When is a Book Successful?

Feb 212012
 

A former student, Cheryl Sternman Rule, whose first cookbook, Ripe, comes out next month, asked, “How do I know when my book is successful?”

Good question. I told her she had to define it for herself, that everyone thinks something different, and some never feel success, no matter how many copies they sell or awards they win. She decided her book would be successful when she sells past the first print run.

Fair enough. I thought about my definition. While I’ve won two awards for Will Write for Food since it came out in 2005, I think it’s successful because people are still buying it.Then I wondered what other authors, publishers and agents would say.

One of the authors I asked was Michael Ruhlman. First he said, “I believe a cookbook is successful if it inspires someone to cook; if it advances our understanding of food or our skill in the kitchen. For the cookbook writer, it’s successful if convinces a publisher to give you money to do another one!”

Then he was so taken by the subject that he asked his Twitter followers what they thought, and created an excellent simultaneous post about cookbook success. It was fun to work together on our posts.

Now, let’s see what the others have to say:

“When the publisher asks you to write another?” Paula Wolfort, cookbook author

“First, reviews: if the book receives no attention online, in print or in broadcast media, then it has obviously failed to reach its audience. For sales, if the author is a relative unknown, 15,000 to 20,000 copies sold in the first year would constitute a success in my book. Obviously, if the author is someone who has written other cooking titles or who has an ongoing presence in print or other media, the benchmark of success would be higher. –Rux Martin, senior executive editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

“I asked my first editor that, and she said, ‘When you’ve made back your advance!’ — David Lebovitz, cookbook author

“There are several measures of success: Critical success, as exemplified by many good reviews. Popular success, as evidenced by strong sales, documented by best-seller lists. Financial success, wherein a publisher’s advance earns out and royalties flow. This last ties into the estimation of the potential of the book’s sales at the outset. If a book’s first print run is 5,000 copies and they all sell, this can be deemed a success. However, if the first print run is 10,000, and only 5,000 copies sell, the perception could be the book is not a success.

“If an author gets a big advance upfront, then earn out of royalties is less meaningful. Sometimes large advances are paid in a competitive environment, which signals the value of the property at acquisition, but the eventual sales don’t ever earn out the advance. If the book reprints several times, then I would say this is a good measure because the book has ongoing sales. Ongoing ebook downloads would be a similar measure. — Kirsty Melville, publisher, Andrews-McMeel

“When you get a check!” — Greg Patent, cookbook author

“I went to a second printing for Basic to Brilliant in less than two months, but it’s that not-so-favorable review on Amazon that I’ll think of the most for at least a little bit.

“A good out-of-the-gate response is very important. Media coverage is important. Industry buzz is important. With my first book the respect of my peers and receiving the IACP nomination indicated to me that it was successful.”

“Success is a bit like pain management. For some folks their pain threshold is at floor level and for others it’s the ceiling. The success – or pain – is as equally relevant and real to that person as to the other.”Virginia Willis, cookbook author

“It is usually a good measure of success that a book sell through its first print run.” — Bill LeBlond, editorial director of food and wine, Chronicle Books

“I suppose for many people stellar Book Scan or Amazon sales figures defines a successful cookbook. For me the cookbook needs to be timeless and to consistently sell well over the years. Foremost, are the recipes, which must be reliable with tips or technique information that enable the reader to achieve delicious results. What distinguishes a successful cookbook is its originality, that unique voice and passion particular to an author. Without equal, it enlightens food traditions, culinary practices, and captures the essence of a cuisine or food subject.” Grace Young, cookbook author

“I don’t particularly consider my book successful, even though it won the Julia Child Award, and it’s in it’s second printing. I think when I’ve paid back my advance, I’ll consider it successful. Accolades are gratifying, but in the end this is a business.” — David Leite, cookbook author

“I think a successful book is one that makes the author feel good about what they have produced, and also when the author can see how their work helps other people.” Monica Bhide, cookbook author

“There are many definitions of success. Did this book bring you financial opportunities to further build your career? Did it make your second book easy(ier) to sell? Has publishing this book made you an influencer? Are you now a resource for the media? Was your publisher pleased (Ask for feedback!)? Probably the more important question is what were the goals of your writing this book and were they met?

“The variables of who published your book and in what format, distribution, etc will all influence much of the measurables, such as University Press vs. Commercial publisher.” Lisa Ekus, literary agent

“There are, of course, the objective measurements: sales numbers and whether your book “earns out”. But there are other, more intangible signs. I consider a book successful when it finds an audience, whether large or small. If I see that a book of mine has gained a dedicated audience that really appreciates it, that uses it and cooks from it, then that to me is a successful book.

