A guest post by Melissa Joulwan
Five years ago, my husband Dave and I decided to self publish our first cookbook, Well Fed. We had only the vaguest idea of what we were getting ourselves into. I’d written a previous book for a major publisher and didn’t enjoy the experience, so we knew what we didn’t want. But we were naïve about all the steps it would take to move our book from “great idea” to retail bookshelves and bestseller status.
Since then, we’ve released Well Fed 2, and sold almost 300,000 copies of both books. We’re about to launch our third book, Well Fed Weeknights. I’ve learned it’s wildly rewarding to devote myself to my own projects, choose the partners I like and respect, and look at my books and think, “We did that.” Even on the toughest days, I’m grateful to have chosen this path.
Here are 5 things I’ve learned in 5 years of publishing:
1. Your second job is marketing.
When I wrote Well Fed, the online paleo movement was in its infancy. I had online acquaintances with dozens of other paleo bloggers. I drafted personal emails to all of them, asking if they’d review my book and help spread the word.
My approach now is generally the same. I have a PR agency to go after print magazines and TV, but that’s supplemental. The real marketing happens in smaller interactions: in emails to podcasters, in messages to other bloggers, in my conversations on social media. Interactions with my audience, potential audience, and cookbook peers are the ones that encourage positive word-of-mouth and result in sales of our books.
2. Be open about new social media, but know what works for you.
To validate if a new social media app is right for me, I spend about 30 minutes exploring what it’s all about. When I understand how it works (Snapchat took a while!), I wait a few weeks, then survey my audience to see whether they’ve adopted it.
Yes, a new social media app can help you reach a new audience (rather than merely asking your current audience to follow you there). But for me, going deeper with my followers feels better than spreading myself thin over more social media options.
3. Build a trusted team.
A traditional publisher provides authors with copyediting, proofreading, design, photography, distribution, publicity, and a team to handle the financial aspects of the book. You don’t need to hire an individual to do each of those jobs for you, but it is essential to determine how those jobs will get done. Sometimes the best person to do them is not you.
I’ve slowly built a team of independent contractors I rely on to help us bring projects to fruition. A site like Reedsy.com is an excellent place to find freelancers for editorial, graphic design, and publicity. Do research on potential partners before crunch time. You want to vet the people you work with before you have a deadline nipping at your heels.
4. Make a plan—then revisit and re-evaluate it.
When the success of our first cookbook allowed me to quit my full-time job, Dave and I made a five-year plan. It outlined future projects with very rough timelines for when we might get them done. It’s served as our guide as we navigated our new business and personal lives.
I take great comfort in routine. But as a self publisher and small business owner, I don’t have the luxury of assuming that the way I’m currently doing things is the only way.
Periodically, Dave and I take stock of how our business is doing, financially and emotionally. We review the projects we’ve finished and look ahead to what’s next. We always ask the same questions: Is this work we’re excited to do? Will it recoup the financial investment it takes to produce it? We also assess the people and companies we work with to ensure we still feel good about including them in our family business. Then we update our long-term plan and set the date for our next check-in.
5. Document your process.
If things go well, you will write more than one book, so document how you did it. Over the years, I’ve developed a flow for how I evolve from my initial idea for a book through delivering the manuscript to the printer—and the marketing process that follows. Now I have a framework to create the plan for my next project.
It’s worthwhile to document how you do your work so you can refine and improve your process. For example, on our first cookbook, we overestimated how many photographs we could style and shoot in one day. On the new book, we learned that establishing a color palette for our food props gave our photos more cohesion. We updated our production framework with this new information so our next project will benefit from our experience. Evaluate your process between projects and test a new approach on something smaller, like a blog post or magazine article, before applying it to a book-length endeavor.
From the very beginning, when our first book was just an idea we talked about over Saturday brunch, our guiding principle was to create a product we enjoyed making, and that made us proud of our work. That’s still how we make decisions, and I encourage you to try to create without attachment to outcome. Enjoy the work!
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Melissa Joulwan is the author of the best-selling Well Fed cookbook series and the blog Well Fed, where she writes about her triumphs and failures in the gym, in the kitchen, and in life. Her newest cookbook is Well Fed Weeknights: Complete Paleo Meals in 45 Minutes Or Less (November 1, 2016). You can find her on Instagram and Twitter as @meljoulwan—but not on Snapchat.