The First Five Steps to Self-Publishing Your Cookbook

September 23, 2016

In December 2015, I self-published my first cookbook entirely from scratch: I did all the writing, photography, design, pre-order crowdfunding, marketing, and distribution. It was a lot of work, and a lot of fun.

As I embark on creating my second book, I've been looking back at all I learned—here are just a few of tips I would share with anyone wanting to self publish (I have many more!).

Photo by Joe Johnston

1. Design Dictates Everything.

Design first, create content later.

Start with the dimensions of your book and page count. For example, I knew I wanted a large format book (9 inches by 12 inches) with roughly 200 pages (196 pages, because of how pages are bundled).

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I love the design grid concept. Did you use a particular software to design the layout? A friend of mine told me about In Design but said she prefers Adobe Photoshop (she has created children's books with her art). I have Photoshop but the idea of adding text that way seems daunting.”
— Cristina

Next, I suggest creating a basic outline of your cookbook and divvying up the content to fit inside the desired page count. For example, I knew I wanted to dedicate one double page spread per recipe, with the photo on the left and the recipe on the right.

I settled on 60 recipes total (15 recipes per season), so 120 (of 196) pages were already accounted for. I filled the remaining 76 pages with my dedication, introduction, table of contents, chapter dividers, short stories (40 pages), resources, and index.

Then, I recommend taking your own rough outline of content and getting specific about the layout of each page. Need inspiration with editorial design layout? I loved watching Design is One, a fascinating documentary about Lella & Massimo Vignelli—influential Italian designers (think of them as the Italian Ray & Charles Eames). Massimo created the Vignelli Grid, which acts as an invisible guideline for placing text and images together in a very structured, calculated manner that is consistent throughout an entire book. In his words, “The grid is an integral part of book design. It's not something that you see. It's just like underwear: you wear it, but it's not to be exposed.” Grazie Massimo!

For example, my cookbook is based on a 3x5 grid: 3 invisible columns and 5 invisible rows. Can you see it above in my table of contents? All of my images and text are made up of “blocks” that adhere to this 3x5 grid.

Exhibit A: The page on the left includes three small photos (1x1 block), a portrait (2x3 block), and text (3x2 block). Exhibit B: The page on the right includes a portrait (3x3 block), text (2x2 block), and a small photo (1x2 block). The grid is magic!

Once you have created your own grid and a few different design templates, you can narrow in on how to fill these “blocks.” For example, based on my template I knew I needed to select 4 images to create the profile on Rutiz Family Farms and about 255 words to profile Sally Loo’s. I calculated the word count by selecting my typeface and font size, throwing in some dummy copy, and highlighting the copy to see how many words fit into a 2x2 block. Et voilà.

Once the design is in place, you know exactly how many photos you need to shoot (and their orientation), and how many words to produce. I strongly suggest spending a lot of time conceptualizing the design of the book before creating content. Design truly dictates everything.

2. Kick it Old School with an Analog Book Binder.

If you are embarking on self-publishing a cookbook, chances are you are very into books and the tactile experience. To better visualize the end product in real life, step away from your computer files to create a book binder. I borrowed this idea from my cookbook crush Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks. In her binder, she sketches out her content blocks, keeps track of recipe testing, and makes notes on completed photo shoots. You could organize everything in a blank notebook, but I found using a binder with plastic sheet inserts was easier because I could move around pages or sections to get the flow just right.

3. Adjust Your Specs Based on Printing Quotes From Your Printer.

Get in contact with a printer early, and request multiple quotes based on various specs: page count, dimensions, paper type and thickness, binding options, cover type and treatment, and quantity. I paired up with Hemlock—they are a fantastic carbon neutral green printer that produces quality work, plus their customer service is top-notch. I received many samples of their work and got a wide range of quotes (150 pages vs. 225 pages, 8”x10” vs. 9”x12”, 80# paper vs. 100# paper, 500 copies vs. 9,000 copies). With their support I was able to pin down the exact specs that fit within my budget.

4. Reverse Engineer Your Production Timeline Based on Your Release Date.

Set a demanding—yet realistic—timeline based on your release date. I suggest reverse engineering your timeline by picking the month and the year of your book release. For example, I knew I wanted my cookbook to hit the shelves in December 2015, right in time for the holidays. In order to receive the books on time, I had to submit my final files in October 2015 to Hemlock, but before that could happen, I needed to put down a 50% deposit to secure the paper and my spot in their production line. In order to do that, I had to raise the funds for the up-front printing costs through my Kickstarter campaign in August get the picture. From ideation to creation to final production, it took me 2 1/2 years as a part-time side hustle.

