob of Robert Rose wanted to do a panini book at height of panini maker sales. The author we chose had three months to write it but met her deadline. Now 200 Best Panini Recipes has sold more than 90,000 copies since coming out in 2008, and Tiffany has more than earned out her advance. Her second book on casseroles just came out.

It’s challenging to make your mark. Sometimes it means doing things in a tighter timeline or going down a different research path.

Q. How has the Internet affected cookbook publishing?

A. Dramatically. Most of my authors say “I want an app,” but most cookbooks don’t lend themselves to apps. You have to back into it: What am I writing, does it work online, how will the app be disseminated? It won’t be received the same way online.

Q. As a literary agent, how do you know what editors want?

A. I talk to them constantly. I’m in touch every day, and I meet with them in person. I ask if they’re looking for something special and try to keep a running list of their personal preferences: who loves baking, who hates baking, and who wants only 75 recipes. I also read a lot about food, trends, and publishing.

I think about who’s going to grow and build with a publisher over time so it’s not a one-off book. I try to understand how expensive it is to produce a book and share that with our authors because it is a big commitment. Publishers expect authors to work at least as hard with the marketing, doing social media and tours that revolve around events.

Q. What can you tell established authors about what’s different about publishing a cookbook now versus publishing one 10 years ago?

A. You can forget about a (paid) book tour unless it’s Storey or Workman. You must be doing extensive social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook. You don’t always have to do a blog, but if you do so you must be consistent and have followers.

Publishers don’t always do an in-house edit, so I strongly advise authors to bring in outside editors.

Another shift I’m adamantly against is that several publishers mandate that the author has to earn out the photography advance before they will earn royalties. This is true of Random House and its imprints, including Clarkson Potter, 10 Speed, and Crown. It means the author is put in charge of photography, but the publisher still approves the photographer and makes the budget.

Also Random House now pays the advance in quarters, not thirds, and six months after book is released is when the last quarterly payment arrives.

Q. What advice do you have for bloggers who want to publish cookbooks?

A. Not every blog should be turned into a book. Most publishers want to sell a minimum of 20,000 copies. Are you sharing something different? Do you have the statistics? Publishers want new content, not just the contents of blog. If you’re sharing all your photos on Flickr, the publisher doesn’t want the book.

I have seen more books by bloggers in last 12 to 24 months. It’s a huge leap. Editors are spending more time online, looking for talent. They were looking through the pages of Gourmet and Bon Appetit. Now they go online and it’s all there.

Q. What kind of food books, besides cookbooks, are the most successful?

A. Some food narratives, but they’re challenging to sell. Food writing that overlaps as a journey of food with some recipes. We do some nutrition, women’s health,but not diet books. Reference books are great. I think there’s a lot of room for them, but it has to be one of the best reference books out there, like the Food Substitutions Bible.

Q. Among your clients, what is your ratio of established authors to first-time authors? What does it take to be accepted as a first-time author by the Lisa Ekus Group?

A. When I started the agency, I committed to 50 percent of the agency being first-time writers. I sold 80 percent of our first-time writers’ books and many have gone on to sell second and third books. Now we have less than 10 percent, not because we’re less interested, but because we spend so much time with each client and project that I would have to triple my staff.

I probably get a dozen proposals per week. Everything gets one to three readings.

I look for passionate, articulate writers with a strong voice who do their homework. We look for platform too. You don’t always have to have it, but if you don’t, you’d better be an amazing expert on the content.

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  1. says

    Great interview. Timely too. I’ve been hearing more and more about how publishers are approaching blogging friends with strong concepts that are custom tailored for their platform. It’s an exciting time to be a talented, hard-working blogger! Thanks for the insights.

    • diannejacob says

      You’re welcome, Brooke. Lots of smaller publishers are contacting bloggers as well, sometimes because they just want someone to write a book based on an idea they’ve come up with.

  2. says

    What an insightful interview! I wasn’t really aware that it worked in reverse like that. The explosion of the food blogging scene has definitely opened up new avenues for both publishers and wannabe authors.

  3. says

    Wonderful interview and so timely! I’m going back and forth between self-publishing or approaching an agent. It can be so overwhelming considering the options and trying to understand the underlying process it takes to get a cookbook to market.

    So how does one get the attention of an agent? Is it best to look for a local agent? It would be great to have a list of twitter accounts for cookbook agents, but they’d probably all be inundated with tweets from social media savvy food bloggers!

    • diannejacob says

      One gets the attention of an agent with a stellar query letter and book proposal, Yvonne. Want help deciding? You know how to find me.

      Yeah, many agents like to keep a low profile, so they don’t have Twitter accounts. Lisa is the only agent I know of who specializes in food books.

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks Penny. We all have to stay on top of these trends. You are doing a spectacular job of getting out there and branding yourself so that agents and publishers can find you.

  4. says

    Thanks for the great blog post. I’ve been sitting on the fence about posting content-read excerpts from my unpublished book-on my blog. Now I know to save it for an agent and publisher. Thanks again.

  5. says

    Great post! Lisa is my agent ,and my first cookbook is coming out late next month (400 recipes). I worked on 3 book proposals over a period of 2 years that I sent to Lisa before getting a book deal. My upcoming book was not a result of any of those book proposal ideas, but one that my 9 year old came up with on the phone with Lisa and my publisher. You never know what will happen. Great post!!

    • diannejacob says

      Wow, your 9-year old came up with a book idea for you? That’s amazing. And 400 recipes is a stunningly huge amount. Congratulations! How come you didn’t say the name of it? Okay, I will give the link. Here’s Alison’s success story.

