The New York Times has a piece, linked to via LitHub, entitled Want to write a cookbook? Don’t count the money just yet.

The article is focussed primarily on how poorly publishers are paying cookbook authors. The article quotes a couple of outraged writers: “‘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.’”

Well, outraged writers — not being paid an advance against royalties is not the same thing as being asked to do a book “for nothing”. A 10% royalty, even a 5% royalty is not nothing. Without an advance, it’s true that you won’t be getting paid your royalties until later on, after the sales of the book have already taken place. Surely any “hopeful book-writer” must be aware that that’s generally how authors get paid. It really doesn’t help your argument to chum the waters with irrelevancy like this.

And there is of course an argument to be had about whether a cookbook writer should be better paid: specifically whether they should be given an advance against royalties. One would like to believe that all recipes had been thoroughly tested in a kitchen quite similar to one’s own, and of course they almost always have been, though recipes from chefs will no doubt have been tested in a professional kitchen. But it’s usually the author who’ll be doing the testing, NOT the publisher. So providing a bit of an advance to cover time and ingredients might seem a reasonable idea. Of course some authors, the more established and successful, do get an advance, but beginners, it seems are less fortunate. There are three broad categories of cookbook author, the celebrity, the restauranteur or chef, and the home cook with hopes. Even for restaurant chefs everything isn’t all plain sailing as this piece from Grub Street illustrates. However at the end of the day the selling of a cookbook manuscript is a business transaction, and if publishers are not paying much for cookbooks, that has to be because of supply and demand. Just too many home cooks want to write a cookbook, and this bids down the price. If publishers can sign up enough cookbook authors by offering miserly terms, business logic dictates that cookbook authors will get miserly terms. If publishers had to pay more, they’d either exit the business of cookbook publishing or pay more.

Given the fact that you can find how to cook anything by a quick Google or DuckDuckGo search, it is a source of surprise to me that cookbook publishing continues to flourish. “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.” This has to represent gift-giving doesn’t it? Nobody, surely, needs another cookbook, but they do make handsome, thoughtful gifts, showing how cultured are the lives of both giver and recipient. And they’re cheap too — compared to a meal in a restaurant run by the author of the book.

This is obviously bad news for all you proto-authors sitting at home hoping to liquidize your cooking prowess. Probably your best bet is to start a blog and ask for donations or carry advertising. People are meant to be able to do quite well at this. But surely the cookbook publishing business has moved into advanced maturity.