Imagine Marcella Hazan as a gifted Italian home cook in her shoebox-sized apartment in upper Manhattan in the 1970s. She’s teaching cooking classes to keep busy and bring in a bit of income. The food writer Craig Claiborne catches wind of her talent and comes for lunch. He writes a profile of her for the New York Times. It’s read by an editor at a big American publisher who is looking to recreate dishes he enjoyed on a recent trip to Italy. Soon after, Hazan is offered a cookbook deal over the phone.
The story, which writer Mayukh Sen recounts in his book Taste Makers, is the stuff of legends. Times were different. In America, a voracious appetite for food and cooking was beginning to manifest alongside a growing curiosity for food from other places. There were few authorities on Italian cuisine in the English language. Hazan’s first book, The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating, was published in 1973, introducing North American cooks to a world beyond red sauce and breaded veal cutlets. Twenty years later it was republished as Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, and in September 2022, a 30th-anniversary edition will be released.
The appetite for cookbooks has only grown since the ’70s. In the economically beleaguered publishing world, it’s still a segment that performs well: BookScan data shows that cookbook sales grew 8 percent year-over-year between 2010 and 2020, with sales numbers likely boosted even further by the pandemic. For cookbook writers, the basic terms of engagement remain the same as in Hazan’s day. The journey begins with a proposal, shopped around with or without an agent, and interested publishers will bid on the future cookbook. Traditionally, the publisher is responsible for expenses like design, publicity, sales staff wages, printing costs, warehousing, and office overhead. The writer is responsible for storytelling, recipe development and testing, and sometimes photography. “An author shares profits with a publisher because they have marketing and distribution channels to maximize sales,” says Jon Bonné, author of books like The New Wine Rules and The New California Wine. Once a deal is struck, a publisher pays an advance in installments over the course of production. First-time cookbook deals are often in the four- or low-five-figure range; in general, for the publishers, the aim is to secure a 10 percent profit on book sales.
But over time, publicity budgets have decreased and more promotional responsibilities have been passed on to authors. Many first-time cookbook writers face the public with a pittance of support — they plan and fund their own promotional tours. And the market is a lot more saturated than it used to be; competition is fierce. “It’s tough to find talent,” says Mallika Basu, a food writer, industry commentator, and consultant. “The world is much more cluttered than when Marcella came on the scene; identifying gaps in the market is harder.”
And so, a new metric affects writers’ and recipe developers’ ability to land a cookbook deal — social media reach. In a world where Reels and TikToks are as crucial to marketing as book signings and in-store appearances, follower counts on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok can be deal breakers. Agents and publishers attach a number to audience potential. And that can be a blessing or a curse.
In 2017, when food writer Daniela Galarza (a former Eater editor) began exploring the idea of writing a cookbook, friends and agents pointed to her low follower count as a barrier to selling a cookbook proposal. “The minimum number then was 10,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram,” she says. “Five years later, the number is probably 50,000.” She was several thousand followers short — a gap without a quick fix.
Food writer and chef Amethyst Ganaway remembers a chef who had just landed a cookbook deal telling her she would need 20,000 followers to be of interest to a major publisher. “Getting 10K followers was a big deal [to me] and then a publisher wants you to get 10K more,” she says. “I’m working and living in the real world and don’t have time to post content all day.”
An emerging writer with a great cookbook idea is left to wonder if a low follower count will derail their project. The reality is agents and publishers each weigh it differently. “What does the exact size of a fan or peer-base need to be?” says Danielle Svetcov, literary agent with Levine Greenberg Rostan. “No one knows. I try not to get into the numbers game — I want to know if the author is deep in the conversation they plan to write about.” But as elusive as the figure is (Penguin Random House, for example, did not respond to multiple requests for comment), social media reach does factor into a book proposal’s marketing plan — often in a way that saves the publisher money and makes the deal feel like less of a risk (the vast majority of books published, after all, lose money).
