408: How a Diagnosis with a Chronic Illness Transformed Helena Murphy’s Career in Food Photography

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A blue photograph of someone photographing food on a table with the title of Helena Murphy's episode of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast, 'Food Photography, Self-Publishing, and Chronic Illness Advocacy"

This episode is sponsored by Clariti.

Welcome to episode 408 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Helena Murphy from Helena Rose Photography.

Last week on the podcast, Bjork chatted with Andrew Wilder. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.

Food Photography, Self-Publishing, and Chronic Illness Advocacy

One of the best parts of working as a food creator is that you have the ability to determine exactly what your career looks like. By prioritizing your interests and diversifying your income streams, you can shape what your day-to-day work consists of to meet your needs!

And that’s exactly what Bjork is chatting about with Helena Murphy in today’s podcast episode. Helena shares her journey from corporate marketing to freelance product and food photography, and how her diagnosis with Crohn’s disease influenced both her personal, and professional life.

Helena is an incredible photographer and has self-published both a magazine and a cookbook. She has a really inspiring story, and we’re excited to share this interview with you!

A birds-eye photograph of a plate of eggplant slices with quinoa and pomegranate seeds against a pink background with a quote from Helena Murphy's episode of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast: "Self-publishing is a really great leveler."

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • All about Helena’s career journey, and how she left her corporate job to start a freelance career.
  • How she invested in education to improve her photography and editing skills.
  • What advice she has for people looking to take the leap into photography as a career.
  • How she determined what she wanted her business to look like and diversified her income streams.
  • More about the process of self-publishing her cookbook.
  • Her diagnosis with Crohn’s disease, and how it led her to create a cookbook to help others with the same diagnosis.
  • How her chronic illness has impacted how she views and operates her business.
  • Why she chose to use a print-on-demand service for her cookbook, and what the process looked like.
  • How she uses photography and aesthetics to convey a message and mood to her readers.


About This Week’s Sponsor

We’re excited to announce that this week’s episode is sponsored by our sister site, Clariti!

With Clariti, you can easily organize your blog content for maximum growth. Create campaigns to add alt text to your posts, fix broken images, remove any broken links, and more, all within the Clariti app.

Sign up for Clariti today to receive:

  • Access to their limited-time $45 Forever pricing
  • 50% off your first month
  • Optimization ideas for your site content
  • An invitation to join their exclusive Slack community
  • And more!

You can learn more and sign up here.

If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for interviews, be sure to email them to [email protected].

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Transcript (click to expand):

Bjork Ostrom: This episode is sponsored by Clariti, C-L-A-R-I-T-I. Here’s the question. Are you manually keeping track of your blog posts on a spreadsheet or project management tool, maybe it’s like Airtable or Asana or maybe you’re not even keeping track of anything at all when it comes to optimizing and organizing your content, how do you know what to change and how do you know what you’re doing is actually moving the needle? With Clariti, all of that stuff is easier. It’s easier to keep track of things. It’s easier to know if the changes you’re making are having an impact, and that’s why we built it. We realized that we were using spreadsheets and cobbling together a system, and we wanted to create something that did that for you.

Clariti brings together WordPress data, Google data like Google Search Console and Google Analytics, and it brings all of that information into one place to allow you to make decisions and also inform you about the decisions that you’ve made and if they’re having an impact. I could talk on and on about the features, but the best way to understand it is to get in and to work with the tool yourself.

The good news is Clariti is offering 50% off of your first month if you sign up, and you can do that by going to clarity.com/food. Again, that’s CLARITI dot com slash food to check it out. Thanks to Clariti for sponsoring this episode.

Emily Walker: Hey, this is Emily from the Food Blogger Pro team, and you’re listening to the Food Blogger Pro Podcast. Welcome to episode 408 of the podcast. This week, Bjork is interviewing Helena Murphy from Helena Rose Photography. Helena is an amazing product and food photographer based in Bristol, England, and she is self-published, both a magazine and most recently a cookbook. Bjork and Helena chat all about her career journey from starting off in a corporate marketing role to making the transition to a freelance career. She shares more about how she has prioritized education to really improve her photography and editing skills, and even has some advice for people looking to take the leap into photography as a career.

A few years ago, Helena was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and this diagnosis impacted how she views and operates her business and led her to create her cookbook, which is the plant-based Crohn’s and Colitis Cookbook in hopes of sharing her recipes with others suffering from the same chronic illness. Helena shares a lot more information about the process of self-publishing her cookbook and how she uses her photography and aesthetics to convey a message and mood to her readers, particularly those suffering with a chronic illness. Helena has a really inspiring story and we’re excited to share this episode with you, so we’ll get right into it. Bjork, take it away.

Bjork Ostrom: Helena, welcome to the podcast.

Helena Murphy: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. We’re going to talk a little bit about your career and your path to not only self-publishing a cookbook, but also doing commercial photography. One of the great things about your story is you’ve created this version of what … It sounds like you’re ideal. We’ll get into it, but doing some yoga instructing, doing commercial photography, you’ve self-published a cookbook, and I think it’s one of the really powerful things to remind ourselves of is that we can create our ideals, but it takes a while to get to the point where we figure out even what that is, and it sounds like you were on that journey in 2018, 2019 as you were figuring out what does it look like to transition from corporate work to working on your own, and then once working on your own, figuring out what it was that you actually wanted to be doing. So take us back to 2018. It seems like altogether forever ago, and also not that long ago, but you were working in the world of content. What were you doing at that point?

