You are about to embark on the most exciting enterprise of your life -- publishing a cook book! You will soon learn that writing a cook book is truly a fun, exciting and challenging project – more than you can imagine. Like me, you can publish your own wildly successful cook book. And if you ask me if I think publishing a cook book is worth the time and effort? You bet I do!
My cook book, Fit to Cook – Why ‘Waist’ Time in the Kitchen? sold over 250,000 copies (with, I might add, less than 10% of those sales coming from book stores). However, I wasted a great deal of time, back-tracking and scrambling in order to sell all those books because in the beginning I did not have a complete grasp of the publishing industry and the process of marketing a cook book.
Before you rack your brain figuring out how to write a cook book, and more importantly, how to publish a cook book, take some time to thoroughly research the why and what you are writing about, who you are writing for and when is the best time to launch your book.
Whether you want to get published or whether you want to self publish your cook book, the same basics apply – you need a good understanding of the publishing industry. Without the basics, will you know if your contracts are in order, that your book is the best it can be and that your cook book marketing plan is actually an effective strategy? No – but, knowledge is power. It is crucial that you take enough time to educate yourself about the entire publishing industry.
Understanding publishing, and the marketing of books, will clearly help you to identify why you are writing a cook book. Perhaps you are writing a cook book just to record secret family recipes or to have all of your own favorite recipes in a book format; maybe you are writing a cook book for a community or church fundraiser; or best of all, your goal is to create a bestseller. Cook books that are written for a very small group do not require business and marketing plans because you already know how many books will be purchased and who the buyers are. However, if you are planning to publish your own cook book for the mass markets, you need to understand that you have moved beyond author to publisher. That means that you are now a business person whose primary goal is the creation of a product to sell. There is no point in printing a book that no one will want to buy.
When I began writing my own cook book, I naively thought that it would be a two or three month process, and that in no time I would have a book on every book store shelf in the country. Ha, ha, ha, chuckle chuckle… Experience is a great educator, but who says that you have to learn the hard way? Obviously I had no idea how to publish a cook book in the beginning! However, through this article and via the publishing course that I and my partners have created, I intend to help you avoid losing time and money.
How did I create such a successful cook book? The short answer is research, research, research, and then more research. Thankfully I had the wisdom to do the research before going to print. But research can, and did, take years.
In my experience, after I learned how to write a cook book I had to learn all about cook book publishing:
- ISBN numbers
- cataloging in publication data
- printing terms like cover stock, bindings, signatures and bluelines
- learning how to obtain printing quotes, (crucial in knowing how many books you can afford to print)
- graphic design (makes the difference between great sales and no sales)
- editing (cannot, and I mean cannot, be done by yourself, friends or family)
- titles and subtitles (they can make or break a book)
- title search (avoid duplicating someone else’s title)
Next, I had to learn about how to start a business:
- business plan
- toll free numbers
- corporate logos and identity
- shipping arrangements
- accounting principles
Most importantly I had to become wise about marketing:
- writing a plan
- researching competition
- understanding target markets
- going through the difficult but crucial process of choosing a book title
- discovering the importance of a book’s cover – both the front cover and the back cover – and how to design the cover
- looking outside book stores for buyers
- learning the importance of publicity
- discovering the essential need for a stellar media kit and how to create one
- approaching the media and the importance of a good publicist
I learned, and I will share with you, a key point to consider when you are discovering how to write a cook book. Before you even begin to write your cook book, you must identify your target market. Who will actually buy your cook book? It is amazing that so many authors think that “everyone” will want their book, but that is not so. Not “everyone” is a target for anything! – not even the Bible.
Know who will actually buy your book. Interviewing the owners of cook book stores and specialty cooking stores can help you to identify cook book trends so that you know what people are actually buying. It is also a good idea to think of corporations and organizations that might benefit by using your book as a promotional item. Approach them even before you go to print, offering them special discounts, opportunities to place their information in a special printing of the book, advertising chances to offer your cook book as a “freebie” with the purchase of their product – just to name a few cook book marketing ideas.
