Extended Q&A with WD’s Self-Published Book Awards Winner

March/April 2015 Issue of Writer's DigestWell Fed 2, by Melissa Joulwan, is the grand-prize winning book in the 22nd Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards, besting more than 2,800 other entries across nine categories. A cookbook geared towards the paleo diet (in which meals are prepared without grains, legumes, starches, processed sugar, dairy or alcohol), Joulwan’s entry came out of the reference category. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, check out the March/April 2015 issue of Writer’s Digest. Click here for a complete list of winners from this year’s awards.

Melissa Joulwan, 46, is a full-time cookbook author and blogger. She grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, and lived in San Francisco, CA, and Austin, TX. Right now, she’s calling White River Junction, VT, home while her husband gets his Master’s degree in cartooning at the Center for Cartoon Studies. After, they’re moving to Prague.

Joulwan has done a lot of magazine writing over the years, primarily in fitness publications and music magazines. Back in the day (1996), she had a website about women’s sports called “Go, girl!” Now, she has a blog called The Clothes Make The Girl, where she writes about her failures and triumphs in the gym, in the kitchen, and in life. She also writes a recipe column in every issue of Paleo Magazine.

Can you describe Well Fed 2 for us?

Well Fed 2: More Paleo Recipes For People Who Love To Eat is the follow-up to my first cookbook Well Fed. The recipes follow the Paleo template, which means that they’re made without grains, legumes, soy, sugar, dairy, and alcohol. I know that probably sounds like they’re no fun, but the recipes are really delicious and don’t taste like boring, sad “health food.”

In addition to the 200 recipes and meal ideas, the book opens with information to help readers manage their relationship with food, including ways to identify emotional appetite versus true hunger, 30 reasons to do a Whole30, tips for socializing while keeping good habits, and a call to action to develop the best version of themselves.

Eating Paleo is usually defined by what must be given up, but it’s really about gaining good health, boundless energy, and a happy outlook.

melissa_joulwanDescribe your writing process for this book.

My husband and I are a team. I develop the recipes and write all the content. We collaborate on the props and food styling, then Dave takes all of the photos and draws the illustrations. After the success of Well Fed, we knew we wanted to do another cookbook, and the first step was defining the theme. We didn’t want to have a classic sophomore slump! We had several ideas we liked and conducted a survey of my blog readers to find out what they wanted. The overwhelming response was “more of the same.”

My next step was to narrow the list of more than 300 recipes I’d been collecting to a more manageable number. We photograph every recipe, so we try to keep the count to around 100. I like to have a wide variety of ingredients and international influences in my recipes, so when I have a list I like, I put the titles on index cards and divide them into piles to see what’s what — just to make sure I don’t have twice as many Turkish recipes as Chinese, or 20 chicken and only two beef. Once I’ve got my draft list of recipes, I work on the outline: the editorial content that will be in the beginning of the book, the sections for the recipes, support content in the back of the book. All of that work is done in a combination of very messy notebooks — Mead composition books with college ruled paper are my favorite — and Google docs so I can share with Dave. Eventually, I make a spreadsheet that I use to track the content through first draft, final, recipe testing, and photos. I’m an extensive list-maker and note-taker, and the piles of papers and books on my desk during this part of the process are epic.

When it’s time for recipe testing, I’m on my feet in the kitchen, cooking and making notes. I usually make each recipe at least four times before I consider it final: once to try it, a second to refine, a third to finalize it, and a fourth to take the photo. Development and testing usually lasts about six months.

Recipes begin as handwritten notes in my notebook; I have a shorthand that only makes sense to me but I can write it very quickly. After the third time making a recipe, I type it in language that’s as close to final as possible. This allows me to use the printout to make the food for the photo and minimizes re-writing. I develop all of the recipes before we begin principle photography, and we shoot about three to five photos per day so principle photography takes about one month. At the end of each shooting day, while Dave is editing the photos, I try to make final adjustments to the recipes and draft the head notes.

