Actually there’s only one reason food writing doesn’t pay: Mostly women do it, and most do it as a hobby or on the side. As a result, they are amateurs or consider themselves as such, even after years of work or accomplishments.
Most of us don’t ask to be paid what we’re worth. So publications and websites can get away with paying very little, compared to other kinds of writing.
(I don’t know about this graphic. Those are supposed to be tears, and the umbrella is shielding us from crying more. But I have the feeling women don’t cry about it. Good pay doesn’t seem to be an issue. I’m going to explain why.)
Here are three true stories to illustrate why food writing doesn’t pay:
1. We write for free.
An enthusiastic home cook lucked into the job of creating original recipes for a column in her local magazine. The publisher paid a man $25 to photograph food for the column, but paid the recipe writer and developer nothing. After turning in her column, she worked with the photographer enthusiastically, styling the shot in her home. She wrote this column and styled the food for the next six years.
Then we met.
I suggested she ask the publisher for payment. She had worked long enough for free. To her credit, she did so. The publisher said no. He said there are lots of other people who want to replace her. And that if she had a business, the column would be free advertising, worth thousands of dollars. But she doesn’t have a business.
Much of food writing is not valued, as this example shows. The publisher thinks her work is worth nothing, that anyone could do it. But actually the columnist is a skilled recipe developer and food stylist now, after six years of writing this column.
I’m not exempting myself. Last year I wrote a piece for free for an international magazine, because it operated on a shoestring, because other colleagues had written for them, and because I wanted to be published on the particular topic. The magazine stopped publishing soon after. No one made money.
2. We write for peanuts.
A freelancer for a major food website wrote a long story. It involved reading through several cookbooks and interviewing three authorities. I asked her what the website paid. She said $150. She knew it was too low.
I bet the editor knew it was too low too. The editor probably wonders why the freelancer doesn’t ask for more.
I suggested the freelancer ask for double next time, and say it was too time consuming to write an article like that for such little pay. What does she have to lose? Even $300 is not much for a long reported piece.
She is not alone. Another woman I know, an award-winning food writer, also writes for the site. When I asked how much they pay her for recipes, I gasped. It was what I would have paid a junior writer.
I’m not exempting myself from the issue of low pay. Two of the biggest websites I wrote for paid me $250 for personal essays. That’s peanuts too.
3. We write for fun.
A friend writes about food on the side. She doesn’t care what she’s paid. When I tell her the fee is too low she says it’s not her main business, so it doesn’t matter.
I’ve tried making the argument that many food writers have a business, and her philosophy makes it harder for professionals to be paid decently. But I’m not sure it’s working. I’m not sure the publications she writes for would pay much more either. They don’t have to.
Editors pay a minority of professionals well. Meanwhile, they are grateful for writers like these women, who write mostly for fun. I have hired people just like them, when I was an editor. I saved my money to pay those who won’t work for reasons No. 1 and No. 2. They might have thought writing is fun, but they wanted to be paid fairly for it.
You could argue that most writing doesn’t pay, and that’s true. But professional business, tech, and science writing pays well. Guess who does most of that? Men. Do they do it for free, for peanuts, or for fun? Mostly no.
What do you think? Is food writing doomed to be low paying forever? Are the reasons why we write irrelevant?
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