Self-Publishing Cookbooks – An Interview with Marcy Goldman
“You have to have more passion than fear — or simply want to do it anyway — otherwise those two swear words ‘what if’ will stop you from even trying.”
Although the self-publishing alternative becomes more valid and tempting every day, many traditionally-minded authors still fail to consider author publishers as their peers, and often disregard all independent publishing efforts as vanity publishing.
Of course, more and more genre fiction authors are bridging the gap every day by becoming hybrids; but non-fiction genres such as cookbooks are still pretty much in the hands of traditional publishing, essentially due to the high production costs.
In this thought-provoking interview, Marcy Goldman exposes her reasons for self-publishing her cookbooks and offers specific advice for cookbook authors. She shows that it can be done to the highest quality, and can become a truly liberating experience for an author.
Note: For a step-by-step instruction guide on how to make and publish a cookbook, take a look at this free Reedsy Learning course: How to Turn Your Cookbook Idea into a Reality. The course is taught by Laura Gladwin, former commissioning editor at Phaidon Press, who's worked with food writers such as Ferran Adrià, Rene Redzepi, Heston Blumenthal and Rachel Roddy.
Hi Marcy, great to have you here! I really enjoyed your piece for PBS as it was full of the enthusiasm and optimism I always feel when talking to independent authors. What prompted you to write “in defense of self-publishing”? Do you think mainstream authors still disregard the ones who choose to publish on their own?
I wrote that piece when I was in between my first self-published cookbook and the ones that followed. Over a period of 18 months I published two cooking books, a reprint of another cookbook and a book on poetry! During that period, whilst I was researching the mechanics of publishing, launching and distributing, I found a marked resistance among colleagues (cookbook authors mostly), agents, mainstream publishers and publishing pundits, concerning self-publishing. There didn’t seem to be an awareness that great, mainstream authors were being abandoned and floundering — whilst the industry and economy went through its paces of transition — just as their careers were in an ascension.
I also got a sense that most of those who were resistant to self-publishing, thought that authors choosing that option were newbies or unproven talents (or non talents). I also think authors regarded other authors who chose this path as choosing something ‘lesser’ versus choosing to forge ahead and thrive, given the changing publishing scenario.
The problem was that I didn’t see my journey reflected in the opinion pieces I read or in informal exchanges with other authors and so I felt compelled to voice my experience, which I then realised, was an opinion shared by a larger collective.
You say you self-published your cookbooks because you had to. Would you consider going back to traditional publishing now?
Of course, but like anyone who becomes wiser, more confident and more empowered. I think I’ve become a new and improved author for a publisher to work with. Conversely I would look for a publishing partner with vision — one that wanted an author who has a sense of the publishing arena in all its facets.
For me, as well as many authors, I also see a mix and match scenario, wherein it is possible to publish some projects on your own and opt to have a traditional publisher for more suitable projects. The bottom line is getting great content, putting pen to passion, and getting it out there!
You’re a cookbook author, and that means that self-publishing is probably more complicated for you than for a genre-fiction author, right? What is it that currently stops more food writers to self-publish?
First of all, colour cookbooks are what the readers expect, but producing a print-on-demand model for a colour cookbook is far more expensive in terms of production. You have to make the food for photo-shoots, hire photographers (unless you’re photographing it yourself), all of which requires more time and money than typical book design and formatting. You have to make a decision between a black and white cookbook — which is affordable but lacks sales appeal — or do what I did for my last book and opt for a colour eBook.
So I think the element of colour and the formatting is the largest extra issue authors face when self-publishing a cookbook. They are also competing with celebrity chefs, but on the other hand, that is the case with all genres where there are great brand franchises (e.g. Stephen King or James Patterson).
Overall, cookbook authors seem to have less of an indie mindset… Perhaps culinary bloggers might be more willing to test the waters!
Many successful indies recommend authors to “follow the steps of traditional publishing” when self-publishing. How important is having a good copyeditor for a cookbook? And a designer/formatter?
It is absolutely crucial and there are more and more qualified, fair-priced skilled freelancers you can hire to assist you. You are also the creator and will be doing a ton of work to launch, market and distribute. It really pays to hire some production and editorial help. That said, even traditional cookbooks can be notably imperfect.
The thing I like about many indie authors coming from a “mainstream” background is that they suddenly feel empowered to try new things. You’re now about to self-publish a book on tango, and have also published a poetry one, just because: “now, I can”. Do you think being liberated from traditional constraints is a good thing for indie writers?
Yes, self-publishing is a good way of experimenting a bit without going too off course from your established platform, if you have one. It is still best to get consistent content out there and gain traction in the genre you’re known for or wish to establish yourself in. Second to that, just get your best content out there!
Most authors necessarily plug away at what they’re known for or what they think will ‘sell’. They quickly learn not to pitch agents or traditional publishers with unproven ponies, so to speak. We all tend to try and fuse our passion writing what sells with what we also think ‘will sell’, but luckily, as a self-publisher, you don’t have to worry about that acquisitional ‘wall’. You can indulge more risky books on your bucket list and in so doing, energize yourself as well as find a whole new niche of readers, ultimately increasing your revenue.
You can also see directly what the publishing process is like and learn more insights into how books get sold. So it’s not just about the writing, it’s about what production, distribution and marketing approaches might work better for you and your works. You’re free to explore all that.
You write in your piece that: “There’s also a presumption (or fear) that without sufficient social media or a platform, books (even great ones) won’t get noticed”. Do you think that producing great content is enough? How big has the whole “discoverability” challenge been for you?
Fortunately I have a platform, but no one, not even William Shakespeare, starts with a platform. This is an age-old question anyway, which was around way before the advent of self-publishing. All writers, aspiring authors think “If I do it, who will read it, who will buy it, who will find it?”
This is not new. It is yet another version of a common sabotaging thought almost every creative person has at one time or another. You have to have more passion than fear — or simply want to do it anyway — otherwise those two swear words ‘what if’ will stop you from even trying.
Do the doing, get it out there and then see what happens.
How do you see the future of publishing? Do you feel like publishers have adapted to the new technologies, formats, and distribution channels?
That is a tough question! I think some publishers have slowly adapted to the new technologies but traditional publishing is an old-school, slow-moving, methodical industry that is sluggish with pride and history. It does not easily turn on a dime. It’s possible that, given some self-publishing success stories, they might follow those trends and/or those authors to seek out new talent or see what readers respond to. Indie publishing is often a bit of ad hoc market research for them.
They might also be inheriting a new breed of author coming from self-publishing and might have to appreciate that these authors are of a different ilk. That’s not a bad thing, it’s a realistic thing. Confident creators, versus grateful or humble ones (all talents being equal), might be awesome authors to deal with. You might see some landmark works come out of this new breed.
Do you think that the self-publishing alternative is taken seriously by the traditional actors (publishers, agents) or still widely seen as vanity publishing?
I think indie publishing isn’t taken as seriously as it might be, which is a pity if you look at some of the ‘unknown’ but wholly successful authors out there. Having said that, it’s not as disdained or dismissed as it used to be. It is becoming legitimized as we recognize that there are huge shifts going on. Nothing is ‘as it was’…
Beyond that, I think all publishers (indie or traditional) recognize that eBooks do well, however they recognize that eBooks often sell for very little, and in small quantities, making it difficult for many authors to thrive. To that end, I suggest writing shorter books, before putting an opus out as an eBook or putting something out in print and see what happens. Experiment.
Would you agree that self-publishing is still widely disregarded as a “lesser alternative” by many authors? If you have experience of both worlds, did you find self-publishing liberating? Leave us your thoughts in the comments below!