Welcome to episode 127 of the Food Blogger Pro podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork talks with Maria Ribas from Cooks & Books about what you could be doing today to set you up for a future book deal.
Last week on the podcast, Bjork interviewed Sean McCabe about how to grow a sustainable, profitable, and audience-driven business. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.
How to Land a Book Deal
Maria is a literary agent, which means that she represents the interest of authors in the book publishing process. She has a lot of experience working with cookbook authors, and she started a blog, Cooks & Books, to teach others what she’s learned.
This episode is perfect for the bloggers who are interested in publishing a cookbook. Maria and Bjork cover the whole book publishing process in detail, from understanding who your true fans are to figuring out how to pitch to a publisher.
In this episode, Maria shares:
- What a literary agent does
- How to analyze your book idea
- What to consider when pitching your idea
- How long a typical cookbook publishing process will last
- The difference between an advance and royalties
If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for interviews, be sure to email them to [email protected].
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If you’d like to jump to the comments section, click here.
Bjork Ostrom: In this episode we talk to Maria Ribas from Cooks & Books about what publishers look for when they’re signing with an author, specific numbers, including how you get paid as an author and potential earnings, and advice for things that you can be doing today to set yourself up for a future book deal.
Hey there everybody, this is Bjork Ostrom and you are listening to The Food Blogger Pro Podcast. Today we are talking to Maria Ribas from Cooks & Books. You can find her at cooksplusbooks.com. She’s going to be talking about her life as a literary agent, specifically around the cookbook industry. We’re going to be jumping into some real specifics, the nitty gritty details about the numbers. Like, how many followers, or how many fans, or whatever you want to call them. How many people do you need following along with what you’re doing in order to realistically look at cook book deals? And then, once you do get that number, what should you be asking for in terms of a cookbook deal?
Obviously there’s a lot of variables that go into that, but we’re going to talk about some specifics. It’s really helpful to hear those numbers. We’re also going to be talking about some of the things that you can be doing today if you’re in the early stages to set yourself up for a cookbook deal down the line, and what publishers are looking for when they’re analyzing these deals. It’s going to be a great interview. I know you’re going to get a lot out of it, so let’s go ahead and jump in. Maria, welcome to the podcast.
Maria Ribas: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. I’m excited to talk about some specifics with cookbooks. As I look through your site, Cooks & Books, it’s a perfect fit for our audience, right? It’s cooking, it’s book, and you work in that cross-section. You’re willing to talk about the questions that a lot of people have in this industry.
But before we jump into some of those specific numbers and some of those specific questions, I want to start with a very broad, generic question. What is a literary agent?
Maria Ribas: Sure. That is a very common question. A literary agent is essentially, we are the person in the traditional publishing process that really is on the author’s side. What that means is when you’re working with a traditional publisher, as you know they are representing their interests and we are representing the interests of the author. It’s really easy for people to think about it in terms of maybe an athlete or an actor.
You see that they have agents and they’re negotiating, maybe multiple movies or different moves around different teams for them. We do something similar. We’re really the constant for an author throughout their career. They may move to different publishing houses or they may decide they want to try something different, that sort of thing. But really the person that’s with them there through it all, sort of coaching them through and giving them one reference point, another context point outside of what the publisher may be telling them.
Bjork Ostrom: Got it. Yeah, so the sports analogy makes sense to me. There’s athletes that you follow, like Lebron James, obviously a popular basketball player. He has an agent and they’re doing the negotiation with contracts and they have the connections. So it would kind of be similar with bloggers and authors, where you’re representing them on the opposite side.
For you specifically, you work within the niche of cookbook authors, I would assume, but also do some work outside of that as well? Or is your niche really just, “Hey, I do cookbooks and that’s what I focus on?”
Maria Ribas: I do a lot of cookbooks. I love cookbooks and I always have since I started in the industry. My list right now is about 50% cookbooks and then 50% other things. You really have the opportunity to explore different interests you have. I do a good bit as well of personal growth, design, lifestyle, spirituality, really anything that strikes my interest.
Bjork Ostrom: Got it. So I’m guessing that you are probably a book person, is that right?
Maria Ribas: Yes, of course. You have to be.
Bjork Ostrom: And that was probably what led you into this industry, so curious, your story a little bit? Was this, being a literary agent, something that you were always interested in? Or was it a job that you were exposed to and said, “Hey, I actually really like this. I’m going to really pursue this? Was it a lifelong interest, or something a little bit later on that you discovered and you were interested in, and said, ”Hey, I want to do this?”
Maria Ribas: Yeah. I always loved books. In thinking what’s my favorite that I would want to be dedicating on third of your existence, it’d probably be books.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, for sure.
Maria Ribas: But when I was in college, I was thinking, I was an English major sort of thinking about what you can actually do with that. I didn’t want to be a waitress, as people say that’s your only option. I thought about going the academic route and then I had an internship at a big five publisher in editorial. So then I started out working at a few different publishing houses as an editor. When I started out I did not know that literary agents exists. I did not what they were.
When I entered the industry and was exposed to them and had to deal with them, I was terrified of them because they have the reputation of being the kind of Ari character in Entourage or something like that. And then as you get to know an industry more you start to realize that every player has a different role and that there is a huge variance in the way different agents do business and the way different publishers do business. Everyone is a unique personality and you don’t have to do things in a certain way.
