Susanne Myers is a blogger and author of 35 cookbooks that focus on frugal homemaking from scratch. She’ll share how she grew her popular blog, Hillbilly Housewife, from 0 to 50k newsletter subscribers; what inspired her to publish her cookbooks as e-books; and how she engages her readers.
Q. I’m a cookbook and recipe fanatic. I’m always trying something new every other day, it seems like. So when I heard you are a cookbook author, I was super excited. Can you tell me first of all, where we can find your blog?
A. It’s HillbillyHousewife.com and it’s all about frugal homemaking from scratch. The idea behind the blog is to bring back the skills our grandmothers had like making a pot of soup from scratch, or making meals from bits of leftover ham. I think a lot of that has been lost in the past generation or two. We’ve gotten so used to picking up convenience foods at the store. I’m hoping to revive some of those old-fashioned kitchen skills, because there’s just nothing like a homemade meal.
Q. How wonderful. Tell me about the name. Sounds like a story behind it.
A. There is and it’s a bit of a long one. Bear with me. I’m actually the second owner of the site and I’m originally from Germany. Born and raised there. English is my second language. I came to the US as an au pair and met my husband here. After my daughter was born, I was looking into a way to make money working from home. I tried a few different things including direct sales and working as a VA (virtual assistant… basically an office manager or secretary who works remotely) as well as a ghostwriter for nonfiction. I was also running an online meal planning website and service with a good friend of mine.
We’ve since sold the business, but while I was working on marketing our meal planner, I came across this old-fashioned, black and white website with no photos called HillbillyHousewife.com. It looked like something from the very early days of the Internet. It hadn’t been updated in years from what I could tell, but it consistently outranked us for one of our main keywords – menu planning. So I approached the owner. I was hoping I could talk her into linking to our meal planning website from the menu planning article on her site. We got to talking and I ended up buying the site from her.
At first I thought I’d just let it sit and include a few links to our meal planning service. Then the emails started coming in. There were a lot of active readers of the site and this entire online community had grown up around the recipes and articles… without social media and even without any sort of newsletter.
I sort of feel in love with the community and felt called to serve it. So I started working on updating the website, adding more content, publishing a weekly newsletter. Later I added social media and back in 2012 I kept hearing about people publishing kindle cookbooks and thought why not give it a try.
Q. Wow, what an amazing story, all right. Do you mind telling me how much buying that website cost?
A. I’m sorry, I can’t disclose that. It was part of our sales agreement.
Q. Sure, no problem! My mind is a-whirl and I don’t even know where to start. Germany, kindle cookbooks, all these phrases are leaping out at me. But I will take a stab at it. Let’s go back to 2012. Tell me how you started Kindle cookbooks. Are your cookbooks picture-heavy?
A. It had been on my radar because I’d seen other cookbook website owners create small, highly targeted recipe books. I decided to give it a try myself. This was back before we had things like Vellum or Draft To Digital and formatting was a big issue. It was also back in the days of the original black and white kindle. Because of all of that the only images in my cookbooks are the cover graphic. I wouldn’t even use bulleted lists for the ingredients because the formatting from word to .mobi files would mess up.
Q. That makes sense. What was your first cookbook called? And how many do you have now?
A. The first real cookbook I published is called Homemade Jellies And Jams. It still sells to this day. I did have what I would consider more of a short report about oatmeal up before that. I used it to get comfortable with the process and never sold more than a handful of copies. It’s been a long time, but from what I remember I unpublished it within a few weeks. I consider the Jelly and Jam cookbook my first real published Kindle book.
According to Bookreport I now have 36 books out, but that number seems slightly inflated. Let me count. 35 books, one of them a box set.
Q. Do you come up with your own recipes? Are they from a little card holder in your kitchen literally from your grandma?
A. Some of them do start with family recipes including dishes my grandmothers used to make, things my mom has always cooked, and a lot of them also came from my wonderful Mother-in-Law who taught me how to make real southern biscuits and the best meat loaf you’ve ever eaten.
