6 Tips for Negotiating a Traditional Cookbook Contract

6 Tips for Negotiating a Traditional Cookbook Contract

It was just a few months ago that I negotiated my third and fourth cookbook contracts. I’ve actually negotiatled all of my cookbook contracts because I don’t have an agent. I toyed around with getting an agent, mainly to see if I could get a better advance, but because I was approached by a publisher, I decided to move forward and negotiate my own terms again. I’m really not sure if this is unusual, but I’ve done it now for the third time, and thought I’d share a few things I learned along the way.

Note: This information is NOT professional legal advice because I am not an attorney or an agent. So, if you’re unsure about the way this relates to your specific cookbook contract situation then I highly advise you to seek professional legal advice. This is not legal advice. Use it for information, but seek an attorney if you need one.

Think of negotiating your cookbook contract like negotiating the purchase of a home. Sometimes you use a real-estate agent and sometimes the house is For Sale By Owner. In either case, each party is expected to negotiate. In book deals, not every author has the same contract outcome and in home buying the same is true. But, in all cases it’s all about negotiation and a back-and-forth discussion. In the end what you hope for is a deal where each party feels good about the outcome of the contract. Then the project can move forward in a positive fashion.

Before I proceed, I do want to emphasize that I value the work of both agents and contract/intellectual property attorneys a great deal. I know from working as an editor for Joy of Cooking (Scribner 2006) and BakeWise (Scribner 2008) that agents are necessary and beyond helpful in many instances. But, my particular situation was a bit different. I don’t currently retain an agent,  and for my cookbooks I was approached directly by the publisher, and/or an editor, at each publishing house. I did write and submit a cookbook proposal for my first cookbook, but I knew ahead of time that the editor was waiting for the proposal, so an agent wasn’t necessary to get it in the door and on the acquisition editor’s desk. (Note: my platform and network helped in all instances of being offered a cookbook contract. The publisher reached out to me based on my visibility in the marketplace. More on that in another post, but for now just remember the importance of your platform.)

For me the hardest part of negotiating my own contract was wearing the hat of negotiator while maintaining a professional relationship with my (hopefully) soon-to-be-editor. But, I also looked at it this way: if my publisher accepts unsolicited and un-agented proposals, and since they had contacted me to write a specific book for them, then they more than likely expected that I would negotiate my own contract. In these situations the publisher has probably walked the fine line between being a hard-nosed and unbending-publishing-partner and a publishing partner who negotiates the terms of the contract with the author.

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you have decided to negotiate your own cookbook contract, and don’t retain an agent, my tips are below.

1. Value your time and value your value. Before your embark on negotiating your own contract remember that your time is valuable and your knowledge is worth something as well. Book publishers make their money packaging and selling your work and your words. They can’t do what they do without authors who write books for them to publish. Remember this and don’t sell yourself short by accepting terms that don’t make the project worth your time and effort. And if your book is your baby, and your best work, find the best publisher for that work.

2. Define your own idea of success. Ask for what you want in a professional and thought-out way. My cookbook contracts are different from each other and I can only speculate different from what other authors are offered. It’s my job to define success in my own terms when it comes to my advance, royalties, print-runs, and expenses I’m responsible for paying out of my advance.

3. Ask for everything in writing. Whenever I make a cookbook contract counter-offer I put everything in writing. If the contract is available in an electronic format I open the document in Word and ask questions or make counter-offers using tracked changes. This works for me so that when it comes time to discuss the counteroffer I have a documented version of the terms I want and so does the publisher. Our conversation starts there.

4. Sleep on it. Don’t feel like you have to say yes or no to the contract immediately. In fact, it’s best to read the contract through and then let some time pass before you say yes or no. After you’ve carefully considered the terms of the agreement then you send your reply and counteroffer.

5. Consider what parts of the contract are generally more negotiable:

a. Publication date – Does the publishers publication date fit your schedule? How long will it take you to write the recipes and the narrative? Consider the time it takes for recipe development and testing. Map out the time between the signing of the contract and when your manuscript is due. Will you have enough time? How many recipes will you have to create each week to meet this deadline? Is that number realistic considering your other work and family obligations. For both of my cookbooks I was given an average of 9 months to complete the manuscript. Unless I had some sort of manuscript well underway I can’t imagine being able to complete either of these projects in 6 months. Shorter cookbooks (less than 50 recipes) or projects where much of the narrative and recipes are ready for publication may be an exception.

b. Royalties – A royalty is your profit as the author from each book that is sold. Is the publisher paying you a royalty to write the book and what is the % of each book you will make? Usually there is an increase in the royalty % based on the number of books that are sold – the more books you sell the higher the %. Don’t be afraid to ask for a higher % of if you want it. The worst thing that can happen is they say no.

c. Advance – An advance is just that, an advance payment on your royalties. Typically an advance is divided into parts: part paid when the contract is signed and the balance paid when the manuscript is turned in. This allows the author to have some cash flow while they are working on writing and testing recipes, working with a photographer, and other duties a cookbook author undertakes.

d. Expenses – Make sure it’s clear what expenses you as the author must pay for. I paid for the index of my first cookbook and the publisher commissioned and paid for the original artwork and illustrations. For my second, third, and fourth cookbooks the publisher paid/is paying for both the index and the photography. This will vary depending on the publisher and the style of books they publish. In the most recent contract, I had the photography discussion removed from my contract, and the publisher agreed to work with the photographer in a separate contract.

e. Rights – What if the publisher wants to use your manuscript and publish it in another format – eBook, in Spanish language, or sell the idea as a TV show? What are your rights and how will you be paid if one of these things happens? I have retained my electronic rights and renegotiated them closer to the time of the electronic book formatting.

f. Complimentary book copies –  Every book contract should spell out how many copies of the book an author will receive. It’s easy to think that because I wrote the book that I should receive all my copies free, but that’s not the case. You’ll get a specific number of books for free then after that you will have to buy books from the publisher. Be sure it’s spelled out how much it will cost for you to buy books from the publisher. With both of my contracts, I was offered a discounted price to buy the books at a wholesale price and now I can sell the books when I go to events where a book seller is not present to sell the books or give away copies of my cookbooks for fundraisers and as gifts.

6. If all of this seems like too much to think about it might be a good idea to have someone review the contract for you. If you hire a lawyer make sure she/he specializes in intellectual property and that they have experience with book (preferably cookbook) contracts. Alternatively, you can ask an agent to work with you and represent you. Agents are paid by the author and the typical rate is 15% of your earnings. For every $100 you earn, you pay the agent $15. Some authors join The Authors Guild. One member benefit of The Authors Guild is a “free review of U.S. book contracts from experienced legal staff…” and more benefits such as help with a website, domain name registration for an author site, and newsletters and invitations to functions that the Author Guild offers.

Cookbook author and culinary dietitian Maggie Green coaches aspiring cookbook authors in the process of writing cookbooks, cookbook proposals, and building their author platform. Download her checklist “Am I Ready to Write A Cookbook?”. 

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