7. Last but sort of least: write articles or a book on the side.
April 10, 2012 12:54 PM   Subscribe

"I can 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." Amanda Hesser, NYT cookbook author and co-founder of Food52, has some advice for aspiring food writers.
posted by troika (48 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
it’s nearly impossible to make a living as a food writer, and I think it’s only going to get worse.
posted by zabuni at 12:58 PM on April 10, 2012 [22 favorites]


What makes me kind of sad is that "learn to write really well" is not among Hesser's pieces of advice.
posted by escabeche at 1:05 PM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


I can no longer responsibly recommend that you drop everything to try to become a food writer.

I'm amazed that anyone would think this is ever a good idea, in any economy.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:05 PM on April 10, 2012 [11 favorites]


What makes me kind of sad is that "learn to write really well" is not among Hesser's pieces of advice.

Have you read food blogs lately?
posted by jeather at 1:06 PM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Just 10 years ago, food writers with staff jobs were able to earn $80,000 to $150,000 a year, and freelancers were regularly paid $2 a word; today, these jobs barely exist. Advertising revenues, already on a steady decline, plummeted online. Online, $35,000 to $60,000 a year and $.25 to $.75 a word is more like it. New publications simply can’t pay very well, if at all. Just ask our writers.

Holy crikey! I'd love $.25/word for fiction!
posted by Celsius1414 at 1:07 PM on April 10, 2012 [9 favorites]


[Added link, carry on]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:07 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just ask our writers.

We're not part of the solution! We're part of the problem!
posted by zenon at 1:12 PM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


I never recommend that anyone drop everything to become ANY kind of writer. That's insanity. I kept a day job for years after I started writing. It's been true for a very long time that you write on the side first, and then you start making money -- probably in very small amounts -- and then you figure out at what point you can afford to quit your job.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 1:19 PM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


If you're making $35k a year as a specialized-market freelance writer in a field like food or pop culture where there are a LOT of people who do what you do FOR FREE, you're doing pretty well.

I'm not saying someone who used to make a $100k and is now making less than half that has nothing to complain about.

But content creation (to use an unfortunately apt term) has been flattened and democratized, and this is the result.

People in my industry used to make a lot more than I make. There was a boom in the size of the industry, coupled with a drop in the rates the freelancers in that industry commanded. Then there was a bust, and the industry is a fraction of its peak size. Rates for people in my line of work are slowly creeping back up, as the volume of work goes down, and quality becomes more important than quality. But those rates will never be as high as they were 15 years ago, and may indeed plunge again depending on where the vicissitudes of fate and technology take us.

If you're a creator and you're any good at all, working for other people is a sucker's game these days.
posted by pts at 1:20 PM on April 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


If you're a creator and you're any good at all, working for other people is a sucker's game these days.

It's a sucker's game if you're as good at editing and promoting your own stuff as the people you used to work for. Lots of great writers aren't.
posted by escabeche at 1:31 PM on April 10, 2012 [13 favorites]


I'm actually a full-time freelance food writer and I make a pretty good living at it. Amanda's advice isn't bad but I don't think she really understands the Game. The trick now is to create credibility by writing for the new media side of an established brand. From there you can create your own revenue stream to supplement it. Amanda's whole frame of reference is the Times and the little world of media machers she moved among. A young food writer would be better advised to forget her and her lame site and look to Eddie Huang as a model instead.
posted by Balok at 1:42 PM on April 10, 2012 [8 favorites]


freelancers were regularly paid $2 a word

Er, Ms. Hesser, maybe freelancers who were part of a network that included stratospheric connections like your husband's. I was a freelancer 10 years ago, and 20 years ago, and $2/word gigs in food writing were plums. Plums. Most people were getting 50 or 75 cents a word for most gigs, and glad to get it. Dollar-a-word gigs were like winning a lottery.

