A Look at Books: Is a Cookbook in Your Future?

May 02, 2011 Industry News
Industry News

Steve Frabitore put together a major cookbook publishing deal in two weeks simply by calling a publisher and submitting a two-page outline. But it was only afterwards that the Asheville, North Carolina, restaurateur discovered that his approach veered dramatically from publishing industry norms.

“Our approach is not to be fearful, but to be fearless,” says Frabitore, the owner of two Tupelo Honey Café restaurants and a thriving online retail site. His book, Tupelo Honey Café: Spirited Recipes from Asheville’s New South Kitchen from Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, is his gift to that city’s culinary community.

“The depth and breadth of the food in this region is amazing,” he says. “I designed this book to compel people to visit Asheville and enjoy its unique culture.”

Food writer Mollie Cox Bryan used the more conventional “submit a 30-plus-page book proposal through a literary agent” model for a book about Mrs. Rowe’s Family Restaurant and Bakery in Staunton, Virginia.

Because the popular Shenandoah Valley restaurant had already self-published a cookbook, publishers were interested in a new take on the original cookbook. The result was Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant Cookbook from 10 Speed Press and later, a spin-off, Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies.

“Because the self-published cookbook included recipes from customers and friends, the new book focused on the restaurant’s signature recipes and family favorites,” Bryan says.

While Frabitore and Bryan went the conventional publishing route, chef Peter Davis of Henrietta’s Table at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, self-published Fresh & Honest: Food from the Farms of New England and the Kitchen of Henrietta’s Table.

Self-publishing gave Davis more control over the project and allowed for a more aggressive production schedule—while most cookbooks take about two years from concept to store, Davis finished his project in about a year. Published in November 2008, Fresh & Honest was released just in time for the winter holiday selling season.

Control was important to Davis because the cookbook is the restaurant’s primary marketing tool. “We use it instead of paid advertising to spread the word about the restaurant,” he says. Potential customers see the book in friends’ homes, bookstores, and supermarkets, including the Central Market chain in Texas, where Davis did book signings.

There’s another big difference between traditional and self-publishing: The cost to the author. With the traditional book publishing model, the publisher offers the author payment in the form of an advance against royalties to write the book. In addition, the publisher covers the “manufacturing” costs—cover and interior design, printing, distribution, and some marketing. (Some pay for a cookbook’s photography while others include that expense in the advance payment.)

In contrast, Davis and his Charles Hotel investors, who give the cookbook to special hotel guests, spent $120,000 producing 10,000 copies of Fresh & Honest. And while Frabitore received a $20,000 advance from the publisher for the Tupelo Honey Café book, much of that was used to hire a professional writer. His company also spent an additional $50,000 for a professional recipe tester, marketing materials, publicity help, and online order fulfillment.

Seneca Francione, publisher at Three Bean Press, the Fresh & Honest custom publisher, notes that restaurant cookbooks can be produced in formats that fit a range of budgets.

“While it’s great to have to have a cookbook like Henrietta’s Table’s with beautiful photos throughout, there are plenty that are just black and white with a few photos in a color insert,” she says. In fact, most of Ithaca, New York’s Moosewood Restaurant collection of more than a dozen cookbooks—including Mollie Katzen’s original 1977 Moosewood Cookbook—have no photos.

Still, a cookbook clearly isn’t the restaurant equivalent of “let’s save the marriage by having a baby.” It will hurt, not help, a restaurant that’s in trouble. “Creating a cookbook requires a huge expenditure of time and money,” says Davis. “If your restaurant is struggling, spend that time on the business.”

In addition, conventional publishers only partner with thriving businesses. “We look for restaurants that have a strong regional presence and that engage with their guests particularly well,” says Melissa Moore, a cookbook editor at Ten Speed Press, which produces between five and 10 cookbooks each season.

Moore has seen a cookbook elevate the stature of an already successful operation, making it an effective marketing tool. Tupelo Honey Café is enjoying the national media exposure the cookbook is generating in outlets that include The Wall Street Journal and Martha Stewart Radio.

When making a decision about whether to publish a cookbook, it’s important to know if there’s a demand for what you’re willing to share. Davis received countless requests for his locavore recipes, while Frabitore remembers an experience with the local newspaper.

“While reporting a cover story on tourism, a reporter asked a couple from Dallas what brought them to Asheville. They said they came to eat at Tupelo Honey Café after their neighbors raved about it,” he says.

How could he not reward them with a cookbook?

Tips from the Pros

Those who’ve “been there, done that,” offer the following tips for restaurateurs and chefs considering writing a cookbook:

  • Understand your goals.“We wanted to spread the word about what we believe in,” says Peter Davis, chef of Henrietta’s Table in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Steve Frabitore, owner of Tupelo Honey Café in Asheville, North Carolina, is giving back to the community by donating 20 percent of his net proceeds to two local charities.
  • Allocate far more time than you think you should, particularly for converting recipes for home use.“That was the hardest part of the process for us,” says Davis.
  • Test the recipes.While Davis used friends as testers, Frabitore hired a professional recipe tester. “Recipes that don’t work are a death knell for a cookbook,” he says.
  • Hire a professional writer.A good one will not only relieve you of what can be a daunting task, but will also add life, color, and excitement to your concept. (Start the process through local networking or with national organizations that include the Association of Food Journalists or the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association.)
  • Develop a concept or theme that runs through the book.Melissa Moore, a cookbook editor at Ten Speed Press, advises asking, “What can we offer beyond favorite recipes? What makes what we do different?”
  • Find out what it will cost before committing.Moore says photography costs alone can range from $5,000 for minimal work to $30,000 for elaborate books. According to Seneca Francione, publisher at Three Bean Press, pre-production services can range from $5,000 to $11,000. Other expenses include a professional writer, recipe tester, printing, distribution, and marketing.
By Sandra Beckwith
News and information presented in this release has not been corroborated by FSR, Food News Media, or Journalistic, Inc.