Behind the Scenes of Self-Publishing a Cookbook

hi, i'm chelsea!

You'll find me just outside of Portland, Oregon, hopefully in my kitchen with a big glass of Willamette Valley red wine and sous viding salmon my husband caught that week, unwinding after a day of recipe development, food photography, and marketing freelance work. Say hi on Instagram: @the.cookbook.lab

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Guys. I wrote a cookbook. I still can’t believe I get to say that.

BTS of Writing a Cookbook from A Duck's Oven

It took most of 2018 in to accomplish. I was able to actually, finally do this because at the beginning of 2018, I transitioned from my much more consuming startup job to a part-time, hourly, flexible position that not only freed up my time, but my brain space and creative energy. It was a total game changer.

I reached out to Melissa Joulwan of the Well Fed cookbook series in February of 2018 to learn about why she decided to self-publish and forego the traditional publishing route. Without getting in to too much detail, she convinced me it was the right move.

At the time, we were at the tail end of building our house which was requiring 90% of my free time, so I knew the project wouldn’t be able to get going in earnest until we were moved in. But there was still some stuff I could do. So last March, I got started.

The topic

I think for most food bloggers, writing a cookbook is a dream. A Duck’s Oven is not a niche blog. You’ll find all kinds of recipes on here (although they do tend to lean towards simple, but that’s not a niche). Since I’m not Chrissy Teigan but I am a marketer, I knew my cookbook would have to be straight up nichey in order to be successful.

I found sous vide cooking in 2017. I fell in love. And you know what? It is damn nichey. But too nichey? I decided to test the waters. I started talking about sous vide a bit here and there on Instagram. I got looooots of questions and interest, and lots of new followers who were into sous vide themselves. My first check in the box.

Then, I created my first recipe on the blog about sous vide cooking: Sous Vide Tri-Tip Steak. It became my #3 traffic driver, out-stripping years old posts. Ding ding ding. This topic would work.

The recipes

I did a lot of Googling, and found there were almost no resources for self-publishing a cookbook. Plenty for self-publishing a book, but a cookbook is its own beast. I snagged a copy of Jason Logsdon’s book about self-publishing and it was a great overview, but not super detail heavy. So, I figured it out myself.

I mapped out my recipes, tested the hell out of them, adjusted, rewrote, threw away, until I had a set of recipes I was really happy with by the end of June.

Then, I wrote in a sous vide Facebook group: “I’m self-publishing a cookbook about sous vide cooking and need recipe testers. Would anyone be willing to help?” And DOZENS of people responded. I couldn’t believe it. This was my first look at just how supportive strangers are. They all tested, gave me their feedback, I adjusted, re-tested, and then eventually forced myself to quit obsessing.

I found a woman in another Facebook group to go through and edit all of my recipes for correctness, consistency, and ease of instruction. She rocked and was key to this process.

The design

Next, I knew I needed to start thinking about how my book would look, even before I started shooting. I use a really tight color palette on my Instagram and blog that have worked well for me, and decided to carry this through to my book, too.

I chatted with my dear friend Carly of Love Like Salt who’s a super talented graphic designer. We decided I would hire her to create a template I would populate for all of the recipes and she would design the cover, front matter, and the “fun” elements (of which there are many and they are amazing thanks to this woman).

I chose a size for the book and also made an important decision that would affect my next step: I wanted a photo for every recipe. As a cookbook reader, I’m always bummed when recipes don’t have photos.

The photos

I started shooting in August. I think this might have been the hardest part of the book. I wanted the photography to be stunning, and there was a lot of it to do. Especially because I haven’t perfected my fake lighting setup and wanted to shoot with natural light.

I outlined each and every shoot in advance: the color of the backdrop, what elements would be in, the different shots I wanted. I planned out a single shoot day, made my grocery lists, then shopped and did as much set up as I could stand the night before. The next day, my mom would come over and help me with setup for each recipe and do the dishes all day long. On the shoot days I had her around to help me, we could bang out 8 shoots in one day!!! If you are a food blogger, you understand how difficult that is.

This was exhausting. It takes so much physical and mental energy to do these photo shoots, and to ensure they’re done right. It took weeks, and I tried to stay on top of my editing and even edit the same day if I could bring myself to do it.

The writing

One thing I underestimated was how much writing I would have to do! After all, it’s a cookbook – how much writing is there? The answer is A LOT, especially with a technical cookbook.

Whenever I couldn’t be shooting and well after the shooting, I was writing. This part was also really hard.

I know myself, and know that I get repetitive and boring when I have to write this much all at once. So, I hired the incredibly talented Lauren Bejot to edit all of my copy, and she nailed it as she does all things.

Putting it all together

So, at this point, I have the recipes, copy, and photos. All that’s left is to put it together.

Carly sent me the template and taught me how to use it, then I started dropping everything into place. While this was happening, she was working on the front matter and the cover.

This part of the process was actually really fun for me! It was relatively mindless, so I did it on my couch while watching TV with my Husband. Easy, peezy.

Once I dropped everything into place, I got the book printed at FedEx so I could edit physical copies. This was crucial. There were several rounds of editing, by me, my ever patient parents, and Husband’s students even helped out (he’s a high school language arts teacher). Bless them all.

Getting it live

Once I was finally confident in my finished product, it was time to push it live. My goal was to have it live by Black Friday (because, duh) and I was uploading it to Amazon KDP, their print-on-demand self-publishing platform, a week before that date. I felt good! KDP is easy! Right?!

My initial manuscript kept getting rejected, and looked totally off in the preview. I called Carly in a panic because I realized we’d sized the book completely wrong. At first, I was horrified but kept a cool head, and it ended up being an easy fix.

I got it live, ordered my proof, and waited.

3 days later, the proof arrived. I caught a few errors, fixed them in the manuscript, and uploaded.

But it kept getting rejected. Over and over. And I didn’t know why.

When KDP rejects a manuscript, they give pre-scripted reasons, so you have no idea how to fix your specific manuscript. It was the most enraging process of my life. I sent some seriously mean emails.

Most of their communications happened in the middle of the night my time, so I would wake up at 3, 4, 5 am in the hopes of getting the email and being able to adjust and reupload quickly so I wouldn’t be stuck waiting another 24 hours. I was barely sleeping.

I had my launch email all ready to go, and one night I dreamed the manuscript got accepted, and in my sleepy haze almost sent the launch email. Thank goodness I caught myself.

After getting a phone number and crying with frustration, my book finally went live Sunday of Black Friday weekend. Two days later than I wanted, but still Black Friday weekend. And it was a good weekend.

Since the launch

There is nothing like the kindness of strangers.

I have so many people to thank for helping me tell the world about this book. I connected with Diane Morgan a few weeks before the launch of my book at a Portland Culinary Alliance event and she was so excited to hear about my book. She invited me to table at two events in the coming weeks and has been mentoring me ever since. How awesome is that?!

I had the pleasure of showing off my book at the Portland Cookbook Social, a holiday market, and all of Kitchen Kaboodle‘s open houses. I’ve had 3 TV appearances, been interviewed for 3 podcasts, and have even more exciting things coming up.

I’m floored by how many of you have cared about my book. This is the most fun thing I’ve ever done, and it’s already opening door after door for me. It was so much work, but it’s been abundantly worth it.

So, you want to write a cookbook?

Join me in The Cookbook Lab: a course I created for food bloggers who want to self-publish their own cookbooks. I took everything I learned in my experience and turned it into an action plan for you!

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