biz ladiesLife & Business

Self-Publishing Your Book with Anna Watson Carl of The Yellow Table

by Grace Bonney

Writing a book is often compared to having a baby. While the two are vastly different in a lot of ways, most people who work in publishing reference the fact that you sometimes forget about the most difficult parts when you get the joy of holding the final product in your hands. I definitely felt that way after we finished our first book and now that I’m writing our second, I feel like I’m much more relaxed and “go-with-the-flow” this time around. I honestly feel like a part of a family at Artisan and I am really happy to be a part of their lineup, but I also understand why so many people are choosing to self-publish these days. While it comes with a number of difficult hurdles to cross, it also offers up total creative freedom and a lot more control than most authors are able to get.

Last week we shared a delicious Turkey Lasagna recipe from Anna Watson Carl’s new cookbook, The Yellow Table: A Celebration of Everyday Gatherings, which she chose to self-publish on her own. Anna chose to crowd-fund the beginning of her process, but she was incredibly smart and inventive when it came to funding and producing her own book tour, which kept her goals and values at heart. I was so impressed with Anna’s process and the final product, that I asked her to do a special business post focused just on the process of self-publishing. If you’ve ever wondered about producing your own book or just want to know more about the process, I hope you’ll enjoy Anna’s words of wisdom as much as I did. xo, grace

What inspired you to start The Yellow Table?

The Yellow Table (the blog) was created as a digital version of my physical yellow table – a gathering spot for great food and conversation. I started the blog in 2011, after working for years as a freelance food writer and cook (both private chef and recipe tester) for years, and wanted a spot to share my recipes and stories. I hoped it would create an online community of people passionate about cooking and hosting small gatherings around their own tables, and it really has – especially over the past year.

Where does the name come from?

My mom bought the yellow table in Nashville, TN in 1974, when she was 24, never dreaming that it would inspire a blog and a book! Growing up, our lives revolved around the table – it was a gathering spot for meals, holidays, and all sorts of projects in between. It gave me such a sense of stability, and taught me what community should look like. She gave me the table as a college graduation present in 2002, and it has lived with me in my apartments in Pittsburgh, Nashville, and currently, NYC.

What inspired you to self-publish your cookbook?

Writing a cookbook has been a dream of mine for years, but it always seemed like such a daunting task that I kept putting it off. I had done loads of research, from talking to agents to taking a cookbook proposal-writing class, but I was told that unless I had a gigantic blog following, a TV show, or a restaurant, that my chances of getting a book deal were slim. I was also turned off by the idea that publishing a cookbook was a 2-3 year process. Last fall, I decided just to get started and figure it out as I went. My friend Signe Birck was my first (and only!) choice for photographer, so once she said yes, I said “Let’s do it!”

I honestly wasn’t planning to self-publish when I started: I had the idea that I would create the content, and then find a publisher. But the further I got into the process, I decided that I really liked having creative control, and I also loved the idea that I could publish a book in one year. So about 5 months into the process, I officially decided to self-publish, and decided to do a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project.

When you first decided to self-publish, how did you define what your goal and process would be?

I kept myself accountable by blogging about the process. I announced on my blog last October that I was writing the cookbook, and committed to documenting the day-to-day, behind-the-scenes process (from photo shoots to recipe testing to figuring out the publishing direction) in a 100-day blog series called The Cookbook Diaries. At the time, I had the ambitious goal to try and finish the photos and recipes by my 34th birthday (March 11). I missed that deadline by a few weeks, but it was still great for me to have that goal!

My other goal was to have the book out in Fall 2014, in time for Christmas – I’m happy to say I met that goal!

What was the best piece of advice you were given when you started the book process?

To not be afraid to self-publish. Several cookbook author friends told me a lot of the tough aspects of their own publishing experiences with traditional publishers, and many said they would definitely consider self-publishing if they did it again.

What was the most difficult part of self-publishing?

The middle part of the journey, when no one is around cheering you on, but you have to keep slogging on – with the writing, the editing, and all of the thousands of details. Like a marathon, the beginning and end are full of lots of fanfare and excitement, but the discouragement and doubts creep in when it’s quiet and you start getting tired. I had to fight through my fears: what if I’m not cut out for this? What if I never finish? What if we can’t get funding? What if no one reads the book?!

Also, for a procrastinator like me, not having someone giving me deadlines was tough – I had to be my own boss, which has its perks and its challenges!

How did you go about setting up, and funding, your cross-country book tour?

The whole thing was totally crazy, looking back on it, but so much fun! I can’t believe it all worked out so well, honestly!

I started out by reaching out to a few blogger friends (The Fresh Exchange in Raleigh, Neighbor’s Table in Dallas) to see if they’d like to partner with me on a dinner party. Once I got a few yes’s, I reached out to some bloggers (like Joy the Baker in New Orleans and Love & Lemons in Austin) that I only knew through social media. I was so pumped when they said yes!!