“I also look to whether it is well received by my peers. For example, my second book, Big Night In, has been a slow seller. However, it was selected by Food & Wine as one of the 25 best cookbooks of the year when it came out, and it was carried for a time by Crate & BarreI, and I continue toget great feedback from those who cook from it. So, to my mind, that book was a success.” — Cookbook author Domenica Marchetti

“You know your book is a success if it accomplished what you wanted it to. It could be different things: selling a lot of copies; getting a lot of print; launching a next step, like a movie; informing and inspiring people; righting a confusion.

“I think of books I’ve written that have sold a lot and those that have gone out of print or haven’t earned back. Local Flavors, for example,has never earned out but is, miraculously, still in print. It was a little ahead of its time, but as the interest in farmers markets has caught up with it, it has really come into play; I’m asked to weigh in on articles on the basis of the book, it’s given away at conferences and farmers markets, so I consider it a success even if by some standards it isn’t. Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone has been a success financially, but what’s most important to me is that it has introduced people to vegetables and other plant foods whether or not they’re vegetarian, and when I get e-mails and letters from readers expressing their appreciation for that, I am so gratified. The book did what I hoped it would.

Another book in which I had a mission was in print only for a little over a year. I feel it was a failure even though it was a good book because it didn’t get to do what I had hoped, which was to focus on fruit and inspire people to understand and offer ways to enjoy it that were more health supportive than usual. So when you’re writing a book and visualizing your audience and thinking about what it is you want the book to say, and if it ends up doing that, it’s a success. If it makes a lot of money and gets a lot of print at the same time, that’s also a success. But if it’ doesn’t, it’s not necessarily a failure.

“The internet has been a great tool for feedback. Sometimes I feel discouraged about the apparent lack of success of a book, but then I get an e-mail from someone who is a die-hard fan of that book and who really understands it, and that makes it feel like a success.” Deborah Madison, cookbook author

“This might not surprise you, but it’s sales, and for a book to be really successful, longevity. Look what happened with Mastering the Art of French Cooking after the Julia movie came out!

“Sales not only provides return on investment, but it proves you’ve reached an audience. But, good sales don’t necessarily mean bestseller numbers. I was researching sales for the food science category recently. I noted that Jeff Potter’s book, Cooking for Geeks, sold somewhere around 35,000 (through Bookscan). Some might say those numbers are just OK, but hey, he’s not a household name. Though some of the sales were from his blog audience, I bet a good portion weren’t, so those numbers are very impressive and show me that a first-time author was able to make a good dent in a category that’s not an easy sell. (Yes, food science is trending, but it’s still scary to many people and NOT a slam dunk topic.)

“Another important point about sales is that it doesn’t have to happen out of the gate (though that’s nice). Sure, consumers’ attention spans quickly move on to the next shiny object, but a writing a book that has legs, as we call them, is pretty fine. But there IS a segment of books that are slow and steady and there’s a lot of good that comes with that–you’re keeping your name and your book out there, may just be seen as an authority on that topic. (You probably know something about that, Dianne. ;-) )

“Keeping your book out on the market also affords you the chance of opportunities that might not have been present during your book’s initial release. I remember a title from my time at Houghton Mifflin that released in April one year. First time author, great book. It got little media and the sales numbers were slow until the fall, when the author went on QVC. Her appearance spiked numbers on Amazon and then the book took off. She’s gone on to have a very robust career. At the Roger Smith Conference, a few booksellers made the point that for a successful event for a first time author, it often pays to have the event once the book has been out for some time (for media to reach consumers). Jennifer Reese, the author of Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, noted that was her experience.– Lori Galvin, senior editor, Cook’s Illustrated

“Two of my little books, Delicious Dips and Skinny Dips, keep selling and selling. I get lots of feedback from readers, which is always rewarding. They are prominently displayed at stores like Crate & Barrel, and they continue to do well on Amazon with very positive reviews. Skinny Dips was featured in Oprah’s “O” magazine, which certainly was exciting.

“Book awards are elusive and very few get to have those honors. I would certainly deem it a “success” factor, but it is not one that one can count on. If you ask publishers, they will tell you that just because a book wins an award–such as an IACP or Beard award–that does not automatically translate to a best-selling book.

