Photo by Lara Kastner
Interesting, but in my opinion, inevitable, news in the publishing world: HarperCollins is forming a publishing group that will introduce a new model that establishes a different relationship between author and publisher.  Traditionally, a publisher offers an author an advance against future royalties; this, theoretically, allows the author to finance the project, to spend the time writing or creating the book.  When the book is published the author’s share of the proceeds equals 10-15% of the jacket price of the book for each book sold.  My publisher, Scribner, has been very generous to me regarding The Elements of Cooking and the new cookbook I’m finishing now.  Without these advances, I’d wouldn’t have been able to write the book. But that means I’ll have to sell a lot of copies in order for the book to earn out—that is, make back that advance at about $3 per book. 

What this new group intends to do is to get rid of the advance but give the author a greater share of the profits.  The headline in the NYTimes, where I read the story, slants the news somewhat, implying that the publisher is trying to take something away from the author.  But, in fact, the new arrangement could also allow the author to sell fewer books, yet make the same amount of money in the end, or by selling the same number of books, the author might make as much as three times the amount he or she would have received given the old model.  But: the author would have to finance the work and he or she could suffer if the book didn’t sell.  If my books don’t sell, I still get to keep the advance (and Scribner, which would bear the loss, won’t be so friendly the next time I come around with a book idea).

The new model intended by HarperCollins has already begun to happen in the cookbook world and we may see how successful it is next fall.  Nick Kokonas, the restaurateur who, with Grant Achatz has created the restaurant Alinea in Chicago (pictured above), was unhappy with the conventional deals publishers were offering Grant for his cookbook. Kokonas figured, given that they have an in-house designer and photographer, they could do it themselves. They have hired several writers to handle various aspects of the text (myself included—I’m doing the intro and I also comment on the essays Nick and Grant are writing).  The Alinea Cookbook is scheduled for a fall publication, and they are creating an intriguing website with demos and recipes and techinques to go with it.

The only thing Alinea can’t do is warehouse and distribute tens of thousands of books of enormous books. So they’re working with 10 Speed Press to handle it for them, as well as provide some marketing and editing support; because it’s paying Alinea no advance (which in today’s economic climate would be in the low six figures), 10 Speed has very little at risk.  The risk falls on Kokonas and Achatz, and they stand to gain proportionately if the book does well—earning substantially more per book.  The publishing world is changing faster than most publishers are willing to acknowledge.  So far, the only response to the new dynamics has been for publishers to take on authors who have TV shows or some other “platform” resulting in a lot of books by television personalities and books promising fast, easy, low fat meals and eat-all-you-want diet books.

The new model created by Kokonas and perhaps soon a similar one by HarperCollins is exciting because it stands to enable chefs who can finance their own projects to do exactly the kind of books they want to do—which means we’re likely to see more risk taking and more innovative books, books that publishers in the traditional model previously wouldn’t have taken a chance on.

Update—Nick Kokonas expands on the numbers:

Ok.  Let’s assume a $40 sale price on a visually intensive book.

Wholesale price is $20.  A normal retailer will then double that… but someone like Amazon or Costco, who still pay the $20, will discount the book significantly and might sell the book for $25.  In any event, it is rare that the publisher discounts the books to anyone but large bulk purchasers such as Book of the Month Club or something like that where they might buy 10,000 books in bulk that cannot be returned to the publisher.

From the $20 that the publisher collects, let’s say (to keep numbers round) 10% of cover price goes to the author on the first xxx number of books sold… then it might go up from there to 15% or so.  These numbers vary by type of book, reputation of author, etc.  so $4.  Of course, the author doesn’t get that money until he recoups the advance and typically will need to sell 20,000 or more books before that happens. 

Of the $16 remaining to the publisher, $5 or so will be the printing cost on the book.  Our book is costing significantly more than that to print because we have chosen to print it at the highest quality possible.  But my guess is that $5 or less is about right for a 250 page color hardbound book — that is a conservative estimate and I am sure that many books cost less than half of that to print.

Of the $11 remaining, the rest of the costs are internal:  marketing, advertising, sales, etc.  I have no real way of knowing what sort of margins a publisher can pull from that.  One of the risks publishers run is that unsold books that sit on retail shelves can be returned to the publisher and the money refunded to the retailer.

