the book quandry

I had lunch with a friend yesterday and talk led to the book. You know the cookbook I'd like to write. It feels very strange putting that in print. I've kept this under wraps for so long, sharing my seeds of thought and proposal with only a few very close friends.

I guess I'm the superstitious type. I don't walk under ladders, the sight of brand-new unworn shoes on a table top gives me heart failure and no, I've never, ever opened an umbrella in the house (though it's really only supposed to be bad luck if you put over you head indoors).

Alas, talking about my aspirations for a book feels akin to jinxing it, yet I can't keep these thoughts to myself anymore. While I try to find the time to work on the book proposal, I'm also exploring another option—self publishing. It's okay, gasp. I know some of you will.

There are so many issues tied into the decision to go it alone, so to speak. Yes, self-publishing sounds great. Keep 70% of my sales—a big plus. Do all the design, writing, recipe testing, copy editing, layout, photography—um, wait. I have two kids, work fulltime and have a house and a marriage to nurture (don't ask what the laundry piles already look like).

And that's just to get the book produced.

There's the matter of getting an ISBN number, getting it into stores and the publicity. Sure publishers keep the bulk of your book sales, but once you start scratching the surface, you understand it's because they do most of the work to actually make it into a book.

Cookbooks are different animals than other non-fiction or fiction literature because in my opinion they should be visually driven. Once you add photography to the layout of the book, self-publishing seems to feel a little more daunting.Thinking about this all with a head cold that makes my noggin feel like a cement block on my shoulders doesn't help.

While I'm stuck on this carousel of questions, I'm curious to know what you all think. Stay the course and go pound the pavement for an agent? Screw the conventional system and go my own way? If you've self-published a photo-driven cookbook, care to share your experience with me?

In the meantime, it's Pizza Friday and school pick-up is looming. When the kid heard I was sick today, she nervously asked "but we're still having pizza tonight?". At least I have the answer to her pressing question. Yes, we're still having pizza (the dough is rising as I write)—here's the recipe in case you want to make it too.


  • justcooknyc

    i love that you’re putting this out there. i guess i’m biased because of my job, but those self-publishing success stories are few and far between unless you tour the country doing speaking engagements where you can sell the book directly and can afford a space to warehouse books. and keep in mind that even though anything can be sold on Amazon, getting the book into Barnes & Noble is a different story. a really different story. well, i could go on and on.

  • Lauren @ Healthy Delicious

    I really don’t have any advice to offer other than to say I would definitely buy any cookbook that you put out – self published or otherwise.
    (for what its worth, I’ve heard that landing a traditional deal for a second book can be more difficult if you self-published the first time around…but I don’t have any personal experience with that, so take it with a grain of salt.)

  • Drew @ How To Cook Like Your Grandmother

    What a coincidence, Bob Lewis was just addressing this today:
    The key point in there I agree with is that agents are great for established personalities. If you already have a name, or a following, that a publisher would be willing to bank on then an agent can get you the best deal. Otherwise, you’re no better off using an agent than submitting your proposal to a publisher directly.
    He’s also 100% right that a publisher will help you design and print the book, but publicity is entirely up to you. That’s why they prefer to publish people who already have a following, so that the publicity is built in and they don’t have to do it.
    Self-publishing is easier than it’s ever been: Printing, distribution, fulfillment, ISBN … all of that is trivial. What’s still hard is writing and — for what you want — designing it. I don’t have any good tips for design, because mine have been relatively simple layouts that I did myself.

  • Alanna

    I think it’s all related to what you WANT … is it to see your own recipes in a printed collection? to make it Pioneer Woman big? The margins are easy, it’s the middle where lies the the quandary. But if it were me (WHEN it is me …) I start by asking myself WHY I want to write a cookbook …

  • debbie koenig

    I vote agent, for all the reasons you outlined (and I can’t imagine you’d have a hard time finding one!). I worked in book publishing for years so I suppose I’m biased, but when the time came to attempt my own cookbook I never thought to do it any other way. There’s so.much.crap involved in putting together a book, esp an illustrated one. I’m curious to see if you hear from others who’ve self-published & had a good experience!

  • Jennie

    Justin – You’re are very right about the self-publishing success stories, which leads me to Alanna’s comment…
    Alanna — This is exactly what I was discussing with my girlfriend who is also working on a book proposal. Success is a question only the individual can answer as it means something different to everyone, and is directly tied into WHY anyone wants to write a book. For me personally, I want to provide a real solution to the cooking dilemma so many people face. We’ve lost a generation of cooks because advertisers and manufacturers led them to believe it was too difficult or not worth the time.
    Drew — Self-publishing seems very sexy right now. Everyone is writing about how easy it is, but that really depends on what one’s personal goals and idea of success is for the book. As Justin notes, getting the book beyond Amazon and selling it on your blog is an issue to think about. And while you can get ISBN #s, etc. it is a lot of legwork. You know that old adage “time is money”? I really see my time in that perspective. It is so fleeting and precious these days. Not to mention I really do respect leaving things to the “professionals”. I can write the book and develop recipes with my eyes closed. It is in my blood, ingrained in my soul. All the other stuff, I think there’s real value in leaving it to the pros.
    Debbie —From your mouth to an agent’s ears! The market has changed so much in the last five years, and while many agents and publishers weigh blog stats heavily, I do hold out hope there are many still who value experience. Fiction is one thing—that’s very interpretive for each reader. Cookbooks come with a level of expectation. People who plunk down money expect them to be well-written and accessible, and rightfully so. Having you in my corner is a big boost to keep on going too!

