Self-publishing Success with a Paleo Cookbook

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Melissa Joulwan started out selling only on Amazon, but sales are so good she’s publishing the books herself and sending them to a distributor.

You may have heard of the latest craze, the Paleo diet. Cookbooks on this subject are selling like crazy since they started appearing in 2010.

Austin, Texas-based Melissa Joulwan started a paleo diet three years ago. Both she and her photographer, husband David Humphreys, worked in ad agencies for 20 years and have a background in marketing, social media, and web development. She quit her job this year, after the success of her cookbook Well Fed: Paleo Recipes For People Who Love to Eat.

Q. How long were you on the diet before deciding to write a cookbook?

A. I started eating paleo three years ago, and I started posting recipes on my website two years ago. It was more of “what I ate last night.” Once I started writing that you could substitute cauliflower for rice and how to use coconut milk, people started responding. At the same time, my blog audience was growing, so I became more formal about recipe writing.

My blog has always been half training and half diet, but it was more about torturing yourself to lose weight, versus sharing recipes. I started the blog in 2008 right around the time I started getting serious about CrossFit. My current page views average between 300,000 to 350, 000 per month.

Q. What is connection with CrossFit and Paleo?

A. Crossfitters tend to be looking for the latest nutrition information. Most were doing the Zone, which limited carbohydrates. Palo started getting more attention about three years ago and people started following it. It’s great for losing weight, reversing illnesses caused by inflammation, and really powerful for stabilizing energy and helping you build muscle.

Q. Why did you decide to write a cookbook?

A. My blog was getting a lot of traffic and attention, and the most popular posts were the recipes. I wanted to get back to working by myself, and my husband and I were looking for ways to monetize the blog. Initially we thought we would do an e-cookbook and charge $5 for it. He was interested in photography and we thought it would just be this little art project we would knock out and sell on the website.

Then he got a good camera and started taking photos. Neither one of us thought his photos were going to be so good. Then we thought we should do a print book and found this designer.

We’ve sold almost 20,000 copies of Well-Fed since December 2012, between the printed book, the Kindle version, and the e-book.

Q. Why did you decide to self publish?

A. My first book was published by Touchstone in 2007. The marketing all felt really off to me. It got put into the sports section, and I felt like the publicist was not invested in promoting the book. I was really bummed by the whole experience.

Dave and I used to work on CD-ROMS and we both have a background in advertising, so we knew we could get pretty far on our own with self-publishing. Also if we were successful, it would be rewarding to have owned every step of the process.

Q. Which service did you use to publish your book?

A. We published through CreateSpace. We didn’t order any books in advance. You submit a PDF, it goes through an approval process to make sure it prints properly, and then they start selling it on Amazon. On a cover price of $29.95, we got a little less than $5 per copy.

Then Amazon got in touch with us in January and said it doesn’t make sense to continue doing print-on-demand. They wanted to do offset printing and give the same royalty. We knew offset printing was way cheaper from our experiences in advertising. So we got bids to print the book ourselves. We settled on Bang printing, which was very reasonably priced. They serve small independent publishers and self-published authors. We printed 6,000 copies at a cost of $15,000, so our cost per book was under $3. Through CreateSpace, our cost would have been $13.

Q. Have you made a profit?

A. We’re six month into the book being out and we’ve already netted 130 percent of what I made at my corporate job last year.

Q. Do you know what you invested overall?

The design, the camera, groceries, props, came to about $6,000. We broke even in the first day and a half. It was right before Christmas, and all of our recipes were compliant with the program Whole30, and people were starting their diets on January 1.

Q. So what’s next?

A. We hired a pr firm called Bread & Butter, and we got a distributor, Greenleaf. Now we have to put money towards printing books for the distributor.

As a result of Well Fed, Wiley approached me to co-author Living Paleo for Dummies. Also, an editor at Plume reached out to me and wanted me to write a paleo book.

Q. Any advice for people who want to take the self-publishing plunge?

A. It’s going to sound very groovy and Marin County. But the Number One thing is to know why you want to do the book and let that guide all of your decisions.

Q. One more question: Why do you offer a free 30-page PDF on your website?

A. We really wanted people to try the recipes and see what the design looks like. We’re both avid readers of Boing Boing and there’s so much on there about giving your work away. I’ve gotten a ton of emails from people who made a recipe out of the sampler and wanted more.

* * *

[Disclosure: This post contains an affiliate link, which means I can earn up to several cents if you make a purchase.]


