I’ve been working with and hearing from a lot of food bloggers lately, food bloggers who are interested in publish a cookbook. But, they’re often unsure about whether they actually want to go through with it. I totally get it—producing a cookbook can take a lot of time, and it can be difficult to know whether your effort is going to pay off in the end.
In today’s episode, I’ll walk you through some of the frequently-asked questions I get from food bloggers who are trying to decide whether they should self-publish a cookbook. I’ll answer questions like, “is it worth it?” and, “how much will it cost?” You’ll learn more about choosing between traditional and self-publishing, whether you should publish your cookbook in print, if you’ll actually make money from your book, and how much time the whole process can take. My hope is that by the end of the episode, you’ll have the tools and insight you’ll need to help you decide whether you should self-publish your cookbook.
Self-publishing ranges from selling an eBook (even a PDF) on your website to getting your book into print. It’s any way that you’re going to produce your book without the help of a traditional publisher. It’s very popular for bloggers because you don’t have to have a certain number of followers or meet publishers’ other metrics to self-publish a book. It’s actually a great way to start to monetize your blog, even if you don’t have a ton of traffic or followers.
Many bloggers start out with a simple PDF that they sell on their website, but I’d encourage you to listen to this full episode and check out some of my resources about creating a print book, like Episode 27 of the podcast, “The 4 Myths of Creating a Physical Book.” I’ll also go into this topic in depth in a few minutes, but only offering your cookbook as an eBook could mean you’re missing out on book sales.
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How do you define success? If you only consider success selling tens of thousands of copies, it may not be worth it. But, if you’d like to come out ahead financially and have a product you can sell on your website to make money passively, that’s easier to do.
To really decide if it’s worth it to write and publish a book, you need to decide what’s important to your business. Where do you want to go with your business? Is there a particular financial goal you want to meet, like bringing in a certain amount each month? Or, are you working toward something else, like building your visibility? A book can help you with both, but in different ways.
Then, you need to ask what will have the biggest impact on getting you to your goals. If you’re trying to meet a financial goal but you don’t have the numbers yet to ask for thousands of dollars for a sponsored post, selling a cookbook can be a great way to help you meet that goal. But, if you’re just getting started, you may make money faster by offering services, like taking food photographs for local restaurants.
The question of whether it’s worth it to self-publish a cookbook really comes down to where you’re at in your business. The answer will be different for each person and each business. So, take some time to reflect on where you’re at, where you want to be, and whether taking the time to produce a cookbook is the best way to spend your time to get you to your goal.
I have an entire blog post on the pros and cons of self-publishing, which I encourage you to check out. But, I’m going to take a couple of minutes here to walk you through the major pros and cons of self-publishing for food bloggers and cookbook authors. I’ll hit the big points that I hear again and again from people who have both traditionally-published and self-published books, which I hope you’ll find helpful.
First, let’s talk timelines. Traditional publishers often take 18-24 months to publish a book, and that’s after you’ve signed a contract and everyone’s ready to start working. (Finding a publisher and negotiating your contract take time, too.) So, if you want your book to be in your readers’ hands sooner rather than later, self-publishing may be the better choice for you.
If you’re a control freak, you may also want to self-publish. Some publishers or editors want to retain near-complete or total control over the look and feel of the cookbook. So, that could mean that your cookbook gets published with a cover you HATE, for example. If you’re really worried about control of the aesthetics and content of your cookbook, talk about it with your editor before signing any contracts. If feel very strongly about this, you may want to modify your contract to make sure you have the ability to give creative input in writing.
You’ll make more money from the sale of each book if you self-publish. Royalties are much higher for self-publishers. With a traditional publisher you will get an advance, but you won’t receive any more checks until enough books are sold to cover that advance. So, if you expect money to start rolling in when your book launches, you might be waiting for those checks for a long time.
Traditional publishers do have a bigger network for getting your book more widely distributed. But, how much effort and money they’re willing to put into getting your book out there varies from author to author and book to book. In most cases, authors are still left to do a majority of the leg work. (And, working with a traditional publisher doesn’t automatically guarantee your cookbook a spot on the Today Show, for example.)
If you’re curious to hear more about traditional publishing, I’d definitely recommend checking out Jessica Murnane’s eight-episode podcast The Cookbook Deal. It gives a lot of insight into the process of publishing a cookbook with a traditional publisher, and I feel like it should be a must-listen for anyone considering publishing their cookbook through a traditional publisher.
