Literary Agents Connect the Dots from Book Idea to Book Store & Beyond

Illustration by Charley Harper

Illustration by Charley Harper

What is a literary agent? And, do I need one when I want to write a cookbook? I love reading cookbooks. How can I make a food job out of that? I’ve lost count how many times I’m asked those questions.

Like a memorable dish made of the best ingredients, a great agent is one part editor and coach, one part advocate, one part broker, one part marketing, trend spotter and visionary savant, spiced with wit and sage advice. The best agent buys the champagne when the book idea is sold, and later published.

A literary agent represents the author of a book idea to publishers and ensures that every transaction you, (the writer), make to work with the publisher is fair and reasonable. It is as important to find the right literary agent, who will represent your work passionately, as it is to find the right publisher to produce your work respectfully.

Only a small group of literary agents devote most of their energies to cookbooks and culinary subjects. Most work on the east or west coast, where the large publishing houses are located. They can be hard to find outside of culinary organizations like the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals). Many authors thank their agent on the acknowledgment pages of their book, so with just a little detective work you can easily track them down.

“Having (literary) representation tells an editor that your book project has been vetted by a professional who thinks highly enough of you or your topic to take it on,” reveals Lisa Ekus, founder and owner of the Lisa Ekus Group, a literary agent for numerous cookbooks and culinary public relations and media training agency.

Sadly, it is almost as difficult to find an agent as it is to find a publisher these days. An agent won’t waste her or his time trying to sell a proposal unless she or he thinks it will find a home. So before you write that cookbook, it is important to know what you’re getting yourself into. Writing a cookbook, no matter how great the idea, is not easy. As veteran executive editor and director of cooking publishing at HarperCollins for almost two decades, Susan R. Friedland recently pointed out in her remarkably insightful FOOD ARTS article, “Nowadays, even famous chefs find it as challenging to get a book published as to score a multi-star review in a major metropolitan daily.”

Friedland adds, “A wise chef, who is lucky enough to have stirred the interest of a publisher or has the urge to write a cookbook, should hire an agent, preferably one who represents other cookbook authors and knows the terrain. It’s advisable to ask around to get recommendations from colleagues and then interview several potential agents. It’s important to find a compatible agent, as you will be spending a fair amount of time together (if not in person, by e-mail and telephone) and will want to partner with someone with whom you can work well.” (See below for Friedland’s top literary agent and food editor picks.)

Other than access to publishers — which is critically important — the agent negotiates the author’s contract. The focus is on: (1) the amount of money given to the author as an advance, (2) manuscript delivery dates, and (3) royalty scales. If these terms sound unfamiliar, you need an agent.

Usually an agent asks the author to sign a contract stipulating the agency will receive a commission for her services, which means a percentage of the funds advanced to the author and of all future book royalties. (This is generally in the 15 percent range.)

The author receives payment in stages; the first is received when the contract is signed and the next at different points in the process. All are contingent on the author meeting the terms of the contract. Usually there are no more than three payments. This typical schedule is a kind of insurance for the publisher, who wants to make sure the author won’t complain too loudly or actually refuse to make any of the editor’s suggested changes.

The agent also negotiates the vexing question of who pays for certain things such as photography. Sometimes the publisher advances the cost of photography, but the fees may be deducted from the author’s future earnings. Agents often find and negotiate the author’s collaborators, (as is often the case for restaurant chefs stuck in the kitchen), or the occasional ghost writer. Occasionally the agent is able to persuade the publisher to pay for the book’s index, though frequently this is a cost billed to the author.

Becoming A Literary Agent:

Sadly, one is not born a literary agent, rather one becomes a literary agent over time and with experience. Just ask legendary literary agent, Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. To get started in this field, apply for a position with an agency that is representing the kind of books that appeal to you.

While you are sure to learn all the steps involved in selling a book to the right publisher, it is most critical that you love to read. All literary agents start by reading through the “slush” pile of book proposals, seeking that rare gem that will lead to gold.

FOOD ARTS Magazine

FOOD ARTS Magazine

As mentioned, here is Susan Friedland’s top literary agent and food editor picks, courtesy of FOOD ARTS magazine:

David Black David Black Literary Agency, New York City, 212-242-5080
Doe Coover The Doe Coover Agency, Win-chester, MA,
Janis Donnaud Janis A. Donnaud and Associates, New York City,
Jennifer Griffin The Miller Agency, New York City,
Angela Miller The Miller Agency, New York City,
Judith Weber Sobel Weber Associates, New York City,

Ann Bramson Artisan Books, New York City,
Pam Chirls John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ,
Maria Guarnaschelli W.W. Norton & Company, New York City,
Dan Halpern Ecco Press, New York City,
Judith Jones Knopf, New York City, 212-782-9000
Pam Kraus Rodale, Emmaus, PA,
William LeBlond Chronicle Books, San Francisco,
Rux Martin Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston,
Suzanne Rafer Workman Press, New York City,
Anja Schmidt Dorling Kindersley, New York City
Geoffrey Stone Running Press, Philadelphia,
Aaron Wehner Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA,

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