Savvy talent agencies representing influencers are adding literary departments to capitalize on a client’s brand and built-in followers. But there’s a lot of folly in follower count, and a few cautionary tales. It’s no guarantee of a home run when it comes to a book’s success, even for legitimately famous people. And while social media spoils go to those who are good at working it — or have the resources and money to invest in it — photogenic celebrities and content creators don’t necessarily make for competent writers or recipe developers. Bloomsbury Absolute likely banked on chef Elizabeth Haigh’s following from her Masterchef celebrity — totaling 134,000 YouTube subscribers and 61k on Instagram — to carry a cookbook to success. But Makan, her debut cookbook, was pulled from the market a few months after publication due to plagiarism allegations.
Then there are the ways to game the system: Bots and automated accounts can be bought to beef up the bottom line. Users can easily find “growth services” online. A 2018 New York Times investigation found one company, Devumi, provided customers — actors, journalists, and influencers among them — “with more than 200 million Twitter followers” for as little as a penny for each fake follower. Other companies cribbed information and data to appear like “real” people and followers — the numbers attached to an account may grow, but real engagement is not likely to budge. Social media platforms are taking legal action against individuals and companies manipulating the system, and they’re not the only ones catching on. According to Basu, “Publishers are getting clued up. There are no shortcuts.”
Most crucially, too much emphasis on follower count acts as a formidable gatekeeper. Cooks and food writers with smaller digital footprints are often Black, Indigenous, or people of color, live outside urban centers, or not part of the digital native generation. When we need greater diversity — book publishing in particular is overwhelmingly white — follower count numbers squeeze people out. And numbers allow decision-makers in publishing to default to the familiar, giving preference to those in their immediate circle, or people they might already follow on Instagram.
In 2020, during the racial reckoning of the Black Lives Matter protests, Ganaway says publishing representatives reached out to her for the first time. But they wanted her to fit a niche — Southern cooking and Gullah Geechee cuisine — and she wasn’t having it. Two years later, she has a literary agent and is working on a cookbook proposal. “I was surprised to get representation given my current numbers,” she says. “I was vocal about wanting to write a book and work with an agent that represented Black women.” For emerging writers there’s hope in her story: Her follower numbers on Twitter and Instagram are still at 10K.
Unfortunately, once past the gatekeepers and having landed a cookbook deal, many BIPOC cooks and writers face an even greater challenge. Social media, the source of the much-needed audience, is also ground zero for toxic criticism, vicious targeting, and racial profiling. Safety is a serious consideration. Joanne Lee Molinaro, the Korean Vegan, does a lot of heavy lifting in showing her audience the appalling targeted harassment she faces. In an empowering way she signals to emerging food writers and cooks that they are not alone. But there is an emotional cost. “Social media algorithms cater to the lowest common denominator, and it’s racist, ableist, and classist,” says food writer and photographer Dorothy Porker.
But when it comes to producing a cookbook, emerging writers have more options than Hazan did: More first-time cookbook writers are considering self-publishing. “In a world in which access to a printing press is no longer nearly so limited, [it’s less clear what] major commercial publishers bring to the table,” Bonné says. Editors, book designers, photographers, and publicists are all for hire. And in a move toward greater transparency, writers are filling the silence. Illyanna Maisonet, whose first cookbook Diasporican will be released in the fall, shared her proposal and industry contacts in an online workshop. The inaugural conference by the Center for Independent Journalists — an education, professional development, support, and advocacy organization focusing on BIPOC — had a session covering book and writing contract negotiations. Panelists encourage new writers to get past the first flush of excitement and carefully consider the details of a publisher’s offer, including the rights to future spin-off work like podcasts or television shows.
Emerging food writers and cooks need to consider how much of a cookbook’s success comes down to their audience. In the 1970s, it was unclear that Marcella Hazan’s name would elicit recognition and adoration 50 years later. Of course, she did a lot of legwork in promoting her first cookbook. But a publisher also threw their weight behind her — they did more than produce a physical product, they took a risk on an unproven author. And the shared responsibility is critical. “Publishing is a creative business,” says Porker, “and has a duty to bring us new things, rather than more of the same white cis-het creators.”
Deborah Reid is a Toronto-based writer and chef. Daniel Fishel is an illustrator, animator, and educator based out of Brooklyn, NY.