“Being monetarily rewarded beyond a book advance with ongoing royalty checks is pretty great. It makes you happy, it makes the publisher happy, and it means you get to keep writing because your publisher is making money from your work. One can’t ignore the numbers game. First-time authors might get a small advance because they are a risk, but if that book does well then they will be rewarded downstream with royalties and will likely grow their audience as the book gets better known.

“Finally, success can be felt when a book turns the author into a go-to source for their deep knowledge on a particular subject. For instance, my two Thanksgiving books and numerous articles on the holiday have made me a go-to source for Thanksgiving. Even quite a few years after my books have been published, I get e-mails for radio interviews and newspaper quotes. It is very rewarding and, in turn, keeps the interest in my books alive.

“In conclusion, I think “success” is multi-faceted, but definitely a combination of monetary reward and perception in the marketplace.” – Cookbook author Diane Morgan

What about you? What do you think makes a book successful?

  73 Responses to “When is a Book Successful?”

  1. [...] and educator Dianne Jacob asked me what does define a successful cookbook, it got me thinking. She’s written an excellent post collating many, many responses from people in the industry. The responses are surprising in their [...]

  2. I do tend to think a particular play I wrote is successful when I get royalty checks. But in truth – what makes a successful play – is one that inspires productions. I love the financial answers! But I also love the answer, “A cookbook is successful when it inspires someone to cook.” (Paraphrasing) I have two gorgeous cookbooks – well-known – that I have never cooked from. And I have the well-worn dog-eared ones. The second book I buy from a particular author always follows the first, dog-eared one.

    • There are so many answers to this question! I have to agree that having someone be inspired by your work is a huge indicator of success. Whenever someone emails me to say that they’ve launched a blog as a result of reading my book, or pitched a query letter to an editor, or written a book proposal — I am so proud that I spurred them to action.

  3. Great topic, Dianne. I can’t wait to read all the comments.

    When my editor first told me that she expected my book to be backlisted (which she assured me was a good thing, even though it sounds like a bad thing) for years to come, and that slow and steady wins the race, I secretly dismissed her sentiment. I wanted to go big or go home! If earning out within a year was remarkable, I wanted to earn out in less than a year!

    With a second book coming out later this year, my perspective has changed pretty dramatically. I’m much more focused on slow and steady (well, steady, if not necessarily slow). I see what happens to my book’s amazon rank when it gets some big press (as I see something similar happen to other books as well), and then they fall back down to earth (and “earth” in this instance is still a really nice place for sales to be). Always. No matter the book or the author.

    Success has to be some level of financial success, since publishing is a business like any other. But then there’s still the matter of how you define “financial success.” For me, it’s slow and steady growth, hopefully over and over again with book after book – and it doesn’t hurt that I’m in an industry (gluten-free) that is growing by leaps and bounds.

    I do think the same question could be asked about food blogging, by the way, and I’d love to hear the answers.

    Nicole

    • Oh that is a great idea for a post, Nicole. Thank you.

      Yes, slow and steady describes the success of my book too. It has been out for 7 years now, and it’s still relevant and selling well. That has to be worth something.

      The financial success is just one bonus. Not a huge one, but part of the mix of how I make my living.

  4. Dianne, great topic & appreciate the variety of perspectives brought to the table here. For me, it helps to understand why I’m writing a book, what is the mission, even if it’s blue sky. After my first book, I reminded myself of the original mission frequently, while touring, after reading reviews or when interviewed. As I put manuscript for book #2 to bed (with same publisher), one of the first things I do when sitting down to write is to review the mission of the book, as if it were a mantra. It’s been a great tool.

    • That is so professional, Kim. I’m not sure writers think about the mission in such a concrete way. I need to review some business documents about establishing a mission. I remember working on one as a board volunteer for a food bank. Good food for thought.

  5. I hope this will be a question I can ask myself one day in a far away future, now I am dreaming of a cookbook and it makes me happy, thanks for this well-written and resourceful article, Dianne.
    And I am with Nicole, nearly after every post I ask myself, am I successful? Do readers like my post? Can we count success by comments and does it mean the higher the comment rates the more success you have?
    I am a little bit comme ci comme ‘e7a about it. Sometimes I wish I would get more comments on a special blogpost but what does it mean if you get 10 “Oh, looks delicious”- comments, is this success? I don’t think so. Oops, I’m chatting, but your blogposts are inspiring and encouraging, Dianne

  6. I answered Michael’s tweet and knew then that the answer from my user’s perspective would be completely different than if from a writer’s. I simply want great food to come as a result of recipes that are included in cookbooks I purchase; food that myself, my family and often my friends will enjoy. I would hope a writer wants that same success for us but also has to be driven to measure success in sales; that stands to reason.

