Cooking the books: The dynamics and economics of the cookbook world for restaurants

By William Drew

- Last updated on GMT

Sat Bains' recently published his first book - Too Many Chiefs, Only One Indian - and following a flurry of other chefs and restaurants dipping their toes in the cookbook market, Restaurant magazine took a look at how the process works
Sat Bains' recently published his first book - Too Many Chiefs, Only One Indian - and following a flurry of other chefs and restaurants dipping their toes in the cookbook market, Restaurant magazine took a look at how the process works
Chefs are understandably keen to show off their food in print, but do they know how to secure a publishing deal? Following on from the news The British Larder is among a number of UK books to receive international accolades, BigHospitality presents a special feature from Restaurant magazine on the topic.

Along with opening your own place, witnessing the birth of your first-born book is certainly up there among most chefs’ dream moments – whether it’s actually happened yet or remains a fantasy.

But why are the men and women in whites so obsessed with seeing their name imprinted on a shiny dust jacket? Like having baby, writing a cookbook will inevitably mean a hell of a lot of hard work and sleepless nights – usually on top of the undoubtedly hectic  ‘day’ job. What’s more, it will likely result in scant financial reward.

For chefs, however, having a book published is a calling card, a sign that they have arrived – not to mention a no-brainer Christmas present for friends and family. But entering into the hallowed world of the published author is not a straightforward process – and chefs should approach with their eyes firmly open rather than blinded by publishers’ flattery or their own egos.


The first hard fact is that there are a huge number (arguably too many) cookbooks on the market, meaning that the majority don’t sell vast numbers of copies and the authors frequently fail to take home anything more than the advance they have been paid.  Aside from those by established TV cooks such as Jamie, Nigella, Delia, Lorraine Pascale and (bizarrely) The Hairy Bikers, few food-related books trouble the best-seller list.

Cookbooks from chefs and restaurants are proving to be big hits with publishers

The reason, however, that so many publishers are still interested in chefs and cookbooks is that, at a relatively low cost to them, they can still unearth unexpected hits, whether tied into TV shows or otherwise.

The Hummingbird Bakery books have come from nowhere to ride the wave of the home-baking revival; René Redzepi’s Noma book has been an international success  after the restaurant’s ascension to the top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list; and the relatively recent Polpo: a Venetian Cookbook (of sorts) is already looking like a strong seller.

What’s more, quality cookbooks have longevity: if popular, they can be reprinted, updated if necessary, and go on and on selling. Indian chef Camellia Panjabi’s 50 Great Curries of India has famously notched up almost one million copies in sales worldwide since its initial publication by Kyle Cathie in 2000.

To put that in context, if a non-celebrity chef cookbook sells 10,000 copies or more in the UK, that would usually be deemed a success; between 5,000 and 10,000 is respectable; fewer than that would be unlikely to prompt a follow-up.


But how, for the uninitiated, does the process actually work? The chef/author can approach publishers, or vice-versa – but that initial discussion is crucial. From the author’s side, it pays to have an agent who knows the sort of proposals that are likely to interest potential publishers, and to help the chef consider the detail of any publisher’s proposals (see Recipe for success panel).

Martine Carter of Sauce Management represents chefs and authors, including Jason Atherton, José Pizarro, Tom Kitchin, Atul Kochhar and The Great British Bake-Off judge Paul Hollywood. “Publishers are looking for a very clear, focused USP for the book – it’s not usually enough for a chef to offer ‘my food’,” says Carter.

The company also secured a book deal for Anna Hansen of The Modern Pantry. “It also helps to have a great name like The Modern Pantry, which is obviously the name of the restaurant, but also a great cookbook title. The book shows you how to use the ingredients of the ‘modern pantry’ in your daily cooking – and it doesn’t matter if you haven’t heard of the restaurant.” The Modern Pantry Cookbook was duly commissioned by Ebury, published in 2011 and is an ongoing success.

Jane O’Shea, publishing director of leading food and drink publisher Quadrille, reinforces the message that there has to be a fresh angle that consumers can instantly understand.

The Modern Pantry is a perfect name for a restaurant and a title for a book

“There are two key elements that make a proposal attractive: profile and a neat idea,” she says. “By profile – and putting aside those with a TV tie-in – we mean anything that stops the author being anonymous; it could be a large Twitter following, regular appearances on Saturday Kitchen, that sort of thing.

“Then the neat idea needs to be allied to a catchy title. The quality of the book itself is not enough. You’ve got to have something more to work with to build publicity, which in turn will generate sales.”

Certainly a cookbook provides a cracking PR opportunity. For many restaurants, once they are open and established, keeping media interest alive can be problematic, but a new publication gives the chef the opportunity to be interviewed and the recipes to feature in magazines and newspapers.


Cookbook publishers (prominent players include Mitchell Beazley, Ebury, Kyle Cathie, Bloomsbury, Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Penguin, as well as Quadrille) may also be seeking a title that is transferable across, and attractive to, a number of international markets. O’Shea cites a book Quadrille published a few years ago by Sam and Eddie Hart of Fino and Barrafina fame. The authors were keen to do a Fino cookbook, but were steered towards the book being called Modern Spanish Cooking with a Fino subtitle in order to broaden its international appeal. “Fino is a fantastic restaurant, but I’m not sure people outside London really know it. This way it also has longevity.”

