Michelle Branson says she wants cookbook authors with a decent social media following. She’s Senior Editor and Contract Administrator of Gibbs Smith, in charge of cookbooks acquisition team, and a member of the children’s books acquisitions team.
The question, though, is what constitutes a “decent social media following?” Big. But even as publishers and agents demand it, they are also wondering whether big numbers guarantee big sales, or whether there are other factors.
In this interview, Michelle discusses cookbook trends, your platform, and a what defines a decent social media following:
Q. How is Gibbs Smith different from other cookbook publishers?
A. We will be celebrating our 50th anniversary in 2019. We started by publishing history books. There’s a textbook department and a trade department. We probably started publishing cookbooks 18-20 years ago.
Our first really successful cookbook series was “101 Things to do with…” They’re $10 spiral-bound cookbooks.We’ve got 35 to 40 titles in that series, and we’re continuing to add new ones. I’ve got three on the horizon now.
Some sell millions of copies. 101 Things to do with a Slow Cooker has been a bestseller for months. They’re fun little books for Costco and for cross merchandising because many are specific to an appliance.
Q. The website says your cookbook categories are Desserts and Treats, Raw/ Vegan/Vegetarian, Southern and French.
A. We’ve got a lot more than that. The website’s undergoing an update.
We’re always looking for a new series. Being a historian, I’m also interested in cookbooks that tell a story.
Q. What are the biggest cookbook trends right now?
A. Vegan is a big one. Then you get the really trendy stuff, like Instant Pot cookbooks. We’re seeing more cultural, world-themed and Middle Eastern cookbooks. And more specific titles, like Georgian cooking. Single subject titles are always popular.
Barnes & Noble is clearly enamored with celebrity chef cookbooks. We don’t do those.
Q. For an aspiring author, how important is a big following ?
A. I cannot take a cookbook proposal into a meeting and say I want to do this book without people asking, “What’s the platform?” It would have to be really compelling content if there was a small author platform. Because cookbooks are hard to sell, and the author is really important to help drive those sales. Social media really helps.
Bloggers who are interactive with comments and responses seem to do a better job of selling the books than just the blogs that have lots of followers. It’s the bloggers who create a connection with readers that seem to do better.
Q. Are there certain numbers that you like?
A. If the numbers are low, we also would like to have some other ways they can sell the book, like through a storefront, or cooking school.
Q. What constitutes ” too low” for a decent social media following?
A. If they have an Instagram following of 400, that’s too low. A lot of our authors have 40,000 followers or 1 million followers. I know it’s really hard to build those kinds of numbers. It doesn’t happen overnight.
Some people say that they’ll build their social media following with the book’s publication, but that doesn’t work. You’ve got to have the following first.
Gone are the days when you can be an amazing cook with a lovely stash of recipes. Who’s your market? If we’re talking about 60 or 100 people, I can’t get that kind of number past my sales and marketing team.
Q. How do you evaluate whether a big platform has meant better than average cookbook sales?
A. That’s a good question. You don’t. You hope. Do we have actual data that says having a social media of 500,000 followers will sell 20,000 books? No. The bloggers who interact more see bigger sales.
Sometimes authors do a ton of advertising, and they’re connected with magazines, and sometimes that works great — and sometimes it doesn’t. It could be timing, the subject, the font on the cover — who knows?
Q. What percentage of your cookbook authors are food bloggers?
A. A majority.
The 101 Cookbook series is concept driven, however, so they’re not author-driven books. They’re based on zucchini, not the author. That’s what people are buying.
Q. What percentage of your authors have agents?
A. Maybe 50 percent. Very few of the 101 authors have agents.
Q. What is the range of cookbook advances at Gibbs Smith?
A. I would rather not state specific royalty advance and photo budget amounts. Advances and photo fees are set according to what the book budget can support. This takes into account the trim size of the book, the number of pages, the number of recipes and photos, the list price, and the number of copies we anticipate printing.
Also, each book is its own deal, and there can be all sorts of factors that go into making the money decisions. The model I usually work on is that we pay the author an advance. Then I hire a photographer and food stylist, and that’s a separate project.
Q. Do you have a message for a food writer or blogger who wants to contact you about a book?
A. Yes. You don’t have to have an agent. I do want a well thought-out proposal, not a one-page thing. I need a lot of thought put into the proposals, because I can’t tell you how many horrible ones I’ve seen. It sends a message that either you don’t know what you’re doing, or you don’t care to put any time or effort into it. Most cookbook proposals run 25-50 pages with sample recipes and headnotes. I need realistic information about how the author will help sell the book.
A really kick-ass proposal would help an unagented author get through the door. If the author’s a halfway decent photographer, we like them to include photos so we can see what the food looks like.
If someone has a fully formed cookbook concept, I’m willing to talk with them. Email me at Michelle.Branson AT gibbs-smith DOT com.
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