Has anyone not heard of David Lebovitz? He’s a super successful American food writer blogger living in Paris. He’s also a gorgeous photographer, author of five cookbooks and one memoir, and author and co-author of two apps.
I first met him on email in 2005, when he endorsed my book, Will Write for Food. Recently we spoke about his success and philosophy on food blogging, writing cookbooks, social media, and how he finds the time to get it all done:
Q. Why do so many people adore your blog? What is it about you and your subject matter?
A. It’s a combination of things. Part of it is I started a long time ago so I’ve had a long time to practice, to learn about blogging and build a site. Part of it is I live in Paris and that interests people. Plus I worked as a professional chef, which is part of the mix. People say they feel my blog is very personal; they know the person behind it.
My blog is largely about cultural differences because I’m a foreigner living abroad, and the longer you live somewhere, the more it gives you more credibility. And perhaps people can relate to being an “outsider.” Years ago I was more of a critic of certain aspects of French culture, but now I’m more of an observer and I try to be more neutral. The longer you live somewhere, the more you understand how people are and I’ve become more integrated, too, and understand the culture better.
Q. How has your blog changed since you started your website in 1999? What kinds of posts do you no longer do?
A. Now I microblog on Twitter (105,000+ followers) and Facebook (26,000+ followers). I used to do link round-ups on my blog, but now I’ll put links and short things on Twitter, and pictures on Flickr or Instagram.
Q. How do you decide what to put on Facebook and what to put on Twitter?
A. Facebook is more about linking. Twitter is more about thoughts. When I’m out and about I can easily tweet a social observation or a photo of a bakery. I find that when people link to too many things their Twitter stream becomes less interesting because it’s no longer about them.
Q. How many times should a blogger refer to his or her most recent post on social media?
A. Once. You’re allowed to do it twice, but only if you sincerely believe people missed it and it’s a truly exceptional, amazing post that will revolutionize the world of food blogging.
Q. What was the turning point for your blog, when you knew it was successful?
A. The day I actually ran my fingers through Michael Ruhlman’s hair.
Q. Right, I was there! It was at the Food Blogger Camp in Mexico.
A. Yes, it was. Actually, I don’t look at statistics very often. It’s kind of a waste of time. When I was selling my current book, I saw that they were looking to base the advance somewhat on my online readership so I did check then. In general, book sales have been healthy because of my site. That’s what every author wants.
Q. Are your posts getting longer and longer?
A. My goal is to write a post that someone can read in 3 minutes or less. Even if it seems long, there are a lot of photos that people can scroll through. But I aim to write something readable in a relatively short amount of time.
Q. What’s the most important change you’ve made on your blog in the last year?
A. Moving to WordPress and switching servers. WordPress is so much easier to use, compared to Movable Type — which is for developers, because you have to know code. I had a wonderful web guy who was a Movable Type expert and then he stopped working with clients and I couldn’t find anyone who did Movable Type work, which led me to change.
Q. Which is your first love: writing books, blogging, photography, or social media?
A. I actually like blogging. It’s more fun than writing books because I can write something and post it the same day. I like the immediate feedback. And I can go back and edit things.
Writing a book is interesting, though, because the process is longer and I learn a lot when I’m developing recipes. It’s difficult in a small apartment to deal with the recipe paperwork and the notes, though. And, of course, all the leftovers!
Q. Do you have one post that you think is amazing?
Q. On your post about food blogging, you suggest bloggers “find your niche.” Some people worry that they will get bored with their niche. How do they avoid that? Can you chance a blog into something else?
A. You have to start a blog about what interests you. Now I’m branching out doing more savory recipes, because there are only so many desserts. I don’t make chocolate tarts every day.
People should blog about what their life is about. You can start or stop a blog, but I never get bored with my blog so it’s not been an issue.
Q. I was at a conference recently where someone told me that recipes are meant to be shared, so what’s wrong with sharing them on a blog?
A. Music and movies are meant to be shared, too. But you can’t copy and redistribute them. If you have nothing to add to the recipe, you should just link to it. That’s sharing. Otherwise you should adapt it and write it as you made it.