That’s along right around the time when I realized that I was working at a publisher, we were working often with, going directly to authors and having them do books. It was a smaller publisher. I started realizing I really wanted to be on the author’s aside, advocating for them. It felt to me a little bit more of a fit to be telling them, “Here’s what you can expect. Here’s what you deserve. Here’s what you should be negotiating for.” It felt a little bit more like a personality fit for me.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. I think that’s great to analyze and say, “What feels good for me? What’s a good fit for me for my personality?” But also the other thing that you said that I think is important to point out is, we don’t have to fit the mold of what we think the industry would be. I think about that a lot with what we do and business building and brand building.
A lot of times, at least the version of myself 10 years ago would think of a business owner as somebody who’s kind of a shark and they are always looking to get the best deal and negotiate. I’m not very good at those things, and that’s also not my personality, so it’s like, what is my personality? Well, I tend to like want people to like me and everybody to get along, and finding ways for that to exist within that you’re interested in doing. It sounds like in a lot of ways that’s what you’ve done. Can you talk about launching your site, Cooks & Books? Where did that come from? What is the focus of the content on that site?
Maria Ribas: Sure, yeah. It really focuses on, it’s publishing, it’s books, it’s a little bit of lifestyle to it too. I work in those categories because I love them, but a big part of, probably the main focus of the site really, is providing publishing advice and insight for authors. That’s came about that when I was working as editor, and then later as an agent, you are in this difficult place, that I was a little bit uncomfortable with, where you only get to work with a very few amount of people one on one.
So at any time maybe I have 10 authors who currently have books in production, maybe just a handful that you sign year per year, that sort of thing. At the same time you have hundreds of queries that come in through our agency, of people who are really interested in doing a book. You get this time disparity where you realize, there’s so much that you can’t really do to help the people who are at different stages of the journey, and really just maybe need to do more research or learn a little bit more about the industry and about what they want to do before they dive in.
So it really came about where I hate rejecting people, I don’t like it at all, so it really was a way for me to feel a little bit better about saying, instead of, “I may not be able to be able to take you on, or maybe you’re not quite at the point yet where you’re ready for a book. But here at 10 resources that can help you get there,” and that I hope really help people along in their journey.
Bjork Ostrom: Got it. So, just to understand from the work that you do, you work for an agency that does, that would be kind of … What would be the term for it? Like a literary agency?
Maria Ribas: Yes, it’s literary-
Bjork Ostrom: Got it. And then what happened was there’s a lot of people that would connect with you as the literary agent for this agency. What is the name of the agency that you work for?
Maria Ribas: I work at Stonesong, which is based in New York City. We do non-fiction and fiction.
Bjork Ostrom: Got it. Yep, so a lot of cookbooks, a lot of well known cookbooks, but books outside of that as well. I saw Doug the Pug was one of those, that’s pretty exciting.
Maria Ribas: He’s one of my favorites, yes.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, absolutely. But what happened was you had a lot of people that you were interacting with that were interested in publishing a cookbook but they would either not be at the point where it makes for them, or maybe they needed to grow their platform a little bit more. So you started your site as a way to connect with those people at scale, as opposed to emailing every single person and giving advice. Which makes a lot of sense.
A lot of the reason for us why we started Food Blogger Pro as well, it’s in order to scale the advice or to scale the questions that people ask and the answers that you get. Let’s go ahead and talk about some of those questions and some the advice that lives on your site and the advice that you give to people that are interested in writing a cookbook and having a successful cookbook launch as well. Let’s start at the beginning, if somebody comes to you and they say, “Hey, I want to write a cookbook. I want to publish it and I want to get paid for it.” What does that look like for you as a literary agent, to go through the process of saying like, “Let’s analyze and see if you’re ready for this.”
Maria Ribas: Sure. Yeah, that’s a great question. A lot of it is, in non-fiction and especially in cookbooks, platform is extremely, extremely important. That has changed even in the last eight or 10 years, since I started out. I remember when I was an editor at a publisher and we did one of the first blog to book, cookbooks. It was on our list, we were like, “We can have one book based on a blog, that’s it. We don’t want to another one.”
Bjork Ostrom: What was the blog?
Maria Ribas: It was called Two … Gosh, what is it called? I can send it to you later. The author was named Sarah Matheny, and her blog name was about peas. I can’t remember off the top of my head, but it was a wonderful book, absolutely fantastic book, hit the New York Times’ list, did very successfully. And then gradually people started to realize, a book has a higher chance of success if the author is already bringing a readership to them, there’s already clear market demand for this person’s photography and recipes and writing.
So a lot of what we’re doing now is really keeping up with trends and having to know a lot about the online world and what converts into sales. A lot of what I do is I’m looking at things like traffic, I’m looking at things like social media reach. I’m looking at things like email list size. Mot importantly, as things become more sophisticated, we’re looking at other products that a blogger might have launched and their rate of conversion for those. You know, membership sites or anything that can prove that someone is doing something that people are willing to pay money for. That can really translate into a book that has value and that can stand out in the marketplace.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. It’s interesting to see, and I looked the book up real quick, Peas and Thank You, does that sound right?
Maria Ribas: Yes, that’s it. Yes.
Bjork Ostrom: Great name. It’s interesting to see how that’s shifted and a lot of the validity or a lot or the proof or a lot of the … what would be the word for it? I think how it’s shifted to be so important, the platform that people build. But one of the interesting things with a lot of those metrics that people would normally look at would be the fact that some of those don’t necessarily equate to converting on a product or converting on a cookbook.
A for instance would be, we talk about this quite a bit with sites a lot of times you can have the 20–80 rule. Where 80% of your traffic comes form 20% of your content. That might be for a specific reason, in our niche it would maybe a pin that does really well or ranking really well for a certain recipe in Google. So from an agent perspective, when you’re looking at a cookbook, you had mentioned this idea of other products or proof of concept in other areas, can you talk about what that looks like and how people can be intentionally tracking that?
