Published Podcast Ep. 11 | Interview with Melissa Joulwan and David Humphreys, Author and Photographer of Well Fed Weeknights
Today's episode features Melissa Joulwan and David Humphreys, author and photographer of Well Fed, Well Fed 2, and the newly released Well Fed Weeknights! Mel and Dave, as we'll refer to them, explain how distribution into bookstores can be a game-changer and offer advice for authors beginning to distribute their books.
Q: Melissa and Dave, welcome to Published! To start off, why did you decide to write a book?
A (M): I’ve been a writer since I was a little kid. It was literally a lifelong dream to be a published author. In 2007 I was involved in Roller Derby in Austin, Texas, and wrote my first book, which was published by a big New York publisher. The whole experience left me feeling a little cold and sad, so I started a blog for fun. I was blogging about the things that were interesting to me, so I wrote about Crossfit, and I was learning about nutrition. The Paleo Diet was on the rise and I started following it. The blog kind of evolved from me just talking to people I knew to building an audience. After about two years they started pestering me for a cookbook, so I took a stab at the publishing world again, but this time Dave and I decided to do it our way instead of working with a big publisher.
Q: Was it the creative control in particular that you thought was missing from your first experience with a traditional house?
A (M): It was the creative control and the marketing side. I felt really let down by the team at the publisher because, though a roller derby book was an unusual thing to market, I spent a lot of time thinking about where I knew roller girls might find it and how to position it. It ended up in the sports section, but it’s not a sports book. It’s more about following your dreams, believing in who you are, empowerment, silliness, and some about roller derby. Also, if you could have been a fly on the wall the day they showed me the first cover they proposed. I couldn’t believe it. I was crying, and there were multiple phone calls to my agent trying to work it out. I really liked my editor, but she had a very different idea for the book than I did. Ultimately I followed her advice, but pushing aside what I felt in my gut was right didn’t sit well with me.
Q: You’ve basically set up your own independent imprint and were selling the book on your own for a little bit, then you approached Greenleaf for distribution help. How did you know it was time to get some help on that front and take it beyond your Amazon sales?
A (D): We started out self-publishing through a print-on-demand service, and we were just lucky enough to hit the market at a great time. We were selling a lot, which is a fantastic problem to have, but there were a few things to think about. We sat down and did the math, and if we printed the book ourselves, warehoused it, and found a distributor, we were going to make more money. If we took on more risk, we would make more money. We looked at Greenleaf and realized that you could unlock brick-and-mortar stores for us, which would absolutely be an advantage. The other thing was the quality. The books had low quality paper and ink, the binding wasn’t solid, so people would open the books and they’d fly apart like decks of cards. All of those things together were reasons for us to reconsider what we’d done and move to a model of printing thousands at a time.
Q: What’s the biggest takeaway from working with our Distribution team to get your book out into the marketplace? Did it impact the way you wrote your second and third books?
A (D): It did. The biggest thing that we found was that getting the book into brick-and-mortar stores gave our online brand more exposure. In the past the website had been the road to the book, and now the book had become the road to the website. That was significant to us, and it primed a path for the second book. One of things that changed for us with the second book was that we needed to start thinking about marketing a lot earlier. For the first book we decided to put it together and see what happens. For the second book we needed to take a step back and have a better plan as we got closer to launch because we had other people involved.
Q: Can you describe a little more about that, in terms of what you developed as a marketing strategy to support the launches of those additional books?
A (M): I wish I could tell you I had this master plan when I started, but it was all very organic. I started my blog to amuse myself and it just went from there. I remember when we had our meeting with Greenleaf to talk about the timeline for Well Fed 2. I almost had a heart attack when I realized how much sooner we’d have to have things pulled together to present to retailers. That’s one of the challenges of self-publishing. You’re doing so much of the development of the creative work and the marketing, which has huge advantages because we get to touch everything and make sure it’s the way we want it, but it’s quite a bit to juggle.
In terms of marketing and how I promote our work, my website has always been the hub of everything that I do, but because social media has grown so much I also have the usual suspects, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. With Well Fed Weeknights, we actually hired an external PR firm to work with us for a year leading up to the launch. The purpose was to try to get a broader foundation in print, because I don’t know how to reach those people. Still, true to form, the online stuff is really what’s driven so much of our sales and continues to build our community. We have a really good relationship with Whole 30, and because I got involved with Paleo so early and because there were so many people starting around the same time, we’re like the class of 2010. We’ve become for each other a colleague/competition network where we support each other, but we’re also in competition. It’s great for guest posts, podcasts, and being part of online summits. One of the keys I’ve had in success is that competitors do work together. People’s cookbook libraries are very large, and having them like all of us is better for all of us.
