Self-published Cookbook Author Sells 300,000+ Copies

Mar 062012
 

What is it like to sell more than 300,000 copies of your self-published cookbook? It’s rare. Extremely rare.

But Martha Hopkins did it, starting when she was 25 years old and didn’t know any better. Her 1997 erotic and visually stunning cookbook, InterCourses, is still selling, especially as a wedding gift.

Martha will be speaking on self-publishing and marketing (see her fantastic website) at a March 27 full-day class in New York, Creating and Selling Your Dream Cookbook, along with food stylist and cookbook author Denise Vivaldo, photographer Jamie Tiampo, and myself. I was so impressed with her success that I thought I should share it, as a preview of what she’ll cover in the class:

Q. You were so young. How did you hit upon this subject of aphrodisiacs?

A. Honestly, my business partner and I went through a whole slew of ideas over the phone. We thought about an Oaxacan cookbook because I spent a summer there, and then we thought about aphrodisiacs. Food and sex! Sounds like fun, I thought.

We picked aphrodisiacs that tasted good and would look good in photos, like asparagus and strawberries. We needed a color balance of greens, purples and reds. We wanted food set on the backdrop of a human body.

Since my dad’s a Baptist minister, there would be no nudity. Part of the reason the book was so successful is it walks a very careful line: sensual without being lewd.

Q. How did you find the models?

A. Randall and I found the majority of our models off the streets of Memphis, where we lived. Since we couldn’t afford to go through a modeling agency, I hit the streets with a Polaroid camera and an idea of what type of body we needed for each shot.

Uh, not your typical cookbook photo. (Photo by Ben Fink)

For the new images in our 10th anniversary edition’97ginger, seafood, and salmon’97we posted on Craig’s List for models interested in being a part of our new edition. Every model showed up on time, with a professional attitude and a willingness to try any of our crazy ideas. This time, we paid the two we used.

Q. What was your budget, originally?

A. We had one, but we kept going over it. We didn’t have any money, so poverty is the mother of creativity. We paid the models with books. We did all the design, writing and editing, except for the feedback people gave us from recipe testing that was incorporated in the book.

We printed 10,000 copies in Hong Kong and flew to the East Coast to present to our distributor’s sales representatives. For our meeting, we made chocolate cakes and blads (print promotional pieces) for the reps.

Q. Why was this book so successful?

A. I guess it was successful because everything I owned and my future was wrapped up in this book, so it motivated me.

My dad said to make a business plan. Randall and I went to seven banks. Everyone turned us down. We went to more banks and finally, my dad agreed to co-sign. We would have to pay him $500 per month if we failed, plus interest. But we never had to borrow a penny. That is a miracle of good timing.

Q. What is your best advice for cookbook authors about how to promote their books?

A. Before you write a word of the book, prepare a proposal and learn how to market the book. For example, so many editors wanted to write stories based on our appendices (Aphrodisiac Usage Guide, Aphrodisiacs by the Hour, Stages of the Relationship), and they were in our proposal. Editors love tidbits and sound bites. I somehow understood that and promoted them as separate story ideas.

Q. Why did you do a new edition?

InterCourses co-author Martha Hopkins

A. I had become a better recipe writer and wanted to change the the recipes. I wanted an excuse for the media to cover it again. I made it newsworthy by retesting the recipes, finding the original couples, and adding 50 percent new content.

Q. Is Valentine’s Day your biggest day for promotion? What did you do this year?

A. Yes, because it’s the one time of the year people are not going to flinch at the word “aphrodisiac.” But we sell more books at Christmas and as wedding gifts. This year, on Valentine’s Day, I taught couples’ cooking classes in Savannah at 700 Kitchen.

Q. What is the number one thing you’ve learned about self-publishing?

A. Randall and I got to do it our way, however we wanted. Of course, you can fall flat on your face, but so can a traditional publisher.

Q. What’s your advice for people who are envisioning self-publishing, including established authors?

A. Be both extremely pragmatic and comfortable about how much money you can lose. Be extremely visionary, and have no expectations, all at the exact same time. Be limitless in creativity. Be fearless — don’t be afraid to call anyone or ask for something. Most of all, do it because it’s exciting and fun.

* * *

I hope to see you at our New York Dream Cookbook class. Please help us spread the word if you know people who would like to write their first cookbook. I’ll also be attending the International Association of Culinary Professionals annual conference later in the week. For more on what food stylist Denise Vivaldo will cover in the class, see this post.

 

  31 Responses to “Self-published Cookbook Author Sells 300,000+ Copies”

  1. This is a fabulous post and will be inspirational to many who have dreams of publishing but for whatever reason, aren’t going with traditional publishing. Times..they are ‘a changing, right? :)

    I love the shot of the model and how you found them. Grass roots model scouting at it’s finest!

    • Times are definitely a-changing now, Averie, with print on demand. Yet POD is still not a good way to go if you want a hard-bound, full-color book. It’s too expensive. It is a great method for all text paperbacks.

  2. Interesting how the author came up with this creative concept … like, 15 years ago!?
    I really like all her advice in the last question – it applies to everything else in life too :)

    p.s.: the link to the book on Amazon is broken…

    • Yes, it’s nice to know people can still come up with new ideas. The book looks more like an art book than a cookbook because it’s so beautifully designed and photographed.