    As a cook who writes a blog I have to say that although I love nice comments and seeing traffic drawn to my site; the real success is from hearing from a reader that made something and loved it as much as I do. My personal motivation has always been to share what I love; those words are my nirvana.

    • Exactly. When he tweeted it the first time I was surprised by how much the readers’ answers varied from the ones I got on my blog post. They were all about the book’s content, whether it had photos, etc. But also whether the cookbook inspired them to cook, which is critical.

      Next I will have to ask bloggers the same question!

      • Yes, I hope you do ask bloggers the same question. As I was reading through the comments I asked myself that very same question. As I am a cookbook “veteran” and fairly new to the blogging world I’d love to hear what they have to say.

        So interesting to read the varied responses here. Great information. Thanks for the post, Dianne.

  7. I should add that when I started writing cookbooks, my agent said, “If a book has one great recipe in it, it’s worth it.”

    From an editors point of view, they are dealing on one end with authors, and on the other end, the marketing people. The book business has to make money because of all the people involved in creating and distributing a book.

    I was really fortunate because my first editor who I quoted was very interested in doing good books and took on a number of authors who weren’t necessarily “high earners” but some books (and authors) really need to be in print – because some material, like certain cuisines and technique books – need to be out there…even if they’re not huge sellers.

    • I agree about the “one recipe” idea. I have kept cookbooks for years because I adore just one recipe.

      Very few people can produce a huge seller, and there’s no point thinking we are failures if the book doesn’t reach a particular number. The cookbook I wrote with the chef in 2008 earned out right away and still produces a royalty check, even though the chef stopped promoting it a year ago. I think of that as a success, even though he was not a high earner. We did the best job we could.

  8. Dianne, I love this post and hearing from the authors you quoted and how they define success…and how it’s so different for everyone. For the author, the publisher, the reader – everyone has different goals and definitions. For one just getting published is a success, for another earning back their advance is a success, for another earning 6 figures is a success, for another inspiring the readers is a success…so many variables.

    Can’t wait to talk about this stuff in person!

  9. Funny! I only have two of Deborah Madison’s books, and they’re the two she says didn’t sell well. I love them!

    • Maybe “selling well” is relative when you’re Deborah Madison! What she doesn’t think is great might make me very happy.

  10. This was a great post DJ. Having written seven cookbooks -18 years later….
    I define success as the FACT they are ALL still in print -and more than half earn royalties.
    .
    The 30 -40 emails…I get every week from readers telling me my books changed their lives…”the how-to become books ” make the bone weary or near suicide days worthwhile.

    Since often a first print run is only 3-5 thousand copies …I don’t think that is a very good indicator….myself. Paying back the publisher is key.

    The books I’ve made the most money on and sold the big numbers- that’s over 50,000 books – were deals I negoticated myself -the concepts were clear and I was my own captain.

    When I get a great paying gig -let’s be honest – that has to be over $10,000 fee….
    The books were the platform that got me there.

    I think anyone that actually writes their own cookbooks and then sells the bloody thing for 10 years …..is a success.

    • Thanks Denise. That’s amazing that your books are all still in print. I don’t think most authors who write that many books can claim that. Or that they negotiated their own contracts for books that sold so well.

      I agree that the emails I get as an author are what is worthwhile. It’s an indication that the effort was worthwhile and mattered to someone.

      Good point about the first print run. I didn’t ask how big Cheryl’s will be. I’d tend to go with what you and several other authors said here, that it’s more important to earn out the advance. Apparently most books never earn out.

  11. Dianne, why are you in my head? This is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot recently – not just for book publishing but for the overall writing profession – and it’s heartening to see that there really is no one answer. Thanks for reinforcing the idea that there are multiple paths to and perceptions of success. I’ll keep working to find the one that’s right for me.

    • I dunno Casey, why am I? I should get out of there. Or maybe I can visit myself in your head when I come to NY in March for IACP. We could have a talk.

      I take it you are still finding your path. I am too. I have reinvented myself many times, and I’m sure it’s not over yet. As to whether I have succeeded at any of them, it depends which day it is. Fortunately, one of the best parts of getting older is that most days, I’m okay with what I have accomplished, particularly that I am a book author.