Like the recording industry, the winners end up paying for the losers.  Publishers take on the risk of giving advances to many authors, and then need to market them all, but of course some will be net losers.  However, if you do the math, you can see that on a $60,000 advance, the book in our example only needs to sell 4,000 or so books to cover that ($15 per book is the divisor here because the author is not yet recouped, so we only need to subtract the printing cost).  Of course, the marketing and such are not included, so let’s be generous and assume the number is really 6,000 books.  Still not that many. 

We were offered a nearly mid-six-figure amount as an advance, but once we took that money we needed to pay production costs out of it and we would immediately lose our intellectual property rights, including digital rights, for all of the material.  We would have no say in reprints, the ability to digitally sell or give-away material (my biggest concern personally), or even control fully the content of the book itself.  One well regarded publisher wanted us to call the book something other than "Alinea".  In addition, any books we would sell ourselves through the restaurant or at events or appearances would have to be purchased from the publisher at a slightly reduced wholesale rate.  That was the kicker for me… we produce it, repay the publisher their advance, and then have to buy our own books back from them.  Now, our only expense moving forward on the books we sell ourselves is the printing costs.  So we have a strong incentive to find a direct channel to consumers and I expect to sell about 5% of our books that way.

The bottom line, is that if you can afford to forgo the advance if you are a writer, or front the production cost of a visually intensive book (not an insubstantial figure), then you will very likely end up better off with a distribution only deal — provided you can find one.  Judging from the news in the New York Times, I suspect that will be easier and easier to find.


38 Wonderful responses to “New Publishing Model May Result in More Innovative Cookbooks”

  • Charlotte

    Well, this is how it’s worked for those of us down in the low end of the midlist fiction world for a while now. It’s increasingly rare to get an advance on a novel before it’s completed — my
    “advance” on Place Last Seen was actually a check I received upon delivery of a finished version of the book. And in a lot of ways, I think this model can free up writers to be more innovative, as you note — especially for fiction writers. It’s not like most of us are getting advances that are big enough to allow us to quit our day jobs anyway, so why not just pay me for a book, give me a chance of making some actual money on sales, and leave me alone to write the next one.

  • Darcie

    Thanks for the info. I know nothing of the workings of book publishing, so it’s interesting to learn how it work.

    I am excited about the website for the Alinea book. That is one thing I would like to see for cookbooks in particular – a link to a webpage or an accompanying CD/DVD (for which I would happily pay a premium) to allow me to catalog the recipes in my recipe software.

  • ntsc

    “You can make a fortune writing, but you can’t make a living” attributed by Lawrence Block to James Michner.

  • matt k.

    I think the new model makes more sense by spreading the publishing risk to the author. If he or she is confident that the work will sell, they should go without an advance and stomach the initial costs to produce the book. In the end, the publishers would be more willing to print and distribute the book, taking on marginal costs instead of initial sunk costs in book development. In essense, the publishing world is becoming like iTunes, where they become distributors of content rather than co-creators.

    Thanks for the tip about Alinea, I’m looking forward to their new book.

  • Natalie Sztern

    NEXT FALL!!..they promised May 08 and I already paid for the book and shipping charges of 23 US for delivery May 2008!!!

    Aww…I don’t think this is going to be a good way to pre-buy a book and I am not doing it this way again!!!!

  • veron

    I’ve pre-ordered the book. Fall is such a long way off…so excited to get my grubby fingers on the book!

  • Brian Kirsten

    It’s very similar to creator owned work in comic book publishing. The publisher can take more “risk” (for lack of a better word) on more diverse properties because in the creator owned scenario the publishers are just driving the marketing/distribution machine. It’s the creators themselves that are really sticking their necks out, but they have everything to gain. And in reality it’s the way it should be moving, in my world (I own a comic book publishing company) why should I take the creators hard owned work and rights from them?

  • Hunter

    I’m a cook and I ordered the book as soon as I heard about it. While I don’t practice the “molecular gastronomy” style of cuisine, I’ve done sous vide and also find Alinea and Chef Achatz’s presentations to be inspired (and inspirational). There’s also a lot of techniques that can be applied to the style of food I do, as well as flavor combo’s, textures, etc.

    The pictures alone look almost worth the price.