  6. David Joachim says

    Great interview DJ. The publishing landscape is shifting, but each medium, be it paper or electronic, will only evolve by exploiting the exclusive benefits of that medium. You can’t have video in a paper book and you can’t have great-textured paper in an app. As Lisa says, the new media just means more ways for an audience to interact with the author–not a death of the old ways.

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks David. I like her attitude. So much better than hand-wringing.

      You’re her bit star, so I know you will be in the forefront with as many different mediums as possible.

  7. says

    Thanks for an insightful interview, Dianne! (again!) A follow-up question: if most book ideas originate with publishers (and not proposals from authors) how can potential authors position themselves to be the go-to for those publishers’ concepts?

    • diannejacob says

      I was waiting for someone to ask this question, so thank you Kara! You do it by being visible so that agents think of you. You contact or meet them, tell them what you’re doing, ask them to think of you for future projects, etc.

  8. says


    Your interview with Lisa Ekus provides the real feedback a novice foodblogger like myself enjoys reading and learning from.
    Thank you for this posting,

    The Souper

  9. says

    Very good interview. I was surprised to learn about the photography. Although my blog is very photo-centric, and I love taking photographs, it surprised me that a large publisher would not hire a professional food photographer for a cookbook.

    • diannejacob says

      Oh sorry, then I didn’t make it clear. These publishers do hire professional photographers — they just put the author in charge of the photographer, sort of. Publishers still have to accept the photos, they will probably attend and control the shoot, and they set the budget. They don’t pay the advance to the author until after the photography advance has been earned out. That part really stinks.

  10. says

    Dianne, Yes, the landscape keeps changing! The good news is that now publishing is more democratic than ever. The bad news is the author has to do so much more heavy lifting! I wonder why not self-publish if you have a huge platform in place and also have to hire an editor and a photographer? (and I also wonder if you can negotiate with a publisher with some of those expenses, and I’m guessing you can.) Great interview!

    • diannejacob says

      Why not indeed? The answer is that most of us don’t have a huge platform, or are not savvy enough about marketing, or we don’t have the skills to self-publish a beautiful, well-edited book. It is difficult to negotiate expenses with a publisher, but that’s what agents do.

  11. says

    terrific interview! thanks, dianne, for sharing lisa’s insights and experience with us. really interesting to hear about the publishing process from an insider’s angle.
    once again, you presented valuable information for all of us who aspire to write for food. delicious!
    (i’m ridiculously pleased that lisa is now my agent! i heard her speak at iacp last year, and decided to approach her–she was definitely my “reach” school…)

    • diannejacob says

      Congratulations, Cherie, and you are most welcome. I hope there’s a deal around the corner for you.

  12. Ellen McCreight Grant says

    Great interview, Dianne – loads of really helpful information. I’m still at the baby-steps stage of choosing a blog name (that isn’t already taken!), as well as the best site tohost it … any suggestions?

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks, Ellen. I just moved from GoDaddy to SiteGround. We’ll see if that’s an improvement.

  13. says

    Thanks so much Dianne and Lisa for this terrific interview and great insight! So far, most of the writers groups I have found locally either primarily cater to fiction writers or have no idea about bloggers or freelance writing and how to blend the two. This year I have decided to make my primary focus developing my platform a little more. So far, so good but I’ve got a long way to go!

    • diannejacob says

      I’ve found that too, that most writing groups and conferences cater to fiction writers. Not to worry, you can always read my book for insider info specific to food writing and blogging.

  14. says

    There are indeed many more opportunities nowadays for people to get into cookbook writing. Aspiring authors have to do their homework and be realistic.

    With regard to authors earning out the photography budgets before earning royalties, authors should take a gook look at and negotiate the royalty percentages and schedule. Make sure that they are fair.

  15. says

    Dianne, great piece. True that sometimes a proposal can also generate other book ideas from publishers that may have nothing to do with the original proposal. An agent is worth her/his weight in gold. I am fortunate in being represented by Jane Dystel but went through media training with Lisa Ekus. Few publishers stand behind their authors as much as Workman does but it is also the author’s responsibility to constantly find ways to re-invent themselves. None of us can expect to lie back and assume to make millions with a book these days (unless you are a TV personality) but good quality books still shine and do well. Call me old fashioned but i do like the feel of paper.

    • diannejacob says

      Thank you, Raghavan. How wonderful that you have had the luxury of media training. I hope it has paid off for you.

      It is also true in freelance writing that a well-written query might result in an offer to write a piece that is different from the one proposed.

      I hope you have done well, then, since your cookbooks are always high in quality.

  16. says

    Hi Dianne,

    This is a wonderful interview. It gives me a better understanding of this changing scene publishing scene. But is this true for international authors wanting to break into the US market. Are they discovered through blogs and twitter too?

    Best regards,

    • diannejacob says

      It’s hard for international authors to break in unless 1) they have a successful book that a US publisher wants to buy and republish for an American audience, or 2) they have a big following in the US.

  17. says

    Thank you for this insightful article. As a relatively new food writer, I focus all my energies on my ultimate goal of publishing a cookbook . My readership is growing at a nice pace and I’m extremely involved with social networking. My current writing activities include maintaining a food blog and an associated Facebook fan page, Twitter, cookbook reviews, guest blogging posts and a weekly food column in a local internet publication. I’m speaking to two additional internet publications about submitting content. What other activities would you suggest that I include?

    • diannejacob says

      Hi Jackie. Sounds like you are doing all the right things to build your platform. You might consider attending some blogging conferences as well, to get involved with the community.


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