Can You Successfully Self-Publish a Cookbook?

Reading restaurateur Nick Kokonas’s exposé on the DIY creation of the Alinea cookbook reminded me how frustratingly opaque the world of cookbook publishing is to people outside the biz.. It was also a great reminder of how many people hanker to put out their own volume. (Seriously. Mention publishing in a cocktail setting and I guarantee cookbook and children’s book ideas will pour forth . . .) 

Indie cookbooks have expanded far beyond spiral-bound Junior League collections. Spurred on by the success of culinary blogs the likes of Orangette and the Smitten Kitchen, witty home cooks with a good camera aspire to vault from Instagram love right to publishing success. Self-pub cookbooks are a natural too for the folks who can’t or won’t—can’t eat gluten, eggs, or dairy or won’t eat meat, for example—and their affinity groups online. 

Some home cooks fancy memorializing their hot sauce recipes for friends and family. Others want to preserve grandma’s recipes languishing in a spidery scrawl on yellowing recipe cards. Restaurants and bakeries see an opportunity to promote their brand and satisfy customers’ longing for re-creating that blissful bite. If you’re any one of these aspiring cookbook self-publishers, there are unique editorial, design, and production fundamentals that you’ll have to consider. 

Yes, cookbooks are sexy, inviting. But at their most elemental they are technical books that require forethought and deliberation. We’ll give you the down-low on design elements in the next post. For editorial concerns, here’s where you start: 


Establish Your Ideal Reader

Just as there are those who prefer Fifty Shades of Grey to Finnegans Wake, there are beginning and advanced cooks. Alinea or Modernist Cuisine land squarely in James Joyce territory and appeal to a very sophisticated user. Unless you are targeting these sophisticates, avoid or explain any technical jargon (What is a bain-marie? How does one blanch?) Use basic ingredients or explain any specialty items (can you order harissa, a North African pepper paste, online?), and provide more detail in recipe steps or through photography. 

Craft Proper Headnotes

Many cookbooks have very little text outside the recipes. That’s why headnotes, those little paragraphs that introduce each recipe, are so critical. The headnotes compose the conversation the writer/chef is having with the reader. Are they funny? Serious? Do they incorporate elements of memoir, telling stories from the writer’s childhood or family? Do they explain the dish or the ingredients or offer serving suggestions? Keeping your Ideal Reader in mind, make sure your tone is even and appropriate to the feeling you want to convey, write headnotes of approximately the same length, and check for oft-repeated phrases or words. Readers rarely approach cookbooks one recipe at a time. If you use the word “yummy” or “delish” in every headnote, someone’s going to want to hit you over the head with a frying pan. (In fact, unless you’re Rachael Ray, maybe just leave those words out.) 

Borrow, Don’t Steal

Technically speaking, recipes cannot be copyrighted. By recipe, I mean a list of ingredients and amounts. What can be copyrighted is everything around that: the headnote, the procedural steps, any detail or tip. If you want to include a recipe from your favorite cookbook, give them attribution in the headnote (e.g., adapted from Amanda Hesser’s cardamom French toast in Food52) and write your own steps. 

Sweat the Details

Cooking is about precision. Sure, once you’re good enough you can riff on recipes and make them your own. But no one wants to read or cook from a book where the recipe isn’t guaranteed to work.  

  • Test your recipes, preferably in different kinds of ovens or on different stoves (friends are nice for this). 

  • Be consistent and clear with your amounts and write them out properly. “One-half cup of chopped almonds” is not the same as “one-half cup almonds, chopped.” And what kind of almonds are they? Roasted? Raw? Blanched? Skins on, off, does it matter? 

  • List your ingredients in the order in which they appear in the recipe, and don’t skip any steps in the procedure. It’s just like Chekhov’s gun; if it’s in the ingredient list, then it must be used in the recipe. 

  • Do as the pros do and give doneness cues. Don’t just tell me to cook something for 8–10 minutes, but for 8–10 minutes or until lightly browned. 

Rock That Title

Sometimes the best title is simply the most descriptive. With the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook you’re pretty sure what you’re getting. If you want to be clever, choose a subtitle that clearly explains the contents. 

To Index or Not to Index

I’m going to assume you already realize how important developmental editing, copyediting, and proofreading are to any technical book—and a cookbook’s no different. Find professionals and don’t skimp. What you might not have considered is hiring an indexer to help your cooks look up recipes or ingredients more easily. Indexing is the last step in the editorial process, occurring post-proofread on the designed pages.