Helena Murphy: Yeah, it’s been a really long winding journey, definitely to get to the point where I am. When you tell it all back in a story, I think it can sound really quite simple, but the lived experience of it is a lot more windy, but yeah, that’s right. I was working in content creation. So the very first job I had in that corporate London world was a social media coordinator. That was my first job out of uni, and I think that was 2014. So it was one of those times where your parents would be like, “What even is that?” It was when you would post three or four times a day on Facebook at that time, and each post was getting thousands of likes. It was this era.

So I started off my journey in social media, and then I segued over into editorial. So I was writing blog posts and newsletters, and that’s where I first picked up a little bit of photography. This was still in my corporate role. I was working at a fashion house and I was often sent out. We had a really strong lifestyle thread to this fashion brand, so I was often sent out to interview different artists and bands and local shopkeepers and people who owned really cool plant shops and all of this kind of stuff, and I would organize getting them fitted out in cool outfits, and then I would interview them about what they were doing.

The photography’s piece came because there was no one to take photos. So they were like, “Can you just take the team camera with the kit lens and just get some snaps of the person in their outfit or of whatever it is that you’re doing?” That’s where I fell in love with the photography and I had no idea what I was doing. So I have no formal training in photography. I’m self-taught, but I would see other bloggers or other content creators at that time creating all of these really beautiful photos.

I had no idea how to achieve that look. I didn’t understand that that was not shot with an 18 to 55 millimeter. I didn’t understand … I didn’t even know what a preset was at that time. This was maybe 2014, 2015. So I really stumbled my way into photography and that was my first little hint of photography and I loved it.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s interesting when you talk about that. One of the things that I think is true for any of us is we’ll naturally have a pull in a certain direction, and I think this is true for humans, whether they’re four years old or 80 years old. We see it with our daughter Solvi. As a dad, I’m trying to figure out, “What is her pull? Where does she naturally go?” Some of the cues for me, every morning she gets up and asks if she can print out coloring pictures because she loves to color. She loves puzzles. So it’s like, “How do we open the door?” As a dad, I’m thinking, “How do I open the door as much as possible to those areas that she loves to go that direction?”

I think for people, adults, we have that same thing, but I think sometimes we’ve muted it. We’ve just pushed through and are doing the things we need to do because it’s like, “Well, that’s work and that’s what we need to do,” but one of the great joys that can exist for us is when we can find something that we enjoy doing, we’re passionate about, we want to learn about, and we can find a way to create income from that.

It sounds like in those early stages of you experimenting with photography and being assigned the task of doing photography for these shoots or for these articles that were being written, that was like, “Wait a minute. This is actually something that I’m interested in.” Is that true? Is that what was happening at that moment?

Helena Murphy: Yeah, definitely. I found out, really, I personally just really didn’t gel well with being at a desk from 9:00 until 5:00 and it felt quite constraining. I really enjoyed being out on assignment and being able to interact with people, meet people, do something with my hands. It was fun, it was creative, and then I could come back, and I just really, really enjoyed that aspect of it. Even though I didn’t know what I was doing, I think that was half the fun. It was a challenge and I could so clearly see what I wanted to create and what I was creating. There was a huge, huge gap.

Bjork Ostrom: Say more about that. What do you mean by that gap?

Helena Murphy: So what I said before in terms of I would look at my pictures and all I knew how to do was apply a basic crop, which was the blog crop required to put it up on our specific site, but I didn’t understand … I didn’t have access to Lightroom at that point. I didn’t think I even knew Lightroom existed or Capture One. I didn’t understand about shadows or how to utilize light. So that was something that I delved more into after I left my corporate job and jumped into freelancing for myself. When I knew that I wanted to take photography to the next level, that’s when I started to invest in some education because I could see I’m creating X and I really want to be creating Y, so someone is going to have to help me get there because I don’t know what I’m missing.

Bjork Ostrom: So there’s this podcast called This American Life. It’s hosted by a individual named Ira Glass. I’ve talked about this on the podcast before, so people who have listened for a long time will know that it’s one that I often refer back to, but he talks about creativity and he talks specifically about the gap, and he tells … I’m just going to read a little bit of this to see if it resonates with what was going on for you at that time. This is the quote, “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners. I wish somebody told me. All of us who do creative work, we get in it because we have good taste, but there is this gap. For the first couple of years, you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not, but your taste, the thing that got you into the game is still killer, and your taste is why your work disappoints you.”

A lot of creative people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting creative work went through years of this. Do you feel like that was true for you like that that period of time, there’s this gap, you knew what you wanted and you knew where you were and you wanted to figure out how to close that gap?

Helena Murphy: Yeah, that’s such a good quote, and I think it’s still relevant today. Oh, my gosh. I’ve been doing this now for about five years, and it’s still true. It’s still super frustrating when you see something that inspires you and you just can’t quite reach it, but I guess that’s what keeps us in the game, right?

