Nov 152011

After Mary Goodbody left Cook’s Magazine (now Cook’s Illustrated) in the 1980s, she got her first opportunity to co-write a cake decorating book for a packager. She took the job and never looked back. Since becoming self-employed in 1984, the food writer and editor has collaborated on close to 50 cookbooks.

She lives in Connecticut, inherited a 200-acre sustainable farm in northwestern New Jersey with her seven brothers and sisters, and blogs about her visits there.

We spoke recently about collaborating on cookbooks and her long career. I have collaborated on a cookbook (Grilled Pizzas & Piadinas) and edited recipes for publishers. I wanted to learn more about these jobs as careers for freelance food writers:

Q. How do you define the job of a collaborator?

A. I’m the project manager. I make sure the book gets done. I’m pretty detail oriented and I work and think in a linear fashion, which helps the authors keep their deadlines. The author might do some writing, but I edit it. I keep in touch with the

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  46 Responses to “Q&A with Veteran Cookbook Collaborator Mary Goodbody”

  1. Glad to know that there are such interesting ways for professional food writers to work on different projects. So a “collaborator” can be a ghost writer, editor, and/or project manager?

    • Hi Andrea. Being a ghostwriter is the same job as being a collaborator except you’re invisible as the book’s author. Both are project managers and editors as part of their job.

      That’s different from editing manuscripts. I do that as a freelance editor for publishers and individuals, but I would never call myself a collaborator.

      If you wanted work like this, all you have to do is find a chef you admire and propose writing a cookbook with/for him or her. For the cookbook I co-wrote with a chef, I wrote the proposal, found the agent (my agent became his and he hired me for a flat fee), became the primary contact with the publisher, and wrote the manuscript. The author contributed copy and first drafts of recipes, which I edited and tested. He also attended the photo shoot and was in charge of book promotion as the primary author.

  2. This is incredibly useful information. Wish I had it on hand when I jumped into my first collaboration. I wonder: how many books Mary juggles in a year?

  3. This is such a helpful interview, quite a few things I haven’t thought about – including the potential career of being a collaborator! It’s good to get a quick run-through of what is involved.

  4. Very helpful post! Especially since I am just starting out on my own collaborating project. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Dianne, another great interview filled with great information. It’s nice to discover new ways to potentially incorporate doing we what we love. Thanks!

    • You’re most welcome. There are lots of ways to make a living in our business. This one is kind of under-the-radar.

  6. I was struck with the fact that she went to Judith Jones’ office and they went over the book line-by-line. That would be an education in itself. And the fact that where once you did 1 cookbook/year – now 4 are expected. A sign of the times – but some care of product must be getting lost. A truly honesty and informative interview.

    • Wasn’t that a great story? She was so lucky to have that experience.

      I think editors call on Mary when they know she can get a project done in a pinch. Not everyone does 4 books per year, that’s for sure, although I had 4 months to write my first book and 8 months to write the pizza book.

    • Thanks Claudia. I was envious when she told that story, I have to say. Judith Jones is one of my idols! She recently retired. Sara Kate from the Kitchn wrote a touching story about her.

      As for the 4-per year cookbook, Mary must tend to get that kind of assignment timeline. Most authors don’t.

  7. Yes, I, too, am glad to know there’s another viable avenue I might explore to get satisfying work I enjoy. I am one of those who shies away from the limelight and find self-promotion difficult. Still, I love writing about food and interacting with others who do. Seeking work like this just might be the answer for me.

  8. wow neat. thanks for introducing us to Ms Goodbody. eric.

  9. Your posts are so full of information and inspiration! I wanted to say “thank you” in person at IFBC, but you always got snagged by someone else and I couldn’t find you on Sunday.

    • Thanks, Susie. That’s so sweet of you to say so. I wasn’t at the conference on Sunday. Saturday at IFBC was long — started around 8:30 a.m. with a meeting and ended around 11 a.m. in the hotel lobby, just talking with people. Sorry to miss you.

  10. What a gift to work so closely with an editor like Judith Jones. One of the challenges of working independently is not having the kind of feedback that can help you grow as a writer.

    • Definitely. We’re just here at our desks, toiling — but fun toiling, if there is such a thing. I was always the kind of editor who checked in at the halfway point, in case there were any questions (or to find out if a writer had even begun!), but I don’t think editors do that anymore.

  11. Who would have thought that there was a career like this one!
    Thank you so much for keeping the spotlight on how to make a living writing about food. Knowing so much about the industry, and being so generous with that knowledge is the sign of a special teacher.

    • Thank you for saying so, Jean, and it was lovely to see you at IFBC, even though we didn’t get to talk much.

      When I first started out in this business, I met with Mary’s agent, who told me Mary made a good living as a collaborator and I could too. I never forgot that. I’ve only got one collaboration under my wing but hope to do more.

  12. So interesting Dianne. There are more kinds of jobs within the big world of food and food writing than anyone could imagine. What amazing experience Mary has had, and because of that, great depth of knowledge. And the story about Judith Jones. How fortunate she was!

    • Agreed. After writing 50 books, she must have an astonishing knowledge of cooking and recipes. Mary is at the top of her game and I hope she’s paid handsomely for it.

  13. Thanks for yet another look into the varied world of food writing, Dianne. I’ve got to admit that it hadn’t occurred to me that jobs like this existed, but it seems obvious now that it is pointed out to me. A naturally fertile field too, as she says. Many who are skilled in the kitchen struggle to find the time to put their secrets down on paper. Yet another avenue to pursue a career if one has a love of food writing.

