Whose Fault is It that Food Writing Doesn't Pay?

Dec 182012
 

Every once and a while, I hear resentment. Someone’s to blame about why food writers aren’t paid well for their work.

Whose fault is it? Here are the three most common scapegoats:

  1. Writers who have partners who work. These writers don’t care if they make a living wage because they don’t need the money. They might not work full time or care what they’re paid.
  2. People who work full-time and write about food as a hobby. They will probably never make food writing a full-time career. And they don’t need the money because they have jobs, so they write for free or for little pay.
  3. Hobby bloggers. They write for free or little pay too, because they’re thrilled to be asked in exchange for exposure. Like the writers identified in No. 2, they don’t understand that some of us write for money and want to be taken seriously as professionals.

Should those of us who want to be paid well blame or resent these food writers? No. We’re probably part of the problem. Food writing presents a chicken and egg dilemma. It’s so hard to make a decent living that most of us have other jobs to make ends meet: We teach, we consult, we write in other fields, we cater, and we have side businesses. So who are we to judge? On tax day, it may seem like food writing is the “hobby” side of our business too.

If we want to make more money as food writers, there are paths, but they may not appeal or they’re unlikely:

  1. Write copy and marketing material for ads, food companies, restaurants, product websites, labels, catalogs, and brochures. It’s good pay.
  2. Become a hack. Crank out tons of pieces every week for whoever asks and make a living based on sheer volume.
  3. Become an award-winning journalist. Write for the best magazines and newspapers, and get paid the best rates.
  4. Become a best-selling author. Live off your royalty checks and get asked to write for big magazines.
  5. Become a top blogger. Live off your advertising, sponsorships and book deals.

See what I mean? The first two categories don’t sound good to most writers, and the second three are nearly impossible to pull off.

I have come to accept that, for most of us, food writing doesn’t pay well. Why not? I have lots of theories, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. We choose to do it, we love it, and we should ask for higher pay at every opportunity. So let’s stop blaming others and get on with what gives us pleasure and satisfaction.

(And if you think food writers are the only writers with low pay, read “There will be no more professional writers in the future”).

Note: This post is adapted from my quarterly newsletter. If you’d like to receive it, sign up here. The next one’s coming out at the end of December.

(Photo courtesy of Graur Razvan Ionut from FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)

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  78 Responses to “Whose Fault is It that Food Writing Doesn't Pay?”

  1. And No.6: “Take part in reality TV show”.

  2. This is a great post. I know a lot of writers who just blame bloggers and then give up. But I think it’s like food production. You can’t just grow excellent beets and lettuce and expect to sell out at the farmers market. It’s gross and unpleasant but I think you really have to relearn how to market yourself. I’m not sure how but I think we all have rethink the traditional ways of doing things.
    I think another thing is not to invest too much in social media if you don’t “get” it. Some people love and can help but if you’re just going to brag everytime someone tells you something nice, don’t bother. A good writer though can help make your FB page and Tweets something valuable to your customers.
    Why not create a guild of writers who have different specialties and have someone rep them? If a rep approached me with this concept, I’d be all ears.
    Off the top of my head……I want to see good writers thrive!

    • Hello Steve, great to hear from you. You’ve spent years building your bean business, so I hope you are doing better than food writers, who often do the same but it still doesn’t add up to much.

      Definitely, the traditional way of doing things doesn’t work anymore. For writers, that means less print and more online, but online pays less or nothing, unless you’re writing marketing copy.

      Regarding a guild, someone thought of this! I don’t think it went anywhere, though. Thanks for reminding me about this post.

      • We’re doing well, but I think it’s part luck and part marketing outside the mainstream. I think if we had gone a traditional route, we’d be nowhere. I’m assuming it has to be the same for writers.

        I hope 2013 is the year we figure out how to make writing lucrative again!

    • I love the idea of a guild. But why doesn’t one smart agent create a gaggle of talented writers and offer to represent them?

  3. And no. 7: those who will write a recipe for a brand in return for a box of products and and entry into a competition pitting them against other bloggers for an “opportunity” to be featured on a website or in a magazine.

    • Oh yes, that one. I don’t like that one, but it fits into the “exposure” mantra. That’s a good subject for a post, actually.

