A Whole Lot of Little Books


Publishing dozens and dozens of little books can earn big money.

So, here’s something that bubbled up during a marathon Sunday gab with my Gramma…

About a week before, my Friends and I explored topics we could talk about for 30 minutes without prep. One simple, elegant question revealed all our interests, expertise, and experiences.

Keep that in mind; I’ll circle back to it in a bit.

Now, my gab with Gramma was all over the map (as always) and bumped into economic inequalities, which led to her pulling out a bit of research on the slave economy of the South. Her preferred resource was, of all things, a cookbook.

A wee little cookbook she picked up at a museum gift store 10 years ago.

Every bit of that last sentence has significance.

The cookbook’s author, Patricia B. Mitchell, compiled research and recipes into a 37-page book (with more research notes than recipes) that was printed on letter-sized paper, folded in half, and stapled – totally homemade.

The book is Plantation Row Slave Cabin Cooking: The Roots of Soul Food, and is as niche-y as it gets – a particular people doing a particular thing in a particular place at a particular time. It’s like a mini-nano-micro-niche.

Note that my gramma-the-historian keeps it near to hand, so it must be valuable. Its information sure moved our economics conversation along … and then derailed it. :-)

Because when I went to buy myself a copy, I found Mrs. Mitchell had published 58 more books like it over 25-ish years and had sold, at last count, 750,000 copies.

Wait … what?


With titles like Dining Cars and Depots: Train Cooking in AmericaPack the Skillet: American Pioneer CookingThe Great American Apple: At the Very Core of Our Culture, and True Grist: Buckwheat Flour and Cornmeal Recipes.

Food History is a pretty narrow category (to my mind, anyway) and then she cut it extremely fine. Where 4 or 5 topics on Colonial cooking could have been chapters in a small book, she instead, published them individually as books that were much smaller.

How small?

The few I peeked at were around 12,000 words. That is, say, 120 to 150 minutes of talking – a short workshop or a long college lecture.

Fifty-nine books, all in the same food history category but each quite particular.

Her books were all research, but for you, for me, our books could be on/from those things we can talk about off the top of our heads. One long talk or 4 or 5 related short ones, and we’d have a Mitchells-size book to sell.

Her cookbooks are sold at museum gift shops in nearly every state, and even outside the US. And museums are the perfect place for her kind of thing, yes? I can totally see the many train museums offering that train depot cookbook, and I’m sure my gramma picked up the slave cooking book at an African-American history museum, as our genealogy is her passion.

And so there are NYT best-selling books that make fortunes – books that can take a year to write, that require a publisher and sharing the wealth – and then there are these well-researched (and self-published) little cookbooks written for very specific passionate audiences and sold where those people gather. For $4.50 each.

More than 750,000 of them. #dothemath

All because her bed-and-breakfast guests asked for her recipes, and on one life-changing day, she hosted a museum director who asked if he could buy some of her cookbooks for resale. Word got out, folks ordered more and also asked for more topics, she delivered, and the rest is *coff* history.

Something to think about as you go through the week doing all those things you so easily and expertly do, knowing all those things you’ve learned along the way and learning something new.

All those little things that could build up to something quite big, and add up to quite a lot.

Write on,

p.s. The cookbook facet of her books is key to their success, I feel sure. Folks don’t just learn the history, they get to engage with it in a tangible and visceral way. Maybe think on that, too, as you select topics for your little books – not just what you can tell and teach folks, but what can you lead them to do?

Photo by _ HealthyMond on Unsplash