Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Cookbook Publishing: Which is Right for You?

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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Whether you’re a recipe creator, food blogger, nutritionist, or chef, there are few things as exciting as finally writing your own cookbook. It’s a journey filled with countless decisions, and a big one to kick you off: to self-publish or to navigate the traditional publishing waters? 

I’ve self-published two cookbooks and have a traditionally published cookbook on the way, so I’ve got lots of opinions on the subject! So much that I created a whole course, The Cookbook Lab, that guides you through the self-publishing process from start to finish.

The Freedom of Self-Publishing

When you self-publish, you are in charge. You get to make all of the decisions, from topic to design to timing. This can be a huge plus for some folks and daunting for others. 

Here’s are the pros of self-publishing:

  • Write What You Want: Your cookbook, your rules. Want to dive into the world of 15th-century desserts? Go for it.
  • Creative Director: From cover to cover, the design is yours. In fact, the cover design can be a big source of tension between authors and publishers.
  • You pick the title.
  • Created on Your Schedule: Rush it or let it simmer; the timeline is yours.
  • You get all the royalties.
  • Ownership: The cookbook is wholly yours.

Now, we have to address the cons:

  • Distribution can be smaller: Reach might not stretch as far initially.
  • PR can be tougher to get without the credibility of a publishing house.
  • You’re responsible for hiring editors and any other freelancers you wish to work with.
  • You are solely responsible for project management.
  • No advance.

More on Creative Control

Under a traditional publisher’s roof, the design is often set by someone else. I’ve heard from authors who had to change their entire book’s or title, and another author who hated the cover or her book. Self-publishing means you make all of the creative decisions–and are responsible for executing them (the downside!).

If your cookbook concept is still simmering, The Cookbook Lab can help refine it and make sure there’s an audience ready to buy it.

The Dough: Financial Considerations

The advance from a traditional publisher might initially seem appetizing, but it can be quite small for the amount of work you’re ultimately doing for someone else. And with the changing landscape, authors now frequently shoulder the cost of photography and marketing, diluting the advance even further. Once the book comes out, the royalties are shared, slicing your earnings thin. With self-publishing, though the initial investment in services like editing and design is yours to cover, you take home 100% of the royalties.

Want specifics on what you might need to budget for self-publishing? Make sure to read “How Much Does It Really Cost to Self-Publish a Cookbook?” And don’t miss the free calculator designed to tailor your publishing budget.

The Recipe for Success: Project Management

Yes, managing the publication process is a challenge, but you can handle it—especially if you’re already food blogging. Tools like Asana and Airtable can be so helpful, and we provide several project management templates inside The Cookbook Lab.

To Self-Publish or Not?

Choosing the right publishing path is as personal as your taste in food. Both routes have merits! Ultimately, it comes down to how much control you want over the process.

Keep in mind: Just because you choose to self-publish initially doesn’t mean you’ll never traditionally publish. In fact, I had a publisher reach out after they found my first cookbook!

Want to learn more? The Cookbook Lab is here to transform your culinary dreams into a published reality, from crafting your book’s concept to seeing it grace kitchen counters everywhere.

And if you’re the type who prefers video recipes to written ones, check out the video version of this guide—bon appétit!

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