We have a clearly defined design for the Well Fed series, so along the way, we communicate with the designers about unusual content so they can factor it into the design system. All of the photos and recipes are finished at the same time, and we deliver the content to the designers for layout. When the first draft of the manuscript is ready, Dave and I give it a once-over and provide feedback to the design team. We then hand it off to a copy editor and she works her magic. I make corrections, and it goes through proofreading. Then it’s off to the printer!

Because we’re self publishing, we’re also working with our printer and distributor throughout production to make sure the business side is in place. About six months before the book’s publication date, our distributor needs to start talking to retailers, so we make what’s called a BLAD (Basic Layout and Design): a PDF of the cover, table of contents, and sample pages the sales team can use to generate excitement and sales of the book. That’s always a fun time because the book starts to seem more real.

Describe the process of publishing this book.

We found a wonderful printer and distributor with our first book, and they’ve been solid partners for us since. Bang Printing prints our books. They also warehouse the books and handle fulfillment. For distribution, we work with Greenleaf Book Group; they represent us with retail bookstores offline and online, as well as big box stores that sell books.

Why did you choose to self-publish?

My first book Rollergirl: Totally True Tales From The Track was published by a major publisher, and I didn’t enjoy the experience. All of the people I met at the publisher were good people, but I never felt like they cared about my book as much as I did. How could they? To them, it was a day job — to me, it was my life.

When we decided to write our first book Well Fed, we chose to self publish because we wanted to do everything our way. My husband and I had both spent two decades working in agencies where your excellent, initial idea was watered down by executive decision making. We love punk rock music and admire people who go their own way, so we decided to try that approach ourselves. Our primary goal was to create a book we would enjoy making and that would make us feel proud.

The other big driver was the financial side. If you write a book for a traditional publisher, and it’s successful, you make some money and they make a lot of money. If you self publish and you’re successful, you make a lot of money. Yes, the publisher is providing services for the revenue they keep, but once we understood all the steps of publishing, we didn’t think it was worth it to pay the publisher 90% of the profit.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced self-publishing?

The hardest aspect of self publishing for me is managing my ego. The tasks associated with publishing are neither mysterious nor difficult. It’s a lot of details and staying on top of the business, but it’s manageable. The emotional side is harder. Most days, I’m very proud to have self published our books, but every once in a while — usually when it feels like I have to defend the decision to self publish — I wonder if we should work with a traditional publisher. Several publishers have approached us over the years, but when we dig into the details of the deals, they can’t compete with the marketing and financial benefits of doing it ourselves.

When Well Fed 2 was released, I turned to Dave and said, “Man! If we had a publisher, they probably would have sent us a bottle of champagne or something.” He looked at me for a minute and said, “I’ll go buy us some champagne, and it won’t cost us 90% of our profits.” Smart guy, my husband.

What are the most important benefits of self-publishing?

Self publishing literally changed our lives. I was working a full-time, corporate job while we were writing and publishing Well Fed. By the time the book had been out for three months, it was earning enough that I could quit my job to focus on blogging and promoting the book full time. Dave, too, was able to quit his full-time job as a computer programmer. Now, almost 4 years later, he’s attending grad school, and I’m working on our third cookbook. Self publishing gave us the financial freedom to focus on building our small business. It also boosted our confidence in our abilities and has made us more fearless is pursuing other creative pursuits and business partnerships.

The value of creative freedom can’t be underestimated. I’ve learned to trust my instincts. When I create things I like, taking into account what my audience has told me they need, we’re successful. We don’t need “experts” at a publisher to guide us because we’re experienced enough to put out good work — and daring enough to figure out the things we don’t know. We also have a really wonderful circle of creative, professional friends on whom we can rely for opinions, advice, and shoptalk.

What surprised you about the self-publishing process?

The most surprising thing was that it’s not that hard. It’s a lot of details. It requires discipline and a leap of faith, but the tasks are not difficult or confusing. It’s a giant checklist that must be methodically checked off, but it’s doable.

What are the biggest misconceptions about self-publishing?

