How to self-publish a cookbook.

Six months ago I won a $2000 grant from Mom Central to support my low-sodium recipe site, The Daily Dish.

One of my biggest goals with the money was to self-publish a cookbook of original recipes, something I’d longed to do in my 4 years of blogging.

My plan was to write a BIG cookbook, a low-sodium guide featuring 365 salt-free recipes from The Daily Dish.  I spent all summer thinking about the book and its contents.  I worked on recipes whenever time permitted. I finally got to WORK (all caps) when my daughters returned to school this fall.  Through September and October I mulled over ideas and most importantly, I did concrete research into cost.

Self-publishing a cookbook is EXPENSIVE.

I’d already invested more than half the grant into buying food – specifically, a CSA share and 6 laying hens, as well as building a kicking chicken coop.  I paid bills related to the website’s maintenance, internet and more.  The money was dwindling.  Deciding on the right course of action was imperative.

I narrowed it down to one of TWO OPTIONS:

1) Self-publish a fundraiser type cookbook – the kind you often see for sale at schools and churches.  These simple, spiral-bound books are chock-full of recipes and offer superb value for the money.

PROS:  I’d be able to use the proceeds to support myself and the site for a period of time, and buyers would get hundreds of delicious salt-free dishes.  I found a great publisher for this type of product, one I’d highly recommend if you’re going this route.  Morris Press Cookbooks.  They’re the biggest in the business and chances are if you own a community-style spiral bound cookbook, it was published by them.  They have excellent customer service, easy-to-use software and will even send you a large sample kit of cookbooks for FREE.

CONS:  In addition to doing all of the up-front work w/ this type of cookbook (i.e., the writing), you must also do all of the selling.  You have to order and pay for the cookbooks out-of-pocket, make sales and (in my case) deal with shipping.  You need to decide up front how many books to order.  This can entail a large lump-sum payment and the books are not guaranteed to sell.  If you’re successful and need to order more books later, you can always reorder, but it will cost you.

As someone with limited funds, this was daunting.  I didn’t know how many books I would sell.  You are encouraged to buy in bulk because each book is cheaper to produce.  But would I get stuck with umpteen dozen cookbooks gathering dust?

Another problem.  These types of books don’t include a lot of photos.  You can pay for a few, but it will cost you dearly and I didn’t have the extra $$ to spend.  Photographs are especially important when trying to entice people to eat healthy foods.  If someone can see WOW, THAT REALLY LOOKS GOOD, they’re more likely to put down that bag of chips and make a better choice.  But no photos?  I thought long & hard about whether I was willing to sacrifice photos for recipes.

2) Self-publish a small cookbook with photos – like the kind you see in bookstores, with quality paper and full-color images.

PROS:  I could make a book with everything I wanted.  In addition to delicious recipes, I’d have a photo of each prepared dish.  I’d have space to provide complete nutritional information.  Because these types of books are printed on-demand, meaning they’re ordered and paid for by the purchaser, I wouldn’t have to finance their printing or deal with shipping.  I could use the remaining grant funds to finance ingredients for the recipes.  I was already familiar with a company I could use.  Blurb.com.  I’d published a couple of photo books for family through the site.  I knew how to use their free bookmaking software (BookSmart) and was confident in the quality of their products.

CONS:  Because the books are expensive to produce, I’d have to seriously limit the size and length of the cookbook, otherwise no one would buy it.  I could make a small profit, but it would be miniscule in comparison to the fundraiser-type books.  If I went this route, I’d have to completely re-think the project, start to finish.  I would need to restrict the scope and be incredibly selective about the recipes.  Drumming up sales would still be on me, though less directly.

In the end, pretty pictures won.  I went with Blurb.

Self-publishing a cookbook is EXHAUSTING.

When a cookbook is being financed by a publisher, the author’s focus is principally on writing and creating delicious recipes.  Depending upon the writer’s experience or qualifications there may be other tasks involved, but recipe development is at the core.  The publisher supplies the author with money for this process up front.  This allows the author to free up his/her time and focus creative energy on this one outlet. Even with money, NO EASY TASK.  Whether you’re a paid author or a self-published one, writing a cookbook is a very hard job.

In order to write and finish any type of book, you must be able to prioritize, keep on task and remain disciplined when it comes to a schedule.  If you have a publisher, you will likely be given a time frame within which to work.  You will be expected to meet deadlines and stay within budget.  If you are self-publishing, this pressure is alleviated.  No one is breathing down your neck, giving you grief and demanding you GET IT DONE.  This is both the beauty and the difficulty of self-publishing.  Your book is truly ALL ON YOU.

