Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.
How Do You Self-Publish a Cookbook?
A cookbook can be self-published using the popular self-publishing platforms such as Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (which encompasses the former Createspace) and Lulu for printed editions and Amazon KDP and Smashwords for eBooks.
But, like craft books, self-publishing cookbooks can be quite a project. Here are just some of the special things you need to consider.
How to Write a Recipe
If you have never attempted writing a recipe, take a video of you making the dish. Then view the video and write down each action as you see it happening on the screen. This will help you identify steps that are second nature for you, but may not be for your readers.
If you have video editing software, see if it has the capability to capture frames from your video as JPEG photo files. If it does, this video could serve double duty by providing you with step-by-step photos for your cookbook! If you are doing a print book, just make sure that these screen captures are high resolution (usually 300dpi). Even if your video editor doesn't have screen capture capability, watching the video can help you identify steps that would be best explained by adding some still photos.
Beta readers familiar with your culinary specialty or skill level can be a huge help here! Hire beta readers or reach out to family and friends who cook to see if they can understand your instructions. Especially choose recipe testers who are at the skill level you wish to reach with your cookbook.
Issues with Photos in Self-Published Cookbooks
Photos or illustrations of both step-by-step instructions and the completed recipe can be integral to readers' satisfaction with your cookbook. (And those of us who wish we could cook just like drooling over the photos.) As with craft books, the necessity for step-by-step photos will greatly depend on the skill level of the reader. Beginners generally need more step-by-step than advanced cooks.
There are photographers who specialize in food photography. But that, as you can expect, can be very expensive. If you decide to take food photos yourself when self-publishing, take photos with the best lighting possible so that your readers can easily see what you're doing and be inspired by what it could look like when done.
But use your own photos! Cheating by using stock photos for completed dishes in your cookbook is a big no-no.
Color or Black-and-White Photos?
Today, printing photos, even full color, is much more affordable for even self-published books. However, realize that color printing of interior book pages is STILL an expensive option, sometimes up to three times or more of the price of black-and-white interiors. This increases the price you have to charge to break even and make a profit for your book.
Though color printing can be a huge cost factor, weigh that cost against whether that could be a deciding factor for readers purchasing your book. Most cookbooks that I've seen of late from the bigger traditional publishers are filled with dazzling color photos. So to keep costs in check, you'll have to carefully analyze whether your particular reader will be swayed by the color factor on the printed interior pages. Note that you cannot mix full color and black-and-white photos when using self-publishing platforms in the hopes of saving money. You're either all full color OR all black and white for the pages.
Luckily, for those chefs who choose to inexpensively publish a trade paperback on Amazon KDP, a full-color cover photo is included, even if you self-publish for free. If you purchase print copies, the cost of the full-color cover is included in the per-copy price for black-and-white printed interior pages. So even if you are trying to keep the cost of your printed book low for both you and your readers, you'll still have the benefit of a full-color cover that could feature a beautiful color photo of one of your dishes.
When weighing the cost of including photos, remember that recipes have been recorded and shared, with no photos whatsoever, for thousands of years, some were even unearthed in ancient Mesopotamia (New York Times). So let your audience's need for photo instruction determine what's right for you.
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Lay Flat Hardcover and Spiral Binding for Cookbooks . . . and Alternatives
When you're whipping up a new recipe in your kitchen, you usually want the cookbook open to the page for the recipe, correct? This is why many cookbooks have sturdy hardcover (also known as case) bindings, or may even have spiral bindings. They can lay flat open to the page with the recipe. If you want to offer that same lay flat convenience to your readers, it could dramatically increase the cost of self-publishing a cookbook.
Hardcover (Case) Bound Cookbooks
As of this writing, Amazon KDP (which is now merged in with the former Createspace—probably the most popular and inexpensive self-publishing platform available—only offers perfect-bound paperback print books. While it is a quality printing, these books do not lay flat easily. So that means if you want your book to lay flat, you'd have to seek out a self-publishing source that can offer hardcover. At present, Lulu.com is a popular platform for hardcover editions.
