This past weekend, I was on a panel at the IACP conference on chef and writer cookbook collaborations. We hit on a lot of important points – and probably would have kept talking had it not been for everyone’s Saturday night plans. This being IACP, the audience was mainly food writers, editors, and recipe developers, and we had a good discussion with many attendees after our talk.
Before the conference, I posted this piece about my experience writing chef cookbooks. After our panel discussion, I also wanted to take a deeper dive into the subject to help people navigate this somewhat nebulous world of collaborating.
And so: If you are a writer who wants to write a book with a chef, here is a list of questions to ask yourself before you start. These questions are not about honing the story and crafting the voice but rather about the nuts-and-bolts aspects of starting a book project with a chef. And these questions are also not solely my thoughts on the matter. They have come out of in-depth conversations with my fellow IACP panelists Anne McBride, Amy Collins, and Jody Eddy, all of whom have negotiated or written several chef cookbooks.
While this post takes the perspective of a writer who is working with a chef, chefs could read this list as what to expect from a co-author—and what to go over before writing a book together.
Are you willing to take on someone else’s voice? Often, writing a book with a chef involves taking on a chef’s voice. This has benefits: you won’t be as tied up in promoting the book and can move onto new projects faster. But it also means that you have to be willing to fade into the background.
Have you realistically assessed the scope of the work? It is easy to underestimate how much work a book will require. When collaborating with a chef, more half the time can be spent wrangling recipes. Before working on a book, consider working with the chef before in some capacity, such interviewing them for a magazine article that includes recipes. This will allow you to see the state of the chef’s recipes. Sometimes they are neatly typed while other times they live in in a battered kitchen notebook. No matter what, testing and editing recipes to fit cookbook style can take a long time. And if you have to chase after the chef for the recipes, you will likely have to do the same on a much larger scale when writing a book.
Do you share a similar value system as your co-author? It’s important that co-authors like the subject. If you hate kale, think twice about writing a chef book that celebrates it. A book endures, so the subject needs to not only resonate with you but also be a subject that you can get behind for the long run.
How will this collaboration impact your own platform? This ties into the point above. Think about how this book will enhance your personal brand. If you want to become more of an expert on baking bread, writing a book with a baking expert can turn you into source for baking information. Or if you want to be known for writing about experimental cooking, look for chefs that fit that profile.
The exception to this is ghostwriting. If your name will not be on the book, it’s okay for the subject to not completely mesh with your other projects. I have done some work-for-hire ghostwriting, but I generally don’t. Writing a book–even if it’s not my own story–is personal. It also takes a long time from start to finish. I want to do a project that I can claim as my own, too.
Do I need an agent, or will a chef’s agent represent both of us? There are pros and cons for using agents, and much depends upon the chef and the agent. If you already work with an agent, he or she can negotiate the book proposal fee, the fee for writing the book or the percentage split in advance in royalties, with the chef’s agent. An agent will also negotiate how you are credited for the book. If you go it alone, at least ask a lawyer to read everything on your behalf, and pay attention to a few of these key areas: how and where you will be credited for the book, who is paying for the recipe testing and photography, who is responsible for recipe testing, who is covering travel expenses (if there are any), and who is responsible for promoting the book and paying for a freelance book publicist (usually the chef).
Speaking about how you will be credited, an agent can arrange whether your name follows “with” or “and” on a book–Joe Smith with Kate Leahy or Joe Smith and Kate Leahy. (The second is preferable.) He or she will also negotiate whether your name will appear on the cover and the spine.
All of this starts with a solid collaborator agreement, with will also set the parameters of the project—who is responsible for what.
If the chef has an agent and you have an agent, avoid a scenario in which each agent takes 15% from the book deal. (That means agent fees will be 30% total—which is high.) If one agent is doing more of the legwork selling the piece, a scenario in which one agent takes 10% and the other takes 5% may be appropriate. Some agents are more willing than others to negotiate these splits. If one agent is representing both the chef and the writer, he or she should talk with each party separately to figure out what each person needs to make the project viable.
And if the subject does not feel like one that’s going to sell for years to come, you may be better off negotiating a flat fee for the project instead of being paid out of the advance and royalties.
Who is doing the recipe testing and who is paying for ingredients? If you are splitting everything (advance and royalties) 50/50, be prepared to cover expenses attached to testing unless your collaborator agreement says otherwise. If you are not doing the recipe testing yourself, make sure you trust the person who is testing all the recipes and have a test run first—when writing the proposal—to ensure the testing methodology is sound. And be clear with a chef that if the recipes are intended for home cooks (like most books), they need to be tested in a home kitchen.
Are you prepared to meet the challenges unique to co-authored chef books? Writing a book together is all about sharing information, and collaborators need to develop a level of trust with one another. A chef needs to trust that you’re doing justice to the recipes and the stories behind them. You have to earn this kind of trust, too. This comes from spending time together in person and on the phone and getting to know them. It also means listening and, sometimes, playing psychologist. And it means getting them to read drafts and show them that yes, you’re hard at work, too.
Other items that come up with chef books include finding ways to balance professional technique and ingredients with tips that cooks can readily adapt to their home kitchens. It can mean guiding them through the publishing process, which might feel foreign to them. Some co-authors also will need to be prepared to manage photo shoots. I have worked on photo shoots with book projects—which I enjoy—and I have left photo shoots to my co-authors and the photographers/stylists/art directors. Often, it comes down to timing and expense.
When to move forward: The chef has a clear vision and can articulate it. You have a sense that you will be able to build a good working relationship with this individual that could last beyond a single project. The topic excites you and aligns with your personal brand. The book deal and collaborator agreement are fair and sustainable—no one will go broke while writing the book.