For chefs and cooks who are as hands-on with creating their cookbooks as they are with creating their dishes, self-publishing seems like a great fit. But what should prospective cookbook authors bear in mind before embarking on their self-publishing journeys?
Preheat Before Cooking
Traditional publishers can be reluctant to offer book deals to chefs who aren’t Food Network stars or whose blogs don’t reach hundreds of thousands of readers per month. While self-publishing success doesn’t require those kinds of numbers, authors should have some sort of platform.
“Make sure you have a following before you begin,” Anna Watson Carl, author of The Yellow Table (2014), advises. She says that she had been growing her audience for her blog, which shares the name The Yellow Table, for a couple of years, but she didn’t quite have the numbers that would attract a big-five publisher. On her blog, she wrote that rather than “slink away in discouragement” at rejections from big publishers, she chose to “seek out a little help from my friends” and self-publish.
John Sundstrom, James Beard Award–winning chef and founder of Lark restaurant in Seattle, had been approached by publishers years ago to write a cookbook. However, he and his business partner, Jared Stoneberg, chose an independent approach. “We already had a couple thousand people on our mailing list. We had a social media presence,” he says. “I felt really confident about my presence as a chef and restaurateur in the Northwest.” The pair felt that Sundstrom had enough of an audience to self-publish and that they should add a twist—a companion app. The result was Sundstrom’s book Lark: Cooking Against the Grain (January 2013) and its ensuing app (April 2013), which presented additional food photography and video demonstrations.
Prepare One Strong Concept
“Name recognition helps, for sure, but it won’t save a bad cookbook,” Paula Forbes, senior editor at Epicurious, wrote via email. “The key is to fill a niche, to write a book people don’t even know they’re craving.”
Amelia Saltsman, author of the self-published Santa Monica Farmer’s Market Cookbook (2007), agrees. “If you’re creating a cookbook that you hope will have a broad appeal, then you have to think of it from a publishing point of view. Is there an audience? What is the reader going to get from this book? Why should they care?” she says. “If they don’t care, then it’s a vanity project.”
Saltsman learned this when she was conceiving her cookbook. As a longtime food writer, food stylist, and member of the farmer’s market community, she says, “One of the things about this book is that I wanted to express the sense of market culture—what it means to be a part of that community, and to shop in that way, and to get to know your farmers.” The cookbook resonated among locavore foodies. “The book is in its sixth printing,” she says, and it was named one of Cooking Light’s top 100 cookbooks of the last 25 years. “It’s having an extraordinary life.”
Infuse with Funding
“Make sure you have a way to pay for the steep costs of self-publishing,” Carl says. For her as well as for Sundstrom, capital came in the form of crowdfunding via Kickstarter. Carl raised more than $65,000, and Sundstrom raised almost $55,000. Sundstrom detailed his Kickstarter experience on Medium: “In hindsight, we should have asked for about $50,000 more,” he wrote, saying that they consequently worked “fast and lean.”
Saltsman also tried to keep her production costs low while creating the highest-quality book possible. “My goal in writing the book was to be an inviting, helpful, friendly resource. I made the choice that I would rather have a more beautiful softcover book than a more expensive and not as beautiful hardcover book.” Forbes agrees that pricey choices aren’t always the best ones: “As far as other production elements go, I’m not a fan of full-page treatments, and I think heavy, glossy paper is overrated.”
Saltsman recommends thinking more broadly about your book’s message and using those principles to inform your economic choices: “What suits the book? What suits the audience? What suits the subject that I’m covering? It helps guide you in making all kinds of decisions: aesthetic decisions, editing decisions, and business decisions.”
Whip Up Your Dream Team
Another advantage to self-publishing is being able to choose the people who will bring your vision to life.
“Hire people who are not only excellent at what they do, but with whom you really enjoy working,” Carl says. She offers the example of searching for her book designer: “I love classic typeface, I love illustrations. I wanted someone who would really let the photos in the book shine.” She posted her call for a book designer on her blog and her Instagram and ended up connecting with designer Katie King Rumford. They shared the same understated aesthetic, and Carl was happy with the result.
Sundstrom applied the same ethos to his team that he does to his restaurant: local and artisanal. “We’ve always believed in supporting local farms and artisanal producers,” he says. “We wanted to employ local people—local photographers and designers. It was a way to support our local economy.”
Make Your Content Sizzle
Forbes says of beloved cookbooks, “These books aren’t just a collection of recipes: they explain concepts, techniques, and philosophies in an effort to educate the reader.”
Sundstrom, a chef who had already assembled a collection of recipes, knew that great visuals would make the book’s content shine. Most of the money that he and Stoneberg raised on Kickstarter went to video and photography, book layout and design, and app development.
Forbes agrees that high-quality images are a major consideration for any cookbook author. “Food photography is essential to a great cookbook. Photography can illustrate what words cannot: appropriate texture, for example,” she says. “Besides, who doesn’t love some good food porn?”
Saltsman was more concerned with the text, the recipes, and the overall story. “I’m a proficient and accomplished recipe writer, but I did hire a very smart copy editor not only to catch any mistakes but also to make sure that I was communicating clearly.”
Saltsman felt that, for her cookbook in particular, food photography was not essential. “Some of the best cookbooks don’t have a lot of pictures, and they’re still great classics—Julia Child’s, for instance,” she says. “A good, clear title and evocative writing can carry the book.”
Add a Large Helping of Marketing/PR
It’s not enough to write and produce the book. With self-publishing, the author is responsible for marketing and publicity as well.
Carl initially tackled marketing and PR on her own—giving it a creative spin. Before the book came out, she partnered with Volkswagen and Whole Foods to embark on a road trip in order to throw dinner parties across the country and spread the word about the book. Volkswagen provided the car, and Whole Foods donated food and wine. She also partnered with prominent food bloggers to promote the gatherings. Right before the book came out, she also hired freelance book publicist Jill Browning to promote it. Carl says that, if she had the chance to do the process over again, “I would have hired a publicist earlier to help get buzz about the book going at least a month or two before it came out.”
Sundstrom notes that Kickstarter was a marketing tool in and of itself. “During the creation of the book—for about seven months starting with the Kickstarter—we began to produce recipes and content. We had photos, videos, and the actual recipes.” He sent this preview content of the book and app to donors who pledged $10 or more, and he called these multimedia previews Roughcuts. “That was to build excitement. The idea was to keep people involved and to keep [the cookbook project] on their radar.”
Serve While Hot
The last challenge for any self-published cookbook author is distribution. Whereas big book publishers can rely on their already established sales pipelines, independent cookbook authors must create their own channels to deliver their book to readers.
Saltsman decided early on to hire a distributor. “I did not want to be in the business of fulfilling orders. I was willing to pay someone part of the sale of the book so that I [could have more time to] promote the book,” she says. “You may be splitting a wholesale cost 75/25 with the distributor, but 75% of that wholesale price is all yours. You’re paying yourself royalties, and you’re getting the publisher’s fee as well.”
Carl notes that distribution was her biggest challenge. She struggled to fulfill the orders herself via USPS. “So many books got lost in the mail,” she says. “Now that we’re doing our second printing, I’m having all orders fulfilled by Amazon. Sure, they charge a fee to do that, but it is worth every penny.”
Self-publishing a cookbook means more than just creating and testing recipes. It’s a process whose challenges include building an audience, weighing production costs, hiring and managing a team, marketing and publicity, and distribution. However, for Saltsman, Sundstrom, and Carl, the decision to wear not only the chef’s hat but the publisher’s hat was a positive one. “If you’ve got a great idea, and the vision and passion to create a book, go for it!” Carl says. “Creating this cookbook was the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”