    • Yes, we tend to focus on just a few jobs, and I think it is part of mine to point out the wide range. Thanks, Amanda.

  14. Another great, really helpful post/interview! I am in the early planning stages of a cookbook collaboration (my first) and so it was incredibly helpful to read what Mary had to say. It was particularly good to read about the extent to which I will be the project manager, a task I am ready and excited to take on.

  15. Mary and I are close friends (I mean of the 25-years-plus variety), and it was wonderful to see her in print. But I do want to remind everyone–especially the editors, agents, and other check-writers who might see this–that the prices she mentions are very flexible.

    I charge at least $100 per recipe and usually $150. With shopping (usually to two or three stores to get all of the ingredients because one store is lacking an essential item), prepping, actual testing, writing the recipes and cleaning up, even a pan of brownies can take 3 to 4 hours. I am working on a baking book, and I had to make one layer cake recipe (with an icing and mousse filling) three times to get correctly because the recipe was so poorly written. What was even more shocking was that the recipe had already been in print! That was one time that $150 wasn’t enough. I evaluate each job and price accordingly. Restaurant and bakery books always cost more because the recipes seem to be poorly written, probably because the chefs and bakers work so hard that they don’t have time to write efficiently! (That’s a bad assumption on my part, but proven by experience.)

    As for proposals, $3500 would be my rock-bottom. Recently, I had a discussion with a celebrity client who was shocked at my “high” $5000 estimate. I said, “Have you ever seen a book proposal?” No. “The last one I wrote was over 50 pages, with ten tested and perfectly written recipes, an outline of the book with 100 recipe titles, an overview of the book, a marketing and publicity plan, a list of competing titles with their strengths and weaknesses, an author bio, and photos. It took me over 2 months of dedicated time, and the book got a $175,000 advance. Does that really sound like too much?”

    I turned the job down. If you start off on that foot, it won’t get any better.

    • Wow, what a great story about your proposal, Rick. Someone with your level of expertise shouldn’t have to haggle.

      I’m kind of surprised by your price per recipe. It seems extremely reasonable. Is that based on a pre-existing recipe that you improve upon, or is that starting from scratch?

      Thanks for adding your two cents.

  16. That is for a pre-existing recipe that I improve. This is the going rate. And it is very hard to get $150. (However, that fee is essential for a chef book where a single recipe is often comprised of many different elements, such as a sauce (or two), a marinade, a side dish, and a garnish. If you can get through four or five recipes a day (and that takes some serious organization skills) then your day rate is decent and similar to a food stylist’s. It is better to work up a figure for the entire book, which means you have to divine the level of the first-draft recipes. There are other chores that the recipe tester has to do, too, such as reading and correcting galleys. Sometimes tastings are involved. So be sure to add these in, too. There is is a big payback in satisfaction when you get a recipe just right and a book that you made happen is a success.

    Recipe development, for a site or a magazine or a commodity (for their site or brochures)
    run $250 to $350 for a from-scratch recipe. I can, and do, get more, if they tell me it is for a big advertising campaign–let’s say it is the star recipe for their Christmas ads. That can run around $750.

    Anticipating the question “How do you get this work?,” I would say that eighty percent of my contacts come from relationships I have made over the years through IACP. I do get a good amount of searches on Linked in and at my bio on

    • This is so fascinating, Rick. I suppose it’s more if you have to come up with a recipe just based on a title.

      I see your point about pay: even 5 x $150 is not bad for a day rate of $750.

      Thanks for all these helpful details. Glad to have your expertise on my blog.

      • I appreciate Rick, who is a very good friend, contributing his thoughts on pricing. As Dianne knows, I was intentionally vague about money but I agree you have to be flexible but also know when you should walk away. Unfortunately, there are always going to be potential clients who don’t have a clue about how much blood, sweat and tears go into a book — not to mention the proposal! Both are hard work and should be compensated.

        I admit I am not very good at the walking away part of that advice!

  17. So many career choices in the food industry and all worth knowing about. I am fascinated, more than ever. Thanks again. Again it strikes me as one of the hardest kind to write about because there is so much that goes into it.

    • Yes, definitely it’s hard to write a book. But I’m sure Mary has it down. And I’m not sure it’s harder than writing a blog. A book ends. A blog does not!

  18. What an impressive and wise lady! I myself have cooked out of a few of Mary Goodbody’s books and am never disappointed. Though she is primarily a collaborator, she has some of her own books as well. My favorites are A Kitchen Companion, published for Williams Sonoma, (a must-have for any home cook; so useful!) and The Garden Entertaining Cookbook. She’s so interesting and articulate. I wish her many, many years of continued success! Thanks for this blog!

  19. Thanks for Interviewing Mary, Dianne. Such great info, and the comments too.

    • You are most welcome, Leticia. The comments are often the best part of my blog, but that’s only when I’m writing the post. Here Mary has given us a lot of good information about writing as a business.

  20. And thanks Rick too. I feel like I just got out of a conference panel from IACP!

  21. thanks again for your terrific honolulu workshop. it was very helpful for the cookbook i’m writing…proposal almost finished and will take it to a local publisher as it’s for a strictly hawaii audience. do books written for a regional (small) audience ever get picked up by big publishers? aloha, gail hercher

    • Hi Gail, lovely to hear from you. Yes, cookbooks with huge regional audiences where publishers are based (Los Angeles/San Francisco, New York) are frequently published, but usually they are chef or restaurant based. You are doing the right thing by going with a Hawaiian publisher.

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