When Lindsey Smith came up with the idea for her latest book in November 2015, it felt different. Smith, the voice behind the blog Food Mood Girl, had published books before, both through self-publishing and a small press.
She knew those two options were available to her again, but something told her this project would be different.
“I just thought it was a bigger book,” Smith said. “I wanted to take it slow, have fun with it and give it the time and attention it deserved.”
At that point, Smith had years of media exposure and speaking experience under her belt, courtesy of the Food Mood Girl brand and her work on other books.
After drafting a proposal for her new book idea, she attended a conference in the spring of 2016 and pitched to eight agents—receiving seven offers as a result, one of them on the spot. Smith signed with an agent at P.S. Literary Agency, who went on to pitch the book that summer and nab a book deal for Smith just a few months later.
The resulting book, “Eat Your Feelings: The Food Mood Girl’s Guide to Transforming Your Emotional Eating,” came out in December 2017, and has been featured on Oprah.com, Brit + Co, Real Simple and other publications.
For Smith, publishing the book solidified her brand.
“Definitely, even now, I feel more serious today about the brand I created,” Smith said. “It helped me see that this was a strong foundation, and there is so much within this that I can do.”
Many literary agents and editors at large book publishing houses are looking for health and food writers who have already built a large audience, or platform, a book can be marketed to.
Laura Apperson, the editor at St. Martin’s Press who acquired Smith’s “Eat Your Feelings,” said Smith possesses important qualities of a nonfiction author, including an established platform, great marketing and publicity sense and a drive to succeed.
“Her previous work actually got her the deal, because what she did to establish herself as the Food Mood Girl got her a great platform and credibility,” Apperson said. “Our publisher actually fell in love with her immediately, with the idea and her platform, and it made the decision quick and easy: ‘Buy the book!’ ”
Sally Ekus, literary agent and manager of The Lisa Ekus Group, said she looks for three main qualities in a potential book author. First, the writer must have a point of differentiation in the space where they are establishing their expertise—something that sets them apart from everyone else.
Second, they need a highly engaged community—meaning loyal and vocal fans, not just high subscriber counts.
Third, Ekus looks for the right fit between herself and her client.
“I know within about five seconds of speaking with someone if I want to work with them,” she said.
Ekus said that she knew immediately that Toyota was on to something.
“When someone has such a clear voice online and has amassed such a loyal following, it is a combination that I know I can turn into a successful publishing career,” Ekus said.
Eric Smith, no relation to Lindsey Smith, a literary agent at P.S. Literary Agency who represented the author and blogger for “Eat Your Feelings,” said he was initially attracted to Lindsey Smith’s hustle on her previous books.
“If I look up a writer who has self-published something and there are no reviews, no press, no anything… it tells me they aren’t the sort of person who dives in to do that kind of work,” Eric Smith said. “If you’re going to self-publish, be prepared to be your own publisher, and make it the best you can.”
Bloggers and content creators like Lindsey Smith are already successful and popular before landing a traditional book deal. So what motivates them to partner with a publisher in the first place?
For Lindsey Smith, the answer was related to scale: She felt partnering with a large publisher could help her reach an audience and market she hadn’t before.
But that doesn’t mean she expected the publisher to do all the heavy lifting.
“I’m a self-starter,” Smith said. “I don’t like to wait for someone else to do something for me. I like doing press for myself.”
For all of her books—including “Eat Your Feelings” —Smith made sure to get word of her work out there. Prior experience with self-publishing gave her experience in self-marketing, too, she said.
“My biggest pet peeve in publishing is when (authors) expect an entire publishing house to fully promote their work all the time,” Smith said. “I feel like as the author, you should be just as excited as they are, and you want to match each other’s energies.”
Writers who have already built their own brands and platforms are sometimes more savvy and selective about which book deals they take on. Toyota was approached by multiple publishers to write a cookbook, and initially turned them down—even though her audience was clamoring for one.
“People kept asking ‘When are you going to put out a cookbook?’ ” Toyota said. “I kind of thought it was an antiquated format. I thought, what’s the point of putting out a cookbook? You’re getting all this content for free online.”
Toyota had already monetized her content with brand integration and sponsorship, so she didn’t need a cookbook to make money. She decided to take on a cookbook only after the director of publishing at Canadian Random House reached out to her, and Toyota—with the help of a literary agent—found a deal that made sense for her business and her audience. The resulting title, “Vegan Comfort Classics: 101 Recipes to Feed Your Face,” comes out on Feb. 27.
So, if you’re a writer or content creator in the digital food and health space, where do you start?
First, focus on finding yourself and your niche—not on copying what everyone else is doing, Toyota said.
“I advise people to figure out what it is they want to say and where they feel most focused and creative,” Toyota said. “You don’t really need to pay attention to the so-called competition or people in your space. There’s room for everybody.”
Don’t feel obligated to jump at the first deal offered to you, Toyota said: “It’s just about knowing your worth. Have some conversations with people in your field to get a sense for what a book deal could look like.”
Follow your gut instinct, and hold out until it feels right, she said.
Finally, be confident in yourself and your work, Lindsey Smith said.
“A big part of this industry… is really fostering that inner confidence to believe in yourself and the message that you have,” she said.
You can’t let a book deal with a big publisher dictate your self-worth—it has to be something you bring with you every day to the content you create and share with your audience.
“Believe that your message is worthy, because it is,” Lindsey Smith said.
Discover “The Great American Read,” a new eight-part PBS television series and nationwide campaign that explores the joy of reading through the lens of America’s 100 best-loved novels, as voted on by the public. Premiering Tuesday, May 22.