      Thanks for the note about the link. I have a cold and went to bed last night without checking everything!

  3. She certainly was the early bird that caught the worm on this one Dianne. A very motivating read and now a new book for my shelf!

  4. I have the original book sitting on my bookshelf and bought it as much for the photography as the recipes and aphrodisiac content. I had no idea she had self-published it then.
    I occasionally still see the book on Australian bookstore shelves. No doubt I’ll be seeing a lot more of them around soon.
    A great good news story!

    • I had the original book as well. My former college roommate gave it to me as a gift. She loved to cook for men and then retire to her bedroom with them, so InterCourses was made for her. I was blown away by how erotic the photos were — still am! It’s such a pleasure to look through the new edition, which Martha gave me last year. I had no idea it was self-published either!

    • How cool’97I didn’t know the book was still in print down in Australia! I do remember what a kick it was when we hit No. 8 on the bestseller list down there. We were listed right below the Dilbert Principle. Fun times!

  5. Love that cookbook title! Thanks for this post – a reminder that sometimes hard work and risk-taking can yield rich rewards – and in the end it is still about the passion.

  6. Great story and I know the book. The cover really draws you in. Makes me rethink the book I have in mind and how I can make it more intriguing.

    • That makes me happy, Vicki, to read that the book has inspired you. Intrigue is always an advantage in covers, titles and in writing –anything that makes the reader curious to know more.

    • Vicki,
      When you’re doing a cover design, do a mock-up in the exact size and mount it on foam core. Go set it on a display in the bookstore, and then walk around the corner and walk back. Does your eye notice it? Look at it from a distance, but also look at it more up-close, as if you were standing at that co-op table and scanning over your book options for a regular shopping trip. Do mock-ups with the spine. Can you read it? Do you notice it in the sea of other spines. I remember one of the first books that came out with a striped spine’97Martha Stewart I believe. I so loved the spine I bought it right then. (Okay, that’s weird.)

      If you’re doing an ebook, do a tiny version. Put it in an on-screen line-up of other ebook covers you like. Do the same exercise as before. What works on a printed piece is not necessarily (and by not necessarily, I mean probably not) going to work in a tiny ebook formula. It’s like facebook: your best pic of yourself may look unintelligible when you make it your FB profile pic, right? The same goes here. An ebook cover needs to work as both a full-size shot and a thumbnail.

  7. fabulous post! Great story as always!

  8. I’d love to know that avenues that she sold her book. It sounds like most weren’t actually online, but perhaps via gift shops and such? It seems like a book that is visually stunning like this and hits as a gift would get more face time in stores, but I’m curious how well books like this do sell in physical stores. Bookstores are usually flops, but I often see books like this one in specialty stores and often wonder if those are a better avenue. Thanks Dianne, fun book to learn about!

    • Hi all,

      First off, thanks DJ for inviting me to do this Q&A with you. What an honor!

      @Alisa, very good questions. InterCourses is most definitely a gift book. While it has sold very well in bookstores and on amazon, it’s been a favorite of gift stores, catalogs, and chains like Urban Outfitters. Good distribution is so very key to any book’s success, and you need to have the book in all the appropriate pipelines before any media hits. I’m leading a panel at IACP on this very topic with Ari Weinzweig from Zingerman’s, Molly Stevens, and Mary Rowles from IPG (a distributor for independent presses), and I’ll also be covering some key distribution info in my class with Dianne’97it’s one of my favorite things to talk about, as everyone tends to think about it too late in the publishing process.

      Martha

  9. Hah! I have owned this book for years. My husband knew I liked to cook, and I liked chocolate, and he bought it for me for Valentines day one year.

  10. Great interview, as always Dianne! Reading Martha’s insights, both in the interview and in reply to some of the comments, is really helpful and informative. Self-publishing really seems to have blown up recently and it’s incredible that Martha was so successful so early on. I love what she said about making your book visually striking. It’s so true, and especially important for cookbooks.

    • Thanks Katherine. It’s certainly part of what has made her book so successful. I never get tired of looking through the photos.

  11. Much appreciation for this post. This is a very engrossing blog. Kudos once more – I will drop by again.

  12. Dianne,

    Once more valuable tools for learning. Thank you.

    Martha,

    Thanks for sharing. I used Create Space for my book of food stories and recipes but did not use a business approach as you did. I’m going to post all your advice on my wall to keep me focused on what I need to do for the next book. Thanks again.

    Rose aka Foodhst

  13. I manufacture books for self publishers every day, and I can tell you that 300,000 copies is a stupendous achievement. It reflects some very savvy marketing, lots of hard work and a great product. I am constantly telling self-publishers to print a shorter run on the first go, and get as much of the marketing act together as possible prior. There’s no doubt a top book with a great self-promotion strategy can go a long way, and I’m seeing some absolutely super advice here for self-publishers, along with a truly inspirational success story.

    • Thanks for saying so Alfred. I’m sure Martha will enjoy your comment. She has worked long and hard promoting her book.

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