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, totally. What were some of the things that you did early on that helped to close that gap? Like you said, there probably always is a version of that gap. You’re always wanting to get better and aspiring to be sharper with your skills, but it sounds like there’s a period of time where you decided I want to work intentionally to close it. You talked about education as a component of it. What did you do and then what did you learn in that process that helped to make progress against closing that gap?

Helena Murphy: Yeah. So I would say in 2018 when I jumped into freelance life and left the corporate world behind, that first year was actually very much an amalgamation of doing the things that I’d done in my previous jobs, as well as photography. That first year, it was very frantic and it was me trying to just bring in the money, maybe match the salary of my old job just to stay afloat, and then all of the threads of that fell away, and I just end up with photography.

I think for that first year of freelancing, I felt maybe overwhelmed or too afraid to invest in myself, which I don’t know if that makes sense, but there was a resistance or a fear, actually, to putting the time aside to learn. So I was only doing maybe one shoot a month for that 2018 period, and it was just through opportunities that maybe landed in my lap or within my existing network. I didn’t really push very hard on the education front at all because it felt a bit scary. It felt like, “This is something I really want, and what if I’m not very good at it?” I don’t know. So there was a resistance there.

Then then we moved out of London and the pandemic happened. It was 2020 by this point. I had the space and the time. That was one upside for me personally. I had the space and the time for the first time in ages to actually just focus, and that was the opportunity to dive deep on the education.

So the first thing that I addressed was Lightroom. I feel like I had been pulling at sliders with wild abandon, hoping for some kind of results. I think I had about 12,000 images in one catalog. I didn’t understand catalogs. It was just all of these really rookie basic, but you don’t know what you don’t know and you don’t know until someone teaches you. So I took Rachel Korinek’s Lightroom masterclass course, and that was a complete game changer for me because I could actually then have control over the edits I was making on the photos, so then I could actually-

Bjork Ostrom: What was it specifically? Do you remember going through that class? Were there light bulb moments where you’re like, “Oh, this is going to have a huge impact on how I edit and manipulate photos”?

Helena Murphy: Yeah, definitely. Even things like … Prior to that, I had discovered presets. I was usually influenced by Beth Kirby at the time and her work. All of her editorial work, I just thought it was beautiful. I remember buying some of the preset packs from Beth Kirby. So I knew how to apply a preset, but then I didn’t know how to make the edits. You know when you’re at the beginning and you apply a preset and you’re like, “Ooh, no, that that’s way too much,” but then I didn’t know how to change any of the colors or decrease the saturation, et cetera.

I remember feeling so empowered when I learned how to edit properly for the first time, that, “Oh, I actually don’t need to rely on these presets or if I was to use a preset, now I understand how to change the hue of that green to make it less yellow.” So things like that were really empowering, especially for food photography where you might want to just really add a little bit of power to certain tones like the reds or the greens.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s great. So you’re going through this process, you’re starting to learn the tools, and it’s actually something that I’ve been thinking about too. I’m in a season where I haven’t taken the time or made the time to step away and learn, and I’ve been thinking about that with ChatGPT. Everybody talks about ChatGPT, AI. I’m really curious about it, but I think what I need to do is take a moment and block off four hours in a day and go through a course to have somebody teach me.

I was thinking about that just in general with the work that I do and contrasting that against people in other positions. Specifically, I think about if you’re training in a sport, let’s say you’re an Olympic athlete and you’re a speed skater. Every time that you are doing the work of speed skating or most of the time I would guess you’re working with a coach, there’s always somebody giving you feedback and giving you advice and insight on how to improve and change and adjust.

There was this moment that I realized I don’t have that in my life in general for most things, and what would it look like if I had at the very basic level somebody who is just teaching me, but then even beyond that coaching in a way to say, “Here’s ways you can improve or change or adjust what you’re doing.” It’s such a gift to be able to have that, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like work, specifically the education piece.

I’m curious if you felt like that where you’re in the early stages, you’re trying to build your freelance business, you’re trying to get clients, there’s endless work to be done, and to take a half a day or even an hour or two hours to just stop and learn, while it’s probably the most impactful thing we could be doing, it sometimes psychologically doesn’t feel like you’re doing work because the work that you’re doing is a little bit different. Did you run into that at all or were there other barriers that felt like were in the way to move forward with the education component for you?

Helena Murphy: Yeah. It can be really easy to get caught up in the busyness of every day, and it feels like if you’re not maybe working on a shoot or editing shoot images ready for delivery or pitching or any of those things that really tangibly move the needle forward that, “Oh, it’s a waste of time. I shouldn’t be doing that. I shouldn’t be dedicating my time to that,” but I do think that dedicating your time to education and furthering your skills is beneficial to your clients as well in the long run so that you can be more prepared for the next shoot or take on a bigger project or something that you are imagining to do, but you don’t quite have the skills yet.

So I think education is super important to do that. I would say that I was I guess lucky in a way in that when I first came to dedicate that time to it. It was during the lockdown here in the UK. So I had all of that 2020. That was free space where I couldn’t be necessarily out all of that year shooting with clients. So I did use that time, but now that obviously things have gone back to being able to shoot and to being able to be on location again, it is harder to put that time aside, but it’s really important, I think.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. How about for anybody who’s interested in moving into photography as a career to do commercial photography in a freelance capacity, whether part-time, what advice would you have for those people who are in the earliest stages of looking at doing that?