Q. My sense is that you are interested in technology and often one of the first to jump on new media. Is that essential to be a food blogger or social media maven?
A. If you mean apps, my publisher provided my first app. For the Paris Pastry app, I wanted to do a pastry guidebook back in 1993 when I first moved to Paris. (It’s amusing because I still have those notes!) So when a friend who is a publisher approached me, we did it together. But in terms of being a techie, I can’t read CSS, I have no idea what it is, and I have no idea how to switch servers.
Q. Do you hire technical people?
A. Yes. They oversee my site, dealing with any technical stuff like WordPress upgrades, changing a font, cleaning up pages, or having something redesigned to be cleaner to read. I’ve hired web developers since 1999 and I think they’re a worthwhile investment.
In 2000, just after I started out, someone else who was starting out said they wanted to do it all themselves. I said, “Do it yourself and you take that time away from your baking and writing.”
A. I only do things that I would really want do on my own, or that give me an opportunity to learn. For example, I didn’t know much about cognac. It’s part of life in France and visiting the region makes me learn and understand more about not just the item, but the culture and terroir surrounding it. I’ve been on a few press trips, which are important in France, because it’s very hard to get access to places unless you’ve had a formal introduction. It’s much, much easier to go see a place, and meet the people, if all the arrangements have been made in advance.
As for products, if someone wants to send me a spatula to try out, I would take it if I were actually interested in it. (Especially because it’s often extremely complicated to get something delivered here.) I was interested in green non-stick pans, and the Actify fryer so I gave them a try, and put my impressions on my blog.
Most important is that there’s nothing worse than losing the trust of your readers. It’s not worth a spatula, a piece of kitchen equipment, or a bag of nuts if readers get the impression you are just trying to get freebies.
Q. How do you feel about sponsored posts?
A. I’d feel funny about having a company pay me to write something on my site. If I wanted to make a lot of money or have a lot of visitors I would do three chocolate desserts a week instead.
Q. Of all your ads, which is the best moneymaker?
A. BlogHer ads. Like the line at Costco, it’s important to stick with something for a while and not jump around to what looks to be better elsewhere. I don’t judge it from month to month. The thing I like about them is that they’re bloggers. All my interactions with them have been extremely professional.
Q. You have other ads and affiliate programs too.
A. I have a BlogHer ad between posts, plus Amazon, Google Adsense, and Platefull in the sidebars. The ads are geotagged and only show in the US so I can’t see a lot of them. A lot of my readers are outside the US and I don’t make money from those that appear outside the US, but I love working with BlogHer.
Q. How do you carve out time to start a new project?
A. It’s very challenging. I’m starting to write a book now, and the blog takes up a lot of time, and I live in a country where there’s a heavy amount of administrative tasks. Life is a little more difficult here day to day. Things take longer. For example, if you need an orange or a sack of sugar for a recipe and it’s 9 p.m., there’s not necessarily somewhere nearby to get it. You need to wait until the next day, or when your market is open.
It’s hard to find the time, and it’s something I struggle with. For my last two books, I’ve gone out to the country for a couple of weeks where there’s no Internet access just to finish things without distractions.
I don’t have a schedule for writing. Today I started at 5:30 a.m. and I tested a recipe this morning. It took 1.5 hours to prepare and cleanup took 1 hour. It’s been in the refrigerator for 8 hours, and now it’s probably ready to taste. It’s the fourth time I’ve made it. Doing the math, you can see how long it takes to get work done!
Since I work a lot with the US, people there are waking up at 5 p.m. my time and they expect me to respond to e-mail. I have dinner at 8:30 p.m. and then I don’t want to go back to the computer, so I have to log off. Otherwise I make myself crazy.
Q. Do you think people really know you as a result of reading your blog? Or have you invented a character?
A. It’s really me. I’m writing about my life. I’m probably more open about certain things than other people are, like flushing meringue down the toilet. I’m often presenting a realist view of the city I live in. I feel like I’m pretty open and honest about everything on my site.
Q. Any final messages?
A. Food bloggers should think of themselves as part of a community. Don’t swipe material from other blogs. It’s not “passing along information.” Create your own content for your readers, and link to other people. That’s what the world wide web is all about.
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