Gluten-Free Girl's Marketing Mastery

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Gluten-Free Girl (Shauna James Ahern, right) and the Chef (Daniel Ahern, left), with 2-year old Lucy. (Photo by A.J. Bates.)

When a blogger launches a book, it’s a chance to capitalize on her community. Shauna James Ahern knew how to run with that opportunity when her second book came out last fall.

Despite her protestations to the contrary, the Pacific Northwest blogger excels as a marketer. She’s also a terrific writer, community builder, and generous supporter of other food bloggers and cookbook authors.

I’ve known about Ahern for years, but got to know her personally when I took a class she taught on voice through Leite’s Culinaria. I quoted her writing tips in the revised edition of Will Write for Food, because I admire how clearly her energetic, honest, and positive voice comes through in her writing.

This post is not about her writing, though. I’d like you to know about Ahern’s marketing skills, and learn from them for when your book comes out. Ahern’s passion for building community seems to come to her naturally, and  blogging has been a perfect vehicle on which to build her massive group of followers.

The successful blogger of Gluten-Free Girl  and the Chef, Ahern has more than 42,000 Twitter followers and almost 15,000 Facebook fans who adore her, her family, and her knowledge of gluten-free cooking. She also has one heck of an Amazon page for Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef. Check out all the tools used to promote her book, including a video, a recipe, an interview, and tie-ins with food manufacturers who also sponsor her blog.

Ahern and I spoke by phone recently about her experience of marketing her second book, and her plans for the third one:

Q. What did you learn from promoting your first book, to prepare you for promoting Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef?

A. I need to start preparing more in advance! The book came out two weeks earlier than planned in mid-September, and I had started sending out emails in July. From August 6th, my birthday, to Christmas Day, I didn’t take a day off.

My next book, Gluten-Free Girl: Cooking Every Day, comes out in fall 2012. I’m starting to plan now, as we’re writing it.

Q. Congratulations! What are you planning for book Number 3?

A. I will be focusing the blog on the topic of the book. When Daniel (her husband) first appeared, the food got very cheffy. Now that we have a kid, I get it when people say, “Could you make some food that we could eat for dinner?” It’s a natural shift, to much more healthy, much more plainspoken food.

Once a month, the blog will have some baking project that people crave. I’m working on gluten-free pretzels right now. March is (a gluten-free version of) Nutter Butters.

Q. Let’s go back to your most recent book. How did Facebook and Twitter help you promote it?

A. They’re both really about community. Gluten-free folks feel isolated, and having people who understand it is really important to them.

Twitter and Facebook sold the book the first few weeks. People were tweeting things like, “My book arrived, I’m so excited.” They included links to the cookbook. It was a natural, viral thing.

Once a month on Twitter, I did an event. I asked folks to cook out of the book or recommend the book and put it up on Twitter.

Now I use the mornings to be on Twitter and people can come ask questions. The blog sold the first book (Gluten-Free Girl), and Twitter and Facebook sold the second book.

Q. What kind of promotion did you do on your blog?

A. About a month and a half before the book came out, I asked people if they wanted three recipes to blog about. Close to 100 bloggers responded. There were all kinds of people, including the Georgia housewife with three kids who just wanted to cook pasta, and people with small blogs. There was nobody famous, nobody well known. That day, when they all posted a recipe, the book was at number 291 on Amazon. (DJ: The lower the number, the closer you are to the best-selling book of the day or hour. Amazon sells over 2 million books.)

From September to November, I did a giveaway of 15 copies of the book, each tied to cookie recipes.

I’ve found that the blog promotes the book and the book promotes the blog. I hear from people all the time who say “My aunt bought the book for me as a gift, then I found out about the blog.”

Q. What about in-person tours?

A. Bookstore readings are becoming antiquated, and particularly for a cookbook, it doesn’t seem too relevant. So we wanted to create a space where people could gather. We did a picnic in Central Park in New York , and everyone brought food. After BlogHer Food in SF, we did a picnic in Delores Park, where people brought food. In Boulder, we did a November event inside. Our Intention is to travel somewhere each month.

Q. How did you come up with the funds for a road tour?

A. We slept on people’s couches. Publishers don’t pay for anything, even though we love our publisher. Our editor said, “Why don’t you stay home and do it all on Twitter?” but we said no no, this is about going out and meeting people and connecting with them. (DJ: Ahern announced all events on Twitter.)

Q. Which was more important: print media or radio?

A. We did a lot of radio from home. There wasn’t a lot of print media. Most people’s perception of gluten free is that it’s crappy: bad baked goods, deprivation. Then the New York Times named it one of best cookbooks. I found out on Twitter from all the people congratulating me.