So if they are interested doing a cookbook or getting a deal, that they can use that as a metric to say, “Hey, not only do I have this many followers on Facebook and this many visitors to my website every month. But here’s some proof that that actually translates to whatever you want to,” call them, like, “true fans.”
Maria Ribas: Sure, yeah. I think there really isn’t anything that you couldn’t do. I think that any data points that you can show that people are willing to pay for what you’re doing. Again, it can be an e-book, it could be a membership site, it could be principles. It could be really any sort of product that you think of that you can sell is valuable, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be something … You don’t necessarily need to have sold something before to be able to have a great audience for a cookbook.
It could be something where it’s like your open rates are fantastic, you get a lot of comments, you have a really engaged audience. What we’re really look is for engagement, because you’re entirely right there have been books that have had these media sites behind them that get millions and millions of page views per month, and then the book doesn’t sell. So you really need to have someone that has a real audience that’s actually connecting with real-life people, and that they’re not just a search engine machine.
Bjork Ostrom: For sure. What does that look like from your perspective when you’re pitching to a publisher? And from a blogger’s perspective, when they’re pitching to you? Is there any way that you can intentionally craft the story of your numbers in a way to make it convincing or enticing to a publisher or to an agent? If so, what does that look like?
Maria Ribas: Sure, yeah. I think that it depends. Numbers are the end-all-be-all. So for instance, I never tell authors, “You need to have,” whatever, “50,000 Facebook fans or you’re not ready for a book.” It’s really not that simple. It’s more important to have … it’s fine to have a small but might audience if you can really prove that they’re engaged and you can prove that you’re growing steadily and at a pace that is really building something that’s real, actually building real relationships.
You don’t necessarily always want to see someone who has a meteoric rise, massive traffic, but then you wonder, “How long have those people been with you? How much of your story do they know? How personally connected do they really feel to you?” That’s sort of, platform is really important. It’s not by any means 100% of the equation. Storytelling is important, engagement is important, the concept of the book itself is important.
You really need to be able to talk about why your book is going to stand out in the marketplace, how it’s going to make a difference to people and why people are going to care, and why you care about the people that you’re talking to every day. No one ever wants to work with someone who necessarily feels like it’s really transactional. You know, they’re just pumping content there and getting the page views, making a ton of money, but they’re not really responding back to those people, they’re not responding to emails, they’re not responding to comments, they’re not showing who they are, that sort of thing.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. One of the things that you say in your site that I really like is you said, “Author platform equals relationships.” Can you talk about what you mean by that?
Maria Ribas: Yeah. It’s exactly what we’re talking about. It really is engagement. That is really hard for us to measure online, because obviously we’re just typing away in little boxes and staring at the screen. But there’s a person behind every single thing that you’re doing and what’s what we’re looking for. We really want someone who is actually forming relationships with people, whether it’s, I love to hear when authors will say, “I have certain readers that I email with all the time and we’re really close,” or, “I respond to every email I get personally,” or, “I respond to every comment.”
Little things like that, that show that you really care about the people who are giving the 10 minutes out of their day to read what you’re writing. And of course repeat readers, that sort of thing, because obviously just searching for chocolate chip cookie recipe will get you a lot of hit but you might not necessarily be building a relationship with those people. Also, I think a lot of times, often especially we’re sometimes dealing with authors who are at early stages on their blog or they’re a little uncomfortable with the idea of starting a blog or building a platform at all, because it used to be a thing that in traditional publishing it was just, write the book and then let everyone else … Don’t worry about having to market it or get to know readers or any of that. It was sort of, the author was very siloed.
I think sometimes people feel a little bit uncomfortable about putting themselves out there in that way. I think it helps to remember that there’s another person on the other side of what you’re writing, and that it’s important to get to know them, or you’re really not going to be able to reach them and help them in any way. It’s sort of becomes an exercise that doesn’t seem to have any true purpose to it.
Bjork Ostrom: One of the things that you had talked about on a post, I forget which post it was, but as I was reading through you have a lot of really insightful and pointed posts about the cookbook process and what it looks like to be an agent, what it looks like to be an author, and cover a lot of really good content in those.
One of the things you talk about, this idea of 50,000 true fans. You said it with a caveat of, there are so many different things that go into this. But on thing I appreciate is saying like, “Here’s a number,” and I think people really, really appreciate that and it’s hard in any industry because there are so many different variables that go into it. But can you talk about why you came to that number as like a, “Hey, so if you are really going to ask me nine times in a row, I’ll give you a number, and it’s 50,000 true fans.” What does that mean?
Maria Ribas: Sure. I mean you’re totally right, it’s really, really hard to calculate that. The reason why I don’t say, “50,000 Facebook fans,” or whatever, “50,000 email list subscribers,” is that doesn’t … we have no way of knowing what the conversion rate of those are. So 50,000 Facebook true fans is actually really me sort of going about it backwards. Having worked at a publisher and have been an editor, we have our PNLs.
So if you can run a PNL at a level where you’re predicting that an author will sell 50,000 books in the first year, you can make them a pretty strong offer, which means that they will probably be one of the lead titles on a list, so they’ll get more attention throughout the whole process. They’ll get more publicity. They’ll get more marketing. It puts them in the best position to launch a first book, have it be successful, hopefully have other books, hopefully have other opportunities open up for that. That’s my ideal of long term thinking.
