Are you a budding chef or home cook who’s heard people say, “You should write a cookbook,” but aren’t sure where to start? This interview with Nicole Tourtelot, a Los Angeles-based literary agent with DeFiore and Company Literary Management, an agency based in New York, offers plenty of guidance. Tourtelot has been in the publishing industry for fifteen years, starting as a journalist before transitioning to the book department at International Creative Management (ICM), then working as an agent at Kuhn Projects, before joining DeFiore four years ago.
Tourtelot’s clients include a who’s who of the food world, including New York Times cooking columnist Alison Roman, author of Dining In: Highly Cookable Recipes (Clarkson Potter), Joshua McFadden, Chef/Owner at Ava Gene’s and Tusk in Portland and author of Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables (Artisan Books), Winner of a James Beard Award for Best Book in Vegetable-Focused Cooking, Jeremiah Stone and Fabián von Hauske, Chefs/Owners at Contra and Wildair in New York and authors of A Very Serious Cookbook (Phaidon Press), Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis, Chefs/Owners at Bestia and Bavel in Los Angeles and authors of Bestia: Italian Recipes Created in the Heart of L.A. (Ten Speed Press), and Alana Kysar, blogger at Fix Feast Flair and author of forthcoming cookbook Aloha Kitchen: Recipes from Hawai’i (Ten Speed Press), among others. Tourtelot declined to share details of her authors’ advances, but cookbook advances can reportedly run from four figures to six figures. About half her list is cookbooks, while the other half includes lifestyle, memoir, pop culture, and self-help.
Below is our email interview, where Tourtelot explains what she looks for from cookbook proposals, the timeline of writing a cookbook and the most common mistakes aspiring cookbook authors make.
What drew you to representing chefs and cookbook authors?
Nicole Tourtelot: I started cooking in earnest after college because I loved to eat. It was practical, really. And the first agent I worked for (Heather Schroder who was at ICM at the time) represented incredible food writers, such as Amanda Hesser, Tamar Adler, and Kim Severson, so I got an introduction into cookbooks and food writing there. I love the way that great cookbooks make you feel as if you have a new friend who is going to change the way you cook and eat. I buy and read cookbooks obsessively, so it’s a natural genre for me to work in. Whether or not I’d buy something (or my brother or sisters or friends would) is a good litmus test for me about whether or not to take on a project.
How do cookbook proposals usually come about? Are they pitched by authors like other titles, or do you approach the authors, or a mix of both?
Sometimes an author comes to me with an idea and we brainstorm together and work up a proposal, piece by piece. Sometimes I approach an author with an idea and we write the proposal together or they hire a writer to work with them. And yes, sometimes authors come with already beautifully-conceived and well-written proposals and I do an edit or two and we send it out. But that’s more rare.
How involved are you with authors in shaping their proposals? How are cookbook proposals usually structured? Are all of the recipes that will be included listed in the proposal?
I’m very involved in shaping the proposal. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job—helping an author sell their idea on the page in the strongest way possible. I typically give authors a template to fill out and we build from there. In its most basic form, a proposal should have an Overview, a Marketing section where the author talks about their platform and ability to promote their work, a Table of Contents with most, if not all of the recipes listed, and a section of Sample Recipes with fully-written headnotes (the story that intros the recipe). Publishers are looking for the proposal to give them a sense of the author’s voice and point of view, but the document also needs to be a sales tool to help them pitch the idea internally. First we sell the editor on an idea, and then they turn around and sell their team on it before making an offer. So we give them everything they need to do that.
What are the main elements you look for in a cookbook book proposal? Does the author have to own their own restaurant or food business? If not, what other qualifications should they have?
I look for a platform, first and foremost. If it’s a chef or a restaurant, does the food have a unique point of view? Does the chef have a personal or family story that gives us a new perspective on a cuisine? If the author is a writer, or has a non-restaurant food platform: is the voice unique? Do I feel like I want to hang out with this person and listen to everything they want to tell me about food? With the right voice, an author could talk for a page about the sublime beauty of a raw tomato and have me riveted. It’s the person on the page that makes a book stand out.
What is the average turnaround time for a cookbook author to turn in their manuscript upon signing? How much of the book would you suggest they have already written when they’re pitching a cookbook?
The typical time frame is a year from when the deal is made to delivery of a manuscript. To pitch a publisher, we usually put together a robust proposal. To pitch a cookbook project to an agent, you should have a stem of a proposal—a strong and clearly communicated concept and a list of recipes—but if you have a great platform and a clear idea, you can pitch me with an email.
What are the biggest mistakes or problems you see in cookbook proposals?
Sometimes an idea is too specific and sometimes it’s too general. There’s a sliding scale for how unique an idea needs to be. The smaller your platform, the more specific your idea should be (and you should be first to market with the idea). If you have a large audience, your concept can be a little bit more general because you have a group of people waiting to read a book from you. If you look at cookbooks by celebrities with millions of followers, the concept is usually “Stuff I Like to Eat Plus Pretty Pictures of Me.” Whereas an unknown author needs to fill a clear need in the marketplace. Most concepts fall somewhere in between.
Beyond selling the proposal, what makes a cookbook successful in the marketplace?
A successful cookbook cares deeply about the reader and what they need when they’re looking at a recipe. My authors know their readers extremely well, sometimes through having written for a food publication or growing an audience on Instagram or a blog, and they know where people get caught up in a recipe and what they need explained versus what would be talking down to them.
What should aspiring cookbook authors know before heading into the publishing process?
Creating a cookbook is very expensive. Authors are usually responsible for the cost of creating the art (whether photos or illustrations). A photography shoot is a lot like a wedding (both in terms of how much work it is to set it up and execute) but also in the extreme range of what you can spend. You can throw a wedding for $500 or $500,000; it depends on the choices you make. Likewise, you can bootstrap a photoshoot and save money but you’ll have to do many of the styling and sourcing jobs yourself. Or you can hire the very best stylists in the business and their teams of assistants and spend a ton of money. It’s up to you. Photography alone can be anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000 depending on which choices you make: How big is the photography team? How many stylists? How many assistants? Where will the book be shot? How many shoots will it take to get the book done? Will a team need to be flown in from out of town? These are all concerns.
Are there any subjects or types of cuisine or cooking that are on your manuscript wishlist, and/or any types of cuisine or cooking you feel are underrepresented in the cookbook market?
I’m always looking for more books by authors who know their readership and their specific needs. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of cookbooks brought to market each year, but there is still room for an author to reach their readers with ingenious, accessible recipes and a clear voice that is unmistakably theirs.