  1. says

    I LOVE THIS POST and Melissa’s success story!

    I am so happy when someone makes a go of it and it stemmed from their blog and then the book and then 130% of her corp job salary last year and breaking even with their $6k investment the first day the book was out….You go girl!! Melissa, that is just awesome!

    Thanks for all the links, candid thoughts, and be as Marin groovy as you want…it’s working for you!

  2. says

    I think that financially speaking and pr-wise, yes, this book is a success. However, after reading reviews of the book on Amazon it appears that Melissa has run into a couple roadblocks regarding the quality of the book itself.

    1. Her cramped layout and minute text size causes many readers to struggle actually reading and using the book, as she chose to print a small (I believe 8 inch square or so) book.

    2. The binding of the book of such poor quality that it falls apart in under two weeks.

    She seems to be attempting to handle the binding issue, and perhaps she will reconsider sizing the book up for another printing. Good lessons to learn for those considering the route of self publishing.

    • diannejacob says

      Yes, the type is rather small in the method. I’m not seeing any problems with the binding yet. I guess the joy or pain of self-publishing, depending on how you look at it, is working out all these growing pains.

    • says

      Thanks for your comments, Joy. You raise a good point: this is all a learning experience and boy! have we learned some lessons. Self publishing is definitely not for everyone because, I think, you do have to be open to making mistakes and learning from them — just like any other creative endeavor in which you take full control.

      We really like our graphic design and the majority of the feedback on it has been overwhelmingly positive — but yes, we learned our lesson: the type in the next one will be larger.

      As for the binding, that was the result of using CreateSpace for our publishing. The demand for the book was so high, Amazon had to contract out some of the on-demand printing, and their subcontractor didn’t do a very good job on some of their batches. As you can imagine, it was very disappointing for us. but again, a very valuable learning experience. It’s ultimately what prompted us to move to Bang Printing. Now we have a significantly better binding AND we’re making more on each book we sell.

      I have plenty of other hard-won wisdom to share, so if you or anyone has questions, fire away!

    • Daniel says

      For what it’s worth, I’ve never had an issue with the size of print. However, my binding is starting to give out. But honestly, any book I’ve used this much would probably be ailing the same! The content surpasses the medium! You’ve done an awesome job Mel!

  3. says

    “I guess the joy or pain of self-publishing, depending on how you look at it, is working out all these growing pains.”

    Absolutely. What makes self-publishing so tricky is that you have to wear so many hats – much like blogging, I suppose. It would be really lovely to have some trustworthy advice on quality self-publishing printers and publishers, especially those who excel at sturdy, photo-heavy books. At a not obscene price point. :)

    • says

      When I was little and complaining about some uncomfortable experience, my dad would say, “This is how you build character.”

      I feel like I built a lot of character this year, making Well Fed. SO many uncomfortable/learning experiences that are immensely valuable.

  4. says

    A really helpful column and every good wish to Melissa!

    I do know of a press that sounds very attractive. I’ve worked with the editor in another capacity and am going to try it.

    SheWritesPress is a hybrid, launched just last week. It’s pay for services, but it’s going to review and vet what it publishes like a small, independent press and it promises a full range of services so you don’t have to wear so many hats. It feels that it’s prices are competitive, but I haven’t shopped around. What I like is its communal, supportive ethic. Here’s its site:

    Self publishing with a difference.

  5. says

    Great article, Dianne! I just downloaded the PDF — and pride myself on being the first zebra to do so. (I just hope I don’t find myself as an ingredient in any of the Paleo recipes!)

    • diannejacob says

      Hello Zebot. Your comment tells me that you read all the way to the bottom of the article, to get to the gold. I take that as a huge compliment. I didn’t even know zebras could read.

  6. says

    I use Bang Printing too! They’re great – we’ve been working with their company for four years – they used to have another name, but I can’t recall it. I’ve referred quite a few author/publishers to them.

    That said, we’re actually thinking of using CreateSpace for one other book though. Have had really good success and good margins with my book via off-set (mass) printing. However, since my book isn’t full color, the margin between off-set and on-demand is much, much smaller. You really have to look at the pros and cons of both.

    • diannejacob says

      Very good to have another endorsement. It’s nice to have you self-publishing types talking with each other in this post. Best of luck.

  7. says

    Great and inspiring post! I love that it portrays self-publishing, although not without difficulties and roadblocks, as approachable. I can imagine how daunting a task it can be. As I professional photographer, the idea of self-publishing a book is always floating around the back of my mind.