  • Ryan

    I would really like to know where the El Bulli cookbooks fall in the scheme of things. Also I’d like to know why they are so incredibly expensive. I LOVE the french laundry cookbook. I’ve read it numerours times and made a number of the dishes. I’ve about worn it out. I really like it when the cookbooks tell the history of the restaurant or of a dish. Its like a window to the brain of the chef.

  • N. Rodrigues

    Dear Mr. Ruhlman,

    1. What’s this new cookbook of yours you mentioned?

    2. The 10 000 000 dollar question: when’s the 2nd revised updated and expanded edition of «The Elents of cooking» coming out? Everyone has already figured out you’re bound to release it, so the question is not whether but when.

    Many thanks!

    N. Rodrigues

  • Michael Booth

    This story has been picked up over here in Europe as well and, as a food writer myself, fills me with terror! My book projects tend to be a little hairbrained and invariably expensive. If I didn’t have a generous (and distracted) publisher behind me they’d never see the light of day – heaven knows my wife would veto them, for a start – so please don’t tell him about all this.

  • Sarah

    That is really great news–it is about time that chefs are able to do things there own way without the evil hand of the BIG publishing giant.

    Being from Chicago–I am super excited about your new venture with Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas. I am going to check out the website stat!

  • DJK

    “That is really great news–it is about time that chefs are able to do things there own way without the evil hand of the BIG publishing giant.”

    I’d be interested to see Ruhlman further break down who gets what. An author’s share of 10-15% is substantially higher than I’ve heard, and as long as we’re talking about the “evil hand of the BIG publishing giant” it’s probably appropriate to take a look at the evil-er hand of the BIGGER bookstore giant.

    My understanding is that it’s the retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble that pocket the majority of a book’s sale price, and, unlike the publisher, they take on practically no risk whatsoever, since contracts require publishers to buy back books that don’t sell.

  • Sues is not Martha

    As a recent graduate with my MA in publishing and writing, I always thought the system was a bit flawed. As with most things, works for some and not for others. But I think in the case of cookbook writers who can finance their own projects, this is definitely a good thing! Looking forward to seeing how this changes the world of publishing. ANd also looking forward to your new cookbook!


  • HappyHoarfrost

    Very, very interesting. About the only thing I don’t love about the Alinea website is the time it takes to load all those gorgeous photos–even with a crazy-fast connection. Maybe it’s designed that way…
    Will the (cookbook’s) website be launched pre-publication? Let us in on the process? I just assumed yes, that it would be part of this new model, and would take advantage of web-world fluidity. Everything–chronologies, conventions, paleolithic models–is changing so fast. I like it; I like process. I am so excited you’re involved and dangling your next book in front of us.

    This reminds me of the conversation on chef-bloggers…it’s a new frontier that will be done well by a percentage, poorly by many, and witnessed by all.

  • Natalie Sztern

    Going onto the Alinea Mosaic site i might stand corrected since they are announcing access as of May 4….I will be happy with that but I am certain I was under the assumption the book was being delivered for the same time frame….

    However, if there are pre-sellings of Chef authored and financed books, then who is actually doing the financing, am I not helping by pre-buying? And also, then who is to sit on the ass of said author for him to complete deadlines?

  • Darren

    Well, I don’t get an advance, but I get 8 percent of all copies sold – about typical for a historical work. Glad to see that things are changing, as it makes a lot more sense that the author gets a bit more from each copy sold. Publishers often tie up advance money in something that turns out not to be as big as they had hoped!

  • paris221966

    Writers are all the same.

    Rich snobs. All you care about is money and not the fans.

    I’ll never buy your books or Bourdain’s books ever again.

  • HappyHoarfrost

    OKAY, this IS as I thought, now that I’ve gone to the Alinea Mosaic site ( I couldn’t catch the link directly from MR’s post. It’s not just the restructuring of the traditional advance and author’s monies–it’s the implementation of the website, the pre-buying and access to it, that’s forcing the model to shift.
    I don’t think this was completely clear, but I’m still baffled as to how any of this is a bad thing. It’s genius, it’s innovative, exciting–and fresh. OH DEAR.
    The Serious Eats article is awfully interesting.
    A dollop from Kokonas:”On the internet, you can create something rich and hopefully special. When we explained to the conventional publishers what we wanted to do, they all thought we were nuts. They thought that if we put big chunks of the book online, we would be cannibalizing our own sales. But I have tons of cookbooks at home, and I go on the web all the time for cooking and food info, and those are two distinct interactions, and one doesn’t come at the expense of the other.”