It’s, how many … What would make that book be successful? What’s the number that would make that book be successful? And selling 50,000 books to 50,000 true fans in the first year would really open up a lot of doors and put you in a position to do a next book if an author wanted. And then it’s a lot of calculating and guessing and gut checking to see, to analyze everything that a potential author does and try to determine if they’re … That’s what publishers do too, they’re looking at proposals, they’re talking to authors and they’re trying to guess, how many books can this person sell?
Bjork Ostrom: Got it. A couple things in there. You had mentioned PNL, that being the profit and loss. Does a publisher look at a single book and say, kind of break it out into its own category and look at profit and loss for that book? Is that in general how it works?
Maria Ribas: Yep. Basically when publishers are deciding with books to buy, they are running PNL estimates on their end. Which means that the editor is talking to their team and trying to convince their team think this person will sell X amount of books. Then they have all different sort of numbers that are part of that, and ultimately that spits out what would be the demand, or what would be the royalties. Then that is what starts the whole value chain throughout the process. Obviously the more money that they invest upfront, the more that invest in the backend.
Bjork Ostrom: Yep. That was, another thing you had mentioned was lead titles. A lead title being one of the main focuses for a publishing house for that year. Is that what a lead title would be?
Maria Ribas: Yes, exactly. That’s something that I think sometimes people aren’t quite aware of. Is that really with any catalog, there are some titles that get a little bit more attention. Maybe it’s the big Martha Stewart book or whatever it is. Ideally we want to position our authors in the best possible scenario, where they’re getting more attention over anyone else.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, great. I know that there’s lots of caveats that exist for this and it’s hard to do, but let’s say if we use the 50,000 true fans number. These would be people, when I think of a true fan, I would think of them as somebody that would say, “I love,” we’ll use Pinch of Yum as an example. “I love Punch of Yum.” Somebody that could say that, they’d be familiar enough with it, they know it. So you can fill that in for XYZ blog for whoever’s listening to this.
If you get to that point where there’s 50,000 people that say, “I love fill-in-blog-name,” then you can maybe at that 50,000 true fans mark. People that essentially would purchase a cookbook. Would there be a range that you’d give, again lots of caveats on this, but a range that you could give in terms of what could an author expect to get for a cookbook deal? What are the different numbers that they would look at? And potentially what would the dollar amount be?
Maria Ribas: Yeah, a common question too. It really varies very drastically. I think something that sometimes people outside the industry don’t realize, is that you that are just as many different types of publishers as there are socks in your sock drawers. They are, from the very small ones, to the massive international companies.
The publishing experience at each of those is drastically different. I worked at a large house, a medium house, a small house, and then as an agent. So I’ve been working on books at all the different places, see how very, very different the process is. Which sometimes I think makes it hard for people to choose what house might be right for them, or know what to expect even from the process.
Cookbook advances can ranges just as drastically. They can be as low as $5,000 and as high as $500,000. In the strong advance range that we usually consider, it’s a little bit closer to the mid level number of around $100,000. But again, that is the sort of thing that varies so drastically from house to house, and can really depend on the marketplace at any time, on what other books are on the list. It’s a thing that, it could be anything.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, so many factors that go into it. If you were to do, let’s say, a cookbook deal for $5,000. Obviously a significant amount of money, and also a significant amount of work that it would be. So in a situation like that, if somebody’s let’s say just getting started out with their blog and they’re thinking, “I don’t have a ton of traffic right now. I don’t have a lot of engagement.” They’re doing the right things, there in the beginning stages. Is there potential for these content creators if they have the skills and abilities to create quality content to produce cookbooks? Not necessarily under their brand but maybe just branded cookbooks that a publishing house would be interested in publishing? Or does that not really exist?
Maria Ribas: That’s a good question. You mean branded cookbooks with not their name or their blog name on it necessarily?
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, right. So let’s say that there’s a publishing house and they really want to do a spiced latte cookbook. They know that somebody’s really good at taking photographs of spices lattes it’s a super, super small niche, right?
Maria Ribas: I want a spice latte now.
Bjork Ostrom: I actually just had one, it was really good.
Maria Ribas: I’m jealous.
Bjork Ostrom: But point being that there are creating it, and I think back, this was maybe four or five years ago, that somebody approached Lindsay and asked about doing, it was like a mini donut cookbook or something. But they weren’t interested Pinch of Yum doing it, they were interested just the cookbook itself. So is that something that you’ve had exposure to or are familiar with? Or is that maybe an anomaly?
Maria Ribas: Yeah, no absolutely. That is one form of publishing as well. I worked at a smaller house that did that sort of thing as well. Really, it’s usually quicker to market books, smaller advances. Usually they’re coming with an idea in-house and then trying to find an author for it. So there’s absolutely always opportunities for that. Those are really good opportunities for bloggers who are just starting out.
For instance, when I worked at that smaller house I started working with a blogger. We came up with an idea in-house for the book. I started working with a blogger. She was just starting out. The book gave her an opportunity to go full-time on her blog. And then as her platform … the book did very well, which was wonderful. That really set her up to be able to do the next book deal. For her next book I was actually her agent on that book, and her platform had grown so much at that point that we were able to get her a book deal that was, I don’t remember the exact number, but maybe 10 to 15 times larger than the previous one with one of the major big five publishers. Because she had grown and it was the right fit for her at the time.
Yeah, sometimes doing some of those smaller cookbooks if you’re in early stages is a really good way to get your name out there. You know, get a cookbook out there, get some of that exposure. It’s sometimes not necessarily a great money making opportunity to be honest, because you have your customer ingredients and all your time and all of that, but it is a good stepping stone if you’re able to make that book successful and then maybe you want to go on and do a larger branded book that’s your blog vision later on.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Can we talk about that? When you say, “maybe not super profitable,” let’s talk about what would actually go into a cookbook, what the process would look like. The first thing that I’d be interested, and I think that other people would want to know as well, is what does a typical timeline look like? And within that, how much time should people assume that they’d be spending on producing the cookbook?
