There are several different types of publishers, but increasingly the boundaries are becoming less distinct, so a trade press might do a popular encyclopedia, an academic press might do a book on gastronomy, and reference publishers are increasingly doing anything. But in general the markets still hold true, though electronic publishing may make all this obsolete in coming years. Some publishers simply do not fit into these neat categories, such as small private presses that may publish anything they think they can sell. Also note, publishers routinely buy up other publishers, so often one will be an imprint of another house, or a list may be completely subsumed as Berg has been by Bloomsbury.
Every type of publisher requires a formal proposal to get started. This should include an “elevator talk” introduction as a hook and at least several paragraphs of description, why this book is important, and why it will sell. Why it should be published right now? Keep in mind, it is always about profit for a publisher, they wouldn’t be in business if they thought otherwise. Usually a detailed chapter synopsis and sample are required and always a projection of the targeted audience, competition and what makes this book different. I also usually tell people do this only if you have to. Writing a book can be an immense joy but it is also a remarkably long tedious and at times insufferable process, especially when you get to proofreading and indexing. Research and writing is the fun part, but by no means the whole process. Let alone marketing, which increasingly will depend on you. To get started it is important to know the different kinds of publishers and to choose the right house:
1. Academic Press
Audience: Primarily to academics and college libraries but also foodies increasingly
Examples: University of California Press, Columbia, Oxford, Illinois, Chicago, Toronto, plus those like Berg, Ashgate, Routledge, etc.
Type: Monographs, specialized studies, essay collections and sometimes pedagogical works like handbooks, readers, historic reprints, reference works.
Process: Write proposal and usually a sample chapter and submit directly to acquisitions editor who then sends it out for anonymous peer review. Approval by an editorial board may also be required, sometimes after presentation of the completed work. The completed work will be sent for peer review. This may take several months and reviewers may request revisions, sometimes extensive. The reviewers can also reject it. Advantage is expert feedback, but the long wait, narrow market and generally small print runs and minimal royalties means one does this mostly for professional reasons. But such books rarely go out of print and sometimes they sell well. Remember also you must never submit this type of book to several publishers at the same time.
Royalties: There is almost never an advance, royalties are minimal and paid out after publication. For monographs around 8% is typical and given high price, you may make a few thousand dollars. Most authors do this for promotion and tenure rather than profit.
2. Trade Press
Audience: Primarily to General Public, via bookstores and amazon
Examples: Penguin, Simon and Shuster, Northpoint, Ten Speed, Clarkson Potter, Random House, Scribner’s, Ballantine, St. Martin’s, Rodale, Reaktion
Type: General Food Writing, Cookbooks and Food Issues books, Guidebooks, Memoirs
Process: These almost always require an agent, which itself can be difficult to secure. Agent submits and negotiates with publishers and takes a cut of royalties. Contracts may come with an advance, and editor usually provides feedback directly. Advantage is large print run, competitive pricing and sometimes good marketing. Profit is the primary motive here, but few food writers can make a full time living this way. Some authors hustle their books themselves with speaking engagements, but the formal book tour is a rare thing nowadays except for celebrities.
Royalties: An advance for a well known author can be above $20,000. Those that sell well may even earn royalties after the advance is “paid out.” New authors are usually offered considerably less.
3. Reference/Textbook Publishers
Audience: Primarily to Library Market and Students
Examples: ABC-CLIO/Greenwood, AltaMira, Sage, Springer, Thomson/Wordsworth
Type: Reference Works, Encyclopedias, Textbooks, Books within Food Series, but increasingly all types of food books.
Process: Write proposal and submit to acquisitions editor or series editor hired by the publisher. Rarely peer reviewed, though often must pass a library board. Both editors offer feedback. Limited market and small print runs mean smaller royalties, but generally easier to break into than academic or trade presses. Expensive books mean limited audience as well.
Royalties: Quite small, though sometimes an advance of a thousand dollars or so can be arranged. Profit is not the motive, usually professional prestige and notoriety. Contributors to encyclopedias sometimes receive nominal payment by contract, or a copy of the work, though sometimes neither.
4. Specialty Presses
Audience: Foodies, Culinary Historians, Academics
Examples: Prospect, Southover, Applewood
Type: Historic Reprints, General Food Writing, Sometimes Cookbooks, Conference Proceedings
Process: Write directly to publisher with ideas, which are approved or rejected quickly. Sometimes this is exactly the place for books that seem to fit nowhere else.
Royalties: Normally minimal.
5. Self Publication
A few people manage to get away with this, putting up their own money, hiring a designer and photographer, doing all the marketing themselves. The advantage is you keep all the profit. But you also have to be willing and able to do everything yourself.
There are also ways to do this easily with self publishing programs and companies that specialize in this. Community cookbooks are the most common, but increasingly other types as well. The advantage is you keep a significant part of the profits. The disadvantage is it is very hard to sell such books, even with electronic distribution, kindle, and the like. Do this only if you must see your book in print and really don’t care if many people read it. There are even academic quasi-self published outfits like Mellen. Few people take them seriously, because it is assumed you simply couldn’t get a publisher. This is not, however, always the case. And sometimes excellent books are self published. A better way to get exposure, is a good website or blog and simply forget about paper.