    Taking issue with whether or not they stand to make some if not a LOT of money with this approach sounds like sour grappa to me.

  • doodad

    On a side note, how are the sales of Elements to date? I know I enjoy my copy very much. And agree that an expanded 2nd edition would be very interesting. I would like to see more tools and professionl terminology defined.

  • ruhlman

    Michael Booth: I hear you–i’d be toiling in the cubicle of a trade magazine if henry holt and viking my first publishers hadn’t offered me an advance. the model still doesn’t favor the author, who often doesn’t have cash flow from another business. All in all though, once an author gets his footing, he stands to make a more reasonable share of the profits that 10-15% of each book.

    DJK–I’ll look into specifics.

    paris221966: I care about readers, that’s why i respond here and why i do my best to answer every single email i get.

    And of course I care about money. I’m not a blockhead. I’m a little company of two (my wife takes pix) with two children, a mortgage, self-employeed and self-insured with no guarentee of a paycheck from month to month. And I took extraodinary, my father thought foolhardy, risks to be able to do what I care about. I’ve had every advantage and tried to use my luck well. The risks have paid off. So far. Nothing is certain. Yes, I care about money all the time. It’s just not the first thing I care about. If it were, I wouldn’t be a writer.

  • Tana

    “Writers are all the same. Rich snobs. All you care about is money and not the fans.”

    How harsh and rude, and so untrue.

    If you think Ruhlman (or Bourdain, for that matter) doesn’t care about the fans, maybe you’re unaware of what an investment of time it is to have this website, and to respond to the questions and comments that are here…not to mention corresponding personally with a whole lot of people off-site.

    I don’t know what your definition of a snob is, but neither of these guys fits it, in my book. But it’s a word people throw around without really questioning it.

    Originally coming from a word meaning someone of inferior class who sought to imitate those of a higher rank. (That’s telling: that snobbery comes from the insecurity of being detected as less-than.) It later came to mean (from American Heritage Dictionary online):

    1. One who tends to patronize, rebuff, or ignore people regarded as social inferiors and imitate, admire, or seek association with people regarded as social superiors.

    2. One who affects an offensive air of self-satisfied superiority in matters of taste or intellect.

    I think Ruhlman and Bourdain are neither of those things, and that’s why I hang around. True snobs (William F. Buckley comes to mind) are nauseating and exclusive.

    I would posit that all rude remarks from those who hide behind the cowardly cloak of anonymity are corrupting good manners on the internet, and diluting the value of intelligent discourse.

    Your mileage may vary, but I surely am not alone in appreciating how open and accessible both of these writers are to their fanbase, many of whom are also students.

    Cheers, Michael and Tony. You guys rock. (Well, I don’t know that I call Dave Matthews Band actual ROCK, but you know what I mean.)

  • Tags

    Hey, there are people who would call Abba a rock band, just like there are people who would call Rocco a chef.

  • Nathalie

    I’ve been impatiently awaiting the release of the Alinea cookbook. I love the publishing model.

    It makes me think of the new Radiohead album, In Rainbows- I paid a small fortune for the actually album, online, got the digital download right away, and around Christmas, as promised, my beautiful album showed up in the mail. Was totally worth what I paid the band directly.

    I can see this new model working, very well, for established talent, but think that the traditional model, probably works better for new talent breaking into the market.

  • Sarah

    Paris 22—Oh god, I don’t remember your number—I feel like you are Jean Valjean, prisoner number 246601 or whatever it is. Truly, there are about 1% of artists who actually “make it” as actors, chefs, musicians. I am happy to see someone like Ruhlman who went back to his grass roots (mine is Detroit) actually have a passion for cooking, write about it, live in Cleveland—for god sakes Cleveland and actually respond to crazy peoples e-mails with interesting commentary. Cheers to you Ruhlman. Don’t let the bastards get you down.