  • Gina

    Well, I don’t have any advice but will support you either way! Can’t wait to see what spectacular creations you have to share!

  • MrsWheelbarrow

    I have no advice whatsoever. But I do know I would buy any book you wrote – anywhere – bookstore, your blog, street corners… You’re brilliant in the kitchen and we all need your book on our shelves, Jennie!

  • Silvana @ Dish Towel Diaries

    Hey Jennie, I agree with Justin that distribution is key. True for any product. Unfortunately, quality and originality maybe come a close second. Twisted, I agree. Yesterday, I had brunch with a longtime PR friend of mine and we started talking about e-cookbooks. The same conversation happened a few weeks ago with a close vp of book publishing sales/marketing friend of mine. Even though I have my three-book deal, there are spin-offs (similar to special interest publications in the magazine world) I’d like to do quickly and with little fuss. E-cookbooks could be my answer. Might be an idea for you, too! Also, my initial offer of introducing you to my agent still stands. Let me know!

  • kamran siddiqi

    I read this when you first published the post, but now that I have time to actually think, I am finally commenting…
    1) I hope that you’re feeling better; I’ve had a cough for three weeks now, and it’s been a real pain in the butt to deal with.
    2) Bookdeal- A few months ago, I had dreams for an entire month straight about writing a cookbook; it was nothing that I really thought of doing until then. A few months (yes, three months!) after I started blogging, I was offered a book deal. My mom and dad thought it was a joke; I really wanted to do it, but we never signed the papers because I was asked to write a book to teach parents how to feed their children; and there was the book deal- down the drain… Sigh.
    Now that I’ve had time to think over the past few months, and I’ve practically seen how much I’ve changed, how much my blog has changed, and how different my writing style is from when I as a Junior in High School. I’m sort of thankful that I am not writing anything yet. If I am going to write something, I want it to be perfect. I want people to pick it up and say, “Woah, and this guy is how old?” I want people to place it near their prized collection of Julia Child and Thomas Keller cookbooks; I want people to use it everyday. I want them to spill pasta sauce on it by mistake while they are in the middle of making my homemade pasta sauce. I want the spine to be so worn out that the pages will have to be taped together.
    I can only dream that when the right time comes, I will have matured enough to be able to write a cookbook that everyone will prize and pass down to their children and their children’s children.
    As for you my friend- since the first days I began reading your blog, and since I’ve tried your recipes, I’ve only wished that you’d write a cookbook. Your recipes are always spot-on, you constantly inspire me and I know that if you wrote a cookbook, whether self-published or not, I’d buy 20 copies to give to friends and family.
    I don’t have any advice because your passion is evident and you have many of us cheering. I know that when I get my hands on your cookbook, the pages will be splotched with pasta sauce, wine, and will have several different types of flour dusted across several pages of your book; that book will be one of my prized possessions; and I am not just saying that. I really mean it. You rock!

  • Elissapr

    I think it’s fabulous that you’re way past the contemplative stage of wanting to do this book – and aren’t afraid to say it out loud!
    The book publishing industry is one wily universe. I vote for getting an agent – someone who will be honest about critiquing your book proposal so that it gets ‘in the door’ in the first place. Plus, when you self-publish…how do you go about creating the distribution channels? Sounds like a daunting task for just one person. And it’s true, publishing houses will expect you to supplement your own PR – which means hiring someone to do just that.
    In the meantime, from a PR perspective, I would concentrate on promoting yourself, your recipes, your blog as much as possible, so you’re where potential publishers are looking. Leverage every contact, find other well-traffic’d blogs and either guest post or promote one-another..local newspapers are always looking for gr8 content etc..
    If you like, I can put you in touch with one or two v successful cookbook authors who would may be willing to share their experience…DM me if you want to pursue…
    oh yeah…I’m just as superstitious as you are!!

  • laura

    I think going for an agent is probably the best way to go. Even if you end up with a publisher, you will still have to go and marker the heck out of your book anyway…you might as well at least have the printing/editing/design help.
    Plus, you’re already way ahead of many and I think you’d appeal to both agents and publishers. You have a blog, write consistently and you already have a following. One of the most excruciating tasks is writing a proposal, but that gets you thinking about what you want to “do” with the book. Maybe you could get a proposal together, put together some hard core numbers on your blog stats etc…research some agents or publishers and see what happens.
    I get the feeling just from your blog that you are a pretty engaging person, so it shouldn’t be hard to attract an agent who understands your style and believes in you and your potential to write a great cookbook.
    I’d be in line to get one!

  • LadyGouda

    This post and the smart comments that followed have made a really compelling read. Thank you for putting yourself out there like that- I know that I would be one of the first in line to buy your cookbook (no matter how it is published!)

  • Brianne

    Just to fuel your quest – I would definitely buy your book when it comes out. Yay! 🙂
    To build on Elissa’s sentiments, keep in mind that it can never hurt to ask when it comes to sponsoring your hopefully eventual book tour. I know successful food bloggers who have to fund their own book tours even when they are working with publishers/agents. If you find a company that is like-minded and makes a product you can back, definitely start talks with them early about working together(if you’re interested in being a spokesperson of sorts.)