What is it like to sell more than 300,000 copies of your self-published cookbook? It’s rare. Extremely rare.
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.
For the new images in our 10th anniversary edition—ginger, seafood, and salmon—we 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?
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.
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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.