If you are serious about self-publishing your own cookbook, be prepared for a level of fatigue that, while not insurmountable, can be seriously taxing.  Not only will you be coming up with your own recipes, you will also be financing them. In addition to creating recipes, for which there will be countless iterations of trial and error, you will need to write everything down and keep careful notes.  Recipe development can be very fun, but it can also consume you.  While working on the book I slept very poorly. Night after night I would dream of recipes, waking repeatedly, trying to remember what it is I’d been doing. I’d fall back asleep only to continue within the same cyclical dream, so that when morning finally arrived, I was so tired and so tired of thinking about soup, I could hardly go on. But I persevered, and you can too.

Once your recipes are successful, you’ll need a test audience.  I am fortunate because I have a built-in test audience.  Picky kids are the very best recipe testers and I am blessed with two of them.  My daughters ensure whatever I make MUST be good or they will not eat it.  Period.

Self-publishing a cookbook = wearing MANY HATS.

After you get the recipes just right – and congratulations, because that alone is an accomplishment, time for photographs!  Making captivating, high quality images requires, above all else, patience & practice.  In addition, you’ll need a good camera and decent camera skills.  I’m lucky to have a jazzy camera and while not the greatest eye ever, I have adequate experience to get the job done. Depending on how elaborately you stage your photographs, you’ll need things like dishes, fabric, table settings, etc.  I am a plain Jane, which really worked in my favor. I already had most of what I wanted on hand; I supplemented with some inexpensive thrift shop finds. On a limited self-publishing budget, don’t look a gift horse dish in the mouth. Thrift stores and yard sales are your friend, as are friends in general.  Buy or borrow what you’ll need to bring the best out in your food.  Think eye-catching.  Think fun.  Think.  Would I want to eat this if I saw it in a book?  If yes, then you’re on your way.

Like the food itself, food photography is as much about individual taste as anything.  Art is subjective.  Trust me when I say that it’s easier to photograph some foods over others.  Cutesie cupcakes, for instance, BEG to be photographed and shared.  A bowl full of something that looks like a dog’s dinner, not so much.  But this is YOUR JOB!  When self-publishing, do not be daunted when you must spend hours making one bowl of soup look absolutely irresistible!

When your eyes are crossed and you can no longer see straight from squinting through the viewfinder, do not give up.  Take a break. After a 3-hour photo session left me gasping for air, I took an hour-long walk with the dog.  When I had trouble getting good light for a shot, sometimes I would wait until the next day.  YES, I did have to remake recipes on occasion.  YES, it made me want to scream not being able to get things right the 563rd time, but that’s life. It’s the price to pay for perfection.  Frankly, if you don’t care about this project that much, why are you doing it?  It’s your name on that book – or it will be – and you should be 100% proud of your efforts.

After recipe development and the photo shoots are over, you next need to put on your publisher’s hat.  It’s formatting time!  Blurb makes it fairly easy with BookSmart, but even with previous experience, it’s not a walk in the park.  I stuck to one of their basic recipe formats, but because of sizing needs, had to tweak dimensions – of course keeping all else the same.  Wouldn’t want to get the book and have margins vary by the page now, would we?  NO.  In addition to doing that job, you also have to be a keen editor of your own work.  It can be very hard, seeing something you’ve practically memorized and could read in your sleep and really SEEING IT FRESH.  As stated above, when necessary take a break.  Grab a snack, take a walk, or just walk away.   Sitting in front of the computer getting frustrated isn’t productive.  I avoided tossing mine out the window, but there was a narrow miss or two.

Once everything is finally done, time to PUBLISH!  With Blurb, you simply upload your work to their site, buy a copy or copies of your book, and then offer your book for public sale.  If you join their Set Your Price program, you’ll be able to select a profit margin on your book, so that every purchase guarantees you some measure of profit for your work. 

Kick the Can! came to me as a way of writing what I’d wanted to all along – a really comprehensive low-sodium cookbook – while keeping the project small.  The overarching theme is limited, soup only, but allows for remarkable freedom within that constraint. Out of a book of 20 pages, I managed to squeeze in 16 recipes. And of those 16 there is truly something for everyone. Vegans and vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. From a basic broth to the chunkiest chowder. Beef, chicken, fish and vegetables. Tofu and tempeh. Two soups you can even eat for BREAKFAST! So even though the book is much smaller than I’d wanted, it covers a grand spectrum of tastes.

It’s been a week since I finished Kick the Can! and sales have been steady.  I’ve been sharing the book as much as possible – albeit within reason.  The last thing I want is to turn people off. ARGH, it’s that woman with her effing book, again!  I wish she’d just SHUT UP!! I want people to support The Daily Dish by buying a copy of the book. I know people use and value the site. Now they get a tangible good in exchange!

From the Blurb website:

Although [Kick the Can!] is short (only 20 pages) it contains 16 of the tastiest salt-free soups imaginable, something for every season, moment and mood. From sweet to savory, simple broth to the chunkiest chowder. Beef, chicken, fish and vegetables. Tempeh and tofu.

Did you know you can eat soup for breakfast? You can! and enjoy it too.