Lulu currently offers print on demand (POD) and direct sales of hardcover editions to customers through the Lulu Marketplace. However, if you want your cookbook to be available TO retail bookstores (which doesn't necessarily mean you'll be available IN them), including Amazon, you'll have to use one of Lulu's globalREACH distribution programs and meet their requirements. See the Lulu documentation for details.
Spiral Bound Cookbooks
Spiral bound or comb bound cookbooks are very popular for small fundraising projects, such as for churches and schools. They are usually inexpensive to print at quick print shops. Plus, they have lay flat convenience.
But when you enter the book retail space, spiral binding is less common for a variety of reasons.
Since printing and distribution of spiral bound books is not available through many (if not all!) of the popular self-publishing platforms and programs, you'll have to find a printer on your own. Sure, you could still use the quick print shops. But that will usually not create a product eligible for retail distribution because they are much more fragile and can require special handling. They don't "shelve" well, meaning that they don't have the title on the binding and have difficulty standing up (literally!) on a shelf. Some big traditional publishers have gotten around the shelf problem with hardcovers that have a spiral binding encased in it. It's a very expensive option that would be beyond the budget and technical skills of self-published authors.
You may also need to use a fulfillment program or company to handle distribution, e.g., Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA). Fulfillment programs and companies can have several fees and requirements. For example, due to the flexing of the binding and pages of spiral bound books, they may require the book to be shrink-wrapped to protect the book for warehousing and shipping.
Make sure you know your investment for print, warehousing, distribution, fulfillment, shipping, sales tax, and other requirements before you ever consider this challenging and expensive binding option!
When a Perfect Bound Paperback Edition Might be Perfect
Though it's not a perfect user experience in the kitchen, a perfect bound trade paperback cookbook edition—like you'd get from self-publishing on Amazon KDP—might be perfect for your budget. If it does well, then you might want to consider offering a hardcover edition later on. Offering a new binding option (such as hardcover) gives you the opportunity to create excitement around the new edition book launch!
The Unbound Cookbook Alternative
But thanks to technology, there may be another alternative. Publishing on eBook platforms such as Amazon KDP is extremely inexpensive in comparison to all other print options. Plus, these days, readers are also likely to want your cookbook as an eBook so that they can pull up the recipes on their computers or mobile devices, especially tablets. When publishing an eBook cookbook, emphasize this convenience since it can be a win-win for you and your readers.
More Thoughts on eBook Cookbooks
Unlike print books, eBooks can easily contain photos and images without too much difficulty and definitely no extra printing expense. But included photos still need to be of sufficient quality to not appear pixelated on a screen. Also, realize that the more photos you place, and the larger the photos are, additional fees may be assessed for larger eBook electronic file size. See your self-publishing platform's documentation for photo/image requirements and fees.
Another caveat for photos and images would be that they should NOT have text wrapped around them. In Microsoft Word, this is done by selecting "None" for text wrapping. This will place the photo or image as a separate "paragraph," with text before and after it. This is probably even preferred for recipes since each step will likely have a separate photo to help explain what's happening.
Other than position and text wrapping for photos, self-publishing a cookbook is very similar to that of other text-based eBooks.
Legal Issues with Self-Publishing Cookbooks
Because of the variety of skill levels of readers, it would be very difficult to guarantee results from following any recipe. You'll need to consider developing (with an attorney's help) disclaimer statements about results to help your readers avoid disappointment—even danger!—depending on the cooking technique being discussed. Remember, people will be dealing with appliances, heat, fire, and knives!
And what if you make a mistake in writing the recipes? It happens. Luckily, most self-publishing platforms allow you to upload corrected manuscripts. But even with that ability, it's wise to consult an attorney about errors and omissions statements to include.
Is It YOUR Recipe?
It's not uncommon to hear, "This is my grandma's recipe." So does grandma want credit . . . or compensation? And, on another note, where did grandma get the recipe?
Granted, recipes have been handed down from generation to generation, and shared among friends and family, since cavemen learned to cook. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, recipes that are just listings of ingredients are not copyright protected. However, the particular and unique description, explanation, and illustration (including photos) of a recipe are.