Here's what's sad: reading the diaries of writers in the 20th century (just finished rereading Dawn Powell's) and seeing that the actual compensation (not adjusted for inflation, I'm talking 1950 dollars vs. 2012 dollars) for magazine writing has gone down.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:44 PM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


GYOB!
posted by cjorgensen at 1:45 PM on April 10, 2012


I agree to some extent with Balok: Amanda Hesser's style of career isn't something anyone should plan on being able to create in the current or future media climate. That said, I don't really see the connection with Eddie Huang, who is primarily a restaurateur who does social media, not a freelance writer.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:46 PM on April 10, 2012


You need to write like it's 2012. Run with these:

Kim Kardashian's sexy meatloaf surprise!
Housewife discovers marinara secret THEY don't want you to know!
How to pour salt.
20 perfect pie crusts (slideshow).
posted by Blue Meanie at 1:47 PM on April 10, 2012 [26 favorites]


I mean, Eddie Huang is usefully compared to Anthony Bourdain (and everyone has done that piece ad nauseam) but that isn't what Hesser does and nor is it the niche she's talking about.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:48 PM on April 10, 2012


Kim Kardashian's sexy meatloaf surprise!

Oh, you laugh, but one of my first food writing gigs was ghosting a piece about soap opera stars' favorite recipes.

Wow, that is so 1989, between "soap opera stars" and "food writing gig." I have no memory of what the favorite recipes were--I think I made them up based on the notes from the PR people--but given that it was 1989 at least one was probably pesto chicken.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:50 PM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


There are no niches anymore. You flow til you hit a bank. And you let your talent do the talking. Eddie Huang has a book deal and a TV deal and when you have those it's not hard to get a freelance gig writing about food -- as one of your things, not the only one. Trust me on this. I'm in the thick of it, and a peer and contemporary of all of these people.
posted by Balok at 1:57 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can no longer recommend that people become food writers, because they might only make $35,000 to $60,000 a year. THE HORROR
posted by 23skidoo at 1:57 PM on April 10, 2012 [9 favorites]


Wash dishes in a restaurant. Work on a farm. Get a job in a food factory. Assist a commercial fisherman. Intern at a start-up (I know the perfect place for you…). Volunteer at a co-op.

And I guess thank your parents for paying your rent and school loans while you work for free?
posted by theuninvitedguest at 1:59 PM on April 10, 2012 [10 favorites]


It's a sucker's game if you're as good at editing and promoting your own stuff as the people you used to work for. Lots of great writers aren't.

You make a good point, and I overstated mine.

Top-heavy, high-overhead publishing structures are still totally doomed, though.
posted by pts at 2:03 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


What makes me kind of sad is that "learn to write really well" is not among Hesser's pieces of advice.

That's because she's talking about how to make a living at it. Giving a shit about craft and having the vaguest of literary ambitions is simply not helpful - not just in food writing but in any kind of freelance magazine work. I've been a freelance writer for 15 years, and with a few rare exceptions (thank the Canadian gods for The Walrus!) my compensation has been in inverse proportion to how well I wrote, how much of my craft I brought to bear on it.

Maybe the best I ever got paid and certainly the steadiest was for shovelling raw meat into the Time Magazine grinder. I assume you are familiar with the end product. Tom Wolfe, it ain't.

(On the plus side, the rise of The Atavist and The Byliner and Kindle Singles makes me genuinely optimistic about the future of long-form literary journalism for the first time since I pitched my first piece. The Canadian Writers Group - of which I'm a member - just published its first straight-to-e-book release, Russell Smith's Blindsided, to impressive initial sales. So there's that.)
posted by gompa at 2:05 PM on April 10, 2012 [13 favorites]


Trust me on this. I'm in the thick of it, and a peer and contemporary of all of these people.