The other thing I’ve been doing the past two years is a weekly newsletter. It’s part personal letter where I’m very chatty about what’s going on in my life. But I also have a weekly meal plan that I send out. Having that distinct content every week gives people a reason to look for the newsletter.
Q: You mentioned earlier that the extra reach from brick-and-mortar stores had an impact on the overall business. Can you talk about that a little bit more and maybe give some examples of how that’s changed how you run your business?
A (M): One of the things that was fun for us, having been an online-centric business in the beginning, was when we heard from people who bought the book but had never been to the website. For better or for worse, there’s a level of credibility that comes from being in a brick-and-mortar store that you don’t always get if you only have an online presence. It still means something to people to walk into Barnes & Noble and see a book on a shelf. The other thing I think is really cool is that, because our book was in Book People in Austin we were contacted by a publishing company that does special interest magazines. Because we own all of our content, we’re able to do these special interest magazines with them a couple of times a year. It’s a way that we’re able to reuse content in a new format. We still control the content, we do the creative work, but they do the publishing and distribution on their side, and they sell them in the checkout lane at Whole Foods. That wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t in a physical store.
Q: For listeners who are just starting to explore the world of distribution, what advice would you give someone?
A (D): The first thing that comes to mind is to know your goal. With the first book the goal was just to do what we wanted to do with it. We had no sales goal. For different people writing different books, maybe you want to be a speaker, maybe you want it to increase your credibility as a professional, maybe you want to be a working author. All of those have specific goals, and I think all of those have specific strategies to think about. Once you know your goal, plan backwards from there. I would also say it’s important to know your niche, to understand what’s already been said, how you’re going to say it differently. When we started there was no one talking about Paleo. The first couple of books came out and looked like something your doctor would hand you, and we wanted to compete with that and present food that was both delicious and good for you. Now everyone’s doing that, so for the last book we needed to figure out a sub-niche, which was “What can you do quickly?”
A (M): The other thing I would add is that, for someone who is self publishing, you’ve already shown that you’re strong minded and maybe a little stubborn. It’s important to work with partners that buy into what you’re trying to do. When we came to Greenleaf, you didn’t try to convince us to be something other than what we were. I think it’s really advantageous to find partners who want to support your vision, as opposed to shoehorning you into some predetermined track. That’s one of the things I appreciated about Greenleaf. From the beginning it felt really supportive, and the assumption was “Of course we’re all going to be successful,” which was really nice.
Q: Okay Mel, fun question. I’m sure you’ve tested and tried many, many, many, many recipes over the years that you’ve been doing Paleo blogging and cookbooks. What’s your favorite Well Fed recipe of all time?
A (M): That’s almost impossible to answer, but lately one of my favorites right now is the Banh Mi Bowl from Well Fed Weeknights, which is our newest cookbook. It’s all of the really good parts of a banh mi sandwich without the bread. It’s very flavorful and fresh, great for summer. I can pretend I’m eating a banh mi sandwich without eating that really delicious baguette that’s usually on the outside.
Melissa Joulwan is the author of the best-selling Well Fed cookbook series and the blog www.MelJoulwan.com, where she writes about her triumphs and failures in the gym, in the kitchen, and in life. Her newest cookbook is Well Fed Weeknights: Complete Paleo Meals in 45 Minutes Or Less (November 1, 2016).
Well Fed 2 was named one of the best books of 2013 by Amazon.com and was a Washington Post best seller. Her first cookbook Well Fed appeared on the Wall Street Journal best sellers list, and she’s the author of the recipes in the New York Times bestselling book It Starts With Food by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig. She writes a column for Paleo Magazine and her recipes have been featured in print inExperience Life, Low Sugar Living, Inspire Health, and Where Women Cook, and online at Buzzfeed.com, FoodNetwork.com, Nylon.com, PopSugar.com, and Men’s Journal. She has been a featured chef for U.S. Wellness Meats and Lava Lake Lamb, as well as an instructor at Whole Foods.
David holds a Master’s degree in cartooning from the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. His photographs and illustrations have appeared in the best-selling Well Fed cookbooks, as well as the New York Times best-seller It Starts with Food.
David believes that the combination of images and words in comics makes them a far better tool for communicating potentially difficult subjects—including emotion—than words or images can do on their own. He feels equally strongly that that good food is one of the fundamentals of feeling awesome. He’s currently working on a book that tells the story of good nutrition through powerful comics.