I love it when authors find great success outside of the New York publishing model. Authors Deana Gunn and Wona Miniati did just that with their book, Cooking with Trader Joe’s. I hope this story will inspire authors to keep getting out there because when you do, anything is possible!
1) Where did you get the idea to do a Trader Joe’s cookbook?
Deana: We really geared Cooking with All Things Trader Joe’s to people like us-people that want to enjoy great meals but don’t have hours to spend in the kitchen every day cooking it all from scratch. I’m a working mom of two, and I just don’t have much time for cooking, but I still want to cook delicious, healthy homemade food for my family every night. I had naturally started incorporating all the great finds at Trader Joe’s into my cooking over the years. I love the high quality, bargain gourmet foods there. The “light bulb” moment came when I was standing in the aisle at Trader Joe’s and someone asked me how to use quinoa. I rattled off a few recipes. Then I noticed another person holding a jar of curry sauce, scratching his head and hesitating to put it in his cart. I went home thinking, “Why on earth isn’t there a Trader Joe’s cookbook?” The idea was unique and it had a built-in market. I called Wona that night and the rest is history.
Wona: I immediately loved the idea. I knew there were many people like us, eager to make the most of time-saving products like a ready-made crust or a gourmet sauce. I like to use the analogy of a restaurant “prep kitchen,” where a prep crew washes and chops veggies, makes sauces and mixtures, and gets all the ingredients ready. The chef comes in later and whips up gourmet meals in a snap. We think of Trader Joe’s as our prep crew, and we’re the chefs that create the magic in minutes.
2) How long did it take you to create this book?
Deana: >From conception to shipped product, it was about 10 months. We wrote all the recipes and took all the photos ourselves, and after that point we started calling on family, friends, and old colleagues. There’s a huge skill set among people you know – and they’re usually happy to help. Our recipe testers were primarily comprised of family and friends, from novice cooks to trained chefs. Our designer was a past colleague. Even our editor was my father-in-law who to this day loves to come up with tiny little wordsmithing improvements despite the fact that we’re in our third printing!
3) What are some of the biggest obstacles that you faced?
Wona: It’s all about not being afraid to take a chance or take a risk. When you self-publish, you bear all the risk and responsibility yourself; you really put your money where your mouth is. We often had to make decisions without all the data we wanted. For example, large publishers have teams of salespeople who poll book buyers to assess the demand for a book, and based on their collective feedback, they can make an informed decision about how many books to print. Obviously, we didn’t have that luxury, so we had to take an educated guess and confidently pull the trigger. It was a bit nerve-wracking to place our first order for 10,000 books. It took a good measure of gutsiness! But it motivated us to work really hard to promote our book. Because we were a first-time publisher with just one title, we initially faced obstacles to being carried by the top wholesalers and distributors. We also weren’t sure of how quickly volume would build, so we decided to manage our risk and do the fulfillment ourselves at first. The first 10,000 books literally shipped out of Deana’s garage. By the time we were ready for our 3rd printing, we mustered up the courage to print 50,000 books, but I still remember waking up in the middle of the night wondering if we’d made a disastrous mistake.
4) Did you have any experience in publishing before you started this project?
Deana: When we started this project, Wona was a hi-tech marketing consultant and I was literally a rocket scientist. We met as engineering students at MIT and have been great friends since. Over the years, we found ourselves as busy moms in traditional fast-paced careers, and that’s really a big part of what inspired this book. We wanted to share our know-how with other time-starved professionals and busy families. We didn’t have direct experience in publishing, but found that we were quick learners and loved figuring out how to do it. We had skills that we could leverage – we’re both good problem solvers and Wona has a great business savvy and intuition. Wona laughs at me because I’m always quick to plot data and whip out excel charts and projections whenever we are making decisions. We’re always talking about how we learn something new and interesting every day. In the end it’s the passion that drives the process.
5) What was your toughest marketing challenge?
Wona: Our toughest marketing challenge was breaking into the big bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders. In the end, it was our fans that did it for us. After a story ran in the Sacramento Bee, people flocked to the local Borders to find the book. We got a call from the bookstore to ship them 24 copies. The morning that they received the books, they called us and ordered 36 more. Soon, the word spread and individual stores started calling us directly for books. After that point, Borders headquarters called us and that was our big break. We are now carried nationally by most major bookstores, and we’re in distribution with the top distributors, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Partners. It all started with one store. We were lucky to have strong customer demand create a place for us on the shelves. We were also thrilled when independent bookstores across the country selected us as an American Book Association IndieNext Pick in August 2008. It was a huge honor and we love the response we’ve received from indie bookstores.