5. Ruthlessly Edit Your Title and Subtitle.

The San Luis Obispo Farmers’ Market Cookbook: Simple Seasonal Recipes & Short Stories from the Central Coast of California. Yowza! I know, it’s long. I know, it’s a mouthful. My next cookbook will not have such a long-winded title and subtitle, promise! When naming your cookbook, it’s important to take into account people’s dwindling attention span, yet also keep in mind that your subtitle is your one-sentence attention-grabbing synopsis of the entire book. This is your one opportunity to hook a potential reader into thumbing through your book. Take your time in the naming process and get the opinions of others. Create an intriguing title and subtitle, then edit ruthlessly!

The San Luis Obispo Farmers’ Market Cookbook—produced by writer, photographer, designer, and self-publisher Kendra Aronson—features 60 seasonal recipes and 40 short stories from the Central Coast of California.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • jlopez1171
  • Pamela Averkamp
    Pamela Averkamp
  • thekitchentool
  • Stone
  • sincitychef
Kendra Aronson is the Founder of Pregnant and Hungry, the only searchable collection of pregnancy-friendly recipes on the internet.


jlopez1171 May 22, 2021
Hi Kendra. I'm trying to create a family cookbook. It was originally meant as a present for my daughter, as a way to remember her grandpa who just passed. I have asked other members of the family if they wanted to contribute and it's turned into something bigger that we expected. I still want to publish it small for copies to distribute to the family, not for public use. I really have no idea how to to do this. I love your article and I really like the way you set everything up. Thank you.
Pamela A. January 15, 2021
Hi Kendra! I'm writing a book on cakes that I want to get published. Did you look into a publishing company or self publishing from the start? I don't know which should be my goal
thekitchentool September 13, 2020
Hi Kendra! I'm just starting the research phase of writing my own cookbook. Glad I came across your post. Very helpful and looking forward to the project! Thanks for sharing!
Stone January 19, 2020
Thanks for so much helpful information! How did you go about marketing and selling your cookbooks? How did you get it into stores?
sincitychef October 18, 2019
nice article. I have just finished my cookbook but funds are tight. can you name a company that does a good deal for a self publishing author
Vanessa S. July 8, 2018
Thank you for this! I am in the beginning stages of creating a cookbook and this was so helpful!
kendraaronson July 8, 2018
I'm so glad you found this article helpful, Vanessa! Best of luck on your cookbook endeavor :)
Laura C. February 17, 2018
How much was your initial investment?
kendraaronson February 22, 2018
Hi Laura! Shoot me an email at [email protected] and I'll take financial information with you—it's tricky to answer because there was a lot of investments that I made up front that are quantifiable (e.g. buying a camera) and costs that aren't quantifiable (the hours teaching myself InDesign and preparing for my Kickstarter campaign, etc.) If you want to learn more, let's connect via email, thanks!
Gina January 3, 2018
This is amazing! Thank you for sharing your story. You've given me the motivation to pursue my dream!
kendraaronson January 3, 2018
Aw shucks! Thanks, Gina! Happy to hear it :)
Julia July 24, 2017
Thanks so much for all this insightful information! I'm feeling inspired :)
kendraaronson July 25, 2017
You're welcome! I'm so happy you found it inspirational :) !
Cristina July 19, 2017
Thanks for sharing your experience! I love the design grid concept.
Did you use a particular software to design the layout? A friend of mine told me about In Design but said she prefers Adobe Photoshop (she has created children's books with her art). I have Photoshop but the idea of adding text that way seems daunting.
kendraaronson July 19, 2017
Of course! I used Adobe InDesign for the editorial layout (words + photos) because InDesign is THE ultimate desktop publishing software for anything editorial (posters, flyers, brochures, magazines, newspapers, presentations, books and ebooks.) Defintiely worth the investment in both money and time learning how to utilize this powerful program! :) Yes you can use Adobe Photoshop to overlay text on images, but it's not as robust as InDesign. Photoshop is obviously way more powerful for editing images. Hope this clarifies things! Let me know if you have additional questions.
I U. September 25, 2016 many did you sell?
kendraaronson September 25, 2016
Hey! Thanks for your comment :) I sold my entire first print run of 2,000 copies in just 20 days! My book came out on December 1, 2015 and the whole lot was gone on December 20. I sold out and all of my local retailers sold out. In March 2016 I got my second print run (6,000 copies) and I've almost sold through half of that inventory. I imagine for the holidays I will sell out again!
NonnaPrints March 14, 2021
Hi Kendra, I realize that I am commenting on a post of yours from many years ago, but I hope you will still be willing to chat about it. how did you sell 2000 copies in 20 days? how did you advertise? Could you share some of this with me?