I think the majority of people have an out-of-date idea of what self publishing means. In the past, if a book was self published, it was probably fairly low quality. To be fair, I’ve seen my share of poorly written and poorly-printed books that were self published, but I’ve also read some really crappy books put out by major publishers. The most important thing when self publishing is to go through all of the steps that a traditional publisher would. Work with an experienced designer. Hire a real copyeditor and proofreader; you should only have your cousin proofread your book if she’s an actual proofreader. Make a marketing plan. Learn about the printing process, choose quality paper, and go to the press check. A self-published book can and should look and feel as good (if not better!) than a book from a traditional publisher.

What’s your advice to other self-publishing authors?

To be successful, you need to be honest with yourself about your goals. If it’s your lifelong dream to have your book published by a particular publisher, you probably won’t be satisfied with self publishing, even if you make wheelbarrows full of money. If you’re a non-fiction author, the clout and perceived credibility of a big publisher may be beneficial for your career. Self publishing success can turn writing into a full-time business that requires bookkeeping, marketing, boring admin work, and overseeing the details of printing and distribution; if all you want to do is sit by yourself and write, self publishing might not be the right path for you. If it’s your heart’s desire to hold a book in your hands with your name on the spine, either path will work for you.

I knew I wanted to make writing my full-time job, I wanted creative control, and I wanted to reap as many of the financial rewards of our books as possible — self-publishing was the only way to reach those goals.

What’s the worst mistake that self-publishing authors can make?

As much as I’ve been highlighting the awesomeness of complete creative control, that doesn’t mean self-published authors should do everything themselves. It’s important to find talented, motivated people with the skills you don’t have. Whether you pay them outright, work in trade, offer them profit sharing, or somehow get their work for free, you need to rely on others to do the work you don’t do well. For us, that meant hiring a fantastic graphic designer, copy editor, and proofreader for production, and relying on Greenleaf for distribution. These are not big expenditures, but they’re important.

Another potential pitfall is thinking that you’re “only a writer.” Once you self publish, you move beyond author to publisher and promoter. I’ve had to learn how to compartmentalize my thinking: “Today I’m ignoring social media and writing all day, but on Thursday, I can’t write because I have to pay attention to the business.”

If you were to self-publish again, what is one thing you’d do differently? The one thing you’d do the same?

For both books, we made the production schedule tight but manageable. For our next cookbook, I’d like to build a little breathing room into the schedule to allow room for days the writing just isn’t going well or when the photography magic isn’t happening. I’m also trying to figure out how we might use an external project manager to guide production. I loathe the project management aspects of the project — setting and managing the schedule, tracking assets, keeping all the moving parts on deadline — and would love to have a real project manager join our team.

We have a tradition of going on a vacation after we’ve handed off all of the content to the designer. While the design team is doing the first draft of the layout, we’re recharging our batteries so we’re energized for the last phase of production and promoting the book after publication. It’s really fun to deliver all the raw materials and come home from vacation to an almost-there manuscript.

Who and what has inspired you—in your writing and otherwise?

There were always books floating around in our house. My dad was a big reader, and I used to get up early to say goodbye to him when he left for work and to read a little bit in bed before school. Both my mom and my favorite aunt were writers at different points in their lives. I always liked playing with words, and I was — and continue to be — inspired by the idea that if I put my thoughts into words on paper, they might affect other people in some way.

Well Fed 2

How long have you been writing? How did you start?

My dad had my first story, written in kindergarten, hanging in his office, and I have memories of making my little brother play library with me. I think I’ve been interested in writing since I learned how to write the alphabet. There’s a big, flat storage box under my bed stuffed with grade school poetry projects, research papers, samples from my early advertising jobs, and a novel I wrote during NaNoWriMo in 2003. I’ve always been a serious word nerd.

What are the challenges of writing a cookbook?

