Q&A with Veteran Cookbook Collaborator Mary Goodbody

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editor at the publishing house, answer questions, and follow up with the copy editor’s questions.

Q. What are the different ways that you work on cookbooks?

A. Four ways:

  1. I get in on the ground floor and write the book proposal. My agent, Jayne Dystel, or the client’s agent sells the book. We get a contract and I take it from there.
  2. Authors hire me after their books are sold to a publishing house. I did the Sheryl Crow cookbook that way. She sold the book to St. Martin’s Press, and the editor of St. Martin’s contacted my agent.
  3. Sometimes another collaborator is on a tight deadline and hires me to write copy for a cookbook. My name is nowhere in the book.
  4. I’m hired to just edit recipes.

Q. What do you get paid for these jobs?

A. If I’m hired to write the book proposal, I usually get paid for the proposal separately from the book. A proposal is an important part of the process ’97 it “sells” the book ’97 and so I expect to be paid pretty well. Into the thousands of dollars. When I write the book, I work on a percentage. Optimally I would like 50 percent of the advance and royalties, but generally it’s less, with the author getting a little more. If I simply contribute the book’s introduction, for instance, or another part of the book, or if I only edit the recipes, I charge a flat fee, which I figure out based on an hourly rate. I don’t actually charge by the hour. I simply use a number to help me come up with a flat rate.

Q. What about testing recipes? Do you do that?

A. I’ll test a few recipes from every book, but if they all need to be tested, I hire and work with a recipe tester. I don’t consider myself a professional tester and I don’t love doing it. The author pays for testing and while expensive, we do our best to keep costs down. Testers charge by the recipe — at least $80 to $100 per recipe, plus groceries — and I don’t add a surcharge for managing the process.

Q. I saw that you worked with cookbook author Edna Lewis. What was that like?

A. That was a dream. It was in the 1980s, and I had just left Cook’s magazine and I knew Judith Jones (Julia Child’s editor at Knopf). She and her husband Evan were very supportive of the magazine.

Judith called me and asked if I would write Edna’s book, In Pursuit of Flavor. Judith had written Edna’s first book. It was very little money, it was summertime, and Edna was in her 70s, working as a chef in a restaurant. I would drive into the city from Connecticut, get in around 10 a.m., and go into the restaurant. It was icy cold from air conditioning, and she always had made fresh coffee, biscuits and jam. She would have a legal pad full of recipes she’d hand written, with notes. That was well before laptops. We would sit there for two hours and just talk. I would come back two to three days later and we would do it all over again. She was kind and one of the most passionate people I’d ever met.

I wrote the text for the book, and Judith would have me come into her office at Knopf and we’d go over it, line by line, and she’d teach me. Nobody does that anymore! I was so proud when I hand delivered the manuscript to Alfred Knopf.

Q. What are the pros and cons of being a collaborator?

A. The pros used to be that you could make a good living, but that’s not as easy anymore. I’ve met a lot of interesting people and have learned a lot. I’ve stretched my writing wings, learning to write in different voices and styles.

Also it fits with the way I live. I like to be in my office in my house, having my weekends here. I don’t want to be traveling all the time. When I was younger I was a single parent and it fit into my lifestyle to work at home.

The cons are that you don’t have your own book, you don’t make as much money as the author, it’s sometimes lonely, and you work a lot of hours. It’s so much work to put together a book!

Q. How hard is it to write in someone else’s voice?

A. I have them talk to me a lot on the phone, and I write it down, transcribing it. Then I go back and edit it. That’s the way I get someone’s voice. I don’t like tape recorders, because I don’t like going back and listening again. I just type type type.

Q. What has been your proudest moment?

In some ways, you might think winning three James Beard cookbook awards (An American Place, Michel Nichan’s Sustainably Delicious, and Art Smith’s Back to the Table) would rate as my proudest moments, and of course I am proud. I am also proud three of my books have shown up on the New York Times bestseller list. But in all honesty, my proudest moments are when the author contacts me after the book is out and say it reads well. That puts a smile on my face.

Q. How do you deal with difficult co-authors?

A. (Laughs.) I try to laugh about them, behind their backs when the phone is safely on the hook. Email helps a lot with difficult people who want to take up a lot of your time on the phone. My strategy is to take over the book in a positive way. I tell them “I’ll take care of it, I’ll write it up and send it to you, and you can see if it’s okay.”

Q. Have you ever refused to work with someone?

A. No.

Q. What has surprised you most about doing this work?

A. How many people know that I do this work! People say “I’ve seen your name everywhere,” and I’m always surprised.

I’m surprised that collaborating has been such fertile ground for a long time. I like to help people and have them be pleased with their book afterwards.

Q. How long do you get to work on cookbooks?

A. It depends on the publisher and the deal the agents make. In the past, the standard was a year. That stopped in 2005-2006. Publishers wanted books a lot faster. Now I usually get four to eight months. It’s really hard to write a cookbook in that amount of time. You have to be so careful and so precise.

Q. What advice do you have for someone who wants to collaborate?

If you know a chef whom you think should have a book, get to know him or her. Potential clients are chefs with restaurants, celebrities, the owner of a food company, and cooking teachers. The reason you collaborate with someone is because they don’t want to learn how to write a cookbook. They run their own business and they need someone who can do it.


  1. says

    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?

    • diannejacob says

      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. Kate Leahy says

    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. says

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

    • diannejacob says

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

  4. says

    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.

    • diannejacob says

      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.

  5. says

    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.

    • diannejacob says

      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.

  6. says

    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.

    • diannejacob says

      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.

  7. says

    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.

    • diannejacob says

      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.

  8. says

    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!

    • diannejacob says

      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.

  9. says

    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.

    • diannejacob says

      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.

  10. says

    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.

  11. says

    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.

    • diannejacob says

      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.

  12. says

    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 http://www.rickrodgers.com.

    • diannejacob says

      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.

      • says

        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!

  13. says

    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.

    • diannejacob says

      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!

  14. Laura says

    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!

    • diannejacob says

      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.

  15. gail hercher says

    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

    • diannejacob says

      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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