I sketched out a route from NYC to Los Angeles, and later added on a final dinner in Seattle with my good friend, stylist Jenn Elliott Blake. I decided to drive from NYC to LA – both because I’d always wanted to drive cross-country, but also because it was much more affordable than paying for flights to all of those cities! I don’t have a car – and I knew renting one for a month would be really expensive – so I reached out to the marketing department at Volkswagen on a whim, to see if they would be up for lending me a car for the trip. Amazingly, they said yes, and lent me a brand new silver Beetle Coupe. It was such a fun car to drive, and they let me just drop it off at LAX when I flew to Seattle. (I then flew back to NYC.) The whole trip lasted just under one month.

To help cover food costs, I reached out to Whole Foods (again, cold-calling the marketing department) and they agreed to cover the food and wine costs of the trip. GoPro also gave me a camera to document the trip – we got great footage, but I still have to learn to edit it so I can share it on my blog!

Each dinner party was totally collaborative, and we often held them in the other bloggers’ homes or backyards. My intern Elise traveled with me, and we kept costs down by staying with friends and family along the way, in motels, and AirBnB’s. It was an incredible way to see the country.

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in writing and publishing your own book?

Don’t let people tell you that you can’t do something! I was told so many times that this was impossible, but I figured it out, and I’m so thrilled with how it all turned out.

Also, just getting started and committing to a project is half the battle. Once I got the ball rolling last fall, it was amazing how quickly it gained momentum. (And this is after 10 years of talking about writing a book!)

Can you name a moment when something didn’t go as planned but that taught you something valuable?

Like I said earlier, I really thought initially that I would end up working with a publisher, but that didn’t pan out. But looking back, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. I am so grateful that I got to handpick my team (my designer Katie King Rumford, editor Lauren Salkeld, and photographer Signe Birck were all incredible), and that I ended up with a book that I love – and it all came together in one year!

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in publishing your own book?

Freelance work! Basically the entire year that I worked on this book, I was so fully engaged with the project that it was difficult to take on any additional work. Financially, it was a sacrifice, but one I definitely don’t regret. Also, I really had to sacrifice time with friends and my husband. I’ve had to stay extremely focused (which is unlike me!), so I haven’t been able to spend as much time with the people I love…that’s definitely been hard.

Can you name your greatest success in your professional life so far?

Definitely publishing this book! But my second greatest professional accomplishment was writing a feature for WSJ Magazine last year – it was really exciting to see my byline in such a terrific magazine. Definitely a dream come true.

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone looking to self publish their book?

There’s a Facebook group called Cookbook Friends that I joined (you actually have to be nominated) and it was a great resource to throw out questions and get great feedback.

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before publishing their own book?

1. Make sure you have a really good idea, and that you have an audience who wants to buy the book.
2. Figure out how you’re going to pay for it – whether through savings or crowd-funding.
3. Know that it’s going to be a TON of work – but if you’re committed to the project, and really believe in it, then anything is possible!

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  • This is so great and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of The Yellow Table! I have written a couple of books (novels, not cookbooks) that I never even considered self-publishing but I think that it is becoming a much more desirable path as the industry shifts and people are finding that there is more creative control to be had. I’m glad it is on more peoples’ radars and that we get to see more good work like Anna’s because of it!

  • Great feature!! Anna is so wonderful – I was one of the recipe testers for her book and it has been so amazing to watch everything come together. Now that I have the real book in my hands, it’s even better than I imagined it would be. Anna has soooo much to be proud of.

  • Kelly…I’m blushing!! :) That’s like the highest compliment ever!! And Grace, I’m so honored to be on Design*Sponge! Thank you!! xo

  • Thank you for this article! Anna’s story was divine intervention & very inspiring for a project I’m working on that was stalled.

  • Very inspiring; I am trying to self – publish a medical manual (pretty much a “ccok book”) but once I finish editing, whatelse?

  • Love the hero shot of the food and the overall mood of the photos! Having gone through this experience myself (my wife’s attempt at trying to publish a recipe book), I can certainly see the passion! Great work, keep it up!

  • Thanks to both of you for the ever so educational post. Anna your cookbook was actually one of the first projects that introduced me to the world of Kickstarter. (I know I’ve been living under a rock.) It’s great to a get a little extra knowledge on how its done.

  • Thank you so much for this post! Hearing how Ana went for it after so many years of not following her dream is inspiring – it definitely is a great story of how our dreams are possible whenever we’re ready to follow them!!

  • Wow, this is such an inspiring story! I love the idea of the dinner party road trip – definitely inspired me to be more creative with promotion if I write another book. Yay for DIY!