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A few words about cookbooks and agents

I participated in a cookbook conference last Friday and sat on a panel with four other agents who also represent practical nonfiction, including cookbooks. The discussion centered around the agent’s role in the current market and how that role has changed with the shift into electronic publishing.

It was a really thoughtful and informative conversation that lasted almost an hour and a half. We had a lengthy talk about the cookbook as object and whether that is something that will continue into the future or go the way of the VHS tape. We all agreed moving away from the book is a long way away, if it ever happens at all, and that there is still a great benefit to holding a book in your hands, cooking from a book rather than a computer screen, and sharing books as gifts with friends and family.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion centered on the agent and author relationship, and the question of how important is it to have an agent in a market where so many writers, bloggers especially, are going it on their own. I strongly believe that (and I think, based on feedback, made a persuasive argument for) authors need agents now more than ever. A savvy agent who understands the nuances of the market’s language and culture is critical as they oversee every aspect of an author’s entire career, focusing on the big picture, as well as the smaller details that can go astray at any point in the process.

What really jumped out at me, though, was the concept of how much book negotiations have changed in the recent past. Each and every negotiation now, even with publishers we’ve dealt with for many years and have boilerplate contracts with the best negotiated terms possible, is fraught with challenges that include new and changing digital royalty rates, author deliverables that previously didn’t exist (one agent mentioned a major publisher had asked that the author deliver along with their manuscript 20 minutes of the author on tape), and which rights will be retained by the author versus the publisher.

This might sound simple, but believe me when I say it is not. The landscape has been described as The Wild West, and we are using our collective years of experience to secure the best deal and contract terms that are possible in a market where publishers are pushing so hard in one direction to keep rights in their control and agents are pushing so hard in the other.

The good news is we are making progress with every deal. Each new contract offers an opportunity to renegotiate contract language we aren’t happy with, or get an author an improved digital royalty, or at least the ability to renegotiate the royalty in the future. We are always striving to protect our clients and maintain a positive working relationship with all the publishers we do business with. I’ll admit it can be precarious, but we have leverage because publishers know the value of our long, successful client list.

All this to say your agent is your friend and will be there to guide you through this sometimes messy and difficult process of being a book author. I’d love to know your thoughts on the agent-author relationship in this new market and also on cookbook as object and its future. Do you think cookbooks are going to go away, or will there always be room on your shelf to display your favorite stain-filled tomes as a badge of cooking honor?

6 Responses to A few words about cookbooks and agents

  1. I read with interest your article about cookbooks and agents.

    Cookbooks will be here as long as people wish to cook. Cooking is manual and textural, like a book. While one cannot eat a book, one doesn’t want to taste unpleasant foods — getting preparations right requires, even in the best of kitchens, referral to recipes and photos in a book.

    Books withstand spills, dustings and greasy fingers; try subjecting a Nook to the same conditions over time.

    Chef Tell, I’m sure, would concur and would voice his opinion, if he was with us today. For now, only his biography, which I am completing soon, will point the way for us to his possible opinion.

    Perhaps you would like to peruse the work in progress?

  2. Meredith says:

    I LOVE. my cookbooks — as most of mine were gifts and were given to me because something about “said cookbook” reminded them of me. My facorite was from my MIL called “Any B&tch Can Cook” – We still laugh at that one! The one year I accidentally used southwestern egg substitute in my Thanksgiving desserts, I was totally expecting something along the lines of Cooking For Dummies – but was given a free pass:-) On another note, I am also a clutz, so me having an iPad or laptop anywhere near food has been outlawed by my husband – and forget printing them out as we either have ink and no paper or vice/versa. Because I do not normally feel like writing recipes down, cookbooks are the most practical option for me:-)

    I think there will always be a home for cookbooks because I think it has a more personal feel than an Internet link – it’s more tangible – if that makes sense.

  3. ryan field says:

    I hate to toss a wrench into this, but this really happened the other night. We were discussing what to serve for a dinner party this weekend and I suggested a classic old recipe from Julia Child. My partner said he’d find the cookbook and look it up in the morning. I said don’t bother, went to my iPad, and did a quick search. I found the exact recipe in minutes.

    I love old cookbooks. But I’ m not sure I’d invest in a new one unless it were something so wonderful I couldn’t live without it. And we entertain often. I even bought The Two Fat Ladies cookbook ten or twelve years ago. But now I figure I spent X amount of dollars on technology devices and I’m going to use them.

    As for authors needing agents, they need them now more than ever before. It’s messy out there.

  4. Stacey says:

    Thanks for your comments, folks. I’d be interested in hearing more about the Chef Tell bio. I remember him from when I was a kid, one of the first celebrity chefs.

  5. Barbara says:

    Great post. I’m a recipe developer that was in the process of workign with a publisher. I hired a publishing attorney to review my contract and she was appalled at the existing contract. When she made changes, the publisher was offended and said he would not hire an attorney to make changes on one contract. At my attorney’s advice, I ended the partnership with the publisher and my book was not published. I’ve been told what a great manuscript I have…but have yet to find an agent that is looking for something new and unique…a very specific niche. I sure do hope contract negotiations are improving. My first experience was not a good one!

    • Anthony says:

      Sounds like a lawyer, brilliant in contract law, may have gone overboard. Ask yourself: Am I better off with the perfectly drafted but unsigned contract sitting in my file ? Get a new lawyer.

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