  • DJK

    Thank you for the update. I imagine fiction writers (in particular first-time fiction writers) don’t have as much leverage in this arrangement as non-fiction writers do, but if you have it, I’m pleased to see that you’re using it to improve the quality of your book.

    On this point:

    “I have no real way of knowing what sort of margins a publisher can pull from that… Like the recording industry, the winners end up paying for the losers.”

    It just so happens that ex-Random-House-bigshot Andre Schiffrin was on CSPAN’s Book TV last night talking about the future of independent publishing, and one of the things he talked about was the way in which publishers have over the last few decades changed from a business model that brought them profit margins in the neighborhood of 3-4%, one that allowed them to take on riskier books and/or books they had no intention of profiting from financially, to one that demands profits upwards of 20% on as many titles as possible and practically eliminates less marketable books from the equation.

    So in the past it seems that publishers weren’t nearly as concerned with the margins they could pull and, while profitable books always allowed them to take on books that didn’t make money, publishers were much less likely to see any book as a real loser, because regardless of its bottom line they believed in it.

  • Dave


    Do you really think this is a good thing? As a publisher compare
    A) investing 3 million, while making 90% on the potential sales.

    B) investing some far smaller amount and making some far smaller percentage on the potential sales.

    In scenario B, where is the incentive for the publisher’s making an investment in marketing and promotion? Might as well start selling e-books on the web site.

  • luis

    The drug business as in over the counter stuff works exactly the same way. The distribution only deal sounds too good to be true because of the marketing, sales and distribution costs. A big company has the sales and distribution muscle to put your book or product on the shelves and they will not do it if they don’t control it.(As in the intellectual property issue).
    I think there are lots of very ordinary books out there the publisher doesn’t/shouldn’t want to take a chance on. Probably a lot of demand for folks wanting to get published.

    I recently saw a special in PBS by Rick Steves not sure his last name. He goes on the road with two other guys and shoots a video for PBS on traveling in Europe in a very short period of time. The thing that stuck in my mind was that he does a lot in very little time and with very little gear and crew.
    Basically I would explore making a DVD instead of a book. Books are fine but DVD’s are more fun and easily manufactured right in your own home with very little equipment. Now you have the internet to market your DVD or Book and you can pursue your own manufacturing, marketing and sales right out of your garage. You can try and maintain your intellectual property and cut out the publisher unless he deals with you on win win terms. I think a DVD is that extra step beyond the writing now you are acting and producing. Anyway its just a thought…. I am sure you have considered it. Come to think of it.. Bourdain probably does this very same thing. I did get the impression Rick pretty much does his own production with his two associates. Rick may have a video of how he does what he does… PBS was running a fund drive and you know they offer special gifts with the contribution levels.

  • hollerhither

    A few things for the print authors out there, and anyone else who is interested, with the caveat that this just scratches the surface:

    The Costco analysis is a little incomplete. Publishers usually have to pay placement or “per-book” fees on top of that $20 you cite (and account gets 55-58% discount initially, btw, sometimes more). Sometimes there are additional, special packaging charges for these accounts, like corrugation, stickering, or shrink-wrapping. A publisher’s profits on sales to Costco, Wal-Mart, Target, office supply stores are frighteningly small after you take out costs of merchandising. You are very reliant on volume and you take a huge risk if the book doesn’t sell through.

    Likewise, publishers pay funds (co-op) to retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble to get your books featured on display tables front-of-store (or, in the case of Amazon, to get them featured prominently on the web page). This figure is usually based on a percentage of prior year’s sales with the publisher (all titles); if the publisher and retail buyer believe in your book, they’ll allocate some of those funds to promote it.

    Running against all of this, as someone mentioned, is the potential for large returns. Publishers don’t exactly “buy back” returned books, it’s more of a rolling credit with the accounts, but it’s a quirk that is fairly specific to this industry. Most merchandisers sell non-returnable at higher discounts and then retailers mark down in place if it doesn’t sell. Books are different. They don’t go “on sale” the same that a shirt does.

    As authors, it’s in your best interest to learn as much about these practices as possible. As you probably know it’s also in your best interest to do as much of your own marketing as possible to supplement the publisher’s efforts (a blog, restaurant display are great places to start), and to do that outreach well above and beyond the “launch” period for your title if you’re selling something that could potentially backlist well, like a cookbook.