Helena Murphy: Yeah. So moving on from the education piece, I would say don’t be afraid like I was to dedicate time to learning because it is really empowering and that you are worth the investment. I definitely struggled with that for a good year. I would say taking on personal projects as well is really, really helpful. I think shooting without the expectation of the client brief can really help you to push your own limits, push your own boundaries, create work, and if you’re not happy with it and there’s nothing riding on it, you can reshoot it again or you can come back to it. I think that’s really important.

Again, I think for that first year, I think I was just intimidated by the prospect of it all and didn’t take on as many personal projects as I could have. So I think having a mood board on Pinterest or somewhere like that with work that inspires you that you can think, “Oh, how can I create something like this or in my own style?” I think that’s a really great one to do.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s great. So one of the things that you talked about in that transition period was you had been doing these things in your corporate career that carried over into freelance. You were doing a bunch of different things and then some of those started to fall off as you started to focus on the things that you, it sounds like, really wanted to do and got some traction. How did you navigate that because one of the hard things in that phase is letting go of something that you’re making money from? You have this thing, it works, and to say no to that feels like a difficult thing when you’re in those early stages of making that transition.

So one of the things that’s so great about this that’s worth pointing out is it’s like building your own job description like, “Okay. I do want to do this. I don’t want to do this,” but in doing that, you also have to make sure that the job description you’re building is justifiable from the standpoint that it’s actually creating income for you that sustains you as a job would do. So what did that look like to mold your work in that phase of life?

Helena Murphy: Yeah. It definitely took time and it wasn’t an overnight thing. I would say there is benefit to having, I guess, that theory of the four legs of the table having multiple different revenue streams. I think there’s definitely something to be said from a financial security perspective. So when I first went freelance, I had the photography element, but I also had some freelance content writing gigs. I trained to be a yoga teacher as well at that time over 2017 to 2018. I did my yoga teacher training and I started teaching yoga, and it’s something that I still do to this day and I teach around eight classes a week now. That’s varied over the years. It’s gone from four or five through to eight, through to 13 or 14 at one point.

So I do think there is something to be said for having lots of different strings to your bow that you can fall back on and pick up from a security perspective, but in terms of whittling it down from all of those things that I was doing, I just personally felt overwhelmed with how much I was doing and I felt that there wasn’t as much clarity as I would like in terms of my messaging and my offering. I knew that I wanted to focus all of my efforts on photography so I could get better and offer a better service for my clients. So I started to let the content writing and the social media drop away, and it wasn’t too hard of a decision because I think by that point I’ve been doing social media for so long that I just felt a bit jaded with it and it wasn’t too much of a hardship to let it fall away.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure. Yeah, and it sounds like if there’s a push and pull in what you’re doing, it was seeing that you had a pull in the direction of photography and you maybe felt a push away from other type of work, being aware of that, but also being aware of a certain level of diversification and saying, “Okay. I’m going to do this thing in this category, which is very different.” For us, we’ve done similar things. We have our online businesses, but we also have brick and mortar commercial buildings that have rental income. That’s very different worlds, but what’s helpful for me personally, and everybody has a different degree to a comfort level with it, is what’s your sleep well at night and the level of diversification that you need.

Some people are hyper-focused in one area and that’s what they do like they have an Instagram account, they do sponsor content, and that’s their lane and they stay in that lane and they do a really good job with it, and that’s great, but I think for us, I started to feel this need to diversify a little bit. It sounds like you approached it in a similar way. Plus, I would imagine part of it is just diversification not just from revenue perspective, but from work that you’re doing and work that you enjoy. If you enjoy doing this type of work, you enjoy yoga and you enjoy being a yoga instructor, prioritizing that as a thing that you want to do because you get something out of it beyond just the monetary aspect of it.

Helena Murphy: Yeah, definitely. I think for my parents’ generation, for instance, they would definitely have trained in one specific area and then were expected and do that profession for 40 or 50 years. I think things are a little bit different now, and I think it’s something to be celebrated to be a multi-hyphenate as Emma Gannon coined. I think people can feel a lot of uncertainty or maybe sometimes even shame around having lots of different things that bring them joy or they’re like, “Oh, is it too confusing for people? How do I put myself in this one box and how will people understand me if I’m not just in one box?” I think it’s fine to break outside of the boundaries of those box, and we are multifaceted beings and we don’t need to put ourself in one strict box. It’s okay if you don’t necessarily have the cleanest elevator pitch, in my opinion.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. I just pulled up Emma Gannon, her book, The Multi-Hyphen Life: Work Less, Create More, and Design a Life That Works for You. Is that a book that you’ve read or somebody that you follow?

Helena Murphy: Yeah, I haven’t read her book, but I listened to her podcast, Ctrl Alt Delete for quite a few years. She’s just wrapped up the podcast now, but plenty of really inspiring episodes about all sorts of different people who are doing things differently and what we are just talking about, creating their own careers that aren’t necessarily just a one word label.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s awesome. We’ll link to that in the show notes. It looks like a great book and also a podcast that I would imagine resonates with a lot of folks who listen to podcasts like this. So one of the legs of the stool for you, and this is one of the things that we can dive in and talk about, is self-publishing a cookbook. It’s something that you went through the process of doing and tied into your story and your journey in discovering your own best executed diet and way of eating. So when did you go through that process and how did you decide that you wanted to self-publish a cookbook?