Maria Ribas: Yeah, great question. The total timeline, and this shocks bloggers because I know it sounds like a century, is usually about a year and a half to two years from selling the book proposal to having the book out on the shelves. The reasoning for that is usually about the last six months of that process is you actually have finished copies of the book in but you’re pitching long lead media, so the magazines that are working six months in advance, you’re building your publicity and marketing plan. It’s really more about the launch at that phase, and then the first six to 12 months of that process is the author working on the manuscript.
Again, timelines, the manuscript timeline itself can really drastically vary. I’ve seen situations where if it’s sort of quick to market book, maybe they give you six weeks. But most of the time working we’re the larger publishers, you have at least six months, and for my authors that are doing their own photography I want them to have at least 12 months because I know that there’s so much that they’re doing with running their blog. You can’t put any of that on the back burner, or that won’t be there when you need it to talk about the book.
So really it helps to have a little bit more time so you can do it at a pace that feels manageable. In terms of how much hours per week it would take, I really wouldn’t even be able to give you a good estimate, just because I think it depends on complicated the recipes are, how many of them you have developed in your mind already, whether you’re doing the photography, how many rounds of testing you’re doing. That is, I think every author’s process is different for the way that they’re actually creating, writing the manuscript.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. How many of the authors that you work with are doing their own photography, versus hiring that out?
Maria Ribas: In cookbooks it’s about 50–50. There are a lot of bloggers who, they have great photography, it’s solid, it works for what they’re doing online, but they want something a little bit more … a different look for the cookbook. At that point they’re interested in talking to different photographers. And then there are others that really their photography is a big part of what their brand is and what they love doing. They really feel strongly that they want to use their own photography. So it’s really, either can work.
Bjork Ostrom: When you hire a photographer out, would they be paid on a per shoot basis, or are they getting a percentage of the royalties of the book?
Maria Ribas: Yeah, no it’s work for hire. It’s sort of like hiring a photographer to do anything else really. They don’t receive royalties. The author is really the sole creative mind behind the whole book. Yeah, it’s really a work for hire basis.
Bjork Ostrom: Got it. Then the other question that I would have about that, during the cookbook process, working with a publisher, how much creative control does the author have? Obviously it depends on a few different things I would assume, but in a typical situation are they able to do whatever they want, or are they having to convince and sell the publisher on the topic and the recipes and all of that?
Maria Ribas: Sure, yeah, that’s a very common question, since I think a lot of people worry that if they decide traditional publishing is right for them, that they’re going to lose all control. Really it is a collaborative process. That really means that you’re truly partnering with a publisher. You have the advantage of hearing from them of the buyer at Barnes & Nobles says, “I hate this shade of green and I don’t think it will sell.” That’s helpful market knowledge to have, but they will never say, “Because of that we’re going to get rid of this, even if you hate it and you’re kicking and screaming about it.”
So really, the author has on most things final say, because the last thing a publisher wants to do is put out a book where the blogger hates it and they say, “I’m not proud of that. I don’t want to tell anyone about it. That’s now really what I had in mind.” That doesn’t work for anyone, so they never want to put an author in that position.
It really just becomes a dialog. Where they might say there are certain things that they think will sell better, certain things that the author will say, “No. I know my readers will respond to them.” They really rely on authors to be experts on their readership, their particular niche, their particular type of food. Then authors also look to the publisher to be the experts on how to sell a book, how to best merchandise it, how to talk to book sellers about it, how to position it, that sort of thing.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. I would imagine it to be a difficult back and forth, because the author really knows their audience and what works with their audience, what their audience would want, but the publisher also knows what’s worked in the past for other cookbooks. Those might not always overlap exactly. I would imagine that conversation potentially can be difficult sometimes. Do you ever feel like you play the role of counselor in between, getting people to a point where they both agree? Or at that point are you removed from the process?
Maria Ribas: Yeah, totally. That’s a lot of what we do. It’s sort of being counselor, it’s kind of being the mediator. That’s the part that I like about it, because you’re really trying to find compromises and make everybody happy with the goal of producing the best possible book. We really are advocating, that’s a big part of our role in the process is advocating for publishers to really listen to authors on things that we know that they really know what they’re talking about and that their understand their audience well and they know what they’re going to respond to.
It really turns into sort of a little bit of a balancing match. But a lot of that too is helped by finding great matches to begin with. A lot of what we’re doing is matchmaking between different authors and different publishers. For instance, I have some authors that they are very, very design minded, and they need to have final sign off on every single shade of every color in the book. In which case, I’ll say then, “There’s these five publishers who we know from experience give authors a huge amount of creative control on the design process. They’re a good fit for you, let’s try to make a match there.”
Whereas other authors might say to me, “I don’t really care about the design. I want them to handle that,” or, “I trust them to do what’s best, but I really care about marketing. I really want a house that’s going to be really, really strong in marketing.” I will say, “There’s this set of houses that’s their strength.” It’s really knowing the author, getting to know their goals, getting to know what their strengths and weaknesses are, and then helping them find someone who’s really going to align with their vision and the way that they work, their creative process.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s great. Yeah, it makes sense. So let’s say that you were starting your own food blog and you were starting today, and your hope was in two years to have a really strong cookbook deal. What would you do starting today to set yourself up for that in two years? Is two years realistic for getting to a point where you can get a strong cookbook deal?
