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Would You Write a Cookbook for Next to Nothing?

10 October 2019

From The New York Times:

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.

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.

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.

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.”

. . . .

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.”

. . . .

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.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

PG says if anyone wants you to sign a nondisclosure agreement prior to viewing any kind of contract that requires you to put skin in the deal – either time or money – the odds of you getting screwed have increased exponentially.

If it’s a fair contract, the person or organization should not have any concern with you showing it to anyone before or after you sign it. You may decide to keep it confidential for whatever reason, but when a publisher wants you to keep quiet about a contract, they’re worried about adverse publicity and reputational damage if their contract terms are open to public scrutiny.

Non-Fiction

8 Comments to “Would You Write a Cookbook for Next to Nothing?”

  1. The situation in cookbook publishing isn’t unique to that genre. All commercial publishers pay the east they must to acquire a manuscript without losing the author.

  2. PG said “…or after you sign it.”

    Unfortunately there are a lot of those. Amazon imprints have them from what I understand. You can’t talk about the contract much less show it.

  3. Most writers write for next to nothing, before Amazon made ebooks something the average reader would notice most stories died in the slush piles Harry Potter was among them …

    Though if someone ‘asks’ me to write something they can dang well help defray the costs of my time doing it! 😉

  4. This is commentary, not legal advice. It is a suggestion for further inquiry by potentially affected authors.

    In the US, there is ordinarily an exception to nondisclosure agreements that purport to keep a signatory from discussing the terms of that nondisclosure agreement, or any agreement/other legal document covered by that nondisclosure agreement: One can virtually always discuss all of these with one’s own retained counsel. (During the initial consultation, conscientious counsel will inform you if any of the rare exceptions to this exception apply; they usually concern one or more of national security, weapons of mass destruction, ongoing criminal investigations, medical privacy, and/or trade secrets indirectly related to national security. However, these exceptions to the exception vary from state to state and even within the federal system, and are on occasion broader. Don’t try to understand them at home.)

    IMNSHO, an author who is provided one of these troubling overbroad NDAs — especially prior to executing any other agreement with the party demanding the NDA — should consult counsel. Every state bar association has a low/no cost referral system, many of which manage intake online (so you can do the intake at 3am in your pajamas).

    Also IMNSHO, the only way to limit these is to force state attorneys general to treat them as what they are: Unfair business practices (two particularly notorious examples include Cal. Bus. & Profs. Code § 17200 et seq. and the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, both of which I have successfully applied to analogous conduct although the details remain subject to — you guessed it! — nondisclosure agreements embedded in settlements). State attorneys general don’t usually take action, however, until there’s an undefined sufficient groundswell of complaints, so making the complaint is the first step; it’s a paying-forward type step, but a step nonetheless.

    Finally IMNSHO, attempts to hide the compensation arrangements may implicate antitrust law and state labor law. YMMV, and YCMMV (Your Counsel’s Mileage May Vary).

    • Excellent points, C.E.

      If you want to be particularly devious, someone who wants you to sign a contract with a non-disclosure clause usually gives you an opportunity to study the contract before you sign it. (If they don’t, they’re definitely shady.)

      On a couple of occasions in the distant past, I pointed out to my client that nothing in the contract required that the client warrant he/she had never shown the contract to anyone else prior to signing it nor did the other party require a separate non-disclosure agreement prior to giving the client a proposed contract to review.

      If an individual receives a contract with a non-disclosure clause in it, before the individual signs it, he/she might make some copies and send them to a few close friends or business advisors just in case.

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