How to Publish a Cookbook is the step-by-step story of how I planned, wrote, photographed, self-published, and marketed a cookbook.
Do you have a wonderful collection of personal recipes that should be shared with the world? Mom’s squash casserole, for example, or your dad’s amazing barbecue sauce?
If those treasured recipes have made you think about collecting all of them together in a beautiful cookbook, this story is for you. It’s my true (and ongoing) saga of self-publishing a cookbook. I’ll be updating this every single step of the way, based on my own experiences and feedback from readers.
How to Publish a Cookbook
Step 1. Come Up With an Idea
Ah, the fun part! By the time you’re a few months into the process of writing a cookbook, you’ll be fondly reminiscent of this stage.
Expertise. Idea. Angle.
So let’s tackle the first problem of how to publish a cookbook by answering a few questions.
- What is your expertise?
- What idea do you want to explore?
- What angle will you take on this idea?
Here are my answers.
- I’m an expert in simplifying. If it’s complicated, I can streamline it. I have the perspective of a home cook, not a restaurant cook, and my recipes reflect that.
- Southern cooking.
- My angle is: Southern cooking, streamlined and friendly to the home cook, approachable and “do-able” for the average home cook.
See how that works? You take your expertise, combine it with an idea (new or old), and put your slant on it.
Step 2. Determining If Your Idea Is Salable
A celebrity like Rachel Ray could publish “100 Ways to Make a Ham Sandwich” and it would sell thousands of copies. If you are not Rachel Ray, you have to examine your cookbook concept very critically. Without household name recognition, you’re starting at a disadvantage.
This is the step that can send you right straight back to the drawing board, and that’s a good thing. You need to do your homework before you lock in to a cookbook concept. This is one of the most important steps in cookbook publishing.
First, you need to research the competition. Find all the cookbooks that have been published in the last few years on your topic (the idea you came up with in the last step). Did they sell well? Will you be in direct competition with any of them? If you’re in direct competition, how will you stand out? What will you do better?
In my case, I found that there are a number of Southern cookbooks in print, but not as many as I thought there would be.
Some of the Southern cookbooks- with unattractive covers, poor design, and no interior photos- were doing well despite their drawbacks. That led me to believe that there’s still room for a good Southern cookbook in the market.
Next, read cookbook buyer reviews. You’ll find out what people liked and didn’t like about the cookbooks they bought. It’s like free market research at your fingertips, because you can use that information to differentiate your cookbook from the rest.
Once you’ve looked at the competition, think seriously about this question.
- Can I compete with the other cookbooks on this topic without being a famous person?
If the answer is no, go back to Step 1.
Step 3. Determining Where Your Cookbook is Salable
The first part of figuring out where you can sell a cookbook is examining what everyone calls an author platform. Your platform is your ability to be visible to an audience who wants to buy your books. What does that mean?
Here are some examples.
- You have a blog.
- You have social media profiles.
- You’re locally well known- a restaurant owner, perhaps, or a food critic.
- You teach cooking classes or do cooking demonstrations.
Think about these questions.
- How many people can you reach?
- How many of those people would actually buy a cookbook?
- How many would actually buy your cookbook?
Be realistic, but have hope. Not too long ago, a self-publisher had to actually buy hundreds or thousands of copies of their own book and sell it themselves. In this age of print-on-demand, or POD, your book is only printed when someone places an order.
Through the magic of technology, you can sell your cookbook on most of the same websites as the big publishers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and so on.
Therefore, as long as you keep your costs down, you can sell a relatively small amount of copies and still make a profit. Depending on the number of copies you sell, a profit could mean “breaking even yet gaining reputation in the field,” or “making an extra fifty dollars a month,” or (extremely rare) “retiring to Bermuda.”
Even for authors who publish through traditional publishers, cookbook publishing is not always a gold mine.
Most nonfiction books sell less than 2,000 copies, and many sell far less than that.
Step 4. Figuring out the Costs
If you are self-publishing a cookbook, your costs will directly affect your bottom line.
Of course, this is true in traditional publishing as well, because many publishers make you bear the cost of photography, or leave you on your own for marketing, or both. And good luck ever earning more than your advance, especially if your name is not Paula Deen.
Let’s talk about costs of self-publishing.
The number one cost is… time.
That’s right. You will put hundreds, if not thousands, of work hours into your cookbook. I’ve been working on mine for about three months, in between freelance work. I’d say that I’m spending at least 4 to 6 hours a week on it.
If I had absolutely nothing else to do, could I get it done faster? Of course. If I spent 8 hours a day on it, I’d probably be done in a month or two. If you have that kind of free time, hooray!
The rest of us will have to squeeze it in when we can.
Think about all those hours. It’s unpaid labor. Are you willing to not get paid? To take a gamble that all that work will pay off? And to be able to accept if it never pays off? Then you are a good candidate for self-publishing.
We’ve talked about time.
Let’s talk about money. First, let’s assume that YOU will write and test all the recipes. Next, check out what the other typical tasks of book production will cost.
- Professional editing = $30 – $80 per hour
- Proofreading (check for spelling errors, typos, etc) = $30 – $40 per hour
- Photography = anywhere from $100 per shoot to $10,000 per day
- Book design = $500 – $5000
- eBook formatting = $250 – $1000
- Cover design = $99 – $1000
- Indexing (FYI: People hate cookbooks without indexes.) = $200 – $500
The more of these that you can DIY, the better. However…
It’s like home repairs. You have to know when to call in the expert. For example, I don’t do electrical work, because I prefer the house not to burn down.