  12. Dianne, I have been a cookbook author for 2 weeks. I didn’t need to sell even one to feel successful. Finishing something I had started 3 years ago, joyous. Seeing recipes I worked with for 25 years in catering in a cover, amazing. The speechless look of pride on my dads face is worth more then money, I will never need anything else.
    The most dog eared bent up, underlined and well read book I own is my copy of …
    Will Write for Food.
    Thank you, Renee

    • Reading my way through this compelling post, I had nothing to add, as my responses (and of course being me, that would be many responses) have been covered handsomely all along the way. Until this one. Right to my heart. I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and while money, glory, and bridge-to-opportunities all matter to me, greatly, this-here Renee Weir Fontes (whom I will go look up after I leave here) woke me up to the simmering-on-the-back-burner feeling that never fades away: I wrote a book. I finished something(s) big, huge, which I started and whose path was bumpy and hard. I put something I know and love into permanent form, transformed from my brain and hands to pages where others can find it. And the mention of her father’s response moves me beyond words. Amen to her tribute to you and your book, too. Grateful for this forum, and to be doing what I do, in such company.

      • Oh Nancy, between the two of you, I am getting misty. It is a legacy to leave a book. I’ve written newspaper and magazine articles, this blog, and even electronic books, but holding a book in my hands is the best accomplishment of them all.

    • Aww Renee, this is beautiful. Not just the part about my beaten-up book, but you convey so effectively the sacrifice you made to hold your book in your hands.

  13. Wow Dianne. This might be my favourite post ever. I think, because I am still in college, I have set realistic sales expectations for my book and will measure its success based on my ability to sell the 1,000 copies we are printing.

    My favourite quote from above was:

    “I think a successful book is one that makes the author feel good about what they have produced, and also when the author can see how their work helps other people.” ’96 Monica Bhide, cookbook author.

    I think, in life, if you can reach people with your words, with your food, or with your actions, then you will experience the best kind of success.

    Greetings from a wet, wild and windy Ireland!

    • Hi Mona. One thousand copies is a modest printing. I hope you blow through those quickly and get to a reprint.

      Connecting with people is what matters to me. I’ve been employing the printed word for more than 30 years and it’s the most satisfying thing I do.

  14. great post with great question and answers

  15. I feel a book is successful when, even after years, people still search the book shelves at a book shop to buy it.
    Success to different people means different things. The content of this post is a testimony to that. It is in reality a great social experiment. Thanks for taking us through this.

    - A

    P.S. I bought your book and am about to start reading it. I guess, by your definition, your book is a huge success.

    • Thanks for buying my book, Anita. I did not have any expectations when it came out. I was just happy to hold a book in my hands.

  16. Very interesting to hear directly from publishers about the benchmarks they feel makes a book successful, and I appreciated Deborah Madison’s candor.

    It’s interesting that each of my three cookbooks has had a different path. Success for “Raising the Salad Bar” has meant selling more than 50,000 copies, extremely rewarding on all levels. The last book on Soups + Sides didn’t get the same out-of-the gate print or radio coverage – I think the publicist was busy with another book – and I’ve seen the difference that makes. An earlier “Greens, Glorious Greens” was a moderate success until a NYC nutrition school gave copies of it to each of its 700 or so incoming students who later promoted it to their clients – that one lucky break gave the book almost a cult following, lots of sales, and has helped to keep it in print 16 years later.

    On a personal level, success for me is when people tell me they make lots of recipes from the book , not just one or two – when someone says “my copy is dog-eared,” or “I keep it out with my 3 favorite cookbooks” – or the bank teller tells me, “my wife and I tried the cauliflower soup last night and loved it.”

    • Catherine, I’m with you. A dog-eared copy is what matters. I suppose you could also be content if someone tried 1 recipe and loved it. Sometimes that is all we expect when we buy a book.

      I love the story about the 700 copies. What a testimonial to keeping the book in print!

  17. What a great topic! Since my book came out I’ve been struggling with getting my bearings on this. I think I’ve decided the sales count, but hearing from all the people who enjoyed my recipes is the most gratifying part for me.

  18. Fantastic post. The answers were all over the map, but each one made me think.

  19. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot over the past year — along with my husband and creative partner — as we wrote and independently published our first cookbook.

    We decided to go the independent route because I’d worked with a major publisher in the past and was disappointed in the experience. I was very cautious about how I defined success this time around.

    We decided we would feel successful if we produced a book that made us proud of our work, so we really dug into every detail: the graphic design, the photography, the writing, the recipes, even the index was crafted with love. When we saw the proof copy, we felt like we’d done what we intended, and that felt like success.

