When it comes to culinary publishing in the USA, Lisa Ekus is the person who holds many of the ingredients needed to cook up a savoury publication. Since 2000, her agency has been offering personalized, detailed-oriented literary services to veteran authors and newcomers alike, representing more than 140 authors and many leading publishers, both national and international.

Holger Ehling: How does one become an agent in the culinary world?

Lisa Ekus (c) Lisa Ekus Group

Lisa Ekus (c) Lisa Ekus Group

Lisa Ekus: I have spent more than 30 years in publishing, first learning about all types of books, then focusing specifically on all culinary titles, primarily through the pr and marketing of them. Once I had relationships with and a strong base of authors and editors, professionals with whom I worked for almost two decades, I decided to expand to become a full service agency. One has to know food trends, follow them closely, understand publishers guidelines, preferences, and sensibilities.

There are, for instance, only certain publishing houses which are appropriate for full color cookbooks. Some primarily do single subject driven books, others look for major brands, such as tv personalities. My very first job in publishing was working with a literary agent in New York, so I learned to evaluate manuscripts, review contracts and manage talent from the very beginning of my career. I started when I was still in college.

Holger Ehling: Do you represent chefs and cookery writers from all over the world or from the USA only?

Lisa Ekus: Yes,there are some global clients: Anne Willan from France, who recently relocated to California, Elizabeth Andoh from Japan, Yukari Pratt Sakamoto from Singapore. We have also done PR campaigns and media trained authors for TV and video performances from all over the Globe including London, Paris, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and Canada.

first and foremost we look for passion for a subject, strong writing skills, great recipes and a unique point of view

Holger Ehling: How do you select the talent you wish to represent?

Lisa Ekus: There are very specific guidelines on our website outlining manuscript submission requirements. However, first and foremost we look for passion for a subject, strong writing skills, great recipes and a unique point of view. You have to be able to tell us what your unique selling point is and how your proposal is  different from all the other tens of thousands of cookbooks on the market? We are interested in where food comes from, ethnic and cultural stories, in having our appetite whetted to read more and get into the kitchen and cook. We take on fewer than a dozen new clients annually and receive hundreds of submissions. We love to launch new and first time writers and always have at least one or more on our current roster.

Holger Ehling: How does the rights markets work in this segment?

Lisa Ekus: It depends who retains the rights. Most US Publishers will retain the foreign and translation rights as the production values are so high, it’s a way for them to recoup some of their investment. Reversing the picture, it is extremely challenging for cookbooks from non-US countries to find a home with a US publisher. The ingredients and food terms are different, the issue of measurements is a major obstacle. Americans don’t know what “rocket” is, or “aubergine”. The sensibilities of how a book is laid out and the visual or lifestyle approach can be vastly different. All those things have to be taken into consideration.

Holger Ehling: What does it take for a book to be successful in the US market?

Lisa Ekus: One needs a platform or brilliant writing and recipes that get picked up by the media. The public has to either know who you are – because maybe you have a TV show, or extensive media presence or one or more restaurant(s); or you have to have written the definitive book on a topic. There are actually only a handful of nationally known celebrity chefs in the US, yet the talent and quality of so many other cookbooks is definitely out there. One of the ways our company made it’s mark in the industry was to launch PR campaigns and shine a bright light on much of this talent.

Holger Ehling: Are there any differences between the US market and other markets you deal with?

Lisa Ekus: They are completely different. Americans are very ethnocentric. We forget there is a whole world of food, culinary writings and presentation of food. I would love nothing more than to work to educate American cookbook buyers to some of the really superb books coming from London, Paris, Germany, Australia….. We have a lot to learn (and taste) beyond our shores. With the huge interest in ethnic cuisines and traveling, I’m surprised American consumers are not more open to cookbooks from other countries. We should be! I am working towards that goal.

Holger Ehling: Does a chef need to be a successful cookery writer to make it big time? Or does the success of cookery books follow the professional success of a chef?

Lisa Ekus: A chef can be hugely successful with or without a cookbook. However, a cookbook can be a very beneficial marketing tool for a chef. It’s a great souvenir and take-home for the guest. It offers chefs the opportunity to do media around the country, guest dinners, to build a following and clientele far from their restaurant home city. Having a cookbook can build on the visibility and fame of a chef, and drive increased restaurant traffic. If a chef has a very successful restaurant, doing a cookbook can make sense, but not always. The chef has to have something new and different to say/write about. They must be a good writer or be willing to bring on a writer to assist. And they MUST understand the importance of creating recipes for the home cook, tested on a home stove. Most chefs do not know how to write a recipe properly. Our agency works very closely with restaurant chefs to create teams of experts to ensure successful cookbook projects.

Holger Ehling: Electronic rights and Ebooks and Cookey Apps – what is the importance of this market segment?

Lisa Ekus: Most of the books  now are being published simultaneously with ebook versions, with added video content and hotlinks to additional, on-line information, not found in the hard copy of the book. I believe they serve different purposes and one does not replace the other, but rather enhances.

An app has to be interactive in terms of the consumer’s needs and the author’s ability to deliver useful information in a format that works and is beneficial.

Electronic rights covers all those options and most US Publishers try very hard to retain all electronic rights so that as new technology goes into effect, they can monetize these opportunities. The authors must make sure they are treated fairly in the splits of revenues, which comes down to the contract terms.

Cookery Apps are a whole other ball of wax. Every author wants them and the App stores are flooded. Again, I ask, how will yours be different, stand out, why do I want or need it? Since most apps are offered free, how can one make money on them? If you charge, your content has to be far more than simply a books contents. An app has to be interactive in terms of the consumer’s needs and the author’s ability to deliver useful information in a format that works and is beneficial. There are few good apps on the market. Cookulus is one I love. I also love James McIntosh’s app called Whisk Cooking. Hugely popular writers and chefs such as Mark Bittman and Martha Stewart certainly have their name brand in front of them to make their apps sell well. Keep in mind that all these technologies cost money. Publishers are not always willing to fund this, yet they want to retain the rights—this is where it gets sticky.

Holger Ehling: You also offer career coaching and advice. Could you explain what you do and what the effects are?

Lisa Ekus: We are approached weekly by culinary professionals looking for all types of advice and information—from should I do a cookbook, and where or how do I get started, to  how do  I leverage my brand to how can I improve my business to what do I need to know to market myself. You name it, we ‘ve been asked it. Because we only represent a limited number of authors on the agency side, consulting and coaching is one way we can assist and “touch” more culinary professionals through these consults. I love being a resource and keeping the industry healthy and profitable!

A German version of this interview has been published online at boersenblatt.net. A printed version was published in Börsenblatt on April 28, 2011.

Eine deutsche Version diese Interviews ist online erschienen bei boersenblatt.net.  Eine gedruckte Version ist in der Ausgabe des Börsenblatts vom 28. April 2011 erschienen.