Recently Amanda Hesser, co-founder of Food52 and a former New York Times food writer, said in Advice for Future Food Writers she could “no longer responsibly recommend that you drop everything to try to become a food writer.”
“Except for a very small group of people (some of whom are clinging to jobs at magazines that pay more than the magazines’ business models can actually afford), it’s nearly impossible to make a living as a food writer, and I think it’s only going to get worse,” Hesser concludes.
To which I would say, for most of us, it has been nearly impossible to make a decent living as a food writer for several decades. But here’s the thing: we’re still at it, enjoying ourselves.
And that’s our dirty little secret. Food writing is fun, no matter how much or whether we’re paid.
Hesser’s article offers lots of good numbers on what food writers make. Now, here are my three tiers of how to categorize ourselves. Recognize yourself in any of these?
Tier 1. Employees at national publications and big web names (5 percent)
These food writers and editors make a high five-to-six-figure living at a few big newspapers and national magazines, with expense accounts and excellent employee benefits. This category also includes a handful of self-employed web publishers, bloggers, and cookbook authors who pump out books annually and who probably consult on the side.
Hesser was at the top end of this first category at the New York Times as an editor and food writer. She assumed that if she told people how she moved up the ladder, that they could do it too. I don’t agree. Those people also need fierce ambition, obsessive work habits, and connections. Oh, and they need talent. Loads of it.
In the second category are bloggers and website publishers who rake in big bucks through advertising. One of their jobs is food writing, but it’s not how they would describe themselves. They’re publishers in charge of their online businesses and brand, like Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes and Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks. These publishers excel at branding, technology, and networking.Oh, and they have talent. Loads of it.
Tier 2: Cookbook authors, freelancers and bloggers making less than they deserve (30 percent)
These are mostly full-time self-employed folks who may have been in the game for decades. They work hard at their profession and are respected, but they earn a teacher’s salary of $30,000 to $60,000 in a rare good year. Most of them take side jobs. They cater, cook in restaurants, teach classes, and consult. They enjoy their work.
The problem isn’t that these writers could make more money if they tried harder. It’s that the field just doesn’t pay enough. Hesser is right that their income probably hasn’t changed for years. For freelancers, pay has actually shrunk. They’re writing smaller stories for less money. And cookbooks have rarely been a good way to earn money.
Tier 3. Hobbyists and part-timers (65 percent)
Here’s where most food writers congregate. They write for fun and sometimes for pay, but it doesn’t add up to much. That’s okay — they’re not trying to make a living at food writing. They have day jobs, spouses, savings, part-time jobs, or inheritances.
Some decide to get more serious about money but will find it tough to move up a tier. If they’re bloggers, they might get book deals or enough income from ads to pay their monthly server expenses.
As for me, I’m in Tier 2 and I’m happy with what I’m doing. Sure, I’d like to make more, but that’s my trade-off. So to the question of whether food writing is a dismal way to make a living, I say yes, but it’s not the right question. A good income is not what drives most people to go into food writing in the first place.
My question is directed to people in Tiers 2 and 3, the majority. Should we demand to be paid well AND enjoy ourselves, or is that too much to ask? What will it take?
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The great thing about Hesser’s post is that it’s started a conversation. For more perspectives, see
- What Amanda Hesser Got Wrong (John Birdsall’s essay on Chow)
- Trish Deseine’s Advice to Future Cookbook Authors
- 5 Things That Dreaming of Being a Food Writer Got Me
And you might want to jump in on Jonell Galloway’s Twitter chat on food writing on Friday, April 20 at 2 p.m. EST/ 8 p.m. Paris time. The hash tag is #futurefoodwriting. I’ll see you there.
(Photo by Nattavut/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)