By Amelia Levin
Should you accept assignments for work-for-hire cookbooks?
Therein lies a key question in the cookbook publishing world. Work-for-hire cookbooks straddle the middle ground between traditional and self-publishing. Publishers use algorithms and other research to determine what’s hot and what’s selling now. Then they find authors to write the book for a flat fee. Advances or royalties are not included.
I’ve written three work-for-hire cookbooks (11 cookbooks total), and recently completed 30-Minute Cooking for One: 85 No-Waste Recipes, published by Callisto Media/Rockridge Press.
Here are the pros and cons of writing work-for-hire cookbooks. I’ll start with the bad news first:
1. You get paid to write a work-for-hire cookbook, but you don’t earn any royalties.
If the book does well, you don’t get any more money, though it can still help boost your name and brand recognition to a wider market. On the flipside, if the book doesn’t sell well, you still got your project fee.
2. You’re subject to the publisher’s terms.
Typically, with work-for-hire cookbooks, you can’t use a literary agent or other representation to fight on your behalf. You need to read the contract very carefully. There’s not much room for negotiation.
There’s also little to no room for negotiating the fee. I got a bit of a boost, being a seasoned author. You have to do the math and make sure the payout is worth it. (And no, they don’t reimburse for groceries, so you’ll want to eat what you cook!)
4. The writing timeline for work-for hire cookbooks is intense.
You may be asked to write an entire book within just six weeks, including recipe testing. So be honest with yourself when it comes to your time and speed. The editing phase is quick too: you’re expected to deliver responses or changes within about a day.
You need to prioritize this work. You can get a little extension here or there, but if you’re late and don’t deliver, you won’t get more projects!
5. They choose the topic.
In the case of Callisto, you can’t suggest topics, because as mentioned earlier, they are one of those publishers that uses a special algorithm to determine which work-for-hire cookbooks might sell. However, if you write a book with them or work with them as an editor or recipe developer, you can list your specialties and they will call you if or when there’s a possible fit.
Still, I would say “no thank you” if you’re not feeling the topic. For example, I wrote two low-carb/Paleo-related cookbooks for Callisto, and then they asked me if I had any interest in a carb-cycling book. Umm…that’s a little off-brand for me! I turned it down but was quick to ask about other book projects that might be available instead. I said yes to the “cooking for one” topic when they were looking for a seasoned home cook to help teach others.
Now for the pros:
1. Work-for-hire cookbooks are a great opportunity for first-time authors.
Maybe you have never published a book before and want to do so. Or you have faced rejection with traditional publishers and agents. If so, a work-for-hire project is a great opportunity to get your name out there and build your portfolio. The publisher may not be Ten Speed or Chronicle, but it’s not a self-publishing endeavor: meaning you get paid for your work. Even though I am not a first-time author anymore, I still do these books if I have the time, like the topic and want some extra cash.
2. You have the support and access to a full publishing team.
You will work with an acquisitions editor, a managing editor, a recipe editor, copyeditor, designer, indexer and a marketing person. Theyhandle the food photography (thought there aren’t as many photos in the books published by Callisto compared to more traditional publishers). Having a full (and at least with Callisto, a very competent) team at your disposal means you’ll have all the help you need to stay on track and publish a top-quality book.
There were some new marketing requirements this time around for me, but my team created all the social media photos and other assets. They even wrote some marketing copy and created a schedule to make posting easy.
If you were to self-publish, you would likely have to cobble together all these resources on your own and pay for them — or pay a steep price for a custom or hybrid publisher.
3. You get to pursue your passion — and get a check.
If the subject and the publisher are a good fit for you, a work-for-hire cookbook is a great way to write about something you’re passionate about. A cookbook can help you build your brand, Best of all, the publisher pays you for your work.
I did worry at first that the 30-Minute Cooking For One cookbook would be off-brand for me because I have a family now, and because the recipes wouldn’t necessarily be low-carb and I just wrote two low-carb cookbooks. But I was once a solo cook, and the publisher wanted clean, healthful recipes that are easy to make – something I can definitely do! I just tested a few recipes at a time so I knew they would work for one serving. When served together, they made a good tasting dinner for our family.
4. If you have the time, work-for-hire cookbooks are a nice side hustle for extra cash (and recognition).
I’m all about being prolific. The more books in your portfolio, the better, right? If you make the time and put in the effort, chances are that you’ll have a lovely cookbook.
When Callisto asked me to do this last book, I happened to be in a slower period with my regular work (and was stuck at home during a pandemic), so it became a great side hustle that paid for our powder room remodel.
I’m also hoping that by gearing recipes to a different audience this time, I might attract a new fan base. And if not, well, my portfolio of written work will still grow. No question about that.
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Amelia Levin is a Chicago-based writer and certified chef who contributes to a variety of B2B food industry magazines and currently serves as the editor-in-chief of the American Culinary Federation’s bi-monthly flagship publication, The National Culinary Review. She is the author, collaborator, or contributor to 11 books, including The Lake Michigan Cottage Kitchen (Storey, 2018), Heritage Baking (Chronicle, 2018), and the new Chicago Chef’s Table (2nd edition), which will be released in January 2022. In addition to 30-Minute Cooking For One, her other work-for-hire books with Callisto/Rockridge Press include The Pegan Diet for Beginners (2019) and Paleo For Everyday (2014).
(Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.)
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You might also like:
- Is a Work-for-Hire Cookbook Worth It? (A different perspective)
- 5 Reasons to Write for Trade Food Magazines (Also by Amelia Levin)