Helena Murphy: Yeah. So the book is The Plant-Based Crohn’s and Colitis Cookbook. So it’s very niched. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2021, so fairly recently, and I experienced symptoms for six months before my diagnosis, and then I got to remission in January of 2022. So through that whole process … If someone is unfamiliar with Crohn’s disease, it is an inflammatory bowel disease and it’s an autoimmune disease, it’s chronic. So if you’re diagnosed, you unfortunately do have it forever. It’s managed with medication and also diet and lifestyle factors as well.

I was just feeling unwell for quite a long time. The symptoms can be things like chronic diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss. It basically stops you from digesting your food, which causes you a lot of problems because if you can’t absorb your food, you obviously can’t function very well. So it got to the point where I was basically just bed bound for three or four months because of how I was with this disease.

When I was feeling better, thanks to medication and thanks to some slight lifestyle changes that I made, I was like, “I’m actually in the perfect position to try and help other people a little bit, hopefully, with what I’ve learned.” I’m a food photographer. I’ve been vegan since 2016, so I’ve been cooking vegan food from scratch for a long time. My partner’s mom is a nutritionist or she calls herself a foodologist. So she really helped me on a lot of the consultation of the recipe development. Then my partner, luckily for me, is graphic designer and he’s done a lot of artwork and was able to put together the cookbook for me. So I thought, “We have got a perfect family team here. I really need to do this.”

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, totally. What was that like during that period of your life? I would imagine that those three months that you talk about that it almost feels like physical but also psychological warfare. It just feels like it would be a really difficult season for many different reasons. How did you get through that?

Helena Murphy: Yeah, I mean, it was really challenging. For the majority of the time when I had the diagnosis, I’d say I could live to maybe 70% of my usual self. So it had an effect, but I could deal and I could still function day-to-day, but then I just had a really stressful couple of days and stress can be a trigger and it just really supercharged the flare, and then that’s what pushed me into just being in bed for three or four months. It was hard, but I mean, luckily, I have really supportive friends, family, partner who were all there to cheer me on and look after me.

In terms of a work perspective, I couldn’t really work because I couldn’t really get out of bed very well, and especially photography, it’s such a physically demanding job to be on set all day and so I just couldn’t-

Bjork Ostrom: Physical can be stressful. When you’re doing a shoot with a client or just a shoot in general can be stressful.

Helena Murphy: Yeah. So going back to the four legs of the table in terms of financial income and stuff, that’s a really personal reason for me, why I feel it’s important to not just have one thing that’s your main thing because if that gets taken away for any reason such as sickness, what else are you going to rely on? It was very serendipitous in that I actually had a long time client come back to me over that period who was a content writing client and they gave me a really big commission and I could just do that from my bed. So even still, when I’d cut away all of the threads of content writing, et cetera, et cetera, it did actually come back during that time when I was sick and really help me out because I could just type away from my bed and then be like, “Okay. Now I’m going to sleep.”

Bjork Ostrom: It’s one of the things that I think is worth mentioning with what we talk about on this podcast, which is a lot of times we focus on the idea of building your passion, your dream, your pursuits of following into a full-time career or making full-time income from it or transitioning to have it replace your job, but I think one of the things that it doesn’t get enough credit for, it being having a side hustle or a skill or an ability that you’re creating, is a safety net.

I think there’s something really valuable about having a full-time or a part-time job that’s your normal full-time or part-time job in a traditional, in the US we’d say a W–2 income, where you’re working for somebody or maybe contracted on a consistent basis, and you have a side hustle, and that side hustle, the sole purpose of it for some people can be a safety net. It can be that additional leg on the table or stool or whatever it is that is there for you if something happens with your job or worker career that’s in the first position or whatever reason, you burn out or there’s cuts or whatever it is, that you have this safety net that if that happens, you can spin that up and then focus on that as your full-time thing.

For everybody listening to this, I think it’s justification for the skills and the abilities and the work that you are creating and refining in that it’s valuable even if it doesn’t grow into your full-time thing because it is a skill or an ability that you have that is there to be used when needed. I think that’s just a really important reminder to point out to people because it sounds like that’s what happened for you where things shifted in a really significant way, but you had this skill and ability from a previous position that you were able to then take advantage of and work in a flexible way. Is that still something that you think about in terms of how you craft your pie chart of work and income from your career?

Helena Murphy: Yeah, definitely. I think what you just said is really valid, and sometimes maybe it doesn’t fit with the ideal situation of where you had planned things to go or what your trajectory was, but that’s not always life. Sometimes a pandemic happens. Sometimes you get sick or sometimes there’s someone else that you need to look after or all sorts of extenuating circumstances. If you have a skill from a previous job or something that you built up that you hadn’t planned to have that be your 80% but for that period of time it needs to be, then that’s great. You can rely on that and just adapt as you go.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s great. So the self-publishing side, you talked a little bit about your partner’s mom. She’s a nutritionist, foodologist. She’s able to help. Your partner is a graphic designer, able to help with that piece. What were the other components of the self-publishing process that you had? If you work with a publisher, they maybe have resources, they’d connect you with people, but what were the different hats that you had to wear from start to finish in order to get a book out into the wild?

