A guest post by Naomi Tomky
As a freelance food writer, when I saw Dianne end her post positing that, perhaps, food writers are their own worst enemy when it comes to demanding good pay, I knew she was right.
But it’s a deeper problem than that. Not only did her piece on how there’s no money in food writing not match my experience, but in a way, it hurts our industry. The more we normalize low wages, the more we sink our own ships.
Last month I billed $9300 writing about food and travel as my full-time job. I’m not a dude or a staff writer. I don’t live in New York and I didn’t come into this with any connections. I make money as a food writer because I run my freelancing like a business owner (I mean that in the least Donald Trump-y kind of way), not a creative.
Most months, I average about $6000. I work my version of full-time, which means leaving my computer to pick up my 1½-year-old from daycare each day at 4:15 p.m. and not working on weekends. I make more, work less, and have far more flexibility now than I did in my previous career.
I spent eight years as a marketing manager for grocery stores, a frozen-seafood company, and restaurants. Occasionally, between jobs, I’d pitch an article or two, which turned into one column, then another. The side gig of writing eventually turned regular and I quit my marketing job to write full-time in October 2014. By August 2015, I made more money writing than I did in the office. But as I blindly navigated my new career, what set me apart from other food writers were mostly skills I learned from marketing.
It’s easy to romanticize the writing life. But to do this for a living, I must take that starry-eyed dreamer and lock her in the closet, while I get down to business.
Here’s what I do that resulted in making at least $60,000 per year as a freelance food writer:
1. If you can’t be brilliant, be reliable.
The first time an editor mentioned being thankful I always turned in my work on time, I laughed. When I was churning out weekly ads and monthly newsletters, being late wasn’t an option. I assumed as much in writing. I was wrong.So turn in the assignment on time. Write the piece as discussed and on word count. If an issue comes up, let the editor know before deadline. Invoice promptly, no later than the end of the calendar month in which you turned it in. To borrow some business language, I assumed these were table stakes, but it turns out they’re competitive advantages.
Being someone an editor can count on not only makes them more likely to accept a piece. It often means they’ll come to you with ideas. About half the work I billed in March was directly commissioned, not pitched, which saves time and creates a steady source of income.
2. Throw money at the problem.
If you’re not getting anywhere with story pitches, invest in a pitch coach. It was the best money I ever spent. We did three sessions and it paid off nearly immediately (in the form of my first pieces for Lucky Peach, then a goal publication for me). The coach worked with me on where and whom to pitch, suggested outlets, and she edited my pitches. I came out more confident, more prepared, and making more money. Now, I use many of her tips, as well as ones I’ve gained since, to pitch-coach new writers into bettering their own careers.
Whatever your issue, there is probably someone (cough, cough, Dianne) you can pay to help you—ghost-editors, financial advisors, pitch coaches, and book proposal doctors. This is a business. Invest in it.
3. Pitch non-food magazines.
Most of my work isn’t for food magazines. I’m a freelance food writer, but I write for travel magazines, general interest rags, and brand pubs.
In March, $2900 came from unbylined ghost-writing for major travel brands. Another $2900 was for private publications, which includes airline magazines, local tourism bureau guides, and random quirky things like an aquaculture association that I found through an online writers group.
We’d all love the big Food & Wine print byline, but if you want a sustainable career, your pitches might be better sent somewhere that will provide consistent long-term work.
4. Per hour means more than per word.
The highest rate I billed in March was $1 per word. The lowest was $0.27 per word. But most of my work falls around the $0.75 per word range. It’s a rate many vets sneer at, but for me it works because I measure my rate differently: I accept only work that I can do fast enough to earn $75 an hour. I estimate the research, writing, and editing time for that topic, length, and publication to see if it will make me $75 per hour.
With few exceptions, I don’t take any work for less than $200. It’s simply not worth the effort to start a new train of thought, pitch, and bill. It’s about the hourly: if you get $1,000 for 1,000 words, and you write it in six hours, that’s $167 an hour. If you take ten hours to write it, that’s $100 an hour. If you spend 20 hours on it, you’re down to just $50 per hour.
5. Always ask for more money.
And we’re back where we started. The reason I agreed to write this for Dianne wasn’t because I want to brag about what I make. It’s because the more we talk about money, the fairer the industry is.
When we all walk around saying, “There’s no money in food writing,” it’s easy for new writers to assume that everyone is only making $25 or $50 on a piece and accept what they’re offered, especially when it’s a side gig or part-time job, not what they depend on to pay bills. But hobbyists should be no less proud of their work. And good writing by someone who does it as a second job is worth no less than it when I do it full-time.
The more we, as food writers, push back on shitty rates and shittier contracts, the more editors will push back on their higher-ups. Companies are making money off our work, so why shouldn’t you? And, who knows, maybe someday you’ll quit that day job and join me as a full-time freelance food writer.
I ask editors for more money almost every week. Sometimes it’s an editor I write for frequently, and sometimes it’s my first piece for them. Sometimes they say no—and then sometimes I say no. More often, they say yes. And then I make more money, and you can, too.
Every day I learn something new about making a living as a freelance food writer, whether it’s a good phrase to request more money (“Is there any wiggle room in that budget?” is my usual favorite) or new outlets that pay well (this list came out last week and seems strong). But the most important realization I ever had is that we’re all in this together. We need to share what works for us, to reach down and help the people following us up the steps to success. I hope I’ve done so in this post, and I hope you’ll do so in the comments below.
Naomi Tomky is a Seattle-based food and travel writer. She writes for Saveur, Thrillist, and, if you fly Southwest, Alaska, or Malaysia Airlines this month, is in your seatback pocket. Follow her on Twitter @Gastrognome and check out her writing, consulting, and teaching at NaomiTomky.com.