Cookbook Author Interview: Julia Usher: It Takes a Multi-faceted Social Media and Grassroots Approach to Develop a Strong Platform

Cookbook Author Interview: Julia Usher: It Takes a Multi-faceted Social Media and Grassroots Approach to Develop a Strong Platform

Although Julia and I are both members of the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) it was through the Cookbook Writers group on LinkedIn that Julia and I bumped into each other.  I had written a request for cookbook authors to participate in my Cookbook Author Interview Series and Julia enthusiastically responded. Julia works with a literary agent and she has written two cookbooks. She just completed an online video series as a companion to her second book, which is an exciting way to make content more visual. It’s great to welcome Julia!  She’ll show you what can be built when you take the time to learn, put yourself out there, and grow as a cookbook author and promoter of your book.


What is the name of your cookbook?

I have two cookbooks. The first was published in 2009 and is called Cookie Swap: Creative Treats to Share Throughout the Year. It’s currently in its ninth printing and was the winner of three Cordon d’ Or Culinary Academy Awards. My second book, Julia M. Usher’s Ultimate Cookies, was released last fall and I have just launched a companion online video series that complements the cookie decorating techniques discussed in that book.

Can you tell me how you were offered a contract for your book? Did you have an agent?

In 2006 when I closed my retail bakery, I made the decision to funnel my creative energy into book and magazine writing and recipe development, even though I had published little in the cooking arena and did not have a blog (it was pre-blog, almost, at this time). I had no platform or established track record in the publishing industry and had a lot to learn. Nevertheless, I had a dream of publishing a desserts table cookbook and was intent on figuring out how to do this, so I spent a lot of time researching the publishing environment before I did anything else. Perhaps the biggest help to me was an organization called the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals, It is a cross-disciplinary organization of culinary professionals dedicated to networking and education. A large portion of its membership is food writers, cookbook authors and literary agents. So I joined that group, attended every conference and educational workshop I could, and tried to soak up the knowledge of others who had taken this path before. At that time, the easiest road to getting published was securing a literary agent with contacts in the publishing world, and who could act as a “stamp of approval” on ones work. I spent a few months writing a book proposal (again, following guidance gotten at IACP), and then pitched several literary agents (about 40) before finding four who were interested in representing the book concept. I interviewed all four before deciding with whom to work, as it’s incredibly important for this person to be as committed to your concept as you. I’ve been with the same literary agent now, for about 5 years, and she’s been invaluable not only in helping to negotiate contract terms, but also in grooming my proposals and keeping me even-keeled during the book writing process!

Do aspiring cookbook authors who want a traditional publisher need a food blog?

Obviously not, as I did not have one when I started out. What’s most important is to have a robust platform and extensive reach to potential readers (be it through your business, traditional website, Facebook following or whatever) and a strong concept for a book that’s new and different, and spoken from your voice and with heart. That said, food blogging can be a great way to quickly build an audience these days – provided you have strong blog content and a clear voice, and are willing to work consistently hard to keep relationships going with your readers. Increasingly, publishers are contacting highly trafficked bloggers directly for book deals, because they know the blogger already has the audience needed to make a book profitable/successful. Correspondingly, we’re seeing more and more book deals being initiated without a literary agent being involved.  Nevertheless, I think literary agents still play an important role throughout the book writing process (in moderating disagreements with the publisher, as a sounding board on content, etc.) so I fully advocate that everyone work with a qualified one.

What is your advice for an aspiring cookbook author reading this interview who wants to pursue a publisher?

I think I mentioned most of these points in previous questions, but to recap:

1. Research the market: Be sure you have a strong concept that hasn’t already been done and which addresses a large or growing segment of the population.

2. Build your platform: These days publishers expect authors to market and sell their books. (It’s rare to have any significant publisher dollars or resources applied to this effort.) So work on building a strong voice and following – especially online, be it through your blog, website or other social media channels.

3. Write a strong book proposal: If a publisher isn’t approaching you, you need to sell them on your concept and this means drafting a proposal, which is essentially a business plan for the book, complete with sections addressing basic concept, target audience, how you plan to market/sell the book, a book outline, and at least one sample chapter with recipes. My first proposal was 80 pages – the actual book that came from it was only 160 pages. So writing a good proposal takes time and energy. Even if you are lucky enough to have a publisher approach you, you need a strong plan for the book before you start writing, so proposal writing is something that is useful to do in either case.