If your cook book is targeted to busy families, the recipes must be easy to prepare in a short time period; if it is targeted to gourmet cooks, the recipes must be of the quality that you would expect to find in a four or five star restaurant; if it is targeted to a specific ethnic group, the recipes must be authentic; but if it is targeted to the mass market, your cook book must have a very wide scope with recipes that make any mouth water, and the ingredients must be readily available in grocery stores.
Once you have identified who will buy your book, you can target your marketing plan and your book design with your customers in mind, such as:
- Where do they shop?
- Where do they play?
- What style of book appeals to them? - (research your competition closely).
- What price are they willing to pay?
- How many pictures do they want in a cook book? (a lack of photos can kill book sales)
- What colors attract them? (spend time in book stores and libraries, learning which books have the most appealing appearance)
- What size of book is currently popular?
- What type of book binding increases sales?
- Are they concerned about health or other issues?
- Do they appreciate little stories, jokes, cooking tips or other information in the book?
Sometimes I took two steps forward then had to take one step back, but at other times I took one step forward and two back. Don’t waste time the way that I did – use my experiences to your advantage. Once you have a grasp of the basics, you can actually begin to put your cook book publishing and marketing plans into action.
Of course, a cook book has special challenges that other books may not have. Your primary goal is to give people unique, delicious recipes that they can create successfully in their own homes. That means that you have to measure exactly and your instructions must be clear and simple. You will have to test each recipe over and over until it turns out perfectly every time, then you will have to enlist other people to prepare those recipes independently of you. No matter what their comments, you must take the critiques of your testers seriously because if they do not achieve great results the chances are very good that your customers will be unhappy with their “flops”. Finally, it is a good idea to have the recipes tested by a professional home economist or other food expert.
Depending on the focus of your cook book, you might want to include nutrition information such as calories and fat content. Fortunately, there is now computer software that will do the calculations for you. You must also provide an index at the back of the book, and thankfully, software is available for this chore also.
Food photography is a special challenge of its own, requiring many tricks to make good look appealing. A good food photographer is a vital part of your cook book publishing team. Great attention must be paid to every minute detail, down to the grains of pepper in a dish and to the bubbles on top of a cup of coffee. Each photograph can require four hours of shooting time, if not more, so plan adequate time for the photo shoot.
The services of a food stylist are very helpful, but with research you can do a great deal of the food styling yourself. Find as many books as you can on the subject and practice in advance of the photo shoot. I learned simple tricks like:
- sticking sandpaper to the plate to prevent food from slipping
- using whipped icing or shaving cream in place of ice cream or whipped cream
- placing a shot glass under a very thickly cut slice of lemon to prevent the lemon from absorbing the liquid underneath
- using beef bouillon in place of “coffee”
- using dish detergent to create bubbles in the “coffee”
- using a blow torch to make meat appear cooked
- and the list goes on…
Food styling is such fun, but it requires a great deal of time, even in advance of the photo shoot. You will need all of your “props” in place, such as dishes, cutlery, flowers, table linens, food items and backgrounds. Many companies will happily lend these items to you in exchange for a credit in the book – this can appear on the Cataloging in Publication data page at the beginning of your book.
When your book is ready to go to print, it is time to put your cook book marketing and publicity campaign into gear:
- Decide on the best time of year to launch your book. September is usually the best month for Christmas sales, but you also face steep competition. Try to think of a time that is appropriate for your book, such as January for a healthy eating book, late Spring for a barbecue book, Valentine’s Day for a romantic book, Heart and Stroke month for a heart-healthy book, etc.
- Produce galley copies.
- Send galleys to appropriate book clubs (look at their websites to learn their submission requirements).
- Research appropriate catalogs and send galleys to them.
- Have your publicist approach magazines that review cook books (magazines have long lead times).
- Stay in contact with any corporations and organizations that might use your book for promotions.
- Find a reputable distributor to have your book accepted by the book store trade, as well as other retailers.
- Contact non-book store book sellers.
When your book is ready to roll off the press, get your publicity campaign into high gear. You can have the best book in the world, but if no one knows about it, no one will buy it. The easy part is over – publicity and marketing now become your life. This part is the most fun, as you now reap the rewards of all of your efforts. Your goal now is to turn your cook book title into a household word. Go for it -- publish your own cook book!