      • You mean a hamper is not enough reward to give your work away?! And bore everyone with umpteen bloggers churning out identical PR led posts?

      • Number 7.5: pertaining to restaurants, most owners use management to do all the marketing/writing/tweeting, et al.

        I think it’s true that we undervalue and underbid our writing services. The old adage that it’s “who you know” is true also, so if you can market yourself AND make great connections, it’s a great recipe for success! Hopefully… :)

        • Okay, I will defer to your knowledge about restaurants, but some might farm out the work to public relations firms too.

          That is an excellent road to success. Who you know does matter. I was just discussing this today with two people, one who got writing work because he happened to be at a party.

  4. In regards to option #1, I do a lot of writing for clients and for the most part it’s really not that bad. Some days I am a journalist, other days a blogger and other days a copywriter. For me, it works. I am paid well and appreciated and I get to write about a subject I truly care about. I know many people envy my career (if not my paltry paycheck!).

    • Hey, the whole point is that your paycheck should not be paltry for doing copywriting work. I guess you just need more of it, eh? And those people who are best at it enjoy it, of course.

  5. I would actually love to supplement my food writing with writing marketing material for food companies, restaurants, product websites, etc. How do you break in?

  6. Payment is also what is valued in our society. Writers – just as anyone in the arts – are typically low paid except for the top 1-2%. It’s not the fault of bloggers or people with husbands. Also – the more competition – the harder it is to reach the top 2 percent. Just my two cents. Which I would be luck to get if I wrote for food!

    • So true. Writers, painters, dancers, and musicians are all typically in the same boat. They’re not in it for the money.

      While payment is valued, these days most food writers are probably hobby bloggers, who don’t necessarily care about payment! How things have changed from the old days in print.

  7. You don’t have to be an award-winning journalist to write for well-paying magazines. You just have to be able to write well (and come up with ideas worth being paid for). I find the pay to be just as good as it is when I’m writing about non-food subjects.

    • Okay yes, I was exaggerating. You don’t have to win awards. But it is difficult to break into the well-paying magazines and get steady work. If they pay by the word, it’s hard to get long assignments too. Good for you if you’re getting them!

  8. We can spend a lot of time blaming those who write for free but I think once we pass to serious platforms there are two problems: there are some who do pay and look for serious material but don’t have the money to pay more than they do, possibly because they are a small business. And those that can pay more? Look at the big paper magazines – more and more are saving money (can we assume this is the reason?) by filling up their magazines with articles and photos produced in-house by their own editorial team. This leaves little space for freelance material with more freelancers trying to get that space which means the magazine feels that they can pay less. And how many fulltime editorial positions are open? I had a piece accepted for publication in a major magazine and at the last minute they sent it back and published a piece on the same subject that apparently came from a book (which a professional editor told me was free content). This is my biggest gripe.

    • The big national magazines are always going to pay well, to a select few who have earned it. In these lean times, there are fewer opportunities and shorter pieces for freelancers — and more competition. And yes, in lean times, free content is preferable. This is all very frustrating, Jamie, but I’m not sure what we can do about it except to keep plugging along. And you have!

  9. Somehow, I feel like we’re on the edge of something. In the food world, that is. I am notoriously impatient (ask my editor and my agent – and my family for that matter), but still I have that growing feeling. I also think the issues we have individually are largely the same as the issues that the current publications (magazines, newspapers) are having adapting to the digital space, trying to make money online since that is where things are moving. And it seems to me that the biggest and most important mistake we make these days as food writers is when we assume that the right path has already been beaten. The time spent in conferences and groups should be spent brainstorming.

    • There is still a path to success and people still find it and take it. So that’s what we have to focus on. I think we agree on this, Nicole.

  10. A very very pertinent post – a question that has been floating around amongst my food blogger friends as well. When I started my blog I belonged to your first described category -‘to People who work full-time and write about food as a hobby. But half way through the year and as my blog turned one I have gradually started thinking of making the plunge – earn money through my food and travel writing. Not exactly from my blog – but from the opportunities and openings that might come to me coz of the blog. And it’s true, I am slowly begun to belong to the second category that you have described – ‘Hobby bloggers. They write for free or little pay too, because they’re thrilled to be asked in exchange for exposure.’

