The Right Way to Write a Chef Cookbook

5 questions to answer before you write a cookbook

Most chefs and restaurant owners have enough stories to fill a book. This doesn’t mean that a cookbook deal is a sure bet. 

Since my first co-authored cookbook, A16 Food + Wine, came out in 2008, the cookbook market has changed significantly, becoming more sophisticated—and competitive—each year. While publishers are more interested in chef books than ever before, they also expect more from the authors. 

Even if a book doesn’t make money, it’s still a valuable PR tool. A successful cookbook can bring national press coverage, awards, product endorsement deals, television appearances and opportunities to create a product line.

Before you take the plunge, ask yourself these questions:

1. What’s your angle? 

Cookbooks that focus solely on a restaurant’s greatest hits worked well a decade ago (think The French Laundry Cookbook). Now, books need an angle that differentiates them from the pack. Can you give readers an in-depth look at Laotian food traditions? Do you specialize in brunch? Will your recipes be all about feeding a crowd? 

2. Who’s on your team?

Most chefs work with a writer to help craft their stories, and an agent often makes introductions. To get started, you and your co-author will need to write a book proposal, which is a detailed plan describing the scope of the project. Proposals include a marketing plan, table of contents, recipe list and five to 10 tested recipes. If you work with an agent, he or she will get the proposal in front of acquisition editors at publishing houses. Once a publisher buys the book, an editor, designer and photographer get on board. 

3. Can you afford it?

After signing a book deal, publishers usually give authors an advance against royalties paid out in installments. The advance is intended to offset expenses from writing the book. Once the book sells enough copies to earn back the advance, you start to earn royalties.

Some books make money; many never do. Even when a book sells well, it can take a couple of years after publication for royalties to kick in. No magic number of book sales is considered successful, but, broadly speaking, 30,000 is plenty for most authors to secure a second book deal.

4. Can you go it alone?

Restaurants with a local fan base may find more success through self-publishing. Selling 5,000 self-published copies at $30 may be more lucrative than selling 15,000 books and waiting on royalties. But it is not easy to sell 5,000 directly out of a single restaurant, and getting books into brick-and-mortar stores is no small feat.

In addition, creating a book that rivals one from a publishing house requires a significant outlay of cash. You will need to hire a team (see sidebar) and set aside half the budget for printing and shipping costs—$6 to $10 per book for a print run of 5,000. One way to fund a book is through crowdsourcing via Kickstarter, which has a roughly 30 percent success rate in funding publishing projects, including cookbooks.

5. Will you have the time (honestly)?

Cookbook crunch time—roughly a month before deadline—is when the going gets tough. On top of running a restaurant, you need to set aside time for writing and reading drafts, discussing notes and finding solutions for recipes that don’t work outside of a commercial kitchen. Before you dig into a major project, map out the year and see if you can set aside time to work on recipes with your book team. 

Kate Leahy is the co-author of The Preservation KitchenSPQR and the recently published Cookie Love. Follow her on Twitter @KateLeahy.