Others started with recipes I’ve come across in cookbooks, magazines, and now of course online. I start with a few recipes, keep what I like, toss what I don’t, and play around with it until I’ve come up with something that works for me and my family. There’s a lot of trial and error, which is I think how most of us cook.
Q. Mmm…meatloaf. I will have to check it out. Do you also have them available in print?
A. No, I don’t have them available in print. I’ve had the occasional request from readers, but haven’t taken the time to figure out paperback publishing. I probably should.
Q. I just glanced at your Amazon page. Holy cow. You’ve been busy the last seven years. You publish under “Hillbilly Housewife.” I have my guesses, but why do you go by that instead of your real name?
A. I mostly do. I use my first name on the site as well. I don’t hide my last name but the branding has always been Susanne – The Hillbilly Housewife.
Q. How many pages on average do your cookbooks run?
A. A lot of the old cookbooks are in the 60 page range. Most of them included about 34 to 40 recipes. My latest cookbook – The Frugal Instant Pot is quite a bit longer at 118 pages. That was intentional. Not only did I want to include more information, more tips, and more recipes, I’m also seeing more KU readers and those longer books help.
Q. Susanne – The Hillbilly Housewife… from Germany. I don’t see a German cookbook. Am I right? Is that coming someday?
A. It might. So far there hasn’t been much of a market for it. I’ve shared a few recipes on the site, but it isn’t what people are looking for.
Q. Seven years is a long time to collect data… and email addresses. You have 15k email subscribers, correct? How many did you start with when you bought the site, and how did you grow it to 15k?
A. I started with 0. The previous owner did not have an email list at all. At its peak the list had grown organically to just under 50K. I ended up stepping back from the site and just letting it sit from about 2016 to 2018. I’d worked on it for close to a decade and needed a break. I was working on other projects that were more fun, exciting, and profitable at the time. But I found I missed it and got back to seriously working on it late last year. In the process I scrubbed the list so those 15K now are active subscribers who are opening and reading my emails.
Q. That’s amazing, 0 to 50k. What do you think are some things that contributed to that?
A. It was all organic. I shared great content on my site and told people I was publishing a weekly newsletter. For years and years it was this very involved thing (first as a pdf file, later within the email itself) that included several recipes, articles, frugal tips, and a chance for readers to request recipes from other subscribers. I tried to make it fun, informative and interactive. Word spread, and a lot of my subscribers came through word of mouth. Having a site with thousands of recipes and the organic traffic that comes with that didn’t hurt either.
Q. I remember those blogging heydays. How much time would you say you spend now on your blog?
A. I come and go in spurts. On average, maybe 2 hours a week. More if I’m actively writing a cookbook. I always find that I need to add recipes for things like homemade buttermilk mix on the blog so I can link to it from the cookbook.
Q. What kind of income can one expect in the cookbook publishing business? What trends have you seen over the years? What was your best month?
A. Back in 2013 they were selling like hotcakes. My best month back then was $3,534.92 with just a handful of books out. What surprised me was how well they continued to sell once I had myself established as an author even though I didn’t publish anything for years until early this year.
Kindle eBooks were never really my focus. I was selling pdf cookbooks and the likes directly from my site (they are no longer available). But just the little I did created a nice stream of income and more importantly helped me get in front of new readers.
Q. How long was that break for?
A. I took a break from publishing Kindle cookbooks from April 2015 to February of this year. Even before that I had slowed down. I think the last book before the April one was from October 2014.
Q. Have you thought about doing a cooking show?
A. I’m a writer and prefer to share my thoughts, ideas, and recipes in words. I’ve been approached about cooking shows and friends have suggested I do Facebook Videos and a YouTube Channel, but that’s just not my cup of tea.
Q. What are your top three tips on making a site more “interactive”? That seems to be a constant challenge these days where there is so much competing for our attention.