    Initially, it was like okay, I’ll do this for a prestigious magazine. I don’t want to start in the lesser known ones. But I am realizing that most of the food magazines in our region are living off food bloggers – be it recipes, be it features etc. It’s a very fine line to tread when you want to make that plunge. Hard-hitting for all of those who have been writing for long to earn their living. But really, Dianne – what do I? I want to reach a wider audience – I feel that I’m passionate about writing. But I am also thinking that ‘contributing’ to a good publication perhaps would open some doors. But I’m not sure whether we are making the trend and spoiling the publication into waiting for a good writer to give an article for free! Suggestions please…

  11. I am one of those hobby bloggers. I have several blogs that I do as a side thing for fun and a few bucks. I am not a serious writer. I have no formal training in writing, most of us don’t. Welcome to the 21st century. The world is flat! The barrier to entry is low or non existent. I can literally set up a high quality blog, start writing and taking pictures in a matter of minutes. Of course, the hard part is getting followers.

    I saw a similar trend in stock photography. Anyone hear of istockphoto.com? Somewhere around 10 years ago, with the convergence of digital cameras and the internet these online stock photo houses killed off the traditional film stock photography business. Why? Because anyone with a decent digital camera and an internet connection could now upload their pictures and sell them at a fraction of the price. It’s a tough business to get into if you want to make serious money anymore, but those that adapt to the new paradigm can make a living.

    Personally, I have witness 3 bloggers quit their day job and survive just on their blogs (of course their are thousands that didn’t) but it can be done. No matter how you cut it, it’s still hard work!

    • You are a good writer for someone with no formal training Steve. You communicate well.

      Re stock photography, I have found a stock photo house (see credit at bottom of post) that will let me use their images for nothing. I don’t really understand it, but I’m not complaining. I assume most of their readers pay, though, although it will take thousands for the amounts to add up.

      Yes, people can survive just on their jobs. But for every one of them, there are thousands who can’t get there. As you say, they are probably very hard workers.

  12. As always, this is a great post with many lessons to learn! Thanks for generously sharing this with us, Dianne! Happy Holidays!

  13. When I was exploring food and travel writing as a full time career option, I came to resent those who had the time and income to turn vacations into articles they could then free lance to the airline mags and thus start building a portfolio. Often, in foodie memoires there are hidden scaffolds of privilege propping up what would otherwise be a financially non-sustaining career. With the devaluation of the price per word in the blogosphere, anyone who enters this field purely to make a living at it is tilting at windmills. And to be quite honest, the market is glutted. Do it because you can’t help yourself, and if you are lucky enough to make it work, more power to you.

  14. Whenever I get even a whiff of anyone whining about their lot in life–and I know that you personally aren’t whining, but you’re addressing the whining that’s out there–I’m compelled to point out that the only good answer to a question like “who’s to blame for that life isn’t like I wish it was?” is “me.”

    Any other answer is the booby prize.

    • Quitting tobacco aids of cialis coupon Stop.

      Hah! And what exactly is the booby prize? I guess a non-whiner like yourself will never find out.

      • Well, my husband may beg to differ about me being a non-whiner!

        But I mean to say that the booby prize is blaming in general, but specifically assigning responsibility for one’s happiness/success/satisfaction to anyone or anything other than oneself. Like you can say, “aha! it’s hobby bloggers’ fault that I’m broke!” but that knowledge doesn’t put any money in your pocket. See? Booby prize.

  15. Another great article, as usual – Love reading your stuff so I hope you’re getting paid :-)

    • Oh no, I am not getting paid to write this stuff. I do it because I enjoy talking with the food writing community and because of what comes from my blog: more book sales, speaking engagements, and clients.

  16. Um, #3 doesn’t work. Trust me.

    • I have heard lots of stories — including yours — of resentment from spouses and guilt from writers, so I would have to agree with you. Only last night I was talking with a book author who said her husband said her work at the computer isn’t really “work.”

      • No, I meant become an award-winning journalist and get better rates. Most magazines are paying rates from the ’80s.

        • Yes, so true. But I assume that being an award-winning writer, you have more opportunities, should you wish to pursue them.