Ultimately, you need to make the choice that’s right for you. But, I’d encourage you to talk to people who have both traditionally and self-published books. They have good insight into both sides of the coin, and they may be able to help you make the right decision for your book.
Some helpful episodes of the Blogger to Author Podcast on this topic:
eBook sales have been dropping over the past couple of years. And, in recent years, sales of print books have actually increased. For example, in 2018, eBook sales were down 3.9%, whereas hardback book sales increased by 6.2% and paperback sales were up 2.2% (source). So, if you’ve heard that print books are dying, well…that’s old news.
There aren’t a lot of statistics out there directly related to cookbook sales (or, to be more accurate, the publishers aren’t sharing their data). But, there are some data that hint at the fact that cookbook readers are preferring print books. If you look at the lists of bestselling books on Amazon, cookbooks are frequently very high on that list. Also, anecdotally, my clients who have published both digital and print versions of their cookbooks often sell more in print. (If you’re interested in further analysis about why print cookbooks continue to do well, check out this piece by the Los Angeles Times.)
I think it all comes down to ease of use for readers. Most people prefer to have a paper cookbook when making a recipe because it’s easy to just leave the cookbook open. (If you’ve ever tried to make a recipe displayed on a tablet or smartphone, you know how annoying it is to have to keep waking your device up to double check on how much onion you need to chop or how long you need to sauté the mushrooms.) Plus, it’s a lot easier to bookmark a recipe and make notes in an actual paper cookbook, as opposed to an eCookbook.
Ultimately, if you’re trying to decide whether you should get your cookbook into print, I’d ask your audience what they want. Poll them and ask if they prefer print cookbooks or digital cookbooks, or, even better, ask them which type they buy more often. This is very easy to do with the poll sticker in Instagram Stories, but if your people spend more time on Facebook, it’s pretty easy to make a poll there, too. Your engaged audience is full of the people who are the most likely to buy your book. So, make sure you’re giving them what they want and need!
How much money you’ll make on your self-published book depends how much money you spend making it. Specifically, that depends on how much of the book’s production you can or are willing to DIY and how much you hire out.
In addition, different contractors will have different rates. You could hire a top-notch professional book designer, but you may be paying thousands of dollars to get that high-level design. Or, you could purchase a generic template for under $100, or any option in between.
The cost of creating your book will also depend on whether you do a print book. (If you’re simply selling a PDF eCookbook on your website, you don’t have to pay to get it printed.) Different book printers will charge different amounts, and pricing will vary based on the book’s trim size, page count, whether it’s in black and white or color, paper quality, ink quality, hardcover vs. paperback, and so on.
Your cost will also depend on the type of printer you use, print-on-demand or offset. With print-on-demand options, you’ll often wind up paying a little more per book, but you won’t have to put up the money to get hundreds or thousands of copies of your book printed up front. So, for many self-publishers, print-on-demand winds up being more economical. But, offset printers can offer more printing options, which may persuade you to follow that route.
For a full discussion on the types of printers self-publishers use, including an analysis of the big print-on-demand options out there, check out Episode 92 of the Blogger to Author Podcast, “Printing Options for Self-Publishers with LeAnna Weller Smith.”
Then, to figure out profitability, you’ll also need to factor in how many books you’ll sell. That depends on a lot of things, including:
You may also want to consider ways that you can offset the cost of your book. For example, could you work with brands and have them sponsor recipes in your cookbook? If you’re looking for more details on how you might do this, check out Episode 81 of the podcast: “How to Get Brand Sponsors for Your Self-Published Cookbook with Maggie Michalczyk.”
The length of time you’ll need to self-publish a book will depend on a lot of things, including how quickly you can work and how much time you can dedicate to the book. (Your timeline with a traditional publisher can also vary, but most take between 18 and 24 months to produce.) If you’re going to hire help with your book, whether it’s a book designer, editor, photographer, and so on, their turnaround times will affect the total production time of your book.
(Not sure if you should hire help for your cookbook, or where you should spend your money? Listen to Episode 89 of the Blogger to Author Podcast, “Where Should Self-Publishers Spend Money on Services?”)
Here are the basic steps you’ll need to take to create your cookbook:
I recommend writing out each step you’ll need to take to produce your book and the amount of time that it will take you. This includes asking your contractors (designers, editors) how long it will take them to complete their tasks. Then, add in about 10-20% extra time just in case something gets held up. That should give you an overall idea of how long your book will take to produce.
For most self-published cookbook authors, the process can take anywhere from 2-8 months, depending on whether you already have your recipes written and photographed.
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