A. There is all sorts of fancy stuff you can do with widgets and programs, and of course social media, but what it really boils down to is listening to your readers. Pay attention when they take the time to email, comment, or reach out on social media. Take the time to answer. Learn from the questions they are asking and read between the lines. Get to know your people, and your tribe and then do what you can to serve them well.
Q. Awesome tips! Btw, I subbed to your email list. I can’t wait to check out the recipes and to learn from what you do. Speaking of writing, I met you in my clean billionaire romance authors group, I believe. Can you tell me about your foray into writing fiction, specifically billionaire romance?
A. Sure… and it all connects back to Hillbilly Housewife. I’ve been reading romance since I was a teen and love it. I’ve also had aspirations to be a writer and a published fiction author(cookbooks don’t really count in my mind). I’ve played around with writing here and there and in the past two years I’ve started a few different novels… but getting that first complete story under your belt is hard. An online friend and fellow marketer shared that she was writing a romance novel and introduced me to Romancing The Beat by Gwen Hayes. Loved the book and thought… I can actually do this. That was late last year.
I started writing, connecting with fellow authors on Facebook, joined some reader groups. I outlined a series of historical novels taking place in pre-colonial times here on the South Carolina coast.
Q. I would say you are a legit author with your cookbooks. Pre-colonial South Carolina. I am already swooning.
A. Then I read Chris Fox’s book about writing to market and after listening to some advice I received about there not being that much of a market for that particular time period, I put that project on the back burner. I still like the idea, but I’m not sure it’s a great first project. It also taught me that there’s a lot of research to do for historical and I would get lost in the research instead of the writing. I have a finished first draft for a novella for that series.
Q. As a historical romance author, I agree on the research involved.
A. Then I read your book Rapid Release and absolutely loved the idea of creating the blurbs for the first few books in a series. At the same time I started watching the back episodes of The Writing Gals podcast.
Q. Which led you to your billionaire book project…?
A. The day I read your book, I outlined a three-book billionaire series and a short reader magnet and started writing. It’s been a lot of fun, but also a challenge to learn more about the craft and telling a good story. The learning, and reading craft books tends to paralyze me when it comes to writing. There’s so much I don’t know yet, and like any good writer I constantly second guess if my stuff is any good.
So as of right now I’m working on the final edits for my reader magnet which grew into an almost 20K word novella and I’m about two-thirds through the first draft of book one.
Q. You are not alone! I am 30k into a story that I want to scrap…if only it weren’t due for a series deadline this month. That is fantastic. Way to plow through your fears.
A. Some days are better than others when it comes through plowing through the fears. I’m very good at keeping busy with everything but writing or editing. I would love to have both books out before we start summer break in the first week of June. I’m hoping to have the reader magnet out and building my new clean contemporary romance reader list within the next week or two.
Q. Wow, Susanne. I knew this was going to be an interesting Q&A, but I am just amazed at all you have done and plan to do. So fun to see the workings behind cookbook publishing. I am sure you will do great with your fiction as you have with all your other projects.
A. I said earlier that it all had something to do with Hillbilly Housewife. One of my fears when it came to publishing was the technical part of it. Much had changed and I no longer had a working copy of the old version of Calibre I was using in combination with a very specific word template to make things work. So one of the reasons I got back into cookbook publishing was to see if I could figure that stuff out. I discovered Draft To Digital and it’s been amazing. So quick and easy to create something that works and displays well on all the various Kindles and Kindle apps.
Q. Yes! I love D2D.
A. Starting with something I was comfortable writing made it easier to break through that technical barrier. And it’s one less thing to worry about when the time comes to publish the fiction.
Q. Susanne…I absolutely had fun with this Q&A and I wish we had more time. Thank you so much!!!! I can’t wait to try your recipes. In closing, can you share your recipe for publishing success?
A. I don’t think my publishing success has come yet. So far I’ve only been playing, but I think it’s to start and figure it out as you go along.