The Yellow Table, a gorgeous cookbook from new author Anna Watson Carl, arrived (and quickly sold out) late last year to an exceptionally eager legion of supporters. Many had been waiting for over six months for its arrival—and to generate that type of buzz when you’re not a celeb or viral blogging sensation is just about unheard of.
Now, Carl didn’t fall into her new position as published author by a stroke of luck or coincidence—she worked hard and smart for years and then chose to bypass the route of traditional publishing in favor of self-publication. In the following Q&A, we chat with a refreshingly candid Carl about the people behind the scenes and all the little details authors often prefer tucked under the rug.
Relish: Let’s start off with your background. Tell us a bit about your relationship with food, cooking and entertaining and how that blossomed…
Anna Watson Carl: I grew up eating nearly every meal around my family’s yellow table. My mom didn’t necessarily love to cook, but she believed that mealtimes were our chance to connect as a family, so she made cooking a priority.
Though I loved to cook as a kid, it wasn’t until I studied abroad in Paris, my junior year in college, that I truly fell in love with food. The markets, with their fresh produce, cheeses, breads, meats and seafood, were a revelation to me, and I loved the mealtime rituals in France. I bought a book on classical French cuisine and began cooking my way through it—I came home determined to pursue a career in food.
R: What was your chief reason for wanting to write a cookbook?
AWC: I am obsessed with cookbooks. I’ve been reading them since I was a kid and collecting them since I was in college. Once I started cooking and writing professionally (in 2002), writing a cookbook became my long-term goal. But in the past few years, I started getting serious about this goal. After working for years as a private chef, recipe developer/tester and blogger, I had built up a repertoire of simple, healthy recipes—and finally possessed the experience and confidence to write a cookbook. My chief reason for writing The Yellow Table was to inspire people to cook and to gather friends and family around their own tables.
R: When did you feel ready to start on The Yellow Table? Were there any steps you knew you needed to take first?
AWC: I started thinking seriously about going after this dream in 2012. By this time, I had gone to culinary school, cooked professionally for 10 years and written for major food magazines and websites. I started The Yellow Table blog in 2011 as a place to start documenting my recipes, with the hopes of eventually turning the blog into a book … I worked for another year to grow my blog and build my writing career before I finally decided to take the plunge and start creating the book in 2013—without a publisher! It was a total leap of faith, but I knew that I needed to just get started and see what panned out.
R: In the beginning, you did explore going the traditional publishing route. Can you tell us about your experience? What did you find publishers wanted to see, and why did you decide to go for it on your own instead?
AWC: I started reaching out to some agents in 2012, and the feedback I received was that in order to get a book deal you needed to either a) be a famous chef b) have a Food Network show c) be a celebrity or d) be a blogger with at least 100,000 visitors a month. Since none of those things described me, I was told that I had a very slim chance at getting a book deal—regardless of my dedicated blog following or my experience as a cook and a writer.
It was frustrating hearing that, but eventually, in the fall of 2013, I decided that rather than wait on a publishing deal, that I’d just get started on the book and share the behind-the-scenes process on the blog. My friend Signe Birck, an incredible food photographer, agreed to take the photos, so I decided that we should just go for it! We didn’t have the budget to rent out a studio space or hire a styling team, so we just worked as a duo (with the help of my incredible intern Elise Inman), shooting in my apartment once or twice a week over the course of five months. The shooting process was especially complicated because I live on the top floor of a fifth-floor walkup apartment in Manhattan (i.e. no elevator and tiny kitchen). We borrowed props each week from ABC Carpet & Home and floor samples from PID Floors (to use as rustic wooden surfaces to shoot on)—and had to carry all of it (plus groceries) up five flights of stairs each week. It was so much work, but I absolutely loved it.
To document the process, I wrote a 100-day blog series called The Cookbook Diaries, to share the ups and downs of the cookbook-creating process. In those five months, I developed and tested 110 recipes, and Signe shot photos of all the recipes. I also built an incredible team along the way. Sommelier Jean-Luc Le Du offered to do wine pairings; I hired Katie King Rumford as designer and Lauren Salkeld as editor, and I decided to work with the US-based printer Worzalla.
R: Wow—that’s a lot to juggle! How did you draw up your game plan for self-publishing?