A cookbook is a combination of storytelling and technical writing. I try to inject enough personal detail and voice in the recipes to help readers feel a connection to me. One Amazon reviewer said, “The author’s personality is all over every page, and her personality is unbearable.” Happily, most other people seem to like my voice, and that negative comment actually made me feel like I was doing a good job of being me in print. On the instructional side, I think it’s a mistake to assume readers have extensive cooking experience, so I try to find the balance of explaining technique with details to help novices without boring or annoying veteran cooks. Juggling all of that can be a challenge. To be a successful, self-published cookbook author, I need to be a good cook, to write clear instructions, to craft inspiring supporting copy, to develop a narrative line throughout the whole book, and to determine the best way to visually represent the recipes.

Do you write anything else?

I have a blog called The Clothes Make The Girl. I started it in 2008, long before I ever thought of writing a cookbook, and the content evolved as my interests in fitness, nutrition, and cooking grew. These days, the majority of posts are recipes, but I also write pieces on motivation, meditation, managing health issues, and other things that interest me, like books, art, music, and travel. My blog is the online version of conversations we’d have in my kitchen, over a cup of Earl Grey rooibos tea. I keep very detailed journals when I travel, but I don’t journal on a daily basis at home. My blog has become the place where I work through what’s on my mind, and it’s a really lovely way to connect with my audience on a personal level.

I also contribute a recipe column to every issue of Paleo Magazine. I research the history of a traditional recipe, then adapt the recipe to fit into the paleo template. Knowing the history of a dish makes me feel connected to cooks I’ll never meet, and I love showing people that eating paleo can be playful and exotic. It’s so more than grilled meat and steamed vegetables.

I’ve also written a few other books. In 2007, my first book Rollergirl: Totally True Tales From The Track was published. It’s a memoir of my transformation from bookish, piano-playing non-athlete to Rollergirl (still bookish but also surprisingly tough on wheels). I’m also the co-author of Living Paleo For Dummies, published by Wiley in 2012 — and I wrote the meal plan in the New York Times best-selling book It Starts With Food by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig.

What advice has had the biggest impact on your success in life and as an author?

I think one of the things that’s helped me the most in my writing life is recognizing that it’s OK to write absolutely terrible, embarrassingly awful sentences during first (and second and third) drafts. No one but me will ever see them! I give myself the freedom to let my writing completely suck as it flows from mind to page. Writing is re-writing, and you can always clean it up.

Also: Ass in Chair. That’s what we call it when there’s a lot of writing to be done and a deadline ahead. There’s no more whining or procrastinating or bargaining. It’s Ass in Chair time, and you just get it done.

I learned a lot of skills doing endurance sports and roller derby that have served me well as a writer. There are times when it’s just going to be uncomfortable. Maybe I’m not inspired, or the writing is so bad I cringe when I read it, or there doesn’t seem to be enough time to get it all done, or I’m just overwhelmed by the sheer volume of words it takes to share my ideas. When it’s most uncomfortable is when I have to surrender to the discomfort. Once I stop fighting the uncomfortableness of a situation, I feel free.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?

I’m going to cheat! Two things: Earl Grey Rooibos tea and the kundalini exercise “breath of fire.”

What does a typical day look like for you?

Workdays always start with a workout. I have a really great gym with programming that combines heavy weight lifting with interval training, so it’s a thorough and intense workout. On the way home in the car, I eat a post-workout snack (sweet potato and chicken, usually) and eat a full breakfast when I get home. I usually do the newspaper crossword while I eat, or flip through a cookbook for inspiration. I try to get dressed in real clothes (rather than workout clothes) at least three days a week, so after primping a little, I clean up my email inbox and usually do some social media work. I try to post to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at least once a day, just to check in with my audience. I really like Twitter, so I’m likely to tweet throughout the day.

At lunch, I usually read a novel, then I spend the afternoon writing blog posts or dealing with other business stuff. One of the things that’s been surprising is how much time I spend on little marketing activities: sharing recipes with other web sites, answering Q&As for other bloggers, managing the non-writing projects associated with our business. At 5:00, I try to either go for a walk or do kundalini yoga at home. Then I check email again, clean up my inbox, and start working on diner.

When we’re actively working on a cookbook, the email and social media stuff is replaced with recipe testing and writing, but I try not to let the online interactions drop too much because they’re so integral to staying in touch with the people who will eventually buy our books.