    Then we released “Well Fed” into the wild, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. In 10 weeks, we’ve sold just under 10,000 copies… we have 5 stars/93 reviews on Amazon… we’re in the top 10 of all cookbooks and #1 in healthy cookbooks… and have been courted by a major publisher to consider re-releasing the book through them. (We said no, but it’s flattering and rewarding all the same.)

    Based on the response and the book sales — and because we self-published and are reaping the financial rewards — I was able to resign from my corporate dayjob, and can now focus on my blog, marketing my book, and other writing projects. For me, that’s success with a giant capital S because I’ve been wanting to try this path for about 20 years.

    Not to be too groovy or corny, but I think the reason we’ve had “objective success” with the book is because we focused on “emotional success” first. During our 8 months of production, I fought hard not to think of the end result — of sales, or reviews, or reaction — and to just believe in what we were doing and to do it the best I could.

    Now that I’ve gone through the experience of two books, I feel confident in encouraging other authors to think about what success means to them BEFORE starting a project. If you focus on producing a book (or other project) that pleases and rewards YOU, then no matter what happens when your project is out in the world, you can feel good about what you created and shared.

    (If you’re curious, our book is called Well Fed: Paleo Recipes For People Who Love To Eat.)

    • How tremendous, Melissa. I will definitely incorporate this idea of defining success before launching a book idea into my teaching and coaching. Congratulations on your success and on your new full-time career in books.

      • I have to say that I feel like you were with me every step of the way. I read Will Write for Food TWICE to get ready for writing my book, and kept it close by for reference the entire time. I felt like you were sitting on my shoulder, to make sure I didn’t do anything dumb. I’m really proud of the recipes because I followed your guidelines, and I know they’re written (mostly) properly — and I have to admit, I have a very scrutinizing eye when reading others’ recipes now. I didn’t want to “make a pretty good cookbook for some dumb blogger”… I wanted our book to be able to stand beside any book in the stores or on Amazon, and you really helped me do that. Thank you SO MUCH for your wonderful, smart, helpful book.

        • What a lovely tribute, Melissa. Thank you.

          It’s funny, I am working with someone now who says there is no info on what happens after you sign the contract, so she hired me to help her. I didn’t write much about that, I admit. For most people, it’s all about getting to the contract stage.

          I laughed when I read your part about the “pretty good cookbook for some dumb blogger.” I don’t think that’s enough to get a book contract. Your book has to compete on the cookbook shelf or the publisher wouldn’t have bought it.

  20. Wonderful post and topic Dianne! I really enjoyed reading the responses of established cookbook authors, as well as all of the comments in reply. Success really can be measured in so many ways. I know that success for me would be initially holding a book that I wrote in my hands, and then I believe it changes as you (hopefully) become more, well, successful. As many others said, nothing makes me happier than having someone tell me they loved a recipe or post of mine.

    • Thanks Katherine. That’s what makes this blog so satisfying — reading what other (talented) writers have to say. It’s the same feeling, whether it comes from a blog or book. Connecting with readers is a joyous experience.

  21. As a published cookbook author for exactly 24 hours now (my book came out yesterday), I’m absolutely in love with my friends and fans, who’ve kindly helped spread the word. The giant hug I’ve received over the last few weeks makes me feel all oogy inside. Buuut the writer-who-needs-to-make-a-living, the me who emerges whenever the ego-puffing whirlwind dies down, won’t consider this a success until I earn out my advance. If I want the chance to write more cookbooks, and I do, then this one needs to succeed in a way that speaks to the folks holding the checkbook for the next advance.

    • Congratulations, Debbie! Your book is out at last.

      Listen, enjoy the moment. It lasts for a few weeks. Soak up every bit as a reward for the hard work that’s gone into the book up until now. And because you understand marketing, I know you’ll also be on top of your game for a long time going forward, and that’s going to figure into whittling down the remaining advance. You’ll continue to well. It’s a super topic.

  22. I felt the first bit of success is when my cookbook finally left my typewriter ! (it was a few years ago) and it went to the publisher. Even though it is out of print, today I can still (thankfully) send interested people to on-line sources. I am thankful for that and for you, Dianne, for a thought-provoking blog!

    • Oh yes, that rush when you finally turn it in. I love that feeling. How sweet that people are still asking you where to find it, Pat. Thank you.