    Also, I love that you gave a shout-out to the great Kathleen Shannon. She is an incredibly talented designer (designed my logo) and I just adore her :)

    • diannejacob says

      Yes, the problem with self-publishing is that you have to become an expert on all kinds of stuff: paper weight, trim size, copy editing, distribution methods, etc. I don’t know if I would have the patience.

      Very good to have another endorsement of Kathleen Shannon.

  8. says

    I wanted to share my two cents about working with Melissa. As the food writer for the daily newspaper in Austin, I can’t think of a time when we’ve given so much press to a (then) as-yet-unpublished, self-published book:

    What made the difference was that I had an online relationship with Melissa through Twitter, and, more importantly, it was obvious that she took herself and her work seriously and that she would not be, pardon the term, half-assing anything. Getting to know her through social media, I was able to see how responsive she was to her own readers and how thorough she approaches cooking and recipe writing.

    I’m sharing this here hopefully as inspiration to other self-published writers that you can get traditional media coverage of your book if you play your cards right and even if you don’t hire anyone to do your PR. Personal connections trump everything. Melissa and I first met over a casual coffee. There was no expectation of coverage; we were just two food writers who’d been interacting on Twitter who wanted to connect offline. We talked about all kinds of stuff besides her Paleo diet, and in the end, we were brainstorming about all kinds of ways to support one another’s work.

    • diannejacob says

      Great story, Addie. And a wonderful message to other self-published writers that publicity is possible if you know how to approach media. Melissa worked her magic on me as well. She sent me her book with a hand-written note. I was curious about her success, and we started an email dialog that led to the interview. It seemed totally organic to me. She is a master!

      • says

        Thank you, Addie! And I have to say that both you and Dianne make it really easy to get excited about what we’re all doing.

        As much as I malign Twitter and Facebook on the social side of my life, those tools have been very helpful on the professional side, particularly in the paleo community. Because paleo isn’t super mainstream yet, social media has been a great resource for sharing information and starting relationships — but I think it’s important to note that with both of you, our conversations moved around a lot: Twitter, email, phone, “real life.” They started in the ether but transitioned to real conversation.

        I think one of the things that previously made me hesitant about social media was the lack of, for want of a better word, genuineness in communication. But I’m delighted to find that if I behave like my *real* self on Twitter and FB — instead of blindly following a lot of the “marketing advice” out there — those online tools can be the gateway to the real relationships that I want to build with people I meet online.

        • Martha Hopkins says

          I love this post, and I love all these comments. First off, I love that Melissa just did it (meaning, publishing) instead of waiting around for the “right” way to do it. I’m so thrilled for your success, and not just b/c I’m a fellow Austinite and self-publisher. (See DJ’s post from a while back: — thanks again for the coverage, Dianne!)

          Second, I want to send a shout-out on behalf of Addie, who is really a large part of the glue that connects all the foodies in Austin. She’s accessible, she’s interested, and she gets the word out for products and services that the community would care about.

          Thanks, Addie, for always cranking things out on our behalf. And Melissa, I’d love to meet you sometime. Do you know Keith at Efficient Exercise? He’s way into Paleo. We should all get together and trade names of our favorite suppliers. (Dewberry Farms chicken, #1 yum. Dai Due Wild Boar Bangers, even better, but you might not like the oats in them.)

          I’ll bring the raw milk. : )

          Okay, off to read the rest of the comments! Y’all have a good day.

          • says

            Hi, Martha! I remember reading your interview with Dianne, and it definitely gave me a boost of confidence that we were on the right track. Congratulations to you for your huge success! I guess I didn’t realize we’re Austin “neighbors” — that’s great! I’d love to meet you. And I agree: Addie is fantastic. She’s so kind and accessible, it’s easy to forget that she’s a powerhouse of writing skills, giant brain power, and the ability to bring people together.

            I *do* know Keith and Michelle — I was a presenter at PaleoFX when they put it on in March — and yes, we should have a paleo/writing feast. Bring some raw cream to whip, and you’re on!

  9. says

    Thanks, Dianne, for this revealing interview. A friend of mine just self-published with CreateSpace, so I became more curious about self-publishing. I knew about Melissa’s book, so I backtracked to her blog and saw that she told her self-publishing story there, in part. I was then (and am now) impressed by her willingness to lay bare about not only her success but the bumps in the road. And kudos to you, Melissa, for handling even the criticism above with such grace.

