How to Publish a Cookbook

If you’re a cook who wants to publish a cookbook, I have a question for you:

Q: How many cooks does it take to publish a cookbook?

A: None, it takes a publisher. Besides, too many cooks spoil the binding.

OK, it was a trick question, but I’m not a cook myself so I don’t want to waste any time moving the discussion onto more familiar ground. Now that we’ve established that it takes a publisher to publish a cookbook, I have another question:

Q: What’s the main job of a cookbook publisher?

A: Selling cookbooks.

The most important thing you can learn about the publishing business before getting involved as either an author or a publisher is that printing books is as easy as boiling pasta, but selling them is harder than making a good sauce from scratch. If you think simmering tomatoes takes a long time, you’re going to have trouble with my recipe for marketing, which is, a sale a day on Amazon helps your cookbook bubble to the top few search results after few months, depending on the competitive heat.

Anybody can gather together a bunch of recipes and have a cookbook printed, and in some case, like charity fundraiser cookbooks that won’t be sold outside the community, that’s all it takes for a moderate success. The customers are motivated to buy the cookbook to support the charity, you could be selling them candy bars instead, but a cookbook is a nice way to get a bunch of people involved in contributing recipes, production, and community building is one of the benefits. But when you come to my website with a question about how to publish a cookbook, I assume that you’re talking about a cookbook for sale to the broad public, so you can make money.

Making money with any type of book brings us to the next point, which is, while there’s no easier way to get published than paying some hundreds or thousands of dollars to a subsidy publisher and sending off your manuscript, you’ll very rarely earn back the subsidy payment. There are even subsidy publishers who specialize in cookbooks, but their real function is acting as a sort of service bureau for the charity cookbook model and they won’t generate any sales for you. If you’ve already written a cookbook and you can convince anybody you talk to that people will line up to buy it, put your argument in writing and send off a proposal to one of the trade publishers who’s published similar cookbooks. While I’m obviously an advocate of self publishing, unless you have a platform that guarantees you book sales (a TV show, a column, a popular website or a professorship, you’ll probably make more money your first time out with a well positoned trade who can pay you an advance. No advance, they aren’t a well positioned trade.

The most serious question I can ask you illustrates how to publish a cookbook that will sell:

Q: What’s the main job of a sucessful cookbook author?

A: Market research.

When you’re writing as a business, the worst error you can make is to invest your time in writing a book that you can’t sell because there’s no audience. For example, you might know a bunch of recipies that will make a person’s hair fall out, their teeth rot, or give them terrible indigestion, but without having done the market research myself, I’m guessing you’d be limited to selling it as a novelty item. If you want to publish a cookbook that people will read and use, you have to write one that they either already want, or will want when you present your convincing arguments. This last bit is a serious stumbling block for most self publishers, who assume that they’ll be given the opportunity to make their argument by getting their books on store shelves and having people browse them. It just doesn’t work that way. You have to convince the chains to give your book a try on the shelves, and that’s a tougher job than setting up for direct sales and convincing customers one-by-one. Also, getting your book stocked by chains means a very large upfront investment and earning a very small proportion of the cover price, probably between 20% and 25% depending on your printing and shipping costs.

My own take on self publishing is to try to do it all with print on demand, using a model based on Lightning Source or Replica short discount distribution which lets you earn 50% or more of the cover price. With print on demand, your out of pocket investment is limited to purchasing an ISBN block to become an official publisher, and a hundred or so dollars in setup fees (you still have to produce the digital production file), then Presto, your cookbook becomes available on Amazon, and by special order through most of the bookstores in the country, not to mention direct sales. The problem is that color print on demand is just coming into its own, so for the time being, I recommend that publishers stick to black and white, and avoid greyscale graphics (photos) due to quality issues. I actually wrote something a while back about how to publish a cookbook specifically with print on demand.

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