Helena Murphy: Yeah, definitely. So I should say that I did have some self-publishing experience prior to this. My partner and I, around that time, he went vegan as well in 2016, and it was around that time that the Cowspiracy documentary was dropping and we were like, “Whoa.” It felt like we’d taken this pill in The Matrix and we were super inspired and we were just really into it. So we-

Bjork Ostrom: What’s the documentary? I don’t know if I’m familiar with it.

Helena Murphy: Oh, Cowspiracy on Netflix. It was like-

Bjork Ostrom: Oh, Cowspiracy. Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Helena Murphy: One of those-

Bjork Ostrom: Eating vegan. Yeah, okay. There was another really popular documentary that Lindsay and I watched, and it was in the same vein. I remember running into my aunt and uncle who I never see, and they were like, “We went vegan and we watched this documentary,” but I don’t remember the name of it. It was on Netflix. It talked a lot about weightlifters and athletes who all ate vegan and how impactful it was for them. So anyways, you were saying this was around the same time you both-

Helena Murphy: No, I think I’ve seen that one. It’s good. It’s good. There’s so many on Netflix. Yeah, so we both were on that train and we were super inspired. So we decided to create a coffee table magazine that was all about eating vegan and sustainability and all of that. It was called Omnom. We published four issues over about two or three years. So we had no prior experience in publishing before that, but we bought a book and it’s literally called How to Publish A Magazine. It’s really good. It’s by Angharad Lewis. It takes you through from step one to publication of how to self-publish a coffee table magazine.

So we did that and we got ourselves some distribution partners and it was all over the place. It was in the UK, but it was in the US. It was in Japan, Australia. So we loved doing that, but we just found it was too much to do that alongside trying to build our freelance careers at that time because it was all kicking off at that time. So we decided to put a lid on it.

So when I came to publish or self-publish the cookbook, I was fortunate to have that experience to lean on. So it didn’t feel too out of my depth because I thought if we did it for a magazine, the process can’t be that different to doing it for a book. It was actually easier now because back then, there might have been, but I was not aware of print on demand services. So we actually had to save up to buy a print run, and it was more traditional where we took it to a print house and then all of these boxes of magazines arrived at our house, so we had to store them at our house, but when I came to do the cookbook, I used the Amazon print on demand service, and I know there are other companies that do print on demand services as well. So you don’t have to have all of these books or all of these magazines, whatever your product is, just sat in your living room taking up space.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. One example of a book that I was aware of at least, it was an extreme example of it, that we’ve purchased is … So we have a dog. Our dog’s name is Sage, and our daughter’s name is Solvi, and she really likes dogs. My mom bought a book. I don’t know if it was through Amazon, but it’s like where they put the actual name in. So it’s like it talks about Sage and Solvi and them interacting.

Helena Murphy: Oh, yeah. Cute.

Bjork Ostrom: So print on demand in a really obvious way. Can you talk about why it’s beneficial in a case like yours? Every book is the same. It’s not like there’s these custom edits made to it, but it’s print on demand and why that’s beneficial versus what you had to do with the magazines, which was an entire run of all the magazines and just what that looks like from a maybe warehouse perspective, but also just from a investment standpoint.

Helena Murphy: Yeah, definitely. So there was more of an upfront investment when we did the traditional print method because we had to pay for all of those magazines and then we had to set up our web shop so we could fulfill orders. So then it was up to us to have a web shop to sell the magazines and then to manually go to the post office and post them out ourselves. So that was an extra cost and an extra tax on our time as well. I’ve got to say in hindsight, we were terrible. We were great at a lot of things. We were terrible at posting. We would always end up arguing, “It’s your turn to go to the post office?” “No, it’s your turn.”

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, “Please, not again, not again.”

Helena Murphy: Exactly. So this was much better. I think it depends on your personality because if you enjoy doing that and it’s maybe a meditative process, that can be quite nice, but for me, having print on demand meant that there was no upfront cost. So you create your manuscript, you upload it to Amazon or your platform of choice as a PDF, you upload your front cover and you upload the content of the magazine or the book, and then it is published online, and then it’s only printed when someone orders a copy. So there’s also less waste because, obviously, if you’re trying to predict how many you’re going to sell, you have to be like, “Okay. I’m going to order a thousand,” but then if you only sell 500, you’re stuck with 500 copies of this book in your house. So from that perspective, from a waste management perspective, it’s quite good because you can just sell when people buy, which is amazing. So no upfront cost and no shipping and less waste. So those are the benefits, I think, of print on demand

Bjork Ostrom: In the software world, they often talk about this idea of MVP, minimum viable product, and it’s a way for you to get something into the world without having to do this huge investment of money or time or cost or whatever it is. This isn’t exactly the same, but because what you are putting in an investment of time, you’re doing the recipe development, you’re doing the photography, you’re doing all the different components of it, but what’s nice about it is you don’t have to have this investment of … We have a friend who just published a book, we went to the book launch, and there’s hundreds of books sitting out. There’s an investment that goes into it, and like you said, you have to then work through those books and make sure that you sell them and you hear the classic case of somebody who does have those and then they have a hundred books in the basement or whatever it might be.

