Would you write a cookbook for next to nothing? | Daily News


Would you write a cookbook for next to nothing?

A crop of publishers offers would-be authors very low or no advances, and may ask them to forgo royalties or sign nondisclosure agreements. In 2017, the Dallas food blogger Urvashi Pitre published the “Indian Instant Pot Cookbook.” By any measure, it was a hit, selling more than 100,000 copies.

But under the contract she signed with her publisher, Callisto Media, Ms. Pitre received no advance, the payment often given to an author when a book deal is signed. Callisto had asked her to develop 50 recipes in three months, but offered no budget for recipe development or testing. She said it takes her 12 hours to perfect a single recipe, and her grocery bill when testing is around $1,500 a month.

Milestone payments

She fronted all those costs. Over the last two years, Ms. Pitre said she has made $15,000 — minus the cost of her expenses — solely from milestone payments, fixed bonuses given out if book sales exceed a certain number.

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Ms. Pitre’s experience is not unique, and Callisto Media is not the only small publisher offering such deals. Many chefs and writers are asked to write cookbooks and food books for very little, and sometimes nothing. In the current publishing landscape, there is an expectation that people will do a lot more for a lot less.

In July, the Baltimore cookbook author Allison Robicelli was approached by Reedy Press to write a book about standout restaurants in Washington, D.C., or Baltimore, for no pay up front, and with no budget for travel or dining. Any payment would come later in the form of royalties (a percentage of sales on each copy sold) of 10 percent.

Hopeful book-writer

She shared this information on Twitter, and received more than 2,000 responses, many from writers who had received similar offers. (Ms. Robicelli turned hers down.)

“This is all so unbelievable,” one Twitter user replied. “No money is a joke. Who would do this for nothing!?” Another wrote, “As a hopeful book-writer, I had to stop reading this tweet because it made me sick to my stomach.”

Ms. Robicelli, 39, said she wasn’t surprised by the reaction. “What is surprising is that we haven’t been speaking out about this before,” she said. “Nobody wants to talk about how hard it is to get by as a writer.”

Josh Stevens, the publisher of Reedy Press, said the company does not offer money up front because the books “ultimately have a limited audience.”

“It is mainly a cost factor for us,” he added.

He said that a book like the one Ms. Robicelli was asked to write wouldn’t require an author to dine out or travel. When pressed on what options an author has to write a book about restaurants with no dining budget, Mr. Stevens said that “some authors may work something out with the establishments.” He later clarified: “I don’t know, maybe they give them some comped meals.”

Still many writers do accept these offers in exchange for the credentials they believe being published will provide, even if they lose money on the deal. Ms. Pitre, 53, jumped at the opportunity. “I thought, ‘I will do it for the experience,’” she said.

Six-figure deal

And, without her deal with Callisto, Ms. Pitre said, she never would have signed with an agent, or landed the two-book, six-figure deal she made with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017 after “Indian Instant Pot” was a hit. (Her contract prohibits her from disclosing the exact amount.)

“The sad truth is that this is a logical steppingstone for someone who is a nobody to get a book,” she said. “There is no other avenue.”

The cookbook business is not struggling. A spokesman for NPD BookScan said sales of print cookbooks grew 24 percent in 2018 over the previous year, compared with 6 percent growth in 2016. These meager deals could be a response to that growth.

Alison Fargis, a literary agent and partner at Stonesong, and Stacey Glick, a vice president and literary agent at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, both in New York, said they have seen a significant increase in these offers in recent years.

Ms. Glick described companies like Callisto Media as “data-driven publishers that look at a trend, come up with an idea and hire freelancers” — like Ms. Pitre — “to do books quickly so they can get out into the market and take advantage of that trend when there is not a lot of competition.” (Callisto did not respond to repeated requests for comment. In more traditional publishing deals, an author receives an advance — Ms. Glick said her books’ advances have ranged from a few thousand dollars to $400,000 — and royalties once the book sales surpass the amount of the advance. The time between the agreement and publication can range from a year to several, she said. (It is normal for publishers to not cover expenses like recipe development and testing, and frequently even photography.)

Less emphasis

With these smaller publishing companies, there isn’t always an advance, and if there is, it’s often less than $10,000. Royalties aren’t always offered, and most expenses aren’t covered. The timeline is months, not years, and there is much less emphasis on design and photography. Authors are occasionally asked to sign nondisclosure agreements before even viewing a contract. “In pretty much all cases, I have tried to discourage my authors from taking these deals,” Ms. Glick said. But she has sold books to both Callisto Media and Tiller Press (a division of Simon & Schuster that she said follows a similar model). “There are certain exceptions when an author is starting to grow their following, and it might be a good opportunity for them to get their name associated with a book.”

Mark Rotella, a senior editor at Publishers Weekly, said that what these books offer seems incongruous with the appeal of a cookbook for most people.

“I find that people who do use cookbooks buy them for the design elements, the voice, the illustrations,” he said. “Unless they want something quick like, ‘I just got this pressure cooker, and I need to get a bunch of recipes to get me started,’ and they do a search on Amazon and go with the cheapest one that gets delivered the quickest.”

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