Is Self-Publishing a Cookbook the Best Avenue for You?

Posted by:Lindsay S. Nixon Category: Advice Business101

Today we have a guest post from Jill Nussinow, The Veggie Queen. I'm often asked about how to run a blog and how to become a published author. I thought a post on self-publishing would give some great insight into the process!

I am going to share my journey of self-publishing my two cookbooks, The Veggie Queen: Vegetables Get the Royal Treatment and The New Fast Food: The Veggie Queen Pressure Cooks Whole Food Meals in Less Than 30 Minutes and why I chose to go this route.

Let me preface this by saying that self-publishing is not for the faint-of-heart or anyone who is not willing to work hard (in other words, work their butt off) to write, market and sell their book.

No matter which way you choose to publish your book, you need to write at least a synopsis of the book and a marketing plan. Even better is if you write a full-fledged but short proposal, as if you were submitting it to a publisher. I actually contacted two different agents before I went out on my own. One of the agents told me there was no way that she could sell a vegetarian book, as the field was overdone. (Boy was she ever wrong) The other agent viewed my proposal and just wasn’t interested.

I’d been talking about writing the book for a couple of years and when I finally got so tired of hearing myself saying that I was going to write the book and didn’t, I took action and sat down and wrote.

I decided that I wanted to control what happened with my first book (my baby) and that I would invest in the publishing process. Armed with my computer and books on self-publishing, including Dan Poynter’s Self Publishing Manual and The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing by Tom and Marilyn Ross plus a couple of other now forgotten, but useful, books that I took out of the library, I got to work.

First, I contacted a graphic designer who would help me put the book together in an attractive way. This was his first foray into book design. A friend who is an editor, agreed to work on refining book content, and another became my proofreader. (After looking at a book a hundred times, you begin not to notice anything wrong.) An illustrator friend drew the beautiful image for the cover of my book. I connected with a teen I knew to be quite an artist and he agreed to do the interior illustrations. I decided in advance to do the index myself because I had read hundreds, if not thousands, of cookbooks and knew what I wanted to see in an index. My team was in place.

I also purchased a block of ten ISBN numbers which I think cost $100 (now they are $250). Having your own ISBN shows you as the publisher.

Luckily, the graphic designer knew about, and helped me with, print quotes so I started gathering those so I would be able to get the book printed when the design and manuscript was complete.

I set a completely unrealistic schedule and we forged ahead at breakneck speed. Six months after I first met with the designer, I had a finished book in my hand.

When I set out to write the book, I also drew up a marketing plan with what I would do with the book, how and where. My first step into it was a big book release party. I invited almost everyone that I knew, offered them drinks, food and a special price if they bought 3 books. I sold more than 100 books that first day and felt encouraged. So, began my life as a publisher and author.

The Money: The Elephant in the Room

It’s not inexpensive to publish a quality book. A fellow self-publisher likes to say, I could have bought a nice Japanese car instead. A car will never return money. My book was printed in black and one color (purple) with a full color cover. It was a rather slim volume at 152 total pages but contains more than 100 recipes, which is what I wanted.

Here’s what you can figure that you will pay for a book:

  • ISBN numbers: $250 plus cost for the bar codes
  • Graphic design with cover art: $2000 to $4000 or more
  • Editor: $30 to $40 per hour
  • Indexer: usually by the page $2 to $4 (do not attempt this on your own without experience)
  • Art: the sky is the limit or you can use a young artist as I did, whom I paid less than $500
  • Printing: this is where you are going to shell out a lot of money. The first edition of the book cost about $3.50 per copy for 2000 copies.

I estimated that I needed to sell 400 books at full price to earn back the cost of the books. Of course, I would be selling to bookstores and other places that require that you offer a discount. My discount was 30 to 40 percent, so their cost was $11.97 or $13.97, depending upon terms. Within 6 months, my book was breaking even and I was making a profit.

The Bigger Elephant in the Room: Amazon

I set up an Amazon advantage account, and started selling to Amazon. Here is how it works with that 8000-pound gorilla. They require that you sell to them at a 55% discount and that you pay for shipping. You can ship media mail, which saves some money, but it still subtracts 50 cents to $1 from each book. Most authors despise Amazon but sell there anyway because it’s where many (maybe most) people look for books.

A few years later, I set up my own Amazon seller’s account and discount my book there but make about 50 percent more. I sell far fewer books through this account but every sale helps.

On average, I net at least $10 per book, figuring in the cost of maintaining a website, email marketing, and various other costs.

Direct Sales

You will often hear people talk about “platform” for an author. This is what you do to get out into the world. I already had The Veggie Queen website and set that up for sales. I send out a monthly email newsletter and I teach many classes throughout the year. I set up live cooking demonstration and book signing events at farmer’s markets within a 60-mile radius of where I live. I pitched myself to cooking schools and various organizations. This is where it doesn’t pay to be shy.

I sent news releases to newspapers and magazines. I had my book in VegNews, my local paper The Press Democrat and The San Francisco Chronicle. Still, my best sales happened when I was with my book and telling people about it. Starting in 2005, the year my first book was published, I started traveling with the book and took about 10 trips. I have averaged about that many comings and goings each year since then.

You need a following in order to have a successful book. The more people, the more potential book sales. Networking is key. I am noticing that the advent of social media and the rise of the ebook has made selling a book even easier.

