Making money off the books

Book sales are drooping overall, but cookbooks are gaining. The San Francisco Chronicle reported an 8 percent increase in cookbook sales in 2011, and the trend has continued. Consumers can’t seem to get enough recipes and secrets from chefs and restaurateurs.

While the revenue from the sales of a book likely won’t be enough to finance an early retirement, done right, it can be an effective marketing tool and another channel for reaching both loyal and prospective guests. “We got a lot of press about [“Hot Doug’s: The Book”], and that never hurts,” says Doug Sohn, owner of Hot Doug’s in Chicago. “It’s vitally important to keep your business in the public eye, no matter how successful one may think it is.”

Developing a cookbook is a big time committment, whether you work with a publisher or do it yourself. Chef-authors Kate Jacoby and Richard Landau of Vedge Restaurant in Philadelphia have done both. They found that a publisher guided them through the creative process and steered marketing and distribution.Self-publishing allows the author to have full creative control.

If you decide to invest the effort to broaden your brand this way, here are some tips. 

Blog first. “A blog is a great way to develop a readership and receive personal feedback,” says Cara Bedick, editor at The Experiment, a New York City publishing firm. For Molly Wizenberg, the blog came before the restaurant. She started her Orangette blog in 2004. Five years later she and her husband opened Delancey in Seattle, followed by Essex in 2012. She’s written two books—”A Homemade Life” and “Delancey,” which comes out this May—and says, “I got to write books and magazine articles because of my blog.”

Watch your brand image. An employee at The Experiment delivered such a good review after dining at Vedge that editors began looking into the concept. Bedick was impressed not only by its menu, but by its Yelp! reviews, leading her to reach out to Jacoby and Landau about a potential book deal. A strong social-media fan base also can help down the line. Sohn solicited contributions to his book from Hot Doug’s cult-like followers on Facebook and Twitter and got “a tremendous response: stories, poems, recollections, pictures, etc.”

Road test the proposal. “Mise en place is just as important when it comes to cookbook writing as it is in the kitchen. Do your prep work,” says Bedick. She recommends putting together an outline of the components, from recipes to chapter themes. “Run a draft by friends and even loyal guests to see if it is a concept that excites them—and that they would pay for,” says Restaurant Business “Advice Guy” Jonathan Deutsch.

Target local publishers. If national publishers aren’t biting, seek out smaller publishing houses that already carry the type of book you’re writing,” says Jacoby. “Get to know their portfolio and make a pitch.” Small publishers are seeing success in the saturated market. In fact, less than half (24) of the top 50 cookbooks in 2012 were from four of the large companies; several of the top 50 were from small presses, according to Publisher’s Weekly.

Consider e-books. Especially for self-publishers, “an e-book can be much less expensive to produce than a traditional book, as there’s no print cost involved,” says Doug Seibold, president of Agate Publishing in Chicago. It’s also simpler to market, he says, as “the most effective e-book marketing happens online.” And because there’s no printing and in-store pre-selling, “e-books can be brought to market much more rapidly.”

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