March 28th, my first book was published, a cook book about ice cream, called Hello My Name Is Ice Cream; the Art and Science of the Scoop. You can find more information about it here! hellomynameisicecream.com
I am so honored this opportunity came my way, to be the proud author of a book of my very own. But there was a time when I thought otherwise. When I was younger, and had lots and lots of oversized opinions, I frequently said “I’m never going to write a book.” I thought this opinion made me sound like I had my finger on the pulse of this industry. “Books are dying. New Media is flourishing on the internet.” I said things like “there’s no money in publishing, books are just vanity projects now.” or “you can sell maybe 20,000 books but you can reach the same amount of people on the internet in a day.”
I said I’d rather just give everything away on a blog instead.
Lets be clear, no one was knocking down my door to write a book in the first place. And I had absolutely no understanding of the inner workings of publishing, new media, or old media, beyond hitting the publish button on a blog or buying a book at the bookstore. I watched my Aunt type in a google search for a recipe, her back just inches away from a shelf of cookbooks, and thought, “no one looks in books anymore.” For the most part, I was simply rehashing opinions I’d heard others state in conversation that made sense to me through my very limited scope of understanding. Opinions I thought made me sound current and smart. Bold statements that often had little basis in fact, or compassion.
Fast forward 10 years, and there I was signing with a literary agent, and working diligently to write a book proposal. It seemed that these opinions of mine were flimsier than my knowledge of publishing. When opportunity came knocking, I abandoned all my once loud opinions, and answered the door singing a different tune.
I thought I’d share my journey from idea to book, in case anyone was curious, in a multipart series!
Part 1: The Agent
I received an email from someone I didn’t know, saying they worked with a literary agent in New York and often helped connect them with potential authors. They had been a fan of my writing on my blog, and wanted to know if I’d be interested in setting up a conversation with this Agent. My curiosity was piqued, and I agreed. When I spoke with the agent, she told me that she’s convinced every chef has a book they are secretly writing every day in their heads. She asked what my book would be.
I came up with a complete retrospective of my career, stories from all the different restaurants with lessons I’d learned along the way, and recipes from each part of my career. Or, I said, a book about how to build plated desserts, like we do at work, considering textures like legos, interchangeable, and able to have flavors swapped out. They were huge ideas. She told me to write a book proposal and send it to her.
She send me two proposals from fellow pastry chefs to guide me. Instead, they overwhelmed me. The looked like the actual books! Graphics, professional photographs, impressive media from the new york times, entire chapters written. I froze. I didn’t know how to do this, and I couldn’t see a way from point A (me sitting at a computer looking at someone else’s proposal) to Point B (sitting in front of a computer looking at my own proposal).
I tried to stretch my grand ideas into a table of contents, but they wouldn’t stretch. I put it aside and stopped thinking about it.
A few months later, Mindy Segal, a wonderful Chicago pastry chef I’ve looked up to for years, invited me to her book launch party for Cookie Love (highly recommended.) Somewhere between devouring every single cookie on the table, I bumped into Mindy’s Agent and started a conversation. “Hey, so I have a question! What exactly does an agent do?” She laughed and said “no one’s ever really asked me that!” I explained my predicament, big ideas, new york city agent, fear of the proposal. She agreed to sit with me for coffee and chat.
After a 2 hour coffee date, she had not only made the world of cookbook publishing transparent to me, she had also helped me narrow down my book idea, and convinced me to work with her. After stumbling through my clumsy ideas, she said “why don’t you just write a book about ice cream?”
I said, “wait. I can just write about ice cream? Well that’s easy, I could write that book tomorrow.”
She laughed hysterically, and said, “uh, yeah, you could do that.”
With that, I started working out the business end of my relationship with my Agent. An agent, I learned from this conversation, receives a percentage of the earnings from the work they represent. A author-agent agreement is typically entered into by agreeing upon the rate that the agent receives, which from my understanding is commonly between 10 and 15 percent, and lasts for an agreed upon amount of time, let’s say, a year. Within that year, the agent agrees to represent all work being shopped by the author, and the author agrees to use only that agent to shop all proposals to publishers. My agent also did a lot of work with me polishing the proposal, helped me copy edit it, and answered any questions I had about the proposal when they came up.
Once the proposal was polished, my agent took her understanding and relationships with different publishing houses, and sent my proposal to houses she believed my proposal fit with. Inside publishing house, there are often different imprints that each specialize in different style books, like Clarkson-Potter and Ten Speed Press who specialize in cookbooks. Each of these imprints have a different style, and an agent will know which imprint is a good fit for the author. Within each imprint, there are multiple editors. Each editor is responsible for their own acquisitions, which are the books they are interested in guiding from proposal to finished book. So my agent also helped place my proposal on the desks of editors she thought would be a good fit for my manuscript. And once an editor was interested in acquiring my book, my agent began the financial negotiations over the advance, which is the amount of money the publisher will give the author in advance to make the book with. This is an advance on your royalties from the sale of the books. Once the royalties from the sales of the book eclipse the amount advanced to the author, the book “earns-out” and the author can begin collecting royalties on additional sales. Not all books earn-out, and the advance is often the only monetary compensation to an author for the book written. Advances are also not necessarily all paid to the author at once. The payments are often broken up over the course of the books making, and in that case, the agent will also negotiate how much of the advance is paid at each interval.
My agent negotiated additional money in the advance to cover my entire art team, which included both an illustrator and a photography team. It was helpful for us to have this outlined in the proposal, so it was clear upfront what the visual style was and what would be expected to achieve it. She also helped “front load” my advance, meaning a larger portion of it came in the first payment, which allowed me to pay my art team, as well as the recipe tester, and cover the cost of all the equipment, ingredients for recipe development, and some of the travel necessary to connect the art team for the photo shoot.
Because I decided to author the book myself, there was no negotiation to cover the fees for a co-writer, a cost very often associated with a cookbook.
Not all books are represented by an agent. Publishers can work directly with chef-authors, bypassing the need for an agent altogether. From the conversations I’ve had, it appears to be something that happens more with well-known chefs, bloggers, celebrities, or authors, those individuals with reputations powerful enough to open the door to the publisher’s office. In my case, this was not available to me, and working with an agent was ideal.
Stay tuned for the next piece, where I’ll discuss the details of the proposal!