Q. How did you decide who should endorse your book?

A. I thought of the people whose work we respected, and they all wanted to be part of it. I targeted friends who also happen to be successful bloggers. Karen (Page) and Andrew (Dornenburg) represented the chef world.

Q. What advice would you give to new authors about book promotion, particularly those who don’t have a blog?

A. The first thing is, you need a blog.

Having some kind of online presence is really important. Your Facebook fan page has to be updated all the time. I do links to other people’s recipes. Recently I announced that once a week, everyone’s going to cook out of the cookbook on the same day.

Publishing used to be something static. The book was on the shelves for six weeks, and that was when you did the promotion. Now you now have to create a place where people can gather online, show photos of your upcoming cookbook in your blog, and built anticipation for it. Then afterwards, you have to keep producing recipes people want so they will want to buy your next book.


  1. says

    I’ve always admired Shauna’s marketing ability. It’s clearly innate, because no one could possibly sustain the energy and enthusiasm she puts into her online community if it were more work than love.

    The part about building anticipation warrants a whole separate interview. Shauna and Danny are nothing short of genius on that front.

  2. says

    Dianne, thanks for an amazing blog post. Your interview questions were spot on.
    Gluten-Free Girl truly does have her finger on social media’s pulse.

    A tot, a hubby and a third cookbook in the works, and Shauna manages it all so beautifully, especially her accessibility to fellow bloggers.

    This article has empowered me to do better.

    Bravo to you both.

  3. says

    Great interview with the fantastic Shauna. I often marvel at how good she is at all of this, and what I love best about her is that when she is marketing herself, it does not seem that way. Because she is so genuine, so real. Love her.

  4. says

    Shauna does a wonderful job promoting herself. I have a lot to learn from her! I really appreciate these types of interviews Dianne. Thank you.

  5. Traca says

    Dianne, the key here is multiple platforms. You find audiences in different places. The Food Network spot supported the blog, the blog supported her first book, new fans were found at various conferences, and through media pieces. Twitter keeps the conversation going. Are you missing out if your fans are Facebook lovers and you’re over there focused on Twitter? Absolutely. These days I think the multi-prong approach is key. Exhausting, but essential.

    • diannejacob says

      And so time consuming to be on top of all these ways to communicate. You have to figure out how to work it into your life, and she does it well.

    • says

      I completly agree. I used to be totally overwhelmed trying to do everything all the time but I think I have found a balance. I’ve been talking to food bloggers whom I would consider successful and I realize they put a lot of work into what they do, no doubt, but it is genuine. Jaden tweeting about her clown socks, Shauna tweeting about the clutter in her house, David always so funny but never mean… and so on.

      I think twitter and facebook are incredible, if you realize it’s there to help you not to defeat you.

      • diannejacob says

        Yes, it feels like a fine balance sometimes, between feeling overwhelmed and using them as a tool to form community. On most days, it’s got to be the latter or it’s just not worth it.

  6. says

    It’s about being grounded…I have admired Shauna for a while now and she has been able to stay grounded amidst all the chaos…I follow her on almost all platforms and love the simplicity with which she lives and creates every moment. Wish her all the success!

  7. says

    Agreed, I was one of the ‘100’ who cooked from the recipes Shauna sent out when I responded to her FB post. My 16 year old son and I spent a day working through the three main recipes and then photographing them, and blogging about them.

    Great fun and as an salesman for over 30 years, marketing and promotion of the highest order – and as noted, pure love and enthusiasm drives her and through that all of us who follow her journey, and I was (by accident) an early follower. Shaun a has a place at my table whenever she ever makes it down here to New Zealand

    • diannejacob says

      How wonderful that she has fans like you and your son who are willing to go to that extent to help her. It says a lot about not just her but you.

  8. says

    Great post Dianne. I too have been following Shauna’s blog for quite some time, and watched in amazement and adoration as their book went viral. Actually it was on her blog that I first read about your book (Which I ordered straight away!) So thank you to both of you for all the amazing work you do :-)

  9. says

    Diane, enjoyed this post on Shauna’s marketing ability. As a new food blogger, I am connecting with many bloggers in my area (Boston) on Twitter as well as others worldwide.
    I do not have a Facebook page yet for my blog, Prep2eat.
    Wondering if this is necessary at this time to drive traffic to my blog. No cookbook yet to promote :) Just trying to inspire homecooking for food quality, saving money and for the pleasure of homecooking.
    Learned so much from your book, WWFF. It is an excellent resource on so many levels.

    The Souper

    • diannejacob says

      Since you said you are a new food blogger, I don’t think you need a Facebook page yet. It’s good to have one for when a cookbook comes out.

      Thanks for the kind words about my book.

  10. Gwyneth says

    Quick thing, Dianne… the picnic in Central Park was technically against park rules, as Shauna did it secretly so they wouldn’t have to buy the permit required for any picnic*. You may want to remove that reference, as she could be retroactively fined. I won’t talk about what a trashy move that was.

    * From her “secret” e-mail about it: “We’re making this private because we found out we should probably have a permit, if this becomes a big group. Oops.”

    • diannejacob says

      You have already stated your opinion, Gwyneth, so no reason to say more. I don’t think any park police are reading this post, so I’ll leave it here.

  11. says

    Wonderful interview–and great questions! Shauna is inspiring in so many ways. I appreciate hearing about the marketing side of her world. I would love to hear more about making Twitter (and tiny writing) work. I’m so awkward with that tool. Facebook: I get. Twitter: not so much. Thank you for sharing Shauna’s original, fun ideas with us.

    • diannejacob says

      You are welcome, Amber. I’m still figuring out Twitter. I try to use it only for work, and I put other less work-related stuff on Facebook. Not sure if that’s a good idea, but at least I have a plan…for now.

  12. says

    Great interview. Shauna is definitely amazing at what she does. I loved being able to take a peak into how she puts it all together. Definitely food for thought. thanks for sharing her with us!

    • diannejacob says

      You are welcome Julie. I suppose for Shauna fans it’s not what you usually read, so I appreciate hearing from you.

  13. Traca says

    Dianne, I forgot to mention…they hired professional PR for their first book, which probably helped snag some major media spots. I’d be curious to hear how that worked out for them, and if they’ve continued to outsource their PR.

  14. says

    Great interview! I love Shauna. I have since I discovered her blog years ago, before I even started to blog myself, and my respect for her has grown since. I think the reason she squirmed at you describing her as a “marketing genius” is because she truly has a mission in life, to help other people like herself who are celiac or otherwise gluten intolerant, to find a way to not only live gluten free but to eat wonderfully. Everything comes out of that mission, which inherently is about spreading information and building community. It’s that community that rallied behind her books and who flock to her on twitter and facebook.

    I personally don’t use my facebook page that often (though I’ve recently rebooted it and created a new specific to my blog page). I’m still trying to figure out the best way to use it. However I am on Twitter often, and though it can be a HUGE time investment, I’ve found it invaluable in making personal connections with people that I normally wouldn’t be able to have access to. It’s through Twitter I was able to converse and get to know people like Shauna, which led to me flying up to Seattle just to hang out with other Seattle food people, Shauna included. In fact that photo was taken by my partner AJ on the day that Shauna and I baked together…with our first attempt at making gluten free pretzels. That never would have happened if I wasn’t on Twitter.

    Nowadays, I feel that if you want your blog to really take off, you need to be on Twitter or Facebook. If you have a cookbook coming out, you better have a blog, Twitter, and Facebook page.

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks Irvin. Yes, I knew about your trip to Seattle. How could I not, since I follow you and Shauna on Twitter and you were tweeting about it for days? 😉

      You are right that her marketing sense comes from the heart. I’m sure that’s why it works. Still, she works it on social media just like you do. We’re still figuring out this stuff, but she has made it work for her.

  15. says

    Shauna’s info is spot on– the web is so important in selling cookbooks these days. She and I have the same editor at Wiley, and he has been advocating using blogs, facebook, twitter, etc., to spread the word since I first worked with him. The great advantage of these vehicles is that they reach a targeted audience and are cost-free except for the effort required to cultivate the following. Usually, people follow a blog or twitter of facebook posts because they have an interest in the topic or the author, so they immediately response to news that the book is available. Over and over, we saw sales spike after blogs featured Kneadlessly Simple–it may have been the most important factor in the book starting out strong and sustaining itself. Web exposure is especially critical now that few publishers have budgets to send authors out touring. I expect if will be even more important when my next book comes out.

    • diannejacob says

      And you’ve been working it, Nancy, with your blog and Facebook particularly, so I bet your book will do much better in sales than the last. I’m always amazed by how much time you put into it. May it come back to you in spades, my friend.

  16. says

    Another smart post, Dianne! I’m with the consensus here — this works for Shauna because there is such huge and genuine enthusiasm behind it. No one could duplicate what she does if they were simply looking for a marketing strategy.

    I got to be friends with Shauna after writing about her first book — while they may have had PR, as Traca notes, I don’t know if they needed it. I reached out to Shauna on my own for a Seattle Post-Intelligencer profile after reading on her blog that the book was coming — didn’t need a press release to see even back then that readers would connect with her story.

    • diannejacob says

      I don’t know that they are mutually exclusive ideas, Rebekah. She is genuine, she has a loyal following and she’s an outstanding marketer. More power to her, from my perspective.


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