Stirring Words


Ranting, Then and Now: Cookbook Blues
Sue Lawrence (11/02/2011)

In 2004, Sue Lawrence wrote a rant for the Guild newsletter about the practical and economic difficulties of writing cookbooks. She reread her piece after a gap of seven years, and added further comments in the light of her more recent experience. Here is what she wrote, then and now.

Photograph of Sue LawrenceTHEN
In my next life I want to be a photographer. A food photographer who does a 10-day shoot for a cookery book and charges a substantial fee. Now before you photographers tell me I am deranged and there is a lot more to it, I admit I probably am. But the point is: we authors of said cookery book work on it for – what, 6-9 months? – and are paid possibly the same as the photographer gets for his 10-day shoot. If we are lucky. I also appreciate the photographer has studio costs, assistants etc. but I still reckon we, the authors, are worse off. And yet the publisher expects so much from us – for little financial recompense.
Work such as ours is not, of course, all about remuneration. It can be the most deeply satisfying work around. But if you actually broke down the costs incurred in writing a cookery book (in time and expenses), then the only ones left writing these books might be either the celebrity chefs who are allegedly paid megabucks (even though some do not even write or home-test their recipes) or those authors dependent on partners with a more stable income.
This is how it works. We are paid an advance in three stages then off we go, devising whichever recipes we want. Well, actually, no. The publisher invariably has fixed ideas of what would sell and which cover looks good, and therefore insist certain recipes go in – even though you would never cook them yourself at home, and even though you loathe the cover. So you get cracking and develop recipes by buying ingredients and testing (spending money) then retesting (more money). This might cost you up to £3,000 just on developing over 100 recipes. Then your publisher asks you to meetings to discuss some finer point of the book (Big Money if you do not live in London.) If the research involves travel, then that is even more money you have to spend.
You are then expected to attend some of the photo shoot even though you are given no expenses. You are expected to proofread the book twice: in fact you prefer to, since the editor might not know that savory the herb is in fact spelt like that; and when the Designer insists that nine lines be cut from a recipe to ‘look better’, you are at least the one to do the almost impossible chop. While this does not involve expenditure, it takes several days of your time. There are no expenses until – Hallelujah – the book is out. Then you are expected to smile cheerily at book signings and demonstrations throughout the land. For these jaunts, the publisher will pay travel and ingredients expenses – but you cannot expect a fee from the organisers, even if it is national radio or TV, since you are simply publicising your book.
So, even though your book gets the best reviews since ‘Return of the King’ and though you are as un-prima-donna-ish as Jonny Wilkinson, there is a chance you may wonder if it was all worth it. You are indeed the author, but since your advance has mostly gone, you survive only if you have a ‘day job’. Writing cookery books these days cannot be a full-time job: you need either another job or – how 1950s housewifely is this – a rich spouse. Especially if you are also supporting children.
I must stress that I am not blaming publishers for the general lack of funds: they have a formula to calculate advances depending on predicted sales. (Although those who only offer flat fees without royalties should perhaps reconsider, especially if a book is reprinted and there is no further fee.) But what occurs to me is this: was it always like this for cookery book authors, or is it just because these days, those ‘day jobs’ are few and far between?
Seven years after writing this, wouldn’t it be wonderful to say: ah, but now things are so much better. Sad to say, they are worse. Fewer cookery books are being published and unless you are an established author or have a TV tie-in, you can forget it.
More and more cookery writers have problems getting contracts and even if they do, money is going down, not up. The money I receive for advances has been dropping steadily over the past few years and I know that’s not just me. Some publishers are paying out so much to the so-called celebrities in cookery writing that there is little left for us minions.
Also, whereas many eager cooks might have rushed off to buy one of my books at Waterstone’s when needing a recipe for, say, cardamom tablet or clapshot soup, now they simply search online and there it is, for free. Nothing we can do about that. Indeed, we are encouraged by our agents and publishers to keep up with blogging/tweeting/social web sites. All of these are cheaper than having a fully interactive website. But none brings us any cash.
When my next book comes out in August (delayed by a year because of the recession), I will still be expected to do the rounds of signings, festivals and library appearances (even though no one buys books at library evens). But my enthusiasm has waned a little for these, especially given the punitive cover price of all books now.
I talked in my original rant about needing a ‘day job’ to survive in the present climate. This is more true than ever. Though I am fortunate enough to have regular TV cookery work and a magazine column, my main ‘job’ right now (unpaid thus far!) is writing fiction. Life as a novelist may prove just as financially unviable as that of a cookery book author (although at least no money is required to buy ingredients to develop then test 100+ recipes), but at the moment I am loving it. And when – fingers crossed – I have to do the book festival tours for my novel, at least I won’t have to struggle onto the stage laden with pots and pans or platters of home-baked goodies for the audience. I will just turn up, read an extract, and await questions. Sounds very appealing!


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