    The margins in this industry are terrifying. 3 – 6% profit is a banner year, unless you’re looking at professional or other niche publishing. And the internet, of course, has impacted this. Ironically the internet can be potentially MORE profitable if you are able to eliminate the “middle man” and many of the display and packaging costs, not to mention printing costs. But many publishers do NOT have viable electronic publishing strategies in hand just yet. I will be watching Harper Collins’ new model with interest.

    Whew. Finally I can give back a little to the guy who taught me how to make veal stock. 😉

  • Culinary Sherpa #2

    I found this entire post very informational.

    My partner (he’s the chef) and I (I’m the cook) are very interested in publishing a cookbook, but it seems to be a very intimidating arena.

    Unfortunately, we do not have the funds able to go on our own, so we will just have to wait for the publishers to fork over the advance.

    Michael, what advise do you have for those trying to eek into the cookbook world without the deep pockets? In no way do we expect to become filthy rich, but we would like to be published and offer our knowledge to others. We both enjoy writing (we are co-columnists for the Tampa Tribune) and would like the opportunity to publish a different kind of book. Something that entertains and educates. The cook’s bedtime novel, if you will.

  • vodka123

    Hmm, perhaps the devils, or the gods, are in the details and my mind is too scattered to follow all the numbers, but… This sounds like vanity publishing with not all that much of a twist, no?

  • Tags

    Tonight on Food Network, two Chefographies, shown in the order of who sold the most books

    First, at 8 PM EDT – Rachael Ray

    Second, at 9 PM EDT – Julia Child

  • Steamy Kitchen

    I’m publishing just slightly differently than tradition: get a lower advance and take your own food photography.

    Lots of us bloggers are getting really good at food photography, shooting from the comforts of our home (not fancy studio), $600 dSLR, and good natural lighting or even inexpensive table-top professional photog lights. If you’ve got an eye for food styling and take the time to learn to use your camera, it’s definitely do-able. I took 6 months of just trial and error, learning as much as I could from online photography forums, studying food styling from cookbooks, magazines and websites.

    I’m working on it now – every recipe will include a photograph. The publisher is happy (lesser risk with smaller advance); I’m happy (my first cookbook and I get to write, cook, photograph). Blog readers happy (they get to help me test and get a sneak peak into putting a book together). Next year when the book comes out I can link to Amazon and make 7% commission (as an Amazon Associate) + the royalty from Publisher. No inventory, no warehouse, no shipping, no dealing with consumer billing.

    Yes, it’s a lot of work, but I’m loving every minute of it.

  • drfugawe

    Fascinating! Thanks much for a great discussion. And the rest of us apologize for the ignorance of a few – interesting that they choose a venue of accessability for their complaints – but then, perhaps their heros offer no such opportunities.

  • Amy Kalinchuk

    Publishers are floundering with the old model, and need to make money. Eliminating the advance is a big thing, and I believe it will be better for everyone involved.

    Yes, the writer will have to write more on spec. However, like other self-publishers, all of my writing is on spec, and I have to do all the marketing, etc. to sell my books. Marketing and advertising and all of that is expensive. Many big publishers don’t want to pay for the marketing, either. Authors are left to do it.

    So, if we are doing most of the work, anyway, and doing it on our own dime, anyway, why not publish ourselves?

    I’m glad to see someone mention cookbooks as ebooks–I am waiting for this revolution. Both of my books are ebooks right now, and as yet may or may not make it to print. Ebooks are very profitable, on a small scale. All of a person’s recipes can be in a central location, and can also be printed out as necessary. Slopped sauce all over your recipe? No problem. People still want to hold, pore over, and caress a huge, heavily-photographed cookbook. I know I do.

    But aren’t ebooks the practical side?

  • Julie

    Very interesting… I’d be curious what the increased royalty rate is.

    It sounds to me exactly like a distribution arrangement – the author pays production costs and has complete creative control over his/her book (just like self-publishing), and the publisher warehouses and distributes them. I’ve had my self-published books with a publisher as distributor and a distribution company, and in both scenarios they took a percentage, not vice-versa… that way I could hold on to as many copies of my own book as I wanted to sell at events etc. (at a cost of under $5 per book), rather than buy them at a 50% discount from the publisher. ($10+ plus shipping.)