  23. This may just be my favorite post yet, Dianne! It’s interesting to see the varied responses. In some people’s eyes, my cookbook could be considered a success, in others, not quite yet. But in the end, it’s all about your personal beliefs and benchmarks. I have a feeling my publisher expected my book do better but hey, I’ve paid off my advance and I’m earning royalties! I get fan mail and people tell me how much they love the book all the time, so I’m not letting it get me down. The paperback should be out in the fall and hopefully it’ll have longevity.

    • Thanks Pat. I think your book qualifies as a success for the reasons you mentioned: It has earned out, you get fan mail, and the publisher’s coming out with a paperback version. If your publisher wasn’t pleased, I don’t think there would be a paperback edition.

  24. Great post Dianne, and it’s so interesting to hear so many varied responses from writers, agents and publishers.

    I really love what “Melicious” said about focusing on the emotional success of the book before anything else. I wrote my first cookbook when I was still in college. At the time, I had no experience at all as a food writer, no writing clips under my belt, nothing. I just wanted to write a cookbook, so I created/wrote (and got family members to donate) about 75 of our favorite heirloom recipes, printed out a bunch of copies at the local Office Max and bound it all nice and pretty with some low-brow computer graphics and I gave out copies as gifts to everyone in our family for Christmas. That was in 1991.

    Since then, I’ve been a working food writer, which included publishing a cookbook with a big name publisher co. that did quite well– i.e. paid back the advance, went into multiple printings and made me some money. I have also experienced the sting of failure having just recently had a cookbook project/proposal ultimately rejected after many months (years really) of hard work on the basis that it wasn’t a guaranteed big seller, not because of the subject matter which they loved or my expertise in it, but because I lacked a big enough platform to ultimately drive its sales.

    To me, success is defined as dog-eared recipes, food-stained pages or as Catherine W. added hearing “the bank teller tells me, ‘my wife and I tried the cauliflower soup last night and loved it.’” It’s also the joy of starting something big, which includes suffering through the bad days when recipes don’t work, when the writing doesn’t come, wanting to give up, yet ultimately finishing strong and experiencing the joy of holding something tangible in your hands that you can be proud of.

    Obviously sales are important, much more to publishers than to we creatives or so it seems, and that makes sense. Publishers are laying out a lot of cash to get a book idea/concept into print and it’s a huge risk. But, do sales alone make for success? For publishers, yes. For me, no.

    I look back on that first spiral-bound photocopied cookbook I did for my family and friends years ago, the one that my mother, grandmother, aunts, best friends, cousins (even myself) have cracked open on the kitchen counter too many times to count, and I see that book as my single biggest success.

    Kendra

    • Kendra, what a story. I am so touched that the photocopied cookbook means as much to you as the one that has earned out. I’m so sorry about the one that didn’t sell. My agent tells me it’s a lot harder to sell a cookbook right now. I suppose you could always work on your platform, but it’s too late for this particular proposal. Anyway, you have much to be proud of, and I know there’s another book in you somewhere.

  25. I’m working on my first cooking book. It quite interesting for me to read who people rate a success of cooking book. I’m a recent immigrant and many of my recipes I have to americanize. I hope, my book will be interesting for different type of people.

    • I hope so too, Alla. It’s up to you to define your reader very closely so you will know what appeals to him or her. Good luck with your first book.

  26. Thanks, Dianne, for your great – and relevant- post! I received your book today, and I’b4m very happy and excited about reading it all. There’b4s something about your book beyound the title, the cover, the very good edition: from taking it for a first glance, I could feel life in there, enthusiasm, “Voglia” in learning from your experience and from the exercises you present. The point is: it is that kind of a book that pulses on the desk, to be open, to be read, to be learned. I had the impression you put yourself there, with the strengh and envolvement each project deserves. Congratulations, and thank you by sharing your expertise through your book!!!!! Kind regards, Betina

  27. This is a nice thread and much of what I would say already has been said. Ordering a second printing, or sending a royalty check to an author (because the advance has been earned out), certainly count. I’d say that for me the gold standard for a book being successful is met when we want to publish the author’s next book and the author wants us to publish it. Usually this has to do with the book being profitable, to be sure, but it also has to do with less concrete metrics, such as: whether the book enhanced the author’s reputation and enhanced ours; whether we feel the author was gracious and exacting in her or his work; and, obviously but especially, when we feel that the author is smart and passionate and simply has more to say. I’ll also say, as an editor who often hears about the trials of the writerly life, that I feel a book is truly successful when it provides the author not just with some income but with enough income to sustain that life as a full-time job. Of course this doesn’t always happen, but when it does it is very satisfying.

