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 allrecipes.com. 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.
* * *
You might also like: