Want to get your book published, and think you need to write a proposal? Maybe.
I spoke with Lisa Ekus, a literary agent who represents food-based books exclusively, about what’s new, what editors want, how she works a deal, and what writers need to do to attract the attention of an agent like herself.
What she said about the majority of her book deals might surprise you.
Q. You’re entering your 11th year as a literary agent specializing in cookbooks. What kind of changes have you seen in the publishing world during this time?
A. There’s no better time to be a food writer. There are fewer obstacles to have one’s voice heard because of the proliferation of blogging. In the past it was very challenging to break in. Now anyone who has something to say is online, and many editors who are looking for content can find it.
So how do we separate the wheat from the chaff? More talented writers have opportunities, but there has to be a system of building credentials and credibility, of putting the same diligence to your writing in an e-format: doing your own research, having ethics about where you get your material, having recipes tested, and having copy editing done before it gets posted. You still have to market yourself because there are 120 million blogs out there.
There’s more interest than ever before in food and travel and ethnic cuisines. People are now looking for people to weigh in, and writers have such an opportunity.
People keep saying that print is dead, but it’s not. It’s shifting. Highly illustrated books are harder to go electronic successfully and e-books won’t take the place of coffee table books. In two generations, no one’s going to know the difference, but for now, it’s good to think about the variety of platforms to share your work. For example, how music was transmitted and shared has changed, but the music never went away. Now we have more access to musicians than at any other time in our history and we can mirror that in our food world.
Q. Not all book ideas come from authors. Do editors tell you about a type of book they’d like to publish, and then you match them with an author?
A. It’s harder to sell a first-time writer because you need brand, platform, and followers. We used to take ideas from our client base and pitch them to publishers. Now at least 60 percent of our projects are generated between a publisher and us.
We know the publisher wants a certain topic or genre, or the publisher’s following a blogger, so we will discuss a project or author and help make the book happen. Or we see trends and we talk about them with the publishers, or we help ID the expert and create the proposal.
Bob of Robert Rose wanted to do a panini book at height of panini maker sales. The author we chose had three months to write it but met her deadline. Now 200 Best Panini Recipes has sold more than 90,000 copies since coming out in 2008, and Tiffany has more than earned out her advance. Her second book on casseroles just came out.
It’s challenging to make your mark. Sometimes it means doing things in a tighter timeline or going down a different research path.
Q. How has the Internet affected cookbook publishing?
A. Dramatically. Most of my authors say “I want an app,” but most cookbooks don’t lend themselves to apps. You have to back into it: What am I writing, does it work online, how will the app be disseminated? It won’t be received the same way online.
Q. As a literary agent, how do you know what editors want?
A. I talk to them constantly. I’m in touch every day, and I meet with them in person. I ask if they’re looking for something special and try to keep a running list of their personal preferences: who loves baking, who hates baking, and who wants only 75 recipes. I also read a lot about food, trends, and publishing.
I think about who’s going to grow and build with a publisher over time so it’s not a one-off book. I try to understand how expensive it is to produce a book and share that with our authors because it is a big commitment. Publishers expect authors to work at least as hard with the marketing, doing social media and tours that revolve around events.
Q. What can you tell established authors about what’s different about publishing a cookbook now versus publishing one 10 years ago?
A. You can forget about a (paid) book tour unless it’s Storey or Workman. You must be doing extensive social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook. You don’t always have to do a blog, but if you do so you must be consistent and have followers.
Publishers don’t always do an in-house edit, so I strongly advise authors to bring in outside editors.
Another shift I’m adamantly against is that several publishers mandate that the author has to earn out the photography advance before they will earn royalties. This is true of Random House and its imprints, including Clarkson Potter, 10 Speed, and Crown. It means the author is put in charge of photography, but the publisher still approves the photographer and makes the budget.
Also Random House now pays the advance in quarters, not thirds, and six months after book is released is when the last quarterly payment arrives.
Q. What advice do you have for bloggers who want to publish cookbooks?
A. Not every blog should be turned into a book. Most publishers want to sell a minimum of 20,000 copies. Are you sharing something different? Do you have the statistics? Publishers want new content, not just the contents of blog. If you’re sharing all your photos on Flickr, the publisher doesn’t want the book.
I have seen more books by bloggers in last 12 to 24 months. It’s a huge leap. Editors are spending more time online, looking for talent. They were looking through the pages of Gourmet and Bon Appetit. Now they go online and it’s all there.
Q. What kind of food books, besides cookbooks, are the most successful?
A. Some food narratives, but they’re challenging to sell. Food writing that overlaps as a journey of food with some recipes. We do some nutrition, women’s health,but not diet books. Reference books are great. I think there’s a lot of room for them, but it has to be one of the best reference books out there, like the Food Substitutions Bible.
Q. Among your clients, what is your ratio of established authors to first-time authors? What does it take to be accepted as a first-time author by the Lisa Ekus Group?
A. When I started the agency, I committed to 50 percent of the agency being first-time writers. I sold 80 percent of our first-time writers’ books and many have gone on to sell second and third books. Now we have less than 10 percent, not because we’re less interested, but because we spend so much time with each client and project that I would have to triple my staff.
I probably get a dozen proposals per week. Everything gets one to three readings.
I look for passionate, articulate writers with a strong voice who do their homework. We look for platform too. You don’t always have to have it, but if you don’t, you’d better be an amazing expert on the content.
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