My Second Book: The New Fast Food

Before my second book, I produced a DVD, Pressure Cooking: A Fresh Look, Delicious Dishes in Minutes because I felt like people needed to see what was happening with a pressure cooker rather than read about it. Yet, the time came when I had a body of recipes and wanted to get my book into the world. In 2010, I was approached by a publisher about my pressure cooking book.

I was excited. Someone wanted my book and they would assume all the publishing duties from me, not that I minded doing most of them. The book was set for publication in September 2011. The manuscript was due in January 2011. I worked hard on it. I also had a clause put into my contract that I could sell the ebook of The New Fast Food until the print version was released.

I thought that everything was going OK even though I hadn’t heard from the publisher at all by mid-March. At the end of March, I had what felt like a bombshell dropped on me: a list longer than my arm of what I needed to change in the manuscript, some of which was formatting for publication. I didn’t mind working on text but formatting? That did not seem right, even though it was stated in the contract. I worked on the manuscript revisions and got them to a designer, whom I paid, to put into ebook format. A few weeks later, I started selling the ebook.

The Joy of an Ebook

On day one of selling my ebook, I was able to pay my designer and put money in the bank. This pattern continues now.

The joy is in not dealing with any part of the printing or sales process. It all happens automatically after it is set up. Putting up a revised PDF takes an instant. It’s glorious from a publisher’s point of view. I also signed up affiliates and they help me promote my book. Don’t underestimate how many people you can get onto your team. Make friends and allies.

Back to the Print Version

The ebook had been selling and I was, and am, thrilled that I had the ebook clause in the contract. Most publishers won’t likely want to do this.

I worked on the formatting and resubmitted the cleaned up manuscript at the end of April. I thought that everything was going OK. I started booking engagements for the fall and the release of the book on September 1st. The second week in May, I got email confirmation that all was on track.

Getting Derailed

By the end of May, I was told that there was no way that the publisher could get the book out and that it would be released June 2012. While I could have quickly run and put on my publisher’s hat, I needed to do a lot of self-reflection and emotionally figure out what happened. I did nothing for a couple of months. When I regained my balance, I grabbed that hat and ran off and contacted a graphic designer. I got back in touch with my former designer to do the cover. An editor contacted me. The now not-as-young illustrator got a call. Someone else stepped forward as a photographer and shot the lovely cover photo. Once again, I did the index, as I received kudos for the one in the The Veggie Queen cookbook.

This time, though, I did not want to shell out the money for printing. Instead, I chose POD (print on demand) which can be done with companies such as Lightning Source. Create Space Smashwords and more. I chose Lightning Source. You need very little money to go this route and since I had not planned to publish a book in late 2011 or early 2012, I did not have my financial plan together. This was the easy way to go.

The Financials

The set up for Lightning Source is about $100. You only pay to have as many books as you want printed and shipped at any given time. The cost for this 248-page book is about $4.50 per book plus shipping, depending upon how many I order.

Here, though, is the joy of publishing this way. I offer the book to Amazon (that big bully) at only 20% off. When people order from there, Lightning Source prints the book and ships it. At the end of each month, I learn how many books sold. Three months later Lightning Source direct deposits my account for the number of books sold minus the printing cost.

I asked a few of my other cookbook author friends who say that their books are doing well how much they receive from their books. They don’t know because statements come out only two or three times a year and they include fees (and returns which I will NOT discuss because I don’t have any). If you sell through your publisher with an agent, you would have to sell about 1000 books each month, which is achievable, if you have a great platform.

Therefore, as publisher and author, I can make decent money on a book.

What Do I Have to Do?

Everything. I wear many hats. I am the publisher, writer, public relations point person, marketing director, shipping manager, distribution agent, and anything else that must happen to sell the book.

I love what I do and that I have control of my books: how they look, how they feel, the words that are included. I choose where you will find my book. Any bookstore can order my books but I don't sell to chains. I have select outlets in the area where I live. I maintain the accounts so I choose the stores that I like: garden stores, galleries, wine shops and more with only a few small, independent bookstores (which often sell on consignment and at a 50% discount). A smart self-publisher has to think outside the box.

A self-published book also does not have to meet a premature death. The book can stay alive for as long as you like.

Since printing The New Fast Food with Lightning Source, I have decided that with the next go-round, I will do all necessary corrections and get it to a printer, as the cost will go down while the print quality will go up. I’ll need to warehouse books but I am quite used to that. You will always find me with books in my trunk because you never know where they might find a home. My goal is to make my inventory disappear.


You don’t have to go the self-publishing route alone. There are people who can help. I am happy to mentor serious self-publishers, and so will a host of other “book people” and authors. Also, join the self-publishing list on Yahoo Groups for more than everything you want to know about publishing.

For promotion, which is equally, if not more important than writing, check out John Kremer’s 1001 Ways to Promote Your Book, Penny Sansivieri’s Red Hot Internet Marketing, Dana Lynn Smith's Savvy Book Marketing Tips and Marcia Yudkin’s Marketing Minute. You can learn a lot but don’t let that stop you from action. Make a plan and stick to it. If it becomes too much for you, hire an assistant, real or virtual.

Most importantly, have a plan, stick to it or revise it but at all costs move forward. Give it your all. Your book can be your best product.

Jill Nussinow, The Veggie Queen™, is a Registered Dietitian who is hard at work on her third self-published book which will contain recipes but not be a cookbook. She teaches throughout the US and beyond and speaks and writes on a variety of health topics. Jill loves books; publishing and writing them.

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