Maria Ribas: I feel like you could answer that question better than me. You know, again I think that what I would be … If my sole goal was to do a cookbook, I’d really be focusing on building deep relationships with my readers, not necessarily only focusing on traffic. I’d be focusing on, how do I build relationships with people who might become true fans? And consistency, you know all the stuff you guys know, trying to do something unique so that you’re really standing out so that you’re not just one of many doing the same old things, that sort of thing.
Do I think that two years is a realistic amount of time? It depends how much you put into it. If you want to spend 80 hour weeks working on it, maybe. I have had authors who have massive traffic and did that in two or three years, but it’s working very long hours, getting lucky on something, really constantly innovating, teaching. They had skills before they started out, that already they weren’t teaching themselves photography necessarily upfront.
Yeah, I think it depends where you’re starting, how much time you can put into it, and if your goal is to ultimately do a cookbook or really to launch any sort of product that you’re hoping will sell and will be helpful to people, is to really focus more on developing relationships with your readers rather than chasing traffic or page views.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s great. When I think of the timeline, it’s interesting that you said that and I didn’t even really think about this when I asked the question but I was reflecting as you were talking about it. I feel like three to five years, slash leaning towards five, is kind of the number for what it takes in this industry. Obviously you can build different businesses really quickly, but for the people we’ve seen, for the conversations we’ve had, unless you’re lighting your hair on fire and like you said working 80 hours a week, in order to make it a sustainable thing, where you’re still really hustling and working hard, I feel like five years is kind of the mark.
It was interesting, I had a conversation with a friend who has a men’s fashion site. He said he did the same thing. It was now six or seven years ago. Where he said, “I’m interested in doing this, and so what I did is I took a day or a couple days and just explored people who had done similar things. I looked at the timeline of what it took them in order to get to where they are, or in order to get to doing it full-time, and most often it was four to five years.” That’s a really long time. That’s a ton of work and it’s a lot of time and it’s a lot of energy. But the great thing is that you’ve built something up that then is moving and there’s some momentum behind it. You can start to realistically have these conversations that we’re talking about with getting a cookbook deal or taking your passion full-time and working on that full-time.
Let’s say that somebody is at that point, where it finally makes sense for them. Obviously like we talked about, there’s a lot that goes into it. There’s no exact number like you said of 100,000 Facebook fans and then you can get a cookbook deal. But somebody gets to the point where maybe they’re having some people approach them, they’re starting to have those conversations, they’re starting to get a feel for, this might be a good idea for me to do. When they’re moving into that, and you move into the stage of saying, “Okay, we’re going to put some numbers behind this,” what are the numbers that go into a deal when you are working with a publisher? A lot of times we talk about the advance but what are the other things that important to factor in?
Maria Ribas: Sure. Yeah, that’s a great question. That’s something that really people often don’t think about until they’re at that stage where they’re getting offers. Usually the main numbers are, yes the advance, royalties are really, really important of course, because we want to make sure that that advance is being earned out and that you’re getting royalties on every copy sold.
Let’s see, thing like royalties on specialty sales. For instance, what’s the royalty rate on your book if it sells in Anthropologie, because that can be different based on the outlet. Things like sub-right splits.
Bjork Ostrom: Can you explain what that is, a sub-right split?
Maria Ribas: Yeah. That’s something that we see a little bit more in other types of the lifestyle and non-fiction than in cookbooks. Usually that means sort of the territory in which the book is published. Cookbooks, they tend not to translate as well abroad, because the food is very personal. So much of the time you’re not necessarily going to publish a book saying, “I’m selling only North American rates, and then we’re going to talk about the split or we’re going to be negotiating separate deals in Russia or in China,” or wherever. That’s when sub-right splits, it’s where you can actually publish the book.
There’s things like insular paper products. We have an author who did a, she’s a graphic designer, a beautiful cookbook, and now she’s working on paper products based on her cookbook, also with the publisher. So things like that, talking about who gets what cut of what. Things like audio book, again not super popular with cookbooks, but a big deal. Audiobooks are huge right now in all the other non-fiction we’re doing. We want to talk about things like that, e-book, every cookbook receives an e-book, is also made into an e-book. Things like enhanced e-books, which there was a time in the industry where people were doing more enhanced e-books. Houses have sort of backed away from that much as much as they haven’t really gained in popularity.
Really, you can think of a literary property as being, it’s not just a book but it’s all the other things that can be made from the book.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s almost a brand in and of itself in a lot of ways.
Maria Ribas: Yeah. One question we often do get is authors will say, “I don’t want to sell rights to,” for instance, “Pinch of Yum paper products, what if I want to do my own?” That’s not what it is. They’re actually only products that are derivative from the book. So I have authors that they have great paper goods businesses, they sell a lot of printables online. That has nothing to do with the paper products that they might or not do that are based on their book concept.
Bjork Ostrom: Got it. So if somebody were looking at an agreement, obviously there’s all of these things that go into it. What would be the top three most important of an agreement? The things that you’d say, “Hey, make sure to get … ” Some of these things you want to pay attention to, make sure that you understand them, but the most three important line items on an agreement would be what?
Maria Ribas: Good question, let me think. I think that probably most important would be copyright. Make sure you’re not in any way giving up copyright to your work. I know that sounds obvious but there are some smaller publishers, and every project is different, where there are some … just be clear if it’s a work for hire or if it’s you are keeping copyright to this work.
Bjork Ostrom: Can you explain the difference between those two things?
Maria Ribas: Yeah. When you’re doing for hire, you’re being paid a flat fee upfront, most often you’re not receiving royalties on copies sold. You’re basically working as an independent contract providing a service. When you’re the author, you are actually the creator of the work and so you’re protected by intellectual property laws. You hold the copyright and then you are simply licensing that copyright to a publisher.