If you succeed in securing a deal, the financial contract between the author and publisher is not standardised, by any means, so this is where virgin cookbookers need to be on their mettle. The first payment on offer will be an advance – usually paid in three parts: one third on signing the deal, one third on delivery of content, one third on publication. This can vary enormously in size from around £20k up to £100k, though the majority would be at the lower end of the spectrum.

This is, literally, an advance on the royalties the author earns from each book sale. So the bigger the advance, the less likely you are to make additional royalties (circa 10 per cent of retail price on each copy sold) later on – though you will not have to pay the advance back. In other words, on a £30k advance, the book needs to sell 7,500 copies at £40 before the author’s royalties kick in [£4 royalty x 7,500 = £30k].

It’s important that chefs don’t get carried away by the size of the advance on offer – it’s not money for nothing. In return, of course, they will have to write and test (and rewrite and retest) all their recipes, usually with the help of a home economist (at their own expense), ensuring they work in a domestic kitchen and at the smaller volumes required for home cooking.

While there are still some impressive advances floating around – Polpetto chef Florence Knight recently received a hefty sum for her debut effort, due out next year – this is no guarantee of sales. The chef of a certain Italian restaurant in London is known to have secured a major advance a few years ago, only for the resulting book to bomb. “There are still some silly advances around – and in the end, an unearned advance doesn’t help anyone,” says O’Shea.

Equally, securing the right royalties deal should not be overlooked because the book just may be an unexpectedly big hit, domestically or internationally. A good agent will negotiate different rates for different territorial rights, group deals, sales channels and so on. 

The ability of a restaurant to act as retail outlet for its own book is a significant advantage. Mini-chain Leon, for example, has a series of smaller books published by Octopus, all of which sell well through its own sites where they can be heavily promoted. The more copies they can pre-order from the publisher (remember, it owns the book, not the author), the better the price they can negotiate for them. “They are effectively the best customers of their own book,” adds Carter.

Indeed, a cult-ish restaurant can provide a strong combination of a distinct USP with a ready-made distribution network. With that in mind, expect the likes of new Soho hit restaurant Ceviche and burgeoning Brazilian casual-dining chain Cabana, as well as artisan pizza truck Pizza Pilgrims and burger phenomenon MeatLiquor, to turn up in book form before long.

Coffee table

In recent years, more and more publishers have moved into the food sector, including art specialist Phaidon. It has shaken things up somewhat with its focus on very high-end chefs from the World’s 50 Best Restaurants ether: Noma’s Redzepi, Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz and, most recently, Fäviken’s Magnus Nilsson.

Using its art and design expertise, Phaidon’s books are beautifully put together, but where it has made its mark has been in how it has promoted the chefs and marketed the books internationally. While the chefs themselves are paid surprisingly small advances, the promotion around publication has certainly helped to build the likes of Adrià and Redzepi into global celebrities who can fill concert halls with foodie fans.

Phaidon’s books are not cookbooks (even though they usually feature plenty of recipes) but lifestyle tomes that look good on the coffee table or bookshelf, rather than in the kitchen. But it’s worth remembering that most consumers only use a few recipes from even their favourite books.

Sat Bains' treated his first book as a cooking manifesto

For chefs involved in the publishing world, there tends to be an arc over time moving from creativity towards commerciality. First books are often a manifesto, a ‘this is me and my cooking’ moment. As chef Sat Bains says: “It puts your DNA on paper. I wanted this [his first book] to be a snapshot of my journey from relatively nowhere to where I am today – and how I’ve enjoyed my career massively.”

Similarly, Gordon Ramsay’s first book back in 1996 detailed his food at the acclaimed Aubergine. Since then he’s travelled along the spectrum to the point of being seen to knock out several TV-related books a year in the late Noughties.

But chefs can counter the accusation that they are cashing in with the fact that they have (usually) worked very hard for many years to put themselves in such a position, so why not exploit it? Heston Blumenthal took huge financial risks and dedicated himself wholeheartedly for well over a decade to creating something magical and brilliant at The Fat Duck. It paid off. So if he can now make money from wearing certain spectacles, who’s to argue?

Chefs also now have greater access to the process of self-publishing, which is perhaps both a blessing and a curse. It means individuals can express themselves and their cuisine without compromise, but others – particularly publishers – see it as enabling them to embark on an unfettered ego trip.

“I think the best results tend to come from collaboration,” says Quadrille’s O’Shea. “Publishers do have expertise in paper, design, marketing, sales and distribution. There are lots of people involved who really know their stuff. I genuinely wish all those that do it on their own the best of luck – but it’s not an easy task to take on.”

Overall, the UK book market may be in digital-driven turmoil but, on a positive note, cookbooks are less threatened than other sectors by the downturn. “Cookbooks are such a physical thing. Anyone can download a chicken recipe at a moment’s notice, but cookbook sales show people still want to have the book itself, to accumulate knowledge and be inspired,” says OShea.

One thing’s for sure: publishers are never going to be short of eager chefs looking to put their plates into print.

William Drew writes for Restaurant magazine and this feature first appeared in the December edition of the magazine You can subscribe to Restaurant here.

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1 comment

What about e-books?

Posted by Ken Burgin,

Interesting - but publishers are still so focused on traditional print. They seem to avoid making digital versions of cookbooks - why is that? It's what more and more people want as an additional option (Let's not get into arguments about 'the feel of paper' etc). You mention the possibility of reprinting, but most books will be one edition then never seen again. A digital version can live on for ever...

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