AWC: Initially when I started the book-creating process, I wasn’t convinced that I would self-publish. I sort of thought that by blogging about the book-creating process that I might attract a publisher who was interested in my nontraditional approach. But a few months into the process, I found that I loved having creative control, so I just decided to put together my own team and self publish. I especially loved the idea that I could produce my book—from beginning to end—in just one year (rather than the 2+ years that traditional book deals take).
All that to say: I didn’t draw up a specific plan from the beginning. I just sort of figured it out as I went! I knew that I wanted to have the book come out in the fall of 2014, in time for the holidays, so I just worked backwards from there. Once I decided to work with Worzalla, they said they needed 5-6 weeks to print the book, which gave me a mid-September deadline to turn in final PDFs. Basically from October 2013 through April 2014, I developed the recipes and shot the book, then from May 2014 to July 2014, I switched gears and had to prep my Kickstarter campaign and dinner party road trip (and then actually run my campaign and go on the month-long cross country road trip, throwing eight dinner parties along the way). Once the Kickstarter funds were raised in mid-July 2014, I worked with my amazing team to finish the book in literally two months … Crazy to think about. The book went to press in early October and I got to see the first copy in late October. It was a total dream.
R: Where there any resources that were particularly helpful to you?
AWC: I probably should have spent more time reading up on the process before plunging in, but just doing it proved to be the best instructor. I did talk to quite a few cookbook authors along the way—Sara Forte, Joy Wilson, Kendra Bailey and Julia Turshen were all especially helpful. Also my friend Ashley Phillips, an editor at Clarkson Potter, and Sally Ekus, a literary agent, were both so generous to advise me along the way. I definitely read a lot online about self-publishing once I made the decision to go that direction, and had to do research for all sorts of basic stuff like, how do you get an ISBN number? And how do you get a Library of Congress number? I had no idea about this stuff going in.
R: Are there any common pitfalls in self-publishing? How did you avoid them?
AWC: I’m not sure about the common pitfalls, but I can tell you a few things that I learned along the way:
- Don’t assume that just because you can write a cookbook that it will fly off the shelves. That sounds like a negative thing to say, but if you don’t have a publisher, the selling falls 100% on your shoulders, so it’s a good idea to really make sure your idea both has wide appeal and is truly unique—and that you have a strong platform to sell your book (perhaps via your blog or a restaurant or small business that you own).
- Write a proposal. Part of the process of getting a traditional publishing deal is putting together a cookbook proposal, with details on how your book is unique, descriptions of exactly what’s going to be in the book (including recipes and sample chapters), research on the current cookbook market—to see how your idea stacks up against what’s already available, and a timeline on how you’re going to get all of it done. Writing a proposal forces you to do a lot of the hard work up front. Next time I write a book—self-published or not—I will start with a proposal to keep me organized and accountable.
- Find a great printer, and make sure you see samples of their work. I chose Worzalla because a) they were based in the U.S., which cut down substantially on the time it took to print the books and b) the quality of their work—specifically photo-heavy cookbooks—was top-notch. They were a pleasure to work with, and I am so pleased with the way the books turned out.
- Hire a top-notch team. Some printers or “book-packaging” companies come with an in-house team that take care of design and editing, and sometimes even photography. This can be great option if you want a bit more guidance throughout the process and don’t want to steer the ship. I really wanted to maintain creative control, so I hand-selected a team of people who were not only super-talented, but with whom that I’d really enjoy working. I was so proud of them that I put everyone’s name and picture in the front of the book. I’ve never seen that done in a cookbook, and it’s one of my favorite features.
- Figure out how you’re going to pay for the book. Printing and production costs and incredibly high for a self-published book, so look at the costs up front and map out how you’re going to pay for it—via pre-sales, a crowd-funding site like Kickstarter, or perhaps you know that your sales will be high enough to cover the costs after the fact. But take a hard look at this up front, so you don’t have sticker shock.
- Sell on Amazon—and have them ship the books for you! My books sold really well on Amazon (so well that they sold out) and it was a dream having them handle the shipping for me.
R: Why Kickstarter? We want to know how you prepared (and succeeded!) in getting crowd funded while so many are often unable to create buzz.