So make sure your recipe is indeed YOUR recipe, and consult an attorney any about copyright or permission questions.
Allergy, Health and Nutrition Information
Today, health and nutrition information labeling on foods is required by the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) in the United States. It's also now a requirement for chain restaurants and vending machines. The FDA also has labeling requirements for food allergens. So it's now becoming expected by consumers.
What does this mean for self-published cookbook authors? As of this writing, not all cookbooks and recipes include, or need to include, nutrition info. But I'm seeing more that do, especially for warnings about food allergens. Be aware, though, that accurate nutrition info, such as that provided by the big food companies and restaurants, is likely to have been analyzed scientifically . . . something small self-published authors would not be able to do.
As with other legal issues surrounding cookbooks, consult an attorney to make sure you include appropriate statements about nutrition and food allergens in your work.
Issues With Brand Names
Many cooks have favorite brand name ingredients that they like to use in their recipes. Proceed with caution—and legal advice!—when including these branded products in your recipes so as not to imply approval or endorsement from the brand. Especially be careful to not include the brand name in the cookbook title unless you have specific written permission from the brand.
If, as a cooking influencer or blogger, you have been approached by a brand to include their product in your cookbook, make sure that you disclose your relationship with the brand so that you comply with FTC disclosure requirements.
Issues With Cookbooks for Kids
Self-publishing regular children's books is challenging enough. Cookbooks can be more so due to the fact that reading level may be a key factor in whether the child can understand and implement instructions. You may also need to recommend adult supervision for recipes, especially those where appliances, heat, knives, and other potentially dangerous kitchen implements are used.
Consult an attorney for appropriate statements to include kitchen safety issues, age appropriateness, and needs for adult supervision.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: What are your thoughts on using stock photos in a self-published cookbook? Many of the recipes I have created are unique in ingredients, yet if I were to take a picture of my lemon tart, it would look the same as a stock photo of a lemon tart.
Answer: While I'm sure that there is so much similarity between photos of lemon tarts (or whatever dish), I would NOT use a stock photo for it. Readers want to see something YOU created. It's more genuine and authentic.
Two more thoughts:
1. Imagine if someone called you out on the photos. For example, "I see that your (whatever) looks like this. Mine doesn't. Why?" Then you'd have to say, "Well, it isn't my photo." Now imagine how the reader would feel. They'll feel duped and would question your authority.
2. Stock photos of food are tough to do! That's why some photographers specialize in it. So these stock photos may look too perfect. People want authenticity.
© 2017 Heidi Thorne
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 14, 2020:
Glad to hear about your successes with self published cookbooks!
Lulu is a great source for self publishing hardcover books. And it's so much easier and cheaper today with print on demand! Wow, $30K. That's just crazy.
Good luck with your future cookbook adventures and let us know about your projects! Happy New Year!
Melanie Soles on January 10, 2020:
I loved this article! I self published a highly sought after local cookbook 15 years ago and to this day at least 4-5 people a week ask me for a copy. It's been out of print for many, many years and I personally buy them across the country on thrift or used books site. I want to do another one - as a follow up and before I used a hard book format with an inside spiral. I really want to be connected to amazon for shipping ease as that's the worst worst part of self publishing without distribution access.
I'll look into lulu.com for the hard bound versions but will pay close attention to the distribution. My brother in law (both) self published on Amazon and was so easy. But a cookbook is a different animal.
I don't mind putting some money into the project but in 2003 I had to write a check for over $30,000 to Wimmer Cookbooks. I like the idea of royalty only as on Amazon.
My book in 2004 and if I do one now is centered on Southern cooking - generational passed on - and now today as an accomplished cook myself, my personal recipes. I work full time so I am not interested in blogging every day and hiring photographers, etc. I like the charm of an old fashioned cookbook that you know is tried and true.
Thank you for this article - will keep connected with you all!
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on November 10, 2017:
Hi Ashley! Yep, I can definitely see why you're doing an eye roll. :) It is a major project. But when you're ready, I can't wait to see your book! Thanks so much for stopping by and have a great day!
