After 40 Cookbooks, David Joachim’s Secrets to Success

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Author, co-author, ghostwriter, and reference writer Dave Joachim has the drive to do it all.

Dave Joachim has 40 books under his belt, almost all of them cookbooks, including the “A Man, A Can, A Plan” series of five books which has sold more than 1 million copies.

I spoke with Dave about his latest book and his thoughts about cookbook negotiating and writing: 

Q. Congrats on your latest book, Global Kitchen. Is it a work-for-hire with royalties, from Cooking Light? That’s an unusual arrangement. 

A. Actually, I got an advance for this book. The material I created – apart from my 30 recipes — was a work-for-hire. The publisher, Time Home Entertainment Inc., owns Cooking Light and several other publications and they own the rights to use the material in Global Kitchen elsewhere.

Regarding the 30 recipes, the publication has the right to the material for a certain time, and then the rights revert to me. So if I want to use the Lamington recipe elsewhere, it will be mine to do so.

The other recipes in the book come from Cooking Light, including some from cookbook authors and chefs. It was a collaboration between myself and team at Cooking Light.  I think of it as the culinary greatest hits from around the world.

Q. You also get royalties?

 A. Yes, I get a percentage of every book sold, just like a single author cookbook. Royalties are what the publisher pays after they’ve earned back the advance. So I will get a percentage of every book sold.

The negotiating points are the advance and the percentage of royalties. Typically it’s graduated, where you get a low percentage on say, the first 7,000 books sold; and then a slightly higher royalty up to 15,000; and slightly higher after that. Fifteen percent might be the cap. 

Most books don’t earn out their advance, so the traditional advice is to get the highest advance you can. But that comes at the expense of lower royalties. So if you take a lower advance, you can argue for higher royalties, because the money the publisher is putting out for this project is low at the beginning.

Q. So you’ve been negotiating like this on 40 books so far?

A. I’ve always been a writer and cook. I cooked professionally and I taught writing, but it wasn’t until I started writing about food and editing cookbooks that those two merged. So I was editing them but I really wanted to write them.

I had a unique position at Rodale where typically the editor is an acquiring editor, where their job is to get the book into the publishing house. I did that but I also developed cookbook proposals and sold them to the marketing department. Rodale sells books through direct mail, so they developed recipes specifically for their market. They have a large test kitchen and they develop recipes.

So I’m writing the book, selling it to the publisher, and I’m not getting any royalties. After two books like this, I said,’forget this.’ But it got my name out there as an author.

I now do lots of collaborative projects because I know what the editor is looking for, the marketers are looking for, and, in working with chefs, what their interests are. The cookbook is a representation of their personality, not just a product to sell. This is their public image, their words, their voice, their writing and it needs to represent them.

Q. Your biggest success was the A Man, A Plan, A Can series, wasn’t it?

 A. It depends how you define success. I did the first one under salary at Rodale. There are five books in the series, and as a whole the series has sold 1 million copies. Most of the copies continue to sell for the first book. So you can see why I thought I was shooting myself in the head. It was definitely time to change that business model.

I can look back at the books I’ve done and be proud of that book — a fun gifty book book for men who don’t really know how to cook — and a super high-end chef book, Il Viaggio di Vetri. The most money I ever got, though, was a work-for-hire for Reader’s Digest.

Q. And there’s my favorite book of yours, the Food Substitutions Bible.

A. I wanted that book on my desk so I wrote it. I had been keeping files of food substitutions and equivalents, so I turned it into a book. I use that information all the time!

Q. Which role do you like the best: author, co-author, or ghostwriter, and why?

A. I like being the writer of my own book. I love writing informed stories with a lot of cultural background and history. I love pouring over words. I have a dictionary and a Thesaurus right next to my computer. I like the act of writing and creating written works. I like developing recipes and writing about food more than editing and writing about other people’s food.

That’s why I liked writing Global Kitchen. For this book, I did a lot of research about cuisines around the world. I found out that 500 years ago there were no chilies in India, which seems unthinkable now. I’m intrigued by how historical events changed what people eat, how local foods change.

Q. What are the trends in cookbooks?

A. In the age of the Internet, you can get any recipe you want. What you can’t get is great stories and the object itself. Because cookbooks are high in production values, they will remain valuable as printed books, but the physical features of the book itself will become more important: the quality of paper, the amount of photography, and interesting use of fonts. It’s got to be different from what you see on  The personalities, the stories, and the particular focus of expertise – you can’t get that on the Internet. The Internet is an uncurated mass of confusing information.

Q. What’s the one thing you would tell cookbook writers about how to write more cookbooks, since you are a master of that?

 A. Learn how to type faster. If you can speed up the process of production, you will earn more money.

Q. Seriously? And work really hard.

A. I don’t sleep. And I’m driven. And I truly enjoy this, to nourish people’s minds and bodies.

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  1. says

    Thank you for more insight and inspiration into how writers write and their personal process. I’m still felling my way down this writing trail. As a former English teacher, I know that editing with a red pen is easier than creating the story and finding the words to convey it to the reader.

    • diannejacob says

      I’m with you about editing, Carol. That’s why I’m an editor! But there are many more opportunities for writers, unless you want a career as a copy editor.

  2. says

    OK – and smart, too. A businessman, a writer, a cook and exceptionally savvy about the here and now. Completely enjoyed this read and appreciated David’s candor and openness.
    Thanks, Dianne!
    (Hope the interview was not over the phone!)

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks Valerie. Yes the interview was over the phone, but I have met Dave in person a few times at conferences. If you read his bio you’ll see that he also has time to be a drummer in a band and he loves to bike.

  3. says

    I have to agree with Dave about cookbooks. I love my ereader, but don’t buy cookbooks on it. I like the heft of a good book, the smell of the paper and all the gorgeous pictures!
    And I’m curious about his take on a lamington – he’s stepping on hallowed Australian culinary tradition there! 😉

    • diannejacob says

      Well then you would like this book, Amanda. It’s absolutely gorgeous! Super color saturated, with some pages featuring type on photos, which is tricky to do well. But they pulled it off.

      Re lamingtons, I bet you can hold your own in that department.

  4. says

    Like many of you, I prefer my novels on e-readers but my cookbooks in paper, hold-in-my-hand-versions. I appreciate Dave’s expert advice and hope to apply it to my writing of gluten-free cookbooks,

    • diannejacob says

      I am still a Luddite in that regard, Carol, having read only a few books on my iPad. I still like to hold books. Dave’s new book is full of color and gorgeous photos, making the experience of paging through it so much more exciting than looking at type online.

  5. says

    I love love love The Clever Cook’s Kitchen Handbook by David Joachim. Years ago, I read that book cover to cover, and took notes like I was taking a class! So grateful to him for writing it. Interesting to read his longitudinal take on the industry. Thanks, Dianne.


    • diannejacob says

      Hi Nicole, I don’t know that book of David’s. I will have to look it up, since you are so excited about it.

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