6) What’s your best marketing secret?
Deana: I think it’s keeping a genuine connection with our customers. Everyone says that you are your own best marketer, and we couldn’t agree more. We’re always involved deeply with our own marketing and promotion, whether it’s pursuing big media, attending a tiny local event, or thinking of creative ways to grow. There’s a level of passion, commitment, and motivation that no one else will ever have but you. Whether you’re self-published or published by a major publishing house, take the promotion of your book as your personal responsibility and take the initiative to seek professional expertise where you need it.
Wona: It’s also challenging to get the attention of big newspapers, especially when you’re self-published. Think about how many books are published every year and how many of them cross editors desks every single day. You have to plug away tirelessly and build momentum through whatever avenues you can… slowly reaching a critical mass. Don’t underestimate the personal connection with the reader and the power of word of mouth. We were thrilled when the Wall Street Journal contacted us – we were featured in the WSJ just this last month.
7) What do you attribute this success to?
Wona: The answer is two-fold. First, we are a great team and work really well together. Because we LOVE what we do — it’s fun, not a chore — we think creatively around the clock because we enjoy it, not because we have to. As a result, we’re always coming up with new ideas, we work really hard, and we’re always researching and learning new things (that’s the MIT training coming through) so we can accomplish a lot very quickly. The second part of this answer is that we were really clever about our choice of material. Mind you, we are well aware that if we had published “Deana’s and Wona’s favorite recipes”, the market for this book would probably be limited to our families and only our closest of friends, who would grudgingly buy the book out of guilt. Do what you love, but be smart about what you publish.
8) If you had to do it all over, what would you do differently?
Deana: Jumping into the publishing industry, we made some tactical mistakes because we just didn’t know any better. For example, we didn’t realize that publishing is very cyclical and there are standard times of the year when books are published. The month we chose to come out with our book, November, was probably the worst possible timing. Holiday merchandising decisions had already been made, and all the key book reviews had been done.
Wona: Related to this, we didn’t realize that the top book reviewers review advance galleys only (i.e., BEFORE books are published) so we missed the opportunity to get reviewed by top reviewers. Next time, we’ll be better informed about the publishing process and timing. Fortunately, even though our timing was bad, we were lucky to be covered by the press almost immediately which made it a great launch after all.
9) What are your future plans for this book? More books? A series?
Wona: The response to this cookbook has been phenomenal, and we continue to receive requests for more titles in the series. We plan to build a series of cookbooks for Trader Joe’s junkies like us. In addition to printed cookbooks, we will soon launch a new website allowing Trader Joe’s fans to upload their own recipes and even generate a master grocery list to print out for easy shopping. Finally, we are creating our own radio show which will begin airing in mid-December. We’re taking this easy gourmet cooking platform more broadly and reaching people in the ways that are most convenient for them, be it print, online, or radio.
10) What advice can you give to new authors considering the self-publishing route?
Deana: Ask yourself who would buy this book. Ask yourself why people would buy this book. Ask yourself why the media would talk about you. Look for your niche. Have a very clear picture of how you will differentiate yourself, because publishing is a tough business and competition is fierce. For authors who are writing books that are primarily text (no photos), on-demand printing is an option which doesn’t require the upfront financial investment involved with traditional printing.
To listen to an interview I just did with Deana and Wona here’s a link to The Publishing Insider’s Show!
FMI on Cooking with Trader Joe’s or to get your very own copy of this fabulous cookbook head on over to Cookingwithtraderjoes.com
Great to read a success story, and think how it might apply to my not-yet-success. (But I’m trying. 300 to sell out of a spare bedroom isn’t quite the same, but we can dream…) Thanks for a really helpful interview.
Hey Sheila, don’t give up – these girls are inspiring and I wish you the same kind of success!
Take care, Penny
One of the things I love about Trader Joe’s, especially the great organic selection of baby spinach, arugula, and mixed greens. It makes it so easy and convenient to make a salad.
Trader Joe brand named products are hit and miss. I’ve never seen TJs chile rellenos.
I do feel this is a good story, one of the things I love about trade hoes is that they get it right most of the time.