Describe your typical writing routine.

When it’s Ass in Chair time, I usually do a big cookup once a week to prepare. I stock the fridge with food that’s easy to eat on-the-go or that can be reheated quickly: chili, salad stuff, hunks of meat in the slow cooker. I keep my workout routine because that physical exertion helps me think clearly. When it’s time to sit and start typing, I make a cup of tea and set a timer for an hour so that I remember to get up every hour and move around. I do squats or lunges, walk up and down the stairs, lie on the floor and stretch out my back, or use a lacrosse ball to roll the knots out of my chest and shoulders. When I know I’m going to be writing all day, I make a schedule on the whiteboard behind my desk of the exercises I’ll do every hour. As the day goes on, I also add meditation to the list. I almost always write my first drafts in BBEdit because there’s no formatting nonsense to get in the way, but then I paste my text into Word to add formatting to help direct the designers. I’m convinced there’s not efficient way to write well; it’s just a matter of finding the tricks that work for you and making it feel as comfortable as possible. There are days when I can write quickly and crank out a lot of work, but overall, the creative process is not about efficiency, it’s about creating something awesome.

What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing nonfiction?

I enjoy writing nonfiction because it helps me process my experience with the world and, if I do it well, my stories resonate with other people and are a catalyst for their own emotional reactions. That’s heady, satisfying stuff!

My blog started in 2008 as a place for me to amuse myself. I think I had about six readers, including my mom, my husband, and my 6:00 a.m. Crossfit class. Now I have about 200,000 people reading it every month. That’s presented me with the challenge of learning how to share enough that people feel a connection to me, without crossing over into being too personal. I still cover the same topics, but the way I write about them has changed slightly. I’m less likely to divulge very personal information, but I still like to open my heart as much as possible. It’s tricky, and I’m always learning where my boundaries lie — and my readers’ boundaries are.

Why do you write?

Because my head would explode if I didn’t.

What do you do for a day job?

I’m very fortunate and grateful that writing cookbooks, magazine articles, and my blog has become my day job. Because we self published our books, they’ve become a significant and steady source of income. My web site generates revenue through affiliate relationships like Amazon and some Paleo food retailers, but I don’t sell advertising.

What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities?

In person, I’m very in touch with my emotions, and I don’t hold back when I’m writing. I think my biggest strength is that I’m willing to be pretty vulnerable in my writing. It takes a lot to embarrass me, and if relating a story about a time I was sad, happy, confused, triumphant, or angry makes someone else feel less alone? That’s just about the best thing that can happen for a writer. I also write the way I speak: I cuss like a sailor sometimes and sometimes get so worked up when I’m ranting about something that tears burst out of my eyes — I try to share all of that in my blog and in my cookbooks.

What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?

I love to read the kind of fiction that takes you to another world and introduces you to people you’d never meet on your own. Some of my favorites are The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, all of the Dick Francis mysteries and Lee Child thrillers. But I’m really awful at writing fiction. All of my characters sound like me, and as willing as I am to kind of let myself be ugly in some of my blog posts, I can’t allow my characters to do terrible things, though some of them must! Maybe some day the mystery novel I’ve been writing inside my head will make it to the page.

What’s your proudest moment as a writer?

It’s really lovely when I meet people who’ve read my cookbooks and they describe how the information and recipes have made their lives better. I’ve heard so many wonderful stories of people learning to cook for themselves for the first time, or how they’ve turned their health around and feel better than ever. That’s really rewarding and makes the world feel smaller and friendlier.

What are your goals as a writer?

I want to keep doing what I’m doing; I love it so much. But… my ego pushes me to learn to write about food like Peter King (MMQB column in Sports Illustrated) writes about football. His descriptions flirt with hyperbole, but never cross the line, so the football players seem, simultaneously, like superheroes and wholly human. He’s knowledgeable, inspiring, sometimes biting, and always entertaining.

Any final thoughts or advice?

Ass. In. Chair. (And don’t forget to take quick movement and meditation breaks.)

 

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