When Nicole Taylor’s agent suggested three years ago that she write a Juneteenth cookbook, Taylor, a food writer, shelved the idea. She didn’t think any publisher would buy it. But early this summer, after several months spent working on a proposal, Taylor had a deal worth many times what she was paid for her last cookbook, which was published in 2019.
As pressure mounts on the publishing industry to diversify its pool of authors, there has been a flurry of activity around cookbooks written by Black people. This increase in acquisitions has been welcomed by many people of colour in the field, even as they warn the industry’s problems cannot be solved just by cutting cheques.
“Every Black cookbook author has a story that will make your mouth drop,” Taylor said. “Whether it’s about money or marketing or having to fight for this or that recipe, we all have a story. There’s a different standard for us, and a box we get put in.”
Many Black writers and chefs say there has long been an unspoken limit on the number of books that are produced about Black food, compared with a seemingly bottomless appetite for titles on French or Italian cuisine. Some feel typecast or stereotyped by the cooking styles expected of them - chef Adrienne Cheatham, for example, said she has lost track of the number of times she’s been asked to submit recipes for fried chicken. There have also been concerns about whether Black writers are paid as much as their white peers.
Every Black cookbook author has a story that will make your mouth drop Whether it’s about money or marketing or having to fight for this or that recipe, we all have a story. There’s a different standard for us, and a box we get put in.
Taylor said that private conversations with other writers about compensation were helpful to her. There has also been a public conversation around who gets big advances from publishing houses and who does not, much of it surfaced through the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag on Twitter, which encouraged Black and non-Black authors to divulge what they earned.
Agents and editors say the demand for books by Black authors has jumped since Black Lives Matter protests spread across the United States and books about race and anti-racism began to dominate bestseller lists. Karen Murgolo, the editorial director of lifestyle and culinary publishing for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, said the bump in activity has not been limited to cookbooks.
At a recent acquisitions meeting she attended, three of the four projects up for consideration were by African American authors. And in some cases, agents and authors say, the rush has increased the advances publishers are paying.
“For my Black authors, the needle has shifted,” said Sharon Bowers, Taylor’s literary agent. “The market is allowing me to do more for them than I ever have before.”
Getting a book deal, however, is just the start of a long process. Cookbooks take about two years to make. There are recipes to write and test, food to stage and photograph, editing and production, all before a book is sent to the printer. At every step, the teams involved tend to be overwhelmingly white. Some Black writers say this can put them in a position of having to explain the basics of the food they’re writing about. That lack of familiarity can trickle into the recipes, too.
“We have to explain injera in a way you don’t have to explain brioche,” said Osayi Endolyn, a James Beard Award-winning food writer, “even though most Americans probably can’t tell you what brioche is.”
Author Toni Tipton-Martin said that after she won her first James Beard Award, she used that leverage to request as many Black people as possible for her creative team, in roles like food stylist, prop stylist and photographer.
“I wanted Black representation, and that was a difficult request to fulfill,” she said. “Which also speaks to the inequities in the industry, that there are so few people who fit those profiles.”
When Black writers land book deals, the challenges don’t necessarily end. In 2014, Kristina Gill, a Black food writer and photographer based in Italy, partnered with Katie Parla, a white food journalist, on a cookbook called Tasting Rome. The agreement was that Parla would write half the recipes and contextualise the chapters, in addition to supervising the testing of the recipes. Gill took care of the photography and developed the other half of the recipes.
But while Gill and Parla were co-authors, Gill said she was sidelined throughout the publication process and later excluded from the book’s publicity campaign. “I felt that they were making me subordinate to her, even though very clearly, plain as day, it said on our contract with the publisher that we were equal,” Gill said.
Gill said communication with their editor went through Parla, and news coverage of the book usually named Parla as the book’s sole author. A website the publisher created for the book did not list Gill until she protested, and at a launch party for Tasting Rome, Gill said neither she nor her role in the book were acknowledged.“I think it was racism,” Gill said. “I don’t know any other way to describe how or why you wouldn’t want my face anywhere.”
Gill was frustrated by the experience, but the book, published by Clarkson Potter in 2016, was a success. This spring, after the police killing of George Floyd, when many companies expressed support for Black people and the Black Lives Matter movement, Clarkson Potter said on Instagram that it stood against racism and was committed to listening to its readers and authors. Gill said she felt she had to speak up.
She contacted Aaron Wehner, the publisher of Clarkson Potter, to relay her experience with the imprint. The company began an investigation into her claims. Wehner later told Gill in an email that its findings “support your account of the repeated marginalization and disrespect you experienced during the process,” but the company concluded in a later investigation that the behavior was not racist. Shortly after, the woman who edited “Tasting Rome” along with her supervisor, left the company.
In a statement, Clarkson Potter apologised for Gill’s negative experience. “We have offered Kristina Gill, if she is willing, the opportunity to publish with us again so we may give her our full respect and support,” it said. Parla has also apologised to Gill.
Even in the rush of attention some Black authors are now receiving, not all of it feels sincere. When J.J. Johnson, a Black chef in New York City, was shopping his second cookbook around to publishers this summer, seven publishing houses said they were interested before they knew anything about it, he said. But after one editor read the book proposal, she called it too ambitious. Another told Johnson he was reaching for the stars, in a bad way.
It felt like coded language intended to brush him off. “Using words such as ‘ambitious,’” he said, “they would never say that to my white peers.” He signed with an editor at Flatiron Books who published his last cookbook, which won a James Beard Award.