          • That’s the misconception. I was told by a top editor, “How often do you think you can appear in our magazine without being a columnist?” Two, was the answer. I never thought of it that way, but it’s true for a freelancer.

            There are usually 10 to 12 issues of a magazine each year. Say you were lucky enough to get into every issue, and say you got a whooping $2500 for each piece, that’s a total of $30K. But….since they have you in every issue, you can’t write for competing magazines, so there goes a lot of possible income. So you have to write about food for non-food pubs or try newspapers, which offer paltry $ per word.

            On top of it, large articles require so much research, which means you’re researching not trying to get more work. I spent about three months researching the chocolate chip cookie article I wrote for The NY Times. Granted it wasn’t every day, but it took a long time. Luckily, they covered expenses. The fried clam piece I wrote for The Times took about a month.

            So, when you do the math:

            (Few pubs will let you appear more than once a year)
            + (the work that goes into research for that article)
            – (any personal expenses that aren’t covered)
            ‘f7 the number of days you work on the piece
            ___________________________________________
            = ??

          • Yes, I remember discussing this very issue with Barry Estabrook in my book. He said he got $5k for a feature in Gourmet, but it took him at least a month to research and write it, and it was exhausting. He couldn’t do a piece every month and they wouldn’t want one anyway. So it was maybe 5 per year, with other gigs.

            Re your comment about not writing often, as a former magazine editor who relied on freelancers, I was so excited when a freelancer GOT what I wanted, made deadlines, and was a good writer — my god, I used that person in every issue. I couldn’t care less about seeing his byline appearing often. I tried to keep those writers busy and happy. I paid them more, paid for expenses, and gave them choice assignments. Sometimes I got to hire them full-time to write. Doesn’t that all sound quaint now?

            If they were working for the competition on the side, I would have dropped them immediately. Some worked for magazines that were similar but did not compete directly; and some did other work to pay the bills, like corporate writing.

            These freelancers were, in just about every case, white men. One had a wife who was a lawyer (and a father-in-law who looked down on him for making paltry money), one had a home in the sticks and a wife named Trixie, and some just didn’t have much money but it’s what they chose to do. One woman even even got her husband to freelance for us, so I got a two-fer.

            So what I’m saying is, if we choose to do it, then we should stop blaming others for our choice. And we are free to choose, which is a privilege not available to many.

            And now that you have chosen not to freelance, you can have your blog and enjoy comments from adoring readers. You’ve been there and done that, and you have the glory to look back on. Let someone else go through it!

            It has been a while since I freelanced. When I do, it’s because magazines contact me for a story and pay well. Otherwise it’s too much trouble.

  17. Blogging emerged as the ultimate in democratic publishing. This mechanism gives anyone in the world, who has a computer and an internet connection, the opportunity to access an audience for their writing, photography, design and ideas. No wonder the competition increased so dramatically. It opened the door to thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people who want to write about food. I have written copy for food brands in the past but since I started blogging the world of food writing has opened up dramatically meaning that I’ve had articles published (mostly unpaid or low pay) but bringing more paid copywriting and food-related projects with it. No longer is food writing the preserve of a few.
    This ease of access has had a massive impact on all aspects of the creative industries not just food writing.
    Has creativity been devalued? While I would like to think that your statement about people willing to pay for quality is true, but I witness, on a daily basis, companies and individuals copying ideas and content and selling them on. The bottom line often takes priority and those buying the services do not differentiate between the effort, time and talent it takes to develop an idea from scratch and something that been adapted.
    Stock photography is a great example of where there has been a huge change; look also at advertising, design and even the music industry. We all have to adapt to the new world and look for new opportunities where they exist; adapting our skills to areas where there is a demand.

    • Oh boy this is depressing, Sally. I will have to think more about where these new opportunities come from. Two colleagues moved from full-time print food writing jobs to full-time digital writing jobs, but those are rare, and they both have the luxury of being employees. Both have talked about how the work environment is much less gloom and doom.

      I did post about working for restaurants, with a link above, but I don’t think doing so appeals to most of my readers.

      The problem is that we want to do what we want to do, and there is a glut of people in this category. I think that is the essence of it.

      • Whoops – didn’t mean to be depressing ….but it is challenging. I think you are absolutely correct in defining the essence – too many people want to do it. If you are setting out with a business idea you look at where there is a gap in the market or a shortage of skills.

