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?