by Jenn McKinlay

First, a little backstory. I started writing the Cupcake Bakery Mysteries thirteen years ago—beginning with Sprinkle with Murder and on through Strawberried Alive and now am currently writing the fifteenth volume in the series Sugar Plum Poisoned with the sixteenth on deck. To be perfectly honest, I thought this series with cupcakes as a hook was going to be done in three books, maybe five if I got really lucky. It never occurred to me that I’d be penning them into the double digits.

And they’re not just cozy mysteries. Each book contains at least four cupcake recipes—recipes I create—a process which usually entails me thinking about what I want to eat while writing and putting whatever that is in the book as I go. For example, on a particularly tough writing day, I decided a Mojito Cupcake would hit the spot—and then had to double back to my kitchen to figure out the recipe particulars after the manuscript was finished. I average four recipes per book, so that’s a lot of cupcakes.

To my surprise, about seven years ago, readers started asking for a cookbook with just the recipes in it. I had no idea how to go about such an endeavor so I put it aside for when I had more time. As you can imagine with three mysteries and one women’s fiction due every year, time is a precious commodity in my world.

Still, the idea wouldn’t go away, so I urged my agent to ask my editor about the feasibility of self-publishing a cupcake cookbook. The publisher thought about it and thought about it, which I believe was them taking a beat to determine who really owns the copyright on the recipes and did they want to do anything with them first. I explained to my agent that I was mainly interested in crafting the cookbook at the request of the readers but also as a marketing tool to promote the series. This seemed to tip the scale and my publisher said, “Go for it.”

I am lucky. I know of other foodie mystery authors whose publishers have told them no in regards to creating a cookbook of their recipes, citing copyright reasons. Should I ever write another food based mystery series, I will ask my agent to make certain that my contract states that the recipes are mine to do with as I will. Here’s the weird thing about recipes and copyright. The list of ingredients is not protected by copyright law but the instructions and accompanying photos are. ( Here’s a link for more details about recipe copyright for those who want to know more.)

I have called producing this cookbook an endeavor, a joyful one, but still quite the journey.

Here’s the short list on what I learned:

Have a chief baking officer

Had I been smart, I would have photographed all of the cupcakes I created while writing each Cupcake Bakery Mystery. I did not. I usually banged out the recipes on deadline and there were no photos just a lot of dirty dishes and cupcakes for breakfast. Where did I get the recipes? Mostly, from my imagination or inspired by something I saw in passing in a bakery or restaurant. As I mentioned previously, I tend to write the cupcake that I’m longing to eat and figure out the details later. It helps that I’m a baker at heart and have been creating pastries, pies, cakes, and cookies since I was a kid. For those intimidated by baking, here’s a great blog to get you over the fear: Cake Baking Tips.

Now I had absolutely no time to recreate all of these cupcakes, but amazingly, I had hired a personal assistant a few years ago – Christie Conlee of Beyond the Pages LLC – who also happens to be a home baker. She baked every cupcake, vetting each recipe, and took amazing photos, creating the basis of the cookbook. She is my chief baking officer forever and ever and we’re already planning to publish a second volume.

Crafting a companion cookbook is not as hard as you fear

Yes, it is. Ha! No, seriously, the hard part is already done. The recipes have been crafted and published and you’re not trying to think up anything that’s going to razzle dazzle the culinary world. You’re simply taking recipes you’ve already dreamed up and putting them conveniently in one volume. It’s a lot of cutting and pasting but not much more than that. The nice thing about having the recipes already published was that they were copyedited by professionals who knew how to format a recipe. They were the ones who taught me to write out teaspoon and Tablespoon and start the directions with preheating the oven in exactly same way for every entry. That gave me my own signature style, which my assistant fine tuned when she baked the recipes and edited the cookbook.

If you’re creating a cookbook from scratch, my recommendation is to create uniformity in your directions. Just like you have your own voice when writing fiction, recipes reflect their creator as well. Study your favorite cookbooks and see how they put it all together, then figure out how you want your cookbook to read.

Self-publishing a companion cookbook will give you skills you never anticipated

So, for me the recipes already existed and my assistant did all the boots on the ground work of baking and photographs. It should have been easy peasy, right? Wellllllll…sort of. I didn’t have to create any fresh recipes but I did have to figure out the layout of the cookbook. I spent a lot of time perusing my favorite cookbooks (shout out to The Magnolia Bakery Handbook) and admiring how they paired the photos with the recipes and how it reflected their brand.
Because my assistant gave me so many photos to work with, I spent weeks determining which pictures of the cupcakes I wanted where and how big or small they needed to be. It was a lot of decision making for a second guesser like me. Thankfully, my chief baking officer let me do whatever I wanted with the pictures. There was a lot of trial and error and a professional book designer could have done it more easily and with a better result, undoubtedly, but I had dragged my feet and was under a time crunch to get ‘er done so I did.

Hire a professional cover artist

This is critical. DO NOT (unless you are an artist/graphic designer) under any circumstances attempt to create your own cover. This goes for any self-publishing endeavor, in my opinion. Always, always, always hire a professional to do the things that are beyond your skill set (art and editing being the biggies). My cover artist, Lyndsey, from Llewellen Designs, is amazing. I sent her photos, told her I wanted the cookbook to have the same vibe as the series, and that I needed it to be a pdf that was compatible with Ingram Spark’s publishing program and BOOM! She nailed it.

Cookbooks are best in print

Yes, there is an e-book option for the cookbook. It’s a whole three dollars cheaper. But the layout for every single e-book is different, which is fine if you’re just dealing with text but you throw in fifty color photos of different sizes and it’s complete chaos. And while, of course I’ve cooked from a recipe on my phone or tablet, I am more comfortable splattering canned pumpkin on a paper book that I can replace than my tablet, which I do not want to replace for at least five years.

Why did I choose to go with Ingram Spark? This is such a personal decision but I wanted the book to have Ingram’s broad distribution and I didn’t like (still don’t) that Amazon has become the one stop shop for self-pubbing. But again, for me, this cookbook wasn’t about profit as much as marketing, so you have to determine what your needs are and choose the platform accordingly. When I was dithering about the process one of the online articles I read was from the Master Class series: How to Make and Publish a Cookbook. I found this tremendously helpful as I truly had no clue.

The writing community is incredibly supportive of this wing nut sort of madness

One thing that has surprised the heck out of me is the support this wild endeavor has received from my fellow authors. From inviting me to blog about the cookbook to endorsing the cookbook to actually holding giveaways of their own food centric mysteries in support of this crazy cookbook idea—which I honestly thought only a handful of readers would care about—well, I’m a bit verklempt and truly touched by the confidence my fellow authors have shown in this cookbook. So, rally your community. They’ll show up like you can’t even imagine!

Any questions? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors facebook page!


Jenn McKinlay is the New York Times, USA Today, and Publisher’s Weekly bestselling author of several mystery and romance series. She is also the winner of the RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for romantic comedy and the Fresh Fiction award for best cozy mystery. Her work has been translated into multiple languages in countries all over the world. A TEDx speaker, she is always happy to talk books, writing, reading, and the creative process to anyone who cares to listen. She lives in sunny Arizona in a house that is overrun with kids, pets, and her husband’s guitars. Follow her on Instagram.

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