AWC: I decided to crowdfund because I needed a way to pay for the printing and production costs, which were upwards of $50K to print 1500 books. When we exceeded our Kickstarter goal (by nearly $16K!) we used the extra funds to print 3,000 books instead of 1,500. Crowdfunding was an excellent way to go, because I wasn’t just blindly asking people for money—I was essentially asking them to be a part of making my cookbook dream come true, and in return, they’d get a copy of the cookbook. So it was basically like a giant pre-sale.
I decided to use Kickstarter because they have such a large platform and viewership. They ended up featuring me in one of their newsletters, and in their featured Food Projects, which helped get a lot more eyeballs on my project. But ultimately, creating the buzz was up to me. I knew I’d never reach my goal without doing something a little dramatic—and without the help of fellow bloggers to help me spread the word. So I decided to drive across the country over the course of a month, and throw a series of collaborative dinner parties with some of my favorite bloggers and stylists. I started in NYC, and threw dinners in Raleigh, Nashville, New Orleans, Austin, Dallas, Los Angeles and Seattle. I had the chance to work with absolutely amazing bloggers, photographers, stylists and friends—old and new. It was a total dream come true, and the support of these bloggers really made all the difference when it came to spreading the word and meeting my goal.
One of the most amazing takeaways from this experience is this: don’t be afraid to ask! I was terrified to reach out to some of the bigger bloggers (like Joy the Baker and Love and Lemons) because I had no idea if they’d want to partner with me. When they said yes, I was overjoyed, and the result wasn’t just a dinner party, but a long-term friendship. Also, I reached out to several national brands to see if they would help me sponsor aspects of the trip—Whole Foods donated food and wine for the dinner parties, and Volkswagon lent me a brand new Beetle to drive. It was truly above and beyond my wildest dreams.
R: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs? Is a self-made career as impossibly hard as everyone seems to say it is?
AWC: Sure it’s hard, but if you’re doing what you love, then it’s totally worth the work. I’ve never worked harder than I did last year, but I’ve also never felt more proud to be a part of a project. I loved every aspect of the book-creating process; I loved collaborating with so many talented people, and I was incredibly blown away and humbled by the support of so, so many people via my blog and Kickstarter.
As for advice: follow your heart. Don’t let people tell you that you can’t do something. Get a game plan together and go for it! Committing to a project is one of the hardest parts—just taking that first step towards your dream is one of the bravest things you’ll ever do. And then the next bravest thing you’ll do is actually finishing it.
One final piece of advice is that you’ll have to create really clear boundaries in your life. As an entrepreneur, it’s easy for work to totally take over, since you don’t necessarily go to an office, and the work never really ends. I reached a few breaking points last year, because I didn’t have clear boundaries in place. I just took an entire month off to recover (extreme, but necessary) and my plan for the rest of the year is to make sure to fit in rest and time with good friends.
R: What was the biggest difficulty or lesson?
AWC: By far and away, the hardest part of the process was shipping out over 2,000 book orders (i.e. packing and mailing them myself, with the help of my sweet mom and dad and several friends), and then having hundreds of books arrive to my customers damaged—or worse, getting lost in the mail and never arriving at all. Months after I mailed the books, I was still getting emails from people saying their orders had never arrived. I had to ship out at least one hundred more books from our inventory to replace lost or missing orders. It was discouraging and exhausting. If I ever self-publish again, I’m going to have Amazon handle all of the shipping for me.
R: Now that you have an awesome cookbook behind you, what’s next?
AWC: It took me a month of time off to even begin to contemplate this question…ha! We are currently sold out of books, so the next step is definitely reprinting. I’m currently reaching out to some larger stores (Anthropologie, West Elm, Williams Sonoma, Barnes & Noble) and pitching my book to them. Once we have a few big orders in place, we can do another large print run. I’m hoping to reprint in February and have the books out again by March or April.
I’ve got a lot of ideas for the blog (including some fun videos) so that will be a big focus of mine this year, and I’ve got a few other book ideas simmering on the back burner. I might be crazy, but I’m honestly excited to tackle book two!
And I’d love to start teaching again: cooking classes, dinner party workshops, and maybe even a self-publishing course to help guide other would-be authors. I learned a lot through this process, and I’m eager to share.
Check out recipes from The Yellow Table: