Irena Macri might seem to be an unlikely advocate for the paleo diet. Based on the idea that humans are best suited to eating what their Paleolithic (i.e., caveman) ancestors ate—berries, nuts, meat; not dairy, grains, and salt—the culinary approach is often associated with diehard evangelists and intense CrossFit devotees. Macri is the first to admit that “I am not dogmatic and I don’t really see [paleo] as a diet.” She takes a more casual approach.
Macri’s accessibility may partly explain the strong sales of her cookbook Eat Drink Paleo. In 2011, the Australian foodie started a blog of the same name, which she used to share original recipes and musings on eating like a hunter-gatherer. After much planning, marketing, and, of course, cooking, Macri self-published the cookbook in 2013. Her accessible tone and the book’s professional presentation helped sell thousands of copies, and now Penguin has grabbed it up, along with Macri’s follow-up.
“There is a time in every food blogger’s life when [he or she] plays around with the idea of creating a cookbook—self-published or through a traditional publisher,” Macri says. “It’s a bit of a holy grail of food blogging, really.”
For Macri, writing a cookbook made particular sense. A year after the blog’s launch, she had attracted a dedicated audience of about 40,000 monthly visitors, and her new recipes drew enthusiasm from the growing paleo community. She began bringing in a steady if small income through sales of ads on her site, as well as affiliate marketing, and she imagined that a book might provide a more direct stream of revenue.
Macri saw a gap in the Australian market for the type of high-quality cookbook she envisioned. “I wanted to create something that was much better than what was on offer,” she says. Even if it was self-published, she wanted the book to be professionally edited and designed, with original photography of actual meals.
“Sometimes when self-publishing, there might not be a budget to pay professional designers to help you bring your book to life,” says Carla Hackett, a book designer and friend whom Macri would tap for the book’s layout. “Having a professional and unique design helped Irena’s book gain popularity and, of course, can only help sales.”
Because of budget constraints, Macri turned to her readers for help, launching a campaign through the Australian crowdfunding site Pozible. The campaign struck a chord with readers. Lasting 35 days, it drew more than 300 backers pledging 13,000 AUD.
With funding in hand, Macri set to work planning the book. She continued to blog at the same pace she had and also worked part-time at a gallery. Over the course of about two months, she laid out the structure of the book, the format of the chapters, the major topics, and the types of recipes to include. “I was living in spreadsheets and scribbling Post-it notes everywhere,” she says.
Soon, Macri added pots and pans to the mix. She had a handful of recipes that had been popular on the blog that she knew would need to be included in the book. But beyond that she created brand-new ideas, testing them in the kitchen, “making sure I covered many different key ingredients and cuisines,” and holding on to the best ones.
As the recipes moved from scribbled notebook pages to final documents, Macri got to work on the book’s layout. She tapped Hackett, who was in the midst of launching her own hand-lettering business in Melbourne, to devise the look of the project. “I flew her over to Sydney for about 10 days and we basically got into this amazing collaborative frenzy,” Macri says.
They gathered a bevy of food-styling props, painted chalkboards, and bought “an astronomically large amount of food.” They cooked, shot images, cleaned, then repeated, getting 10–15 dishes each day for a week, inviting friends over for nightly dinner parties to feast on the huge volume of food. (A time-lapse video of Macri and Hackett creating the book’s cover can be viewed here.)
“I put together some style references for Carla and she had some strong concepts in mind that would reflect my brand, but then we brainstormed a lot of it on the spot,” Macri says. “My partner built a crane to suspend the camera over the table so I could have these amazing top angles—it was all very DIY.”
“She really wanted it to feel very real, genuine, and approachable,” Hackett says. “It really was a collaboration in the true sense of the word, with Irena and I being on the same page from the beginning.”
Macri conceived Eat Drink Paleo as an e-book, having considered the added costs and challenges print could present, especially for an art-heavy book. But she still created the material “as if there would be a printed book in the future”—ensuring all art was produced in high-resolution, it got a flexible design, and so on. Once the art was complete, Macri finalized the recipes and chapter introductions, preparing the marketing and promotional material as Hackett returned to Melbourne and completed the designs and layout, processing the photos using Lightroom and Photoshop.
Editor Jodie McLeod worked quickly with the text, reading over the pages, editing and proofing them. In the week or two ahead of publication, Macri met with Hackett at her studio and put the finishing touches on the design. “I even got into the InDesign to help with laying out the pages as Carla was making hand-drawn illustrations,” she says.
Release and Reception
Throughout all of the steps of funding, photographing, and finalizing the book, Macri kept her readers updated through her blog and social media. She found that this created a healthy amount of buzz as readers offered support and comments and shared the updates with their own friends and family. By the time the book actually came out, “I had a line of readers wanting to purchase it,” Macri says.
To connect with readers beyond her core audience, Macri also drafted a press release, which she sent out to magazines, newspapers, food and wellness bloggers, and others in the paleo community. She sent free copies of the printed book or e-book to those who might review it (without obliging them to do so), and submitted guest posts and recipes to other blogs. She used Google Ads and giveaways, as well as a launch party to which she invited guests known well among paleo enthusiasts. “I basically did anything and everything you can think of,” Macri says. The effort paid off. Within its first weeks, the book’s sales climbed.
After Eat Drink Paleo’s first month as an e-book, with hundreds of copies selling weekly, Macri felt confident that it was a good time to try it in print form. Hackett repurposed the master file for the slightly different dimensions of a print book, and Macri created a few short print runs, covering the up-front costs herself. She found an affordable and high-quality printing house in Germany that would turn around runs of a few thousand books, printing 2,000, which sold out quickly, then another 3,000 books.
Eat Drink Paleo was hardly the first book on the subject. But Macri’s efforts to come up with creative, original recipes and package them in an eye-catching, professional layout set it apart from many other cookbooks that “regurgitate the same kind of recipes over and over again, repurposing and adapting the classics,” as she puts it.
The book also stood apart in its more accessible tone. While the paleo market is full of doctrinaire voices offering commandments pertaining to what one must and must not eat, Macri emphasizes moderation.
Penguin Picks It Up
Eat Drink Paleo moved about 8,000 copies, and soon began catching the attention of major publishing houses, which reached out to Macri about releasing the book with them. As she was making good money on sales and happy with the professional quality of her self-published book, Macri was in no rush to sign on with one of the big houses. But, about a year and a half after the book’s release, as Macri began to plan a follow-up, Penguin sent her an email about working together.
“I really jumped to my feet,” Macri says. “For starters, we’re talking about Penguin, who publish some of my food idols. Secondly, they were asking about a new book and I have always wanted to do at least one book through a traditional publisher.”
After an initial meeting at which the publisher expressed interest not only in Eat Drink Paleo, but her next book as well, negotiations deepened and Macri began seriously considering the offer. On the one hand, Penguin offered extensive distribution and a marketing apparatus that could help spread the word beyond Macri’s own paleo network. On the other hand, she was concerned about re-releasing a book that had already done well, not to mention giving up the sole rights to the book.
“I could no longer sell it myself, which after having so much control over it was very hard to do,” Macri says. She admits that the decision was a difficult one, but the promise of “reaching so many more people” convinced her it was worth moving to a big publisher. In short order, her instincts proved sound, as Penguin generated major publicity and distribution with Penguin Books UK and the Switzerland-based German-language publisher AT Verlag. “Hopefully it will soon get picked up by other countries as well,” Macri says.
In addition to riding the continued success of Eat Drink Paleo, Macri has now jumped into work on her second book, this time collaborating closely with the Penguin team.
To others considering self-publishing, Macri insists that success is possible as long as they create “a very good product.” To do that, as she found, an author first needs, “great content, a solid market, some money, and lots of hard work. If you have that, go for it. You never know where that will lead you.”