        • That last sentence sums it all up, Sally. There is no gap in the market or shortage of skills when it comes to food writing.

  18. When I saw the title of this post I knew the comments would be interesting.
    It’s never good to “blame” others for the state of your own career. It’s a self-defeating time-waster that’s easy to fall into when you’re having a downturn. That said …
    From the perspective of this food/travel freelancer (who has a fairly decent career but who still has to do other things — give food tours, mainly — to make ends meet) it is becoming more and more true that the willingness of some writers to give it away for free is chipping away at what few paid freelance jobs are left.
    I will offer the example of a major magazine that approached me to sign on as a paid “correspondent” who would contribute regularly to their website. The pay discussed was less than for print (as it always is for web) but it was kind of OK and, of course, the prestige factor was high. I was ready to do it. But the discussion stopped abruptly. Lo and behold a few months later the mag launched a site featuring unpaid contributions from well-known bloggers (I don’t mean to use that word in a negative way – I am a blogger myself).
    Since then another mag (that I’ve written for) has approached me for food-ish contributions for a new department on their website. Unpaid, unattributed. They won’t get any from me, but I’m sure they will from others.
    My photographer husband has his own stories of being “outbid” by those willing to give away photos for exposure and nothing else. Sometimes, like when I swore at my computer screen after reading the email from the second magazine, I feel bitter about it, but more toward the publications than the individuals who give the content for free.
    When I was getting started the managing ed of a major food mag said to me “Never, ever EVER write for nothing. Even if it’s just 15 cents a word when you’re starting out, you should always demand to be paid for your work.” And I followed her advice, writing for some really nothing publications but always getting paid. I think nowadays many aspiring food writers/bloggers think “why should I make 15 cents a word writing for a rinky dink publication when I can make nothing but have my byline on the website of a huge mag?” The Star Food Blogger phenomenon has, I think, sort of thrown that “you’ve got to put your time in” mentality out the window. Many want it NOW and probably see exposure on a big mag’s website as the way to get it.
    OK. Whatever.
    Blogging has given rise to a huge pool of people doing decent enough writing and photography who are willing to give it away for free. That can’t not have an effect on the industry. (Not just in the USA, either.) If you believe “The cream always rises” (and there are publications that will NEVER be interested in content just bec it is free) then you’re being naive.
    That said, there are many other things having nothing to do with the quality of one’s writing that can have a huge effect on one’s career — connections, introductions, face-time, the willingness of editors to give unknowns a chance (some are more so than others), trends (maybe what you’ve become an expert in becomes uncool, or maybe the topic of a project you’ve been working on for years suddenly becomes the hottest thing ), whether or not, when your editor moves on to another publication, she/he is replaced with someone who brings in their own stable of writers, leaving you out in the cold, how willing you are to shape the way you write to fit various publications (and how good you are at it). Etc. etc.
    So it’s not just the giving it away for free thing.
    Bottom line, it is harder and harder to make a full living as a food writer (everyone knows this) — but that’s the case for MANY reasons. But even if I can never make a living writing about food full-time I still love writing about food (for money) when I am able. So why waste time bitching?

    • Robyn, thanks for this thoughtful post. It is almost enough to be a guest post in its own right!

      You have had your bitching session, and it is enlightening but also infuriating. Thanks for an insider look at what is going on in our industry now. I try my best to educate bloggers about working for pay versus nothing. But writers coming from the perspective of an emerging hobbyist are often ambitious yet naive about their self worth. This is very female. Notice how most food bloggers are female?

      Also, we both came up writing for print, but not everybody takes that path. Sometimes my clients need writing credentials to create a platform for themselves as potential book authors. They don’t care about the money. They just need bylines. Still, I tell them not to work for free.

      The bottom line, though, is that yet we persevere with what we love, even though the income often stinks or is non-existent. This is the crux of the issue. We are privileged to be in this position. Notice how so many of us are white women? That is not an accident. This is about class.

      I would love to write a post about this issue but it would make me too nervous.

        • Both. But class comes first. What do you think?

          • I’m not sure I agree, or at least understand your point. I’m a white male, and when it comes to writing for publication I have felt variously beaten down, taken advantaged of, misled, ripped off, swindled, negotiated down to practically nothing, disrespected, overlooked. Need I go on?