And these soups aren’t just salt-free, the bulk of them are also low-fat or fat free!

If you want to be WOWED by just how wonderful homemade soup can be, please do us both a favor and BUY MY BOOK!

Thank you!!

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35 thoughts on “How to self-publish a cookbook.

    • Thank you so much!! My book just arrived in the mail – very exciting and a little strange holding it for the first time. The photos are darker than on the Blurb site, which is a little disappointing, but otherwise it looks great. And since it’s a tiny softback copy it only weighs.. oh, 3 paper clips, so no wrist strain when using! lol

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  1. As an impartial observer into all of your hard work, I can attest to the level of effort required to get the job done. Amazing!

    The best thing about the creation of the book was getting to eat all of the delicious soups. I can’t wait until the next book!

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    • ahahhahahh – NONE.

      You should be getting your copy soon. I bought two softbacks and the box weighed less than a tissue. You’ll have to tell me whether your photos are darker than on the Blurb site. Mine are much darker than the originals.

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  2. This book is high on my wish list! I love soup, can’t have sodium or high fat, and don’t really know how to make soup, but the cans aren’t very good when they are low-sodium. So I am looking forward to getting my hands on your creation!

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  3. Congratulations Christy! Very exciting and what an accomplishment. I just ordered a copy, and it’s on its way to me here in Potsdam, NY! Salt-free pretty soups sound like a great way for me to kick off the New Year…:)

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  4. Congratulations my friend. It may be hard to make this cookbook but now you can sit back…maybe a bit and just enjoy seeing your dreams come into reality. You put your heart into it with so much delicious recipes and people would know that now and in time.
    Wishing you and your family all the blessings of love, peace, joy and good health this Christmas and everyday.

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    • You are also too kind, IT. Wish I could say I’ve been sitting back.. but alas. Christmas rush is upon us. Hope you’re not working too hard. Thinking of you & sending warm wishes to you & yours.

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  5. Congratulations again on the book and now on the grant! I’m glad you added this behind-the-scenes post, Christy. It shows the hard work you put into this book and determination to share your healthy low-sodium recipes with others. And I love the title too! Happy Holidays!

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  6. Congratulations on your new book! It’s clear from the finished product that you put so much sweat equity into your labor of love. Thank you for taking the time to outline the self publishing process and why you decided to go that route. Good luck!

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  7. Such an impressive project!
    I can imagine just how much calculation is involved! I’ve been trying to keep my holiday budget down this year, so I decided to make calendars for my family. Sounds easy enough (and I was only dealing with 13 pages and most of the content was already there), but it drove me cRaZy! There is just so much to check, and recheck… format… and reformat! It’s ridiculous! And, as you mentioned, no two printers are the same (getting an image to print as closely to how it looks on screen is a nightmare of it’s own)! Anyway, my point was to congratulate you yet again, Dishy… this book looks absolutely wonderful! :)

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    • I bet your calendars are amazing, Inky. My aunt used to make them for family as annual gifts; I know how much work is involved. Merry Christmas & all the best to you and Annabelle in 2012!

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  8. Congratulations! Completing a project like this is always a major undertaking. And then when you’re finished, the work real begins! Trying to promote and sell the book is probably harder.

    The cover photograph and text looks very professional. I’m sure the recipes are just as good.

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  9. Very exciting news! I remember voting for you to win that grant–but didn’t realize it was for $2,000. Nice.

    If I was working, and didn’t have to save every penny, I would buy your book–I love soup.

    I checked out the preview, and the book looks great. I helped enter copy for a fundraising cookbook before (for charity) and it was a bitch, so I can only imagine what YOU went through.

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  10. Dear Dishy,

    You are one of the most dedicated, hard working, generous people I know! I am looking forward to acquiring a copy of the cookbook b/c I “know” you :) I wish you and your family the most AWESOME New Year!!! Peace, Hugs and Love, Connie

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  11. Congratulations!

    I love that you whittled down from 365 recipes to just soups.

    I’m currently researching how and where to publish a cookbook. I’ve seen blurb.com and it piqued my interest, but then someone pointed me to lulu.com. What I like about lulu is it’s tie in with Amazon.

    My questions for you: Do you plan to sell on Amazon? If so, how?

    Thanks for sharing your insights! Karen

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  12. Thank you all so much! (and sorry for getting to these comments so belatedly – as usual!)

    Karen, I’m unfamiliar with Lulu.com, but it sounds great. I have no plans to sell on Amazon, really I don’t know how it’d be possible with Blurb, but if I could, I sure would. Best of luck w/ your writing!! Wishing you much success.

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  13. Pingback: Beards and Other Highlights of 2012 « The Daily Dish

  14. I want to publish a Family Recipes cookbook just to give as gifts to my family. I only want a few dozen copies…and don’t have a lot of $ to spend on this project. Any ideas or advice as how/where to do this? Congratulations on your book! Great subject! Ann

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