One of the most opaque industries around is publishing, not here online, but good old-fashioned print-books and their digital and audio spin-offs. Poke around and try to find some hard sales numbers and you’ll quickly find that it’s near impossible to do so. You can find bestseller lists from reputable sources like the NYTimes, Amazon and others but tying those rankings to an actual number of books sold at retail is simply not doable. Publishing costs, deals, and profit lines are even harder to shake loose.
About a decade ago, in 2007, book agents and publishers began approaching chef Achatz and me to gauge our interest in creating an Alinea cookbook. Ever since that process started I have wanted to write this post. Having never published a book before I was fairly mind-blown by the terms of the offering and my inability to properly and easily research the process, costs and revenue potential of a cookbook. In the intervening decade I’ve ranted privately to dozens of chefs, restaurant owners, writers of fiction and non-fiction alike, and even a few screenwriters that they should avoid traditional publishing deals if at all possible. I’ve pushed the case in private, but have always been afraid to fully burn my bridges.
Back in March of 2007 we received this exact offer from a major cookbook publisher in the US, the first of several such offers that were remarkably similar. I’ve redacted only the publisher’s identity, the rest is verbatim:
Advance against royalties: $125,000
Royalties: hardcover: 8% of cover price on first 15,000 copies; 10% of cover price on next 15,000 copies; 12% on all copies thereafter; trade paperback: 7.5% of cover price on all copies (note that we are not envisioning this as a paperback but nevertheless want to secure the rights)
Subsidiary rights secured by publisher: first serial (90% author/10% publisher); second serial (50%/50%), book club (50%/50%), permissions (50%/50%), other book publication (50%/50%), British (80%/20%), translation (75%/25%), electronic (50%/50%), audio (50%/50%), paper products (50%/50%)
Subsidiary rights retained by author: video, commercial and merchandising, performance
Deliverables: 100 recipes and supporting text by 8/31/07; 150 color photographs delivered as high-resolution digital files with match prints by 8/31/07; recipes must be fully tested and photographs are subject to [redacted’s] approval.
Option: on next cookbook; proposal may be submitted 90 days after publication of the contract work
Buyback: Author will purchase 5,000 copies for resale within 12 months of publication subject to the following terms: non-returnable; orders of a minimum of 500 copies; in carton quantities only; subject to [redacted’s] inventory requirements; at a discount of 50% off the retail price; royalties payable; delivered to a single US destination; to be sold through the author’s own restaurants, businesses, and website only.
For a first book this is considered a great offer. It’s super rare for any chef or restaurant to receive a solid book deal, let alone a restaurant that was less than 2 years old. $125,000 and the guarantee of editing support, printing supervision, and distribution would have ensured that the book would reach a wide audience and be of relatively high quality.
But then I started doing the math. And negotiating. The offer was soon doubled to $250,000 (perhaps too quickly). But it still didn’t add up to me. At a $60 cover price we would net $4.80 per book sold of the first 15,000 units and have recouped only a $72,000 credit of the advance. On the next 15,000 copies, $90,000. For every book sold after 30,000 — and let’s be clear *very* few cookbooks sell more than 30,000 copies — we would recoup at a rate of $7.20 per book and need to sell another 12,222 books before we saw another dime. The advance is just that — an advance against royalties — and just like a record deal the publisher keeps all of the revenue until the advance is fully recouped, if ever.
Out of that $250,000 we would be required to spend the money on all photography, graphic design, pre-press, editing, recipe testing, writing and proofs. With a team of 4–6 professionals contracted for the book this would typically use 70% to 85% of the advance. It could easily end up being more than that for us as we intended to shoot every recipe, its steps and the final dish… something that the vast majority of cookbooks do not do for several reasons.
The photography, color correction, layout and proofs are exacting and time consuming. As important, pages that are full-bleed, 6-color printed drive up the printing costs. That is why most cookbooks — even the best — do not include photographs of every recipe. The pages that are only text, be they recipes or essays, are far cheaper to print and work to save money on the overall production costs. If you unbind a typical cookbook (we dissected a dozen or so with an X-acto knife), you’ll find that pages 20 / 200 (for example) are printed on the same sheet… and don’t include pictures. Multiply that by 40% or more of the book and you’ve saved a great deal of money. Next time you pick up a cookbook try to estimate how many pages are all or mostly words, then page through the book. You’ll be surprised. And now you’ll know why there isn’t a picture of every recipe and dish, even though the ones with pictures tend to be the only recipes readers actually cook.
There is, baked into the structure of the publishing agreement, a mutual incentive to reduce costs. For the authors it is to cut corners on photography and design production to retain more of the advance money. This helps the publisher to keep the printing cost as low as possible. But what were those costs exactly?
I still had no idea what it actually cost to print a major cookbook. That was as hard to figure out as sales numbers. So our team started calling printers in China and Korea, print brokers in the US, and any publishing contact I could find to ask a very specific question: “How much does it cost to print 30,000 copies of a [Very Famous and Successful] Cookbook, do you think?” I was met with responses that were akin to me asking for state secrets that were highly classified. No one would talk.
Until one-day I got lucky. Just by chance I spoke to the print broker who actually worked on the exact bid for that famous book. And he told me precisely: that super amazing cookbook that I truly loved, which at the time retailed for $50 and had won every award imaginable, cost $3.83 per book to print, shrink wrap, and ship to the US. I thought he must be mistaken and I said so. “No way.” He replied, “well that was the first edition, I’m sure the cost has gone down since then.” He thought I was implying that $3.83 per book was too high!