How Gwyneth Paltrow helped a cookbook find its groove

As soon as Gwyneth Paltrow mentioned "Urban Pantry," the small-press title shot high in the Amazon rankings.

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    Writing in her GOOP newsletter, Gwyneth Paltrow called "Urban Pantry" a "standout" among summer cookbooks.
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We hear a lot about the Oprah effect on a book. What, I wondered, happens when other celebrities give out a literary stamp of approval?

What got me wondering was actress Gwyneth Paltrow heaping praise on Amy Pennington’s “Urban Pantry,” a smart, practical cookbook published by a small press in Seattle. Now, I’ve recommended Pennington’s book plenty of times myself: Pennington is kitchen-smart and garden-savvy, the sort of economical, creative cook everyone would love as a housemate. But Pennington isn’t well-known outside the Seattle food world, and I never expected to see the Skipstone Press title crack Amazon.com’s Top 100 – exactly where it soared after Paltrow headlined it in her GOOP newsletter. Paltrow called the book “full of clever recipes for using your kitchen to the max,” and reprinted a handful of Pennington’s tips and recipes, including a guide to home canning and a “fizzy berry cream soda.”

I asked Pennington to chat by e-mail about the publicity she’s received for the book in this age when book tours are rare, ever-fewer outlets remain to champion such small gems, and we keep hearing that publisher PR runs thin for all but the blockbuster authors. Of course, success is a relative term – the first print run of 5,000 copies of "Urban Pantry" hasn’t yet sold out. Still, reading Pennington's answers gives me a shot of new hope for the industry – and the urge to make another batch of her Carrot Coconut Soup.

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Q: We keep hearing that the old model for book publicity is dead. How did you get the word out about "Urban Pantry?" Did you work with your publishers, or was publicity mainly up to you?

A: I'm not sure what the "old" model is, this being my first book. No one hands you a users manual when you sign a book contract! Both my publisher and I worked together to spread the word on "Urban Pantry." The publisher sent out an initial press release to a bunch of press publications and writers. That was invaluable, as I wouldn't have done that on my own. They also set up a preliminary round of signing events that I would not have thought of – local libraries being one of them. We worked together to come up with other signing locations like garden shops or specialty kitchen stores, and they helped arrange some of those events. I had, and paid for, a big book launch party.

Supporting any product or business with marketing is a full-time job. After the initial launch, I reached out to businesses, friends, and peers and just tried to think of appropriate audiences. Because I'm a food and garden lover, I already knew of so many places where it would be cool to have an event. I always try and offer events that fit that business’s schedule, too. It's not just about selling my book.

Q: What made you think of sending the book to Gwyneth Paltrow?

A: I'm a big fan of Gwyneth's, and have been a follower of her site, GOOP, for years and years. When you have a book published, it is customary to reach out for endorsements from colleagues or celebrities. I guess having a big name say "buy this book!" is important to readers. When my publisher asked me who I would like to write an endorsement, I thought of Gwyneth immediately. She is a total foodie, we're about the same age, she's über concerned with her health, she is a yogi – very much like me. We just seem to have a lot in common, minus her obvious celebrity. I genuinely thought she'd like "Urban Pantry." I like what she does, so the common interest seemed reasonable.

Q: And can you trace the effects of her praise?

A: When I did a cooking demo at a farmers' market in Atlanta, some people came very early on to buy "Urban Pantry" and have me sign it for them. As I'm not from Atlanta, I asked everyone how they heard about "Urban Pantry" and the overwhelming response was, "GOOP!" Other than that, there are no hard figures.

Q: Can you tell if it is having an ongoing effect on the book's popularity, or was it a one-day swing in sales?

A: The book climbed up amazon.com the day GOOP sent out their newsletter and made the Top 100 Bestsellers list for the day. There is no doubt that her e-mail exposed "Urban Pantry" to a large audience of people who are like-minded. That's rad. But "Urban Pantry" has maintained a reasonable ranking on Amazon.com for over six weeks now and I believe it's a sum of the parts that is sustaining sales. First, it's a great book, if I do say so myself, so the content is there. "Urban Pantry" is a book you buy and will actually use. Also, on Amazon, there are awesome user reviews. Plus I do a lot of work on the ground to continue spreading the word. I host and attend about three events every week – some big and some really small where I'm only selling three or four books. I think all of these things work together to create a perfect storm. And by "storm," I actually mean very light drizzle. Maybe even a sun shower of a drizzle.

Q: Who else has been responding to the book – and has it been the audience you expected?

A: A lot of people are responding to the book, which is awesome. I didn't have any expectations at all when it came out. I just did the best I could do in so far as organizing the information, and other than that, I wrote about what I love – food. And the way that I love to eat it. You can come to my house any night of the week and I'm probably making some sort of variation of a dish in "Urban Pantry." It's just how I roll.

I am surprised, however, at how well it's been received across the board. A single dad in his 30s came to one of my signings, bouncing his baby in his arms, and he was really excited about canning – and I was in the middle of nowhere in a small town at a little general store. That was shocking to me. I've had mothers respond well to the concept of living on a budget, and that's been great. I got an e-mail today from a woman in her 40s whose mother just made my Carrot Coconut Soup and loved it. That's impressive, too! My sister, with whom I share very little culinary similarity and who lives in a food desert on Long Island even cooks from the book on occasion, so that's a huge win. From what I can tell, the readers and audience "Urban Pantry" appeals to is quite diverse. I tried to write a book that would appeal to many people and I am genuinely awed and thrilled at how well it's been received.

Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com.

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