Literary agents are notoriously coy about interviews. So it was a pleasure to meet Danielle Svetcov, a San Francisco-based cookbook agent who’s part of a New York agency, Levine Greenberg Rostan, who welcomed the opportunity.
Here’s what she has to say about why she became an agent, what she’s looking for in a new author, and what’s new in cookbook publishing:
Q. So you’re a journalist, a professionally-trained chef, and you have an MFA. How did this massive education lead to you becoming an agent?
An agent wears a lot of hats: editor, writer, reader, critic, life coach, translator, therapist, news-junkie, diplomat, lifeboat driver — you need a lot of degrees for those jobs!
Here’s the actual path: age 13, request Sunset Magazine subscription, discover bologna has a fancier cousin, prosciutto; 18, fancy self a journalist and attend J-school where mantra is “if your mother says she loves you, check it out;” 22, begin freelance career, avoid crime beat, politics, and anything requiring sleep-deprivation; 25, accept job as restaurant critic for a first-wave dot.com, quickly tire of pointing out flaws in hard-working kitchens, go back to freelancing; 28, commit to becoming a “real” writer, receive an MFA in fiction, never crank out a news story again, hawk coffee and morning buns by day, write short stories by afternoon and night; 30, reply to Craigslist ad for part-time literary agent’s assistant to combat growing feelings of irrelevance; 34, sell one book and then another, and then another on behalf of toiling writers I commiserate with; 41, sell my 80th book and pretend these turns were all part of the plan.
One correction: I’m not a professionally trained chef; when I was 24, I attended a “culinary camp” at Boston University, a three-month, full-time program that taught me that I lack what it takes to cook professionally; then I interned at Chez Panisse, just to be sure I was that bad; I lasted two days; the chef told me, “Don-ee-el, you talk to much, you move too slow. Time is money, space is money.” I always appreciate candor; it saves a lot of time.
Q. What was the first cookbook you sold?
A. Eat Feed Autumn Winter, to Stewart, Tabori & Chang, by Anne Bramley, founder of the Eat Feed podcasts. I think I sold it in 2007. Anne is still one of the cleanest most entertaining food writers I’ve ever worked with. She was ahead of her time with that food podcast.
Q. Which cookbooks have been your most successful?
Oh, that’s like asking me which of my children I like best.
Veg News named Feeding the Hungry Ghost by Ellen Kanner the best vegan cookbook of 2013. Karen Solomon’s Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It was probably the game-changer in the DIY jamming/canning space and is still earning royalties. Same story with Vegan Soul Kitchen by Bryant Terry; and now his Afro-Vegan cookbook is killing it, selling thousands in its first weeks on shelves. I adore the concept of Root to Stalk Cooking by Tara Duggan and thinks she’s brilliant for coming up with a sophisticated approach to conserving and celebrating the parts of fruits and vegetables we regularly toss.
And I’m so excited about cookbooks that will publish in the coming months and year: the flour+water cookbook, the Camino cookbook, the Brown Sugar Kitchen cookbook, The Year of Cozy by Adrianna Adarme, The Einkorn cookbook, Dandelion & Quince from Michelle McKenzie, The 52 New Foods Challenge by Jennifer Tyler Lee, State Bird Provisions’ cookbook.
Damn. When I type them out in a series like that, I get extremely excited. I’m so proud to work with these folks.
Q. What about this cookbook, The Un-Constipated Gourmet, that you wrote in 2009, when you were already an agent. What did you learn about being a cookbook author?
Um, you can’t really NOT have fun writing a cookbook like this. And that was the point. I wanted to laugh for a year, while learning about the marketplace for cookbooks, and the process of making them. I found a press that understood the comedy and utility of the idea and paid me an advance to write it. I hired an intern (whom the agency later represented for two of her own books; if you want to break into cookbook writing, I highly recommend interning for a cookbook author, even one who isn’t also an agent), I interviewed food historians, I recipe tested and asked friends and family to recipe test, I talked strategy with my publicist. It was a lot of work. I dreamt about mistyped recipes with 2 cups of salt instead of 2 teaspoons. My house smelled like a Fry Daddy for six straight months.
It was a bit like being inside something and outside of it at the same time. I knew what to expect and how to advise myself, but I also had first-time author jitters and outsized expectations. I still want Dr. Oz to hold up the book on his show and declare it the cure for what ails us. Dr. Oz, if you’re reading, please hold up the book. Short of that, Kaiser please buy 100,000 copies for all the gastro patients in your network; it’ll save you money in the long-term. In short, the book is currently in a “slow and steady wins the race” cycle, and I would do it all over again.
Q. What’s changed for cookbook authors, in the last few years, when it comes to working with publishing houses?
A. The biggest change in the cookbook world is that publishers are buying more cookbooks than ever, and they are making some presses rich. Chronicle Books, Ten Speed, Phaidon and Artisan are constantly redefining the American cookbook and making a lot of money doing it. They have terrific, future-looking editors who spot trends before anyone else; they make working in this space exciting; they work incredibly hard.
But at the ground level, where the author experiences things, I’d say that not a whole heck of a lot has changed, actually. Yes, some publishing houses now ask authors to hire photographers and handle that end of things (fiscally and managerially), but coming up with a fresh idea, framing it well, finding an agent to shepherd it through the process, securing a decent advance — that hasn’t changed all that much.
I’d also say that blogging has made it easier to get noticed and to publicize a cookbook.You don’t have to go to IACP and catch an agent in the bathroom, for undivided attention, anymore. You can just have a knock-out blog with fabulous content and photos and devoted followers. Clearly, not every food blogger is going to get a book agent and deal, but it’s a really smart strategy for anyone starting up, especially if you seek to seed your aesthetic and writing style and to stake your claim to a certain topic.
Q. Are there new publishers on the scene that you’re excited about?
A. Shambhala has a new crafty/lifestyle imprint called Roost that’s doing some great cookbooks. Phaidon just opened a U.S. branch in New York and started a U.S.-based imprint led by Judith Regan that will almost certainly make a splash in the cookbooks space here. McSweeney’s is doing a few cookbooks a year. And some of the more traditional outfits like Rodale have hired experienced cookbook editors to reinvigorate their lists and lure talent.
Q. What should an author expect when he or she engages an agent?
A. Care, call-backs in under 72 hours, hard truths, modest advances (if you’re a first-time author without a restaurant or flag-ship operation), a lot of red ink spilled on your proposal, a fee of 15% of all proceeds from the sale of the book, a cheerleader, a third-round recipe tester on that salad dressing that just won’t coat the lettuce, someone to call when your book-cover looks like clip art from a 1980s robot movie, a nag when you’re passed your deadlines, a reader of all your guest-blogger posts on Food52, a talkative lunch date (who will not order the same dish as you) if you happen to be in the same city on the same day.
Q. Why do you lean towards first-time cookbook authors?
A. I lean toward people who don’t want to be put in a box, who are constantly evolving. Most of the cookbook authors I rep, I signed for their very first cookbooks, and all of them continue to evolve, invent, think beyond trends to what is authentic and exciting. So, maybe I lean toward first-time authors or maybe I lean toward a certain type of person who just happened to be a first-time author when I tripped into their lives.
Q. What is your approach with a book proposal? Do you sometimes propose a whole crew for a the author, the designer, and the photographer, for example?
A. I don’t tend to propose a set crew, but if I think a cookbook proposal will be served by a photographer, I’ll recommend several and let the author choose who he/she likes best. If I think the proposal will be served by a designer, I put several in front of the author and let him/her choose. And same goes for the writer. And the recipe tester/developer (if that’s not the writer). The hardest part about cookbooks is getting that team – especially if it’s a group of characters who’ve never worked together before – to gel. Sometimes authors with big advances will hire a packager or a project manager to whip the team into shape. Project managers can be a godsend. They know where the lost photo ran off to or which version of the recipe is the tested version. In general, my approach to a book proposal is: write a really good one, and the rest will follow.
Q. What is the most important thing you can tell potential authors about finding an agent or getting a book deal?
A. Work hard. Be generous. Meet people who are kind and want to help you succeed. Be part of a food conversation.
Q. May my readers email you? If so, what must be in their email?
A. Anyone with a book idea can email me directly at DSvetcov@LGRLITERARY.COM. A one-page note is great; a two-page note is not so great.