So from start to finish, let me attempt to do a super high level of what the steps would be, and you can let me know if it feels accurate or if there’s other additional steps along the way. Obviously, you’re developing the outline, you are working through what you want the subject to be, what the focus is going to be. There’s all the content components of the book. That feels like an entirely different podcast episode. We could dive really deep into that, but you’re developing that out, you’re creating the design elements around it, and then you have a PDF, which you upload into, in this case, Amazon, self-publishing platform.

My guess is you’re making some decisions around do you want it to be able to do hard cover, soft cover, things like that, is every page color, so making some decisions on the platform side of things, and then maybe doing a couple test shipments like buying the book yourself, taking a look at it, seeing how it looks, but from a really high level, are those the steps along the way? It’s like you’re creating it, the content, you’re putting it into a PDF, you’re uploading it to Amazon, making some decisions around what you want it to be, and then you press go live and it’s available. What else would you add to that? I know it makes it sound way more simple than it actually is, but-

Helena Murphy: No, no. I think some people can think that self-publishing is really complicated or really mysterious or you have to be a special type of person to do it, but I really want to dispel that myth. It really is quite as simple as you said, and I feel like … I want people to feel like it’s accessible to them because I think self-publishing is a really great leveler and it’s one of the reasons why I chose to self-publish because I have a really niche content idea and I don’t have a huge Instagram following, so I didn’t necessarily want to spend all of this time crafting a proposal and trying to necessarily maybe convince someone who doesn’t understand Crohn’s or colitis or the people in this community. I didn’t want to have to try and convince someone of that validity, and I think self-publishing is a really great leveler that allows people to take back some power and be like, “No, I know that there’s a community who needs this idea, so I’m going to do it.”

So you just literally create it, upload it to the backend, and you’re right, yes, you can choose hard cover or soft cover. Those choices will impact how much it costs to create your book. So I would say the one disadvantage of self-publishing with Amazon is that I ideally wanted the book to cost around £17 pounds for someone to purchase, but because I made it hard cover and because I have so many colored images in the book, it made it more expensive to produce.

So therefore, it tells you what the minimum is that you have to charge for it. So my minimum was £24 pounds, and I couldn’t charge any less than that. Otherwise, I think it’s the way they create the royalties that just wouldn’t be enough for it to be remotely profitable. So that is the downside. Whereas if you went with a more traditional publishing house and got it printed, you could set what the price would be.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. It’s an interesting observation of economies of scale. The way that you could make it most affordable would be to do a run of a hundred thousand books and then you get the unit economics down to a really low number, but then the disadvantages is then you have this huge run of books. It feels like the nice thing with this is you’re able to do zero runs and you do essentially a run every time that somebody buys it.

Can you talk about, in the backend as you were making those adjustments? Let’s say you say, “Okay, I want to do hard cover and I want to do color pages. 20 of the pages will be color pages.” In real time, is it creating the numbers around how much you need to charge for that based on what you’re picking?

Helena Murphy: Yeah, it really is. So you could actually just go through and select all of the options and go through, and then it will tell you, and I think it actually shows you in each territory as well if you wanted to look at each territory like Germany, Spain, France. So yeah, you can just change the options and then update it. So it’s pretty quick. I think, as well, another benefit based on that updating element is that if you wanted to update your manuscript because you realized there was a typing error or there was a photo that you wanted to update, you can really quickly do that.

So if I wanted to update it now, I can literally just upload a new manuscript and then the next time someone … So say tomorrow someone ordered a copy, they’ll get the new one. So that’s really amazing, but I mean, a bit dangerous if you’re a perfectionist because it opens it up for you to make 10,000 revisions.

Bjork Ostrom: Never ending, yeah. So in your case, you said £24 was the lowest that Amazon would let you charge. Can you talk about the decision making that went into that and just saying you could charge let’s say £26. So £24 pounds is maybe around 30 US dollars. What was that like for you to pick how you wanted to price it and what elements you wanted to be included within it, and how do you think of the book fitting into your puzzle pieces in terms of an income revenue stream versus a love letter to additional people who are navigating similar situations?

Helena Murphy: Yeah, definitely. So in terms of the decisions for whether it was hard cover or color images or not, I really wanted it … I had a really specific aesthetic in mind. So I wanted it to be really bold and vibrant and colorful just because food can be such a source of frustration for people with Crohn’s and colitis, especially when they’re in a flare. It’s difficult because there’s no universal diet that will help people with Crohn’s and colitis. Everyone has very different trigger foods. So while I might be okay with mushrooms, someone else might be like, “Oh, I’m going to die if I eat you mushroom.”

So putting together the aesthetic for the book, I just wanted it to be really fun and colorful. So all of the vinyls that I’ve used are really bright and colorful. I’ve used a lot of hard shadows, a lot of vibrancy. I thought if I didn’t have a picture for every recipe, that would be off-putting because I know that when I cook, I like there to be a visual reference, and if the recipe doesn’t have one, I’m 80% less likely to cook it. So when I made my own cookbook, I just thought that was really important.