    I will admit that the very notion of having total creative control of a future cookbook is entirely intoxicating to me, but I’m afraid I’m too wimpy to self-publish. I think if my husband were fully in it with me (he’s super supportive of my current book and the one I have coming out this Fall, but he has a full-time job because someone has to between us!), I might be more willing to give it a go. Especially since my husband is in advertising, even though books are so, so different than any other form of marketing and advertising (something we have learned over the last couple years). But I shudder at the thought of losing my agent, among other things!

    You really bet on yourself, Melissa. I have been doing that lately in my own small way. I really admire your willingness to go all the way. Cheers to strong women, especially those with humility.


    • says

      Thank you for your kind words, Nicole! And I don’t think there’s anything wimpy about deciding self publishing isn’t right for you. There were very specific reasons it was the best choice for us — but having looked at your site and cookbook, I would never use the word “wimpy” to describe you :-)

      I hear you on the full-time job thing… when we started our cookbook adventure, I was working a 40+-hour a week job, and my husband Dave was working half-time from home. His flexibility helped a lot because he could edit photos and hold down household chores while I was at work. Then in my “off time” (HA!), I worked on recipes, writing, and prepping for our weekend photo shoots. It was definitely a giant juggling act, and we are really looking forward to working on the next cookbook as our primary job. Whew!

      Cheers to you! Thank you so much for joining the discussion — and I’m looking forward to following your blog. So much crossover between gluten free and paleo.

  10. says

    This is a great post – full of helpful, real world information. I’ve enjoyed following Melissa’s blog for some time and am so happy for her success.

  11. says

    Wow. I totally squealed when I read this honest and transparent post. This interview exemplifies what I love most about the two of you — how you both share tons of useful and warts-and-all information that benefits others.

    Dianne – you literally wrote the textbook that I use for food blogging. My writing mentor Tori Ritchie introduced me to your blog and books, and I’ve been an avid follower ever since. I love how you pull back the curtains on food writing, providing us with invaluable information from successful culinary authors. I’m sorry you didn’t get to attend BlogHer Food this year, as I was really hoping to meet you!

    Melissa Joulwan is my buddy, but even before we became friends, I was one of her biggest fangirls. She’s got a fervently loyal fan base because of her graceful, intimate, and humorous writing style and willingness to be brutally honest. I’m normally a very risk-averse person, but Melissa’s successful foray into self-publishing totally inspired me to try my hand at self-publishing (albeit in the form of an iPad cookbook app rather than a print one).

    Thank you so much for your candor and insights!

    • says

      Warts and all, indeed! Dianne was kind enough not to share ALL of the stumbling blocks I told her about on the phone :-) But overwhelmingly, this has been a positive experience, and I’m excited to do it again because this time we’ll know what to look out for — and we can conquer the NEW mistakes we’ll make :-)

      I’m so proud of you, Michelle, for your gorgeous app and your Saveur award. The kudos are well deserved, and I’m delighted to find myself in the middle of this amazing blogging/food writing community.

    • diannejacob says

      Hey Michelle, great to hear from you. Tori Ritchie is a super-successful food writer and I’m lucky that she recommends my book when she teaches. Sorry I didn’t get to meet you in Seattle, but I bet we’ll have another opportunity. Congrats to you on your app and Saveur award.

  12. says

    Dianne, here is another example of self-publishing savvy..

    Cookbook Author Interview: Jill Nussinow: The Veggie Queen’99

    Something Jill did, that is not mentioned on the article, is offer known bloggers (myself included) a private affiliate program for selling the book. So many of us wrote reviews and they got a bigger commission selling the book than they would through a puny link. So, in her case, self publishing really gave her an edge and lots of leverage. It also helps that it was a great book and related to my subject matter (pressure cooker recipes)!

    In the interview, she talks about the long cycle the publisher needs to go through to vet and print the book. Like her, I’m having issues waiting ’til fall of 2014 for my cookbook to publish even though the manuscript is due December 2012. The gap of almost 2 years between final manuscript submission and publication is daunting.

    Although my contract precludes me from working with other publishers while the book is being produced it does not specifically stop me from self-publishing.

    I’m tempted.



    • diannejacob says

      Great interview, Laura. Thanks for passing this along. I know Jill but did not know about this strategy.

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks. Melissa is a talented and super hard worker, so it’s not difficult to see why she’s successful.


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