Ashley on November 09, 2017:
This is one of the reasons I tend to roll my eyes when I am asked when I am writing a cookbook. Not to mention cooking every recipe a half dozen times, shooting photos, etc. It's such a huge project (takes years) with so many factors to consider. I will definitely consult you before I jump into writing a book!
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 11, 2017:
Hi Athlyn! Glad you found the tips helpful. The text wrap around images can be a mess for sure. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! Have a great day!
Athlyn Green from West Kootenays on September 11, 2017:
This article is chock full of good usable info. I like your tip about not wrapping text around images.
As well, you've covered some copyright issues that are important to consider when doing a cookbook.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 29, 2017:
Blond, I think you're right about the black-and-white versus color cookbooks! I even drool at the color photos in cookbooks and get all inspired to try them... and then my poor cooking skills remind me why I should stick to writing. :)
Kudos to you for cooking from scratch! If you do decide to move forward with your own cookbook, I hope you'll share your cookbook writing journey with us.
Thanks, as always, for adding your experience and insight to the conversation! Have a wonderful day!
Mary Wickison from Brazil on August 29, 2017:
You've made some very valid points which I hadn't thought about. For example the legalities of safety. Most of my cookbooks are older and have none of this sort of thing.
Writing a cookbook is something I had thought about briefly as my cooking skills have been tested here in Brazil. I make virtually everything from scratch, no opening a can or buying frozen here.
Other than my Betty Crocker cookbook, the cookbooks I use most frequently are all black and white, no color images except on the front. Maybe b/w ones are for those who cook, and the colored ones for people who think they want to cook.
I rarely measure anything so I would have to knuckle down and start refining and writing down my methods.
You've given me a lot to think about, and I'll be back when I have compiled a collection of recipes suitable for publication.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 22, 2017:
Flourish, would love to try your restaurant taste-alike recipes! That's a talent for sure. Jealous! :) Agreed, there are so many ways to make essentially the same thing, that there's ample opportunity to make a recipe yours. Thanks for sharing your cooking experience with us! Have a beautiful day!
FlourishAnyway from USA on August 22, 2017:
This is a fabulous article of so many things to consider when publishing a cookbook. I didn't know the part about recipe copyrighting; anyone can change instructions to make something "theirs." I write my own recipes when going to restaurants and tasting something good. My dad (a food scientist) and I have been known to question the wait staff about what's in something and although they'll often not say, we'll play guessing games then I'll go home and start the process. When it works, I end up with a recipe that is as good or better than the restaurant version. It's a game to us.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 22, 2017:
Hi, purl3agony! Those spiral cookbooks have been a staple of local fundraising forever, and with good reason as you've pointed out. And because those are usually distributed by hand, at events, etc., the longevity of the binding is less of a concern than in tough retail environments. Thanks so much for sharing your experience in cookbook publishing! Have a wonderful day!
Donna Herron from USA on August 22, 2017:
Hi Heidi - Thanks for sharing another great hub! I particularly enjoyed your discussion of different binding techniques for cookbooks and the pros and cons of each. A million years ago, my elementary school printed a cookbook full of recipes submitted by the students and their families. It was spiral bound and illustrated with drawing by the students. The school created these cookbooks for a few years as fundraisers. These cookbooks got the most use in our house and I still use a couple of them now. The spiral binding makes it easy to lay flat while in use. Definitely a good choice for this cookbook project.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 21, 2017:
Billybuc, the chances of me personally doing this are zero, too! But maybe in another lifetime. :) It was inspired by some of the amazing foodies in my network, especially two talented bloggers who I think should do cookbooks. I thought through how I would advise them if they decided to do a cookbook project. Thus, this post.
Looks like both you and I are not on the eclipse path (it's only going through southern IL here). So we'll enjoy the sunshine! Have a great week!
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 21, 2017:
The chances of me doing this are zero, but I can spot some wisdom when I see it, and this is wisdom.
Have a fantastic Eclipse Day!