    • How wonderful to hear from an editor who respects his authors and wants to produce their next books. It’s nice to know it’s not just about the money, but having a satisfying relationship with authors and wanting them to do well. And speaking of money, yes, it’s so rare to make a living just from writing books. I can only think of one person I know who does so.

  28. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this set of perspectives on what makes a successful cookbook. It clearly demonstrates how varied those metrics can be, regardless of whether they are qualitative or quantitative. From the publisher perspective, one of the manifestations of success that always brings me great joy is when you meet someone, whether at a conference or food event, who is not only familiar with your book, but loves it dearly and cooks out of it often. Obviously, this is just one person, and I suppose that also gets back to other comments left above about success being the ability to reach consumers and getting them cooking in the kitchen. But in this particular instance, it’s very personal, a one-on-one interaction that allows the author/publisher to experience the value that cookbook has brought to a consumer.

    • Hi Adam, nice of you to highlight this point. There is something tremendously satisfying when I find out a reader is deeply familiar with my book. It is as though they know me. It’s the highest compliment, when they say that it has meant something to them.

  29. My most successful cookbook–still in print after 25 years–is, oddly, the least professional. It was my first book, fresh and full of passion, although before I learned skills as a recipe tester, and published abroad by a small house. Success, then, was due to an open field–there were hardly any books about the cooking of Spain. Subsequent books by a big US publisher, tho better written and well-edited, were a drop in a very large bucket. Perhaps timing is all? I appreciate hearing all the opinions aired here.

  30. [...] of my favorite authors, Dianne Jacob and Michael Rulhman, published simultaneous posts this week, debating what makes a cookbook successful. Fascinating [...]

  31. I’d need to test with you here. Which is not one thing I usually do! I enjoy studying a put up that will make individuals think. Additionally, thanks for allowing me to comment!

  32. [...] Ruhlman and Dianne Jacobs discuss when a cookbook can be deemed ‘successful.’ Says Ruhlman, “I believe a [...]

  33. What a great post and so glad I stumbled across this. I’ve just purchased your book and am reading it in what can only be described as greedy gulps. I’m a twice published cookbook author and consider myself extremely fortunate to have had this opportunity. Everytime well intentioned people ask about my latest book, I can feel my stomach tightening, as so often their expectation is that I can now retire on my royalties! I have given up explaining that it’s not about the money, it’s about the opportunity to get your work, your thoughts and your recipes out there. I recently asked my publisher for some sales figures and was really pleasantly surprised by the numbers. It’s a slow and steady one, as opposed to a fast and furious sell out, but this seems to be okay with them and I am encouraged that they see this as positive. And what is most rewarding is the emails and letters I receive from parents, grandparents and others who have found themselves at a complete loss and have found something in my book to get them feeling positive and happy about eating gluten free. Some of the letters are so moving, I have actually cried and I think this for me is the main reason to go back and ask….can I write another one please? I am in the process of writing a proposal for book number 3 and this posting has given me lots to think about. Thanks again Dianne. It’s great to have found such a generous soul who gives and gives.

    • Thanks for this comment, Adriana. I love that you are reading my book as a twice-published cookbook author and you’re still finding something of value in it.

      What’s wrong with slow and steady? As long as it’s still selling, that would make me happy. I think my books are in the same category. I agree about the letters. It is indeed satisfying to know that your hard work meant something to someone.

      Good luck with proposal No. 3. (That is my specialty as a coach, BTW, if you want help making it irresistible.)

  34. [...] Diane Jacob’s article on When is a Book Successful? [...]

  35. [...] of my favorite authors, Dianne Jacob and Michael Rulhman, published simultaneous posts this week, debating what makes a cookbook successful. Fascinating [...]

  36. Having recently completed my first full novel (Mr Jones’ Men – Sid Harta Publishers),
    I find this topic fascinating, perhaps never-ending for any of us. My mystery thriller is soon to be published in Australia, following positive reviews from noteworthy critics during its pre-release stage. These have been enough for me to feel successful. After all, the work has been read, evaluated, and commented upon by respected people – all personally unknown to me.

    Although I await the forces of the market to determine its real potential, I have already commenced my second novel. After all, writing a book is … writing a book!

    GWH BLYTH (Author)

    • It is never ending, I agree! There’s always new criteria. Positive reviews are good validation. Now it has to sell, at whatever number you decide is good enough.

      • Your’e right about that Dianne, but your comment back in February really sums it all up from a personal perspective: ‘…holding a book in my hands is the best accomplishment of them all’

        Graeme

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