So although it made it more expensive to produce and, therefore, I had to charge more for it, I wasn’t really willing to sacrifice the vision I had for the book based on the cost, plus the fact that it’s a super niche cookbook, and I think it might be the first vegan Crohn’s cookbook, so I just thought hopefully the people who it will speak to won’t mind too much.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure. Yeah, that makes sense. Then how about in terms of … For somebody who’s thinking of doing this and getting into it, would there be a range in terms of what you could expect from margins from self-published cookbook? Let’s say, if you have … and part of it probably depends on what you pick. Obviously, you’re picking what the margin would be, but if you were to say, roughly speaking, what does that look like? If you’re selling a cookbook for $20, is there a 10% margin you can expect $2 back or knowing that there’s a lot of it depends with it?

Helena Murphy: Yeah. So the cookbook that I’m selling is £24 pounds, and then I think I get £3 back from each one. You asked before, and I forgot to answer that my motivation in doing the book was definitely to speak to a community of my community of people that I felt there wasn’t anything that was serving them in the way that I wanted to serve them. So I went into it as more of a passion project rather than from a business standpoint. I also just really wanted the challenge. I guess going back to what we were talking about right at the beginning of taking on personal projects, I knew that creating and shooting 70 recipes would really improve my food styling and it would really improve my food photography.

I could definitely see that that progress from start to finish of just if you’ve been shooting a book for nine months and reshooting multiple things, if they haven’t gone quite right, you improve, and that was also one of the motivations that I had for the book. So I’d say for me, financially, was the bottom reason or a tertiary reason, but not to say that that couldn’t be a valid reason for someone to self-publish.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure. Yeah. I think as much as possible, one of the things that we try and bring up on the podcast is the multiple reasons why you do things in the world, why you create, why you publish into the world. Lindsay talks about cookbooks for Pinch of Yum, and her frame of reference for it is always encapsulating her work in a physical form. That’s the motivator for her in doing that when she thinks about the potential of ever doing that.

So as we close out, what would your advice be for somebody who’s thinking about potentially doing this or wanting to do it but is maybe hesitant? What are the first steps? I think that’s one of the most important things with any project that we’re going to do. It’s not how do you get to the end, but how do you take the first step. What are the first steps into doing a cookbook and self-publishing a cookbook?

Helena Murphy: Yeah. So I think it can be easy to get overwhelmed. So organization, definitely, so picking a project management system like Asana or Trello or Airtable or even just Google. I plotted out all the chapters from a top level perspective, and then I started to dive down deeper. So from a logistics perspective, just getting organized and even just setting up a Google Drive with different folders for content, press, all of that things that you’ve got a place to start storing everything.

I think sometimes just having that framework can really help you to feel a little bit more prepared, but I guess maybe even taking a step back before that is picking your topic or what your book is going to be about. For me, it was obvious. It wasn’t necessarily like, “I want to create a cookbook. What will it be about?” It was born of a super personal journey and it was like, “Oh, I’ve been through this experience and I have the skills, I think, to be able to help people.”

I think maybe doing the research based on content that you’ve posted that has been really successful or blog posts that you’ve written that have been the most read, and seeing if you can pick up any patterns of what you’ve posted that people have really resonated with, and seeing if you can dive a little deeper in that way.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s great. Helena, thanks so much for coming on and sharing your story. I know there’s two directions that we can send people. Would love for you to talk about each of those. One is just your photography. So if there’s a brand or creator who’s interested in potentially working with you, you know photography, you do photography and you do it well, where can people go for that? Then if people want to check out the cookbook that you’ve done, where can they go for that?

Helena Murphy: Yeah. Amazing. Thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you today. So you can find my website, it’s helenarosemurphy.net, and I have a page on my website as well all about the cookbook, so you can find it all on my website.

Bjork Ostrom: Awesome. Thanks so much for coming on, Helena. Really appreciate it.

Helena Murphy: Thank you so much.

Alexa Peduzzi: Hey, hey, Alexa here from the Food Bugger Pro team. We really appreciate you tuning into this episode of the Food Blogger Pro Podcast. I’m here with a special announcement. Are you ready for this? Because I’m hoping you’re sitting down. It’s a big one. So one of the things that we pride ourselves here at Food Blogger Pro on is the fact that we always are contributing content to the membership. So our members’ memberships are always growing in value because we’re adding new courses, we’re doing new events, we’re adding new deals. It’s just a constantly changing and evolving membership in a good way because things change very often and new strategies need to be talked about, et cetera.

So one of the new pieces of content that we’re really excited about for 2023, they’re called coaching calls. So we’ve been asked for coaching calls or one-on-one calls with Bjork or with the team just so many times over the past few years, and we’re finally doing it for our membership. So you can work through your specific blogging and business questions with the one, the only Bjork in these calls. So you and Bjork will discuss your blog and your business and we’ll record each conversation and add it to the membership so the greater Food Blogger Pro community can learn from the advice shared there.

So any active Food Blogger Pro member has the opportunity to take part in one of these coaching calls. We actually have an application that members can submit, and you can find that over on foodbloggerpro.com/live. So if you’re an active member, be sure to go there and you can submit an application, but essentially, we’ll go through the applications and reach out to you if we think there would be a good time for you to come on and have a coaching call with Bjork.

So we are just so excited about this, and if you’re not a member and really excited about the opportunity, you can go to foodbloggerpro.com/join to learn more about the membership and get signed up right there. Otherwise, we’re really excited. We’re just so excited about this new content idea and we hope you are too. So that does it for us this week. We’ll see you next time, and until then, make it a great week.

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