Chef and restaurateur Sondra Bernstein didn’t plan on self-publishing her second cookbook, Plats du Jour: the girl & the fig’s Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country, but, in the end, found that the DIY approach gave her complete control over the project—and this, she says, was a great relief.
When Bernstein, the proprietor of several restaurants in California and author of the girl & the fig cookbook (Simon & Schuster), set out to publish Plats du Jour, she hired a literary agent who represents numerous top chefs. Bernstein wrote up a proposal. The agent loved it. The only problem: they couldn’t sell the book.
While a few publishers expressed interest in the title, Bernstein says they wanted her to make significant changes to the book’s concept, which focuses on seasonal recipes from Sonoma Valley. Some publishers felt the book’s focus was too narrow. Some wanted it to include recipes from other small wine countries.
“We rewrote the proposal several times,” Bernstein says. “But the changes were pushing [the book] too far from my original concept. In the end I was relieved to do what I wanted to do.”
Another issue for Bernstein was the book’s photography. Her biggest disappointment with her first cookbook—now in its fourth printing with Simon & Schuster—was the lack of color photographs.
“The deal for the [first] book was for black-and-white with a limited amount of photographs,” she says. “And the photos that were used I had to pay for. This time [I said,] ‘If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it the way I want.’”
So Bernstein decided to self-publish, taught herself Adobe InDesign—and did absolutely everything by herself and on her own terms. But self-publishing a cookbook (as opposed to a novel or memoir) is a very complex and detailed endeavor.
First of all, the recipes for Plats du Jour come from Bernstein’s restaurants—the girl & the fig, the girl & the fig café and wine bar, Estate—and those recipes are designed to produce big batches for many customers. As such, everything had to be scaled back and revised for the home cook.
After revising the recipes, Bernstein needed to test them. Her initial call for recipe testers went out over Facebook. And once she received comments, she made adjustments and hired a full-time tester—not to mention an indexer, several editors, and other staff.
When it came time to shoot full-color pictures for the book, she hired Steven Krause of Steven Krause Brooklyn Studio West. Over the course of a year, Bernstein and Kraus held 28 photo shoots in her restaurants.
“We cooked the food and plated it as we would and then they shot it,” says Bernstein, who then cropped the images and prepped them for the printer. “The hard part was toward the end, getting the correct color profiles for the printer and understanding the language that came with that process.”
Once Plats du Jour was complete, Bernstein went with Four Colour Print Group, headquartered in Louisville, Ky., to produce the book.
“Four Colour did all of the conversion for the [e-book] version,” says Bernstein. “They were a pleasure to work with and I would totally recommend them.”
While none of this was inexpensive—Bernstein estimates she spent tens of thousands of dollars—marketing and selling a self-published cookbook is also very different from marketing and selling a self-published novel.
For one thing, getting copies of Plats du Jour into bookstores wasn’t a top priority.
“It’s less important because I know the [sales] volume is definitely going to happen in our restaurants,” Bernstein says, adding that while she may sell a few copies of her book in stores, she sells 10–15 copies every week in her restaurants. “Sales are pretty good.”
Still, while Bernstein advises her chef friends to consider self-publishing their cookbooks, she admits the process is a complicated and often difficult one.
“If I didn’t have this much staff or hadn’t built our company to the stage that it’s in, I don’t know if it would have been that easy,” she says, offering this advice: “Learn as much as you can, have realistic expectations about sales, have enough money, and a game plan about it. Get creative if you don’t have enough money.”