          • Hah! No, I get your point. So here is the conundrum. The pay etc. is crap, but because of your class, you can afford to be in this business (or you WERE in this business until you became a publisher/fat cat). Are you going for that theory?

          • Is this meant for me? (The comments seem out of whack.) I don’t see how class allowed me to afford to be in this business. Many of the 10 years I was writing for print (I call it my Decade of Debt), my income was at or under the poverty level. Literally. On paper I was eligible for food stamps. (Now that would have been an interesting article.) It was only because of family subsidies was I able to keep at it for so long.

          • Yes, they seem to be messed up. Thanks for checking back.

            Re class, check out your last sentence. You had family subsidies. And before that you had a fabulous income, as I recall. People in lower classes do not have cushions to take this kind of risk.

          • Of course, you have to keep in mind that some “big” bloggers (and now authors/freelancers etc) held down a full-time job while they made their names. Shauna of Gluten-Free Girl comes to mind. So, it’s not exactly the case they have to be subsidized. But you do have to be awfully, awfully driven.

          • And those people do get paid well for their work!

          • I see your point. And then this is not isolated to food writing. It’s the same for many, many careers–especially in the arts.

      • I would love to read a post on this subject!

  19. I’m a pro for more than 20 years. A couple of years ago, I began food writing for Patch. Eventually it stopped paying. Look at the Huffington Post – how many citizen journos on there?
    I’ve used some amateurs for my newsletter – I can’t afford to pay. They give me a lot of work editing.
    So, these big publication are wearing out their editors.

  20. Hi Dianne,

    As always you manage to stir up emotions. That is the best way to wake up people and get lots of comments.

    And no, I did not give up food writing, but first I had to rearrange my life, if I want to be here for a while. Second, since my situation changed, I needed to think about avenues to create alternative income. Do not ask what and how much trouble I went through until finally I found a designer to complete my site.

    Since my “working” experience is in medical writing, my new site will be concentrating around this experience. (Planned launch in January). Even in this site, I will be concentrating on teaching as compared to “freelancing” due to the same reason food writers are complaining about.

    Teaching sells. Perhaps food writers should think about adding other “expertise” to their repertoire to enhance their income. As I said, if someone feels confident about the preparation of specialized dishes, or how to work with ingredients that are temperamental (chocolate comes to mind), or food items as gifts, etc., they should add an educational site.

    We always need to be creative in order to boost our income. For instance, we can prepare a series of e-books about specialized food items (i.e. take for instance a quince; it is a unique fruit that I believe may not have a lot of competition. Research and write a detailed description about the fruit, including its history, its nutritional benefits, its uses, where to get it, etc. and add some recipes to this report and Walla! You have an e-book for passive income)

    These are just limited examples of what food writers can do with upselling, site selling, expanding, etc. (instead of blaming).

    I’d like to wish everyone Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year too. I have a good feeling about 20-13. It is going to be a lucky year, despite this “falling off the cliff” talk.

    • Yes, sometimes I feel a rant coming on, so I just have to get it out of my system, Jayne. This was one of those posts.

      So you are now coaching people on medical writing. Well, you still have your food blog. Or do you? I can’t tell. I see that your last post was in July.

      Re e-books, I’m not convinced. You can go to a lot of trouble and expense and then sell 20 books at $2.99 each.

  21. Writers in general don’t get paid well because there are too many or them for the space available. There are only half as many working journalists at daily newspapers fulltime as there was 2007. That’s what should be in the lede (almost 40,000 jobs lost).

    • Someone else commented about that too, about too much competition. And I had no idea that so many jobs have been lost. Most food writers aren’t looking for full-time jobs, but still, that is pretty shocking.

  22. While your points are well taken, it bothers me that the three (four?) types of folks taking the blame here are the writers themselves. Where’s the responsibility of the media outlets here?

    • They pay what the market will bear. It’s a crowded field with lots of competition, so the rates are low unless you’re at the top.

  23. […] their goals and ambitions. Most food bloggers are happy to write as a hobby, which is good because it is hard to make a living simply as a food writer. Others want to become known, and some want a successful career. There is no formula, but […]

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