That’s sort of bringing me to the next one, which would important, which is termination clause and out of print clause. So you’re licensing your copyright, meaning that at a certain point you want to have benchmarks if sales fall below a certain level or a certain amount of time has passed that you can have that, the right to revert it to you. You own it the whole time but you have the license again for that work.
Bjork Ostrom: Can you explain that? I think that’s a really interesting little rabbit trail that we could down. Is it a rabbit hole or a rabbit trail? I feel like I’ve said it enough on this podcast that I should know, maybe both.
Maria Ribas: I don’t know. I say it both ways too.
Bjork Ostrom: I see a rabbit hole that leads to a trail, and I would like to take that.
Maria Ribas: Let’s go.
Bjork Ostrom: Okay. So what would that look like? Would somebody buy the license from the publisher? Or if it falls below a certain point it is like a tripwire and they own it. How does that work?
Maria Ribas: At no point does a publisher actually own your copyright, they themselves are licensing it. So they’re licensing the right to print and reproduce it and use it in certain ways. That’s really what the contract is outlining. Then every contract should have some sort of out of print clause that outlines at what point that license is returned to you. Usually it’s something like if sales have fallen below a certain benchmark in a certain amount of royalty periods, that sort of thing. It’s usually based on sales and they don’t have another edition planned. So they could put out another edition and say, “No, we want to try again, or re-put this out into the marketplace,” that sort of thing.
Bjork Ostrom: I’m thinking about how that would work, let me know if I’m totally off on this. As the creator, would there be some weird type of incentive for you not to get sales in order for it to dip below that, and then to get the license, to own it completely, and then uptake your marketing on it so then you’re getting all of the commissions from it, like you’re getting all the sales from it? Or am I thinking of that totally wrong?
Maria Ribas: I guess you could, but usually-
Bjork Ostrom: At that point it’s not worth it.
Maria Ribas: Yeah. At that point it’s like many years have passed, where it’s sort of, sure you could do that, but probably if it’s selling at such a low rate maybe it’s not selling anyway. So yeah, it sort of depends. We do have authors, because we’re an agency, we’re on the agent side, we do have authors who sometimes have their rights reverted to them, and then they don’t know what to do with them.
This happens a lot, a little bit more so in the fiction space, where they’ll say, “I wrote this novel six years ago, the right were reverted to me, what do I do with it now?” Then we talk to them about what their options are and other ways that may be able to put it out there, use it as a way to gain new fans. It’s your work, you’re not selling it indefinitely to someone, you’re really just licensing it.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, great. Okay, really interesting. One was making sure that you understand copyright. Two kind of related to that was understanding if there is a point where the license is reverted to you, it goes out of print. Technically it doesn’t mean you can’t print it anymore, it would just mean at that point the publisher is not printing it so you could own that, you could print it on your own. But then you’d obviously be paying printing costs and things like that. How about number three?
Maria Ribas: I would say probably a termination clause. Which is just what happens if you want to get out of this contract. That’s pretty standard contract stuff, what happens if down the line, six month in something happens and you say, “I can’t do this book anymore, I want out.” Under what circumstances can they do that? That’s something that we make sure that we include in all of our contract, is that they can’t … Suddenly the market changes and they say, “Never mind. We don’t think there’s a market for this book anymore, we’re going to cancel the contract.” So you know, certain safeguards like that, that protect you, that protect the author and help them to … You want every eventually covered in the contract essentially.
Bjork Ostrom: Absolutely. How about on the financial side? What would be top three things that people, that publisher or that authors should consider when they’re approaching a contract? I would guess the first would probably be the advance.
Maria Ribas: Yes. My big thing on the advance, and I say to every author, is that a lot, most of our authors they don’t necessarily need the advance money upfront because they’re already running successful businesses. But the reason why the advance matters, again is because it shows an upfront investment in your book and in your project and in your idea. It also directly ties to what the backend investment is.
Meaning the higher advance, the more publicity they’re putting into it, the more marketing they’re putting into it, the more resources in every single way. Maybe the more money they’re spending on getting the book on a table at Barnes & Noble, that sort of thing. That’s really, even if the upfront money isn’t important, it’s important to choose a house that has expressed that they really want to invest you.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s interesting. Essentially the amount that a publisher is putting towards the advance will equate, not always but it can be a loose corelation to, well it is, the amount that they’re willing to invest in that, and therefor the risk involved, which means on their side they’re going to be marketing and putting more intentional effort behind getting publicity behind that book.
Maria Ribas: Exactly, yeah. I think it’s always good for people to think of publishers like venture capitalists. You’re trying to … they’re making upfront investment in you and they’re covering the cost of production and marketing and publicity. The backend costs are really significant, especially on cookbooks which are really expensive to produce. They want to know that they’re going to recoup that investment that they’ve made. That’s why it’s really important to know that they’re really excited about the book and really willing to cut a lot into in on the front end as well.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s interesting, great. So advance, and we’ve talked about and what that looks like. Essentially it’s an amount of money that you get before the book is published, usually in tiers, right?
Maria Ribas: Yes.
Bjork Ostrom: So you’d get at when you start, and then you’d have different markers along the way where you’d get that payment released. But idea being, it’s before the book has made any money. But then there’s this point where the book gets published, and then you’re able to get royalties. Would that be … I would guess that would also be in the top three things to consider financially.
