Becoming a Cookbook Publisher

I've written a couple posts about becoming a cookbook publisher in the past year, despite the fact I think of scrambling eggs at Haute Cuisine. The first post dealt primarily with the advantages of writing a cookbook online, and the second was focused more on making sure there's an audience for your cookbook before you publish it. After writing a five point checklist about becoming a publisher yesterday, I decided to revisit the topic of start-up decisions that will set the course of your self publishing company for some time to come. The example of a cookbook publisher is ideal for this purpose because of the huge variations in start-up costs depending on the path you take.

Few cookbook publishers aspire to seeing their glossy color books on the remainder table at a traveling discount book show, but that's where the big offset productions often wind up. Self publishers take it for granted that color printing is expensive, which it is, but the cost difference between color and B&W hardcovers in large quantities (tens of thousands or more copies) isn't the main cost of producing those books. It's the production, especially the expense for photography and the interior design, both justified printing cost, which drives the production budget. In other words, if you're dealing with black and white offset in small quantities or POD, you aren't going to try to use a lot of photographs that aren't going to look good in any case, which saves the expense of taking them and moves the cookbook from the visual art category to the how-to category. If your ambition is to publish the eye-candy style of cookbook, you'll either need to have professional grade photography and book design skills or you'll have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to get your first book out.

Spending next to nothing on a text-only POD cookbook or spending tens of thousands on a work of art aren't the only options available. There are at least three intermediate options which I'll call, the folksy cookbook, the color POD cookbook and the short-run offset cookbook. The trade-off in all three cases is that you have to do more production work (beyond writing the cookbook) without the dream of a large and speedy profit that may come with the large art cookbook. You risk less for a smaller potential gain, but you live to publish another version another day.

The folksy cookbook is my personal favorite, I've see many of these in kitchens over the years. These are often perfect bound, large format books with color covers and black and white interiors that can easily be produced with standard print-on-demand because the artwork is limited to line drawings. As long as you don't go overboard and use several drawings per page or pay too much for them, you can publish a handsome cookbook with either print-on-demand or offset short-run (perhaps with a comb binding for lay-flat in the kitchen) and not have to spend more than a couple thousand on production.

I'm waiting to hear back from Lightning Source about the cost structure for their color POD service, last rumor I picked up was ten cents a page, which would make the cover pricing noncompetitive unless that can charge separately for pages with color and pages without. Even if you held your cookbook down to around 150 pages and stuck with a 25% short discount, you'd need a cover price of about $22.00 just to break even on distribution sales, which is no reason to go into the publishing business. On the other hand, if the pricing allowed for 50 color pages and 100 B&W pages, a $15 cover price and a 25% short discount would leave the cookbook publisher with a little more than $4.00 in profit. As soon as I get that information, I'll post a cost breakdown.

Another option is a short run on offset or even on a HP Indigo press, which does perfect color reproduction on short runs. While not cheap, as long as you plan the cookbook around short runs (ie, no professional color photography on every page), you might keep the initial run well under ten thousand dollars. Unfortunately, sitting on a small inventory of books may limit your distribution options to only selling direct or through Amazon advantage. On the other hand, the Lightning Source print on demand approach gets you access to distribution, though deciding on a discount may cause you to pull your own hair out.

Just remember that getting a cookbook printed and available in distribution isn't even half the battle. Marketing is everything in the publishing business, especially if you aren't getting shelf placement in the chains. I do know at least one publisher who succeeded in selling more than 60,000 hardcover copies of a beautiful book (printed offshore) through primarily direct channels, but he was a tireless speaker and promoter, and the book won serious market share in an important and recurring segment.

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