Likewise, I don’t know how to format an ebook, or a print book, for that matter. It would take me hundreds of hours just to figure it out. So I’m willing to pay for someone else to do the formatting, because a) I’d screw it up, and b) I don’t have time to learn that skill set.
Think about it. Do you have a budget to outsource some of the production tasks? If so, where is your money most wisely spent? Personally, I feel like I can handle the editing and proofreading, especially with a little help from family. I have a professional camera rig and I’m an experience food photographer, so photography is covered.
That means I’ll need to find someone to do book design, ebook formatting, cover design, and indexing. If you can find an up-and-coming book designer who puts several of those services into one package, you can often save a lot of money.
I’m estimating my production costs to be around $1000. This figure will be updated once my costs are final, so be sure to check back for updates.
Step 5. Estimating Your Break Even Point and Net Profit
Now for the nitty-gritty of profit and loss. Meet your new very best friend, the Amazon CreateSpace Royalty Calculator!
Although every book seller and print-on-demand provider has its own royalty formula, using the Amazon CreateSpace royalty calculator will give you a ballpark estimate of what you could potentially earn for each printed book you sell. Note: we’re not talking about ebooks just yet. That’s an entirely different royalty schedule.
If you decided to include color photos within the book (not just a color cover), you’ll be printing in full color throughout the entire book. You can’t just pop in a few pages of color pictures; no, you have to pay for every page to be in color. Otherwise, you’ll be printing in black and white in the interior, along with a color cover.
Let’s look at color versus black and white interior in terms of cost.
If your book is 150 pages, has a black and white interior, and you set the selling price at $9.99 per printed book, you’d earn:
- $3.34 if you sold a print copy on Amazon.com
- $5.34 if you sold a print copy through your Amazon “eStore” page
- $1.34 if you sold a copy through their “expanded distribution” channels (Ingram, Baker & Taylor, etc.)
For the exact same book printed with a color interior, you’d have to set the selling price at $25 to make the following royalties:
- $3.65 if you sold a print copy on Amazon.com
- $8.65 if you sold a print copy through your Amazon “eStore” page
- And you’d lose $1.35—that’s right, negative royalties—if you sold a copy through their “expanded distribution” channels (Ingram, Baker & Taylor, etc.)
Got it? Color printing is massively more expensive for self-publishing.
Let’s expand the example. If my book production costs were $1000, how many books would I have to sell in order to break even?
To keep it simple, let’s assume that all print copies are sold on Amazon.com and earn a royalty of $3.34.
$1000 in costs / $3.34 royalty per book = approximately 300 books sold to break even.
Ebook sales royalties are calculated differently. Amazon Kindle, for example, sells ebooks according to two different royalty schedules.
I’m simplifying it a lot, but basically it boils down like this. If your ebook file size is under 10MB and your price is set between $2.99 and 9.99, you earn a 70% royalty on each book (there are exceptions with worldwide downloads that vary by country).
If your ebook file size is over 10MB, and/or your price is outside the $2.99 – 9.99 range, you earn 30% royalty per book.
Other ebook distributors, such as Nook and Kobo, have different royalty structures. You can get an estimate of ebook royalties with this calculator.
Once you start doing the math, you’ll quickly see two things. It’s very important to pay attention to your book production costs (which put you in the hole, so to speak, right at the beginning), and to the selling price at which you set your book.
Life I said before, many cookbooks published through traditional publishers sell only a few thousand copies. You must plan carefully to make sure that your sales will, at the very least, cover your expenses. Once you’ve covered your expenses, hooray! Every new sale is pure profit.
Step 6: Write the Darn Thing
All right, you’re convinced you have a good idea. You’re sure you can make a profit.
Now it’s time to get that cookbook on paper.
Where do you start? First, make a list of all the recipes. That’s the easy part.
Next, write each recipe title on an index card. Lay out all the cards on the floor where you can see them all at once. Sort the recipes by category. How should you divide them? Are you going to have appetizers separate from soups? Or do your soups go better next to your salads? That’s up to you.
I recommend looking through a dozen or so cookbooks to see how other authors have approached this. It will help you get ideas of how to organize your recipes and how to name your chapters.
Once you’ve divided up your recipes into sections (or chapters), figure out what order you want them to go in. Should you lead with buttermilk pancakes, followed by strawberry cream cheese? Or maybe start with sausage gravy? You know best. Put them in the “flow” that makes sense.
When they’re sorted to your satisfaction, rewrite your list by chapter and recipe order.
The final step in the “getting it on paper” process is to have a full document of all the recipes in order. Make sure you’ve included the prep time, cook time, total time, and yield for each one.
Then, you’ll have to decide what kind of headnotes, if any, you’ll include.
Next update: Headnotes, introduction, and more.
Questions? Leave a comment below.
Additional Cookbook Writing Resources
I have found each of these items to be useful in one way or another. (These are affiliate links, which help support this site at no cost to you.)
- Self Publishing Made Easy: Cookbooks: The Food Bloggers Guide to Writing, Publishing and Marketing a Cookbook – the nitty gritty of self publishing. Very handy, especially for food bloggers.
- The Joy of Writing a Great Cookbook – geared toward traditional publishing, but with some good points about how to stand out from the pack.
- Will Write for Food – less about self-publishing, more about how to write well about food. Updated in 2015.