Maria Ribas: Yep, absolutely. That would probably be number two of things we’re looking most closely at the offer letter stage. And then after that it would probably be the other rights, and especially with books that are … If you had a food memoir for instance, I would really, we would really look at saying, “We want to keep audio, because the audiobooks have really exploded and that’s something that you we feel could be an additional income stream.” So you don’t necessarily need to have just the book, it can be your audiobook and it can be whatever paper products or whatever it is. Negotiating those things is really important.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure. Can you explain how royalties work? Is that like a percentage of each book sold? What would be a normal number for that?
Maria Ribas: Sure, yeah. It’s a percentage of each book sold. There are some houses that pay royalties on list price, meaning what the book retails at. So if it’s 29.99, they pay on that amount. Some houses pay on net, which is net receipt, so actual earnings on each copy sold. It’s a little bit hard because houses calculate them differently to really equate them. It depends on format. Hardcover royalty is different than paperback royalty is different than e-book royalty is different than audiobook royalty. So it really depends. Usually a typical range, if you’re taking retailer’s price and let’s say a hardcover book, would be anywhere between 10% to 15% and up, around.
Bjork Ostrom: 10% is nice because it’s nice and clean. So let’s say it’s a $30 book, 10% royalty on retail price would be $3. You don’t get that money necessarily right away. Can you explain how that relates to the advance? Is it common or is it across the board that it’s expected that you pay back the advance?
Maria Ribas: Yeah exactly. The advance is an advance on royalties. So once you earn back that amount then you start to receive royalties. Yeah, they see it as the upfront investment. It traditionally started that writers couldn’t take time off to write and do what they were doing, unless someone was funding it. It really started as having a funder behind you. Then the idea was once the book actually succeeded and started selling well, that they would recoup their investment and then the author would continue to receive their royalties after that point.
Bjork Ostrom: Got it. That’s one of those, it’s like when I was a junior in high school and I realized that home coming means everybody comes home. I understood advance but I never thought about it as an advance on the royalties, like specifically-
Maria Ribas: Yeah, an advance on what?
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Yeah, I thought it was like an advance payment, like, “You’re getting this in advance,” but that it’s on royalties makes a lot of sense. So then you pay that back and then once it tips over passed the point that you’ve paid it back, then you’re able to get royalties on the sales moving forward. How often will a book launch and not make up the advance?
Maria Ribas: It depends. It’s so hard to say because all advances are different, all royalty rates are different, all books are different. The hope is that they’re making that advance back in the first year of sales, is usually how people are running numbers. But really it just depends.
One thing to note is that the … what was I going to say? The advance is really … The advance you don’t actually have to ever pay it back. Let’s say your book did come out and didn’t earn back the advance, you don’t then need to return whatever amount wasn’t earned-
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, you’re not getting calls from, yeah, from people being like, “You owe us $20,000.”
Maria Ribas: Exactly, yeah. Right. So it’s sort of like a loan you never have to pay back, but if you do then you receive the royalties.
Bjork Ostrom: I would assume that the credibility with the publishing house has lot to do with how successful the book was, so you want to get to a point where you pay that back, and then tip over into a point where you’re actually collecting royalties, because there is some proof then that this was beneficial for the publisher because we got passed the advance, now we’re making money beyond that. It’s kind of proof in the math that it was a successful relationship.
Maria Ribas: Exactly, yeah. They’re doing on their end too their postmortems and looking at their PNLs in retrospect, and saying, “This book was successful,” or, “This book didn’t quite earn out.” Then if an author is interested in doing a second book, they might say, “We want to work with this author again. We believe in them, but we want them to really be at a point where we feel like they’re going to be right at that point where they’re earning out. So maybe we offer them a lower advance.” Or maybe another direction, they offer a much, much higher advance because they see that the book can really support an advance of that level.
Bjork Ostrom: Awesome, so interesting. Maria, we’ve uncovered a ton of stuff today. I think that people will get a lot out of it. I feel like this is one of those episodes where people should take out their pen and paper and make little notes and jot down tips and tricks along the way. Packed with a ton of good stuff. Also there’s a ton of stuff that we didn’t cover that you cover on your site, so before we wrap up can we take a little bit of time and can you share where people can connect with you, follow along with what you’re doing, read some of your articles on your blog and connect with you in general?
Maria Ribas: Sure, yeah. My website is called Cooks & Books, the URL is www.cooksplusbooks.com. I have a whole archive of information on publishing, sort of trying to answer all of the questions we most often get, really demystifying the publishing process because I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed by it and feel like it’s this secretive industry that they don’t understand. So really, I write about everything on there.
One thing I really like to do is if people have specific questions, things that I haven’t even thought to answer, they can always reach me through the site with an email and say, “I don’t understand how this works in traditional publishing,” or, “I’m interested in doing a book but what about this or that?” I’m always going to take requests and write about things that people have questions on.
Bjork Ostrom: Awesome. Really generous of you to offer that and really generous of you to be on the podcast and share all this great information. Thanks so much for coming on Maria.
Maria Ribas: Thank you so much for having me Bjork. I really appreciate it.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s a wrap for this interview with Maria. Maria, thank you so much for coming on, sharing your insights, your knowledge, your expertise in the cookbook industry. I know that people will get a lot out of it. If you want to connect with Maria, you can go to cooksplusbooks.com, we will link to that in the show notes as well.
Hey, I wanted to give a thank you and a shout out to two people who recently left a review for the podcast, and give them a little shout out. The first one is from Creekmore Co, Creekmore company. They said, “I have learned so much from these podcasts, I listen wherever I can and I’m sure when I listen to them all I will listen to my favorites again. So far my two favorites are the episodes with Delores Custer and Phil Palin. This podcast has given me the motivation to pursue my passion in food. Keep up the good work and thank you.” Thank you to Creekmore Co.
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