4. Don’t quit your day job: Selling a first book concept, especially without a strong online platform, can take months if not years. And if you go the traditional publishing route (with a mainstream print publisher), don’t expect a large advance (they’ve gotten increasingly small over in recent years) or royalties from one book to earn your living. Before you make any money, you must first sell enough books to payout your advance, and a small percentage of first books actually do this.

5. Consider alternatives to traditional print publishing: There are now countless ways online to get out your message and to retain more of the profit stream for yourself. Explore self-publishing and diverse platform options (i.e., print vs. video vs. ebook) before you choose the traditional print book publishing route. There are pros and cons to each path. People who have journeyed each path before can provide a lot of assistance in helping you sort out which path is best for you and the content you want to sell.

Many people ask if cookbooks are dead, or dying, like other print books? Do you have any thoughts on this?

I think there will always be a place for print cookbooks, especially ones that are heavily designed and photographed. Current digital technology still doesn’t capture the quality of such books as beautifully as the printed page. Plus, cooks/chefs tend to be tactile people – there’s nothing that signifies a well-loved book more than a fingerprint of food on a dog-eared page! But the question remains as to what share of the reading market they’ll ultimately capture, and I certainly think it will be less than it is today, especially as technology advances. That said, I think it’s wise for authors/publishers not to put all of their eggs in the printed book-basket. All of my books are immediately translated into ebooks (by my publisher) when the print book comes out. As noted earlier, I’m also exploring online video as a medium/platform for conveying my content with the recent release of my video series.

What was your biggest challenge in writing your cookbook?

Balancing my personal life and other professional (read: paying) work with getting the books written. I styled, wrote and tested everything in my books and the timeframe for doing this was very compressed.  I had one year to write my books once the contracts were penned, but publishers always try to push you to do books faster and often timeframes are less. It’s important to me to maintain my creativity throughout the writing process, and this is hard to do if I’m constantly feeling strapped for time. Likewise, it’s important for me to maintain an income stream from other sources, because I’ve banked very little from any of my books until the advances have paid out. (One is still paying out, a year after release.) It’s also typical for most, if not all of an advance, to be consumed by payments for ingredients and props, and to recipe testers and the photographer.

Any thoughts you’d like to share on the marketing and sales for your cookbook?

Whoa, this is a big question and tough to answer in a sentence or two!  In short, expect to have to market and sell your book yourself with only limited assistance from your publisher, if you have one. Second, draft a clear budget upfront as to what you’re willing to spend, as some marketing efforts (namely on-the-ground signings and events) are much more expensive than others (i.e., social media or blogger outreach). Third, I believe a well-rounded marketing plan – one that encompasses various forms of outreach – is the best approach provided you have the budget, as there are synergies among them. For instance, it’s tough to get TV exposure in markets that are not your native ones unless you’re doing physical events in those markets. Conducting events gives you something to blog or Facebook about and helps build your online audience. It’s easier to get print coverage in newspapers and magazines if you have a decent online platform . . . and so on. There are a lot of  interconnections. Also, keep in mind: while online outreach is cheaper than a physical tour, it is much more difficult to track the conversion of online campaigns into actual sales.

At the conclusion of my first book tour, I analyzed Book Scan (retail sales data) in all markets, and I definitively sold 7-10x more books in markets that I visited versus those that I didn’t. Yet I had no such data to evaluate whether my online tactics translated into sales. Plus, there are few things more gratifying than meeting your readers face to face. There’s emotional/spiritual value in making personal connections that shouldn’t be diminished – they can sustain you through the long haul of promoting your book. Lastly, if you choose to do an on-the-ground book tour, actively seek ways to offset the costs, because, as I said, a tour is costly and most publishers will not support one. However, if you’ve got a strong platform already, it’s quite possible to secure sponsors who will support the cost of a publicist or actual travel expense. The vast majority of my second tour was covered by funds contributed by sponsors whom I approached. To see my marketing and sales campaigns for both of my books, visit my site,  The presentation is under the right-hand “News” column toward the bottom of the bulleted list.

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