And you know more about it than any of us might possibly imagine? Jesus fucking Christ, go to Home Depot, buy a ladder, and use it to get over yourself.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:06 PM on April 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


Good one! You got me. I deserved that.
posted by Balok at 2:08 PM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


I can no longer recommend that people become food writers, because they might only make $35,000 to $60,000 a year. THE HORROR

Lord knows I'm not looking for sympathy, but let's play this out. Let's say you started your career in the '80s or '90s. You worked hard, went from doing any old shit assignments to really good ones. Built your rep, developed a deep knowledge base on several beats. Won an award or two, maybe even wrote a book.

Such a writer might not be categorically different from any random here's-what-I-had-for-dinner-last-night blogger, but I hope we can agree she might be entitled to think of herself as a professional in her field in some ways that not just anyone can.

And consider that you're quoting her projected gross income. If she's freelance, she's paying for office space, supplies, probably some of her own background and professional development. Dental bills. Medical bills (in the US). To do absolute top level work in her field in the US, she has to be in an expensive city, likely NYC (or had to until she established herself), so there's not much in the way of savings to fall back on. Even at $100K gross, her net income (equivalent to a salaried job with benefits etc.) would be $50K or so at best. Imagine she's got a family, a mortgage, bills, just like everyone else. Now cut that $50K in half.

It's not THE HORROR, but it's still a substantial loss.

I'm 38 years old. Two kids. Mortgage. All that. I interned when I was still in J-school. This is the only profession I know. By the standards of the Canadian industry, I'm in the top tenth of one percent. I get book deals, cream magazine assignments, speaking fees. And I get by, barely, most years. I think often about doing something else, if I could think of something else I'm qualified to do. I don't think anyone owes me this job - no one who freelances for more than a month could maintain that level of delusion - and like every other pro writer I know, I scramble and hunt and worry at other ways to make the work pay.

So, yes, it's not THE HORROR. But it's an industry, like any other, and it's in freefall. So, you know, do me - do us - the courtesy of not assuming anything about our collective sense of entitlement.
posted by gompa at 2:20 PM on April 10, 2012 [25 favorites]


Just 10 years ago, food writers with staff jobs were able to earn $80,000 to $150,000 a year, and freelancers were regularly paid $2 a word; today, these jobs barely exist. Advertising revenues, already on a steady decline, plummeted online. Online, $35,000 to $60,000 a year and $.25 to $.75 a word is more like it. New publications simply can’t pay very well, if at all. Just ask our writers.

Using 10 years as a yardstick to measure decline isn't that useful; things have totally changed in just the past five years, thanks to the double whammy of the financial clusterfuck and the rapid decline of print media.

Indeed, for "content creators", conditions seem to change every 18 months or so. All I know is that, as a copywriter specializing in online marketing, the amount of work has actually increased over the past 2 years. At the same time, I'm having real difficulty getting above $70k/year, whereas 5 years ago I was making double translating and rewriting content for the American television market. Ad revenues that support paying high rates for content have decline quite a bit.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:22 PM on April 10, 2012


I don't think she really understands the Game.

I understand that I just lost the Game.
posted by byanyothername at 2:36 PM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


There are no niches anymore. You flow til you hit a bank. And you let your talent do the talking.

Don't you worry about Planet Express, let me worry about blank.
posted by adamdschneider at 2:47 PM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Thanks for ruining everything AGAIN, Internet.
posted by briank at 3:03 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


"I can no longer responsibly recommend that you drop everything to try to become a food writer."

Was there a time when this could be responsibly recommended?
posted by madcaptenor at 3:08 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the nice words about Byliner, gomba.

Full disclosure. Amanda's a friend of Byliner, as is her husband. So I'm predisposed to liking her post. And I agree with most of it. Boiled down, what she's suggesting is the same thing that has been suggested to aspiring writers, well, forever: go become well-rounded. In her world that means doing foodie things like working on a farm or a kitchen or even starting your own business. All of which may make you money. But, more importantly, it will make you a better food writer. Just as any new or interesting pursuit properly undertaken will make a good writer even better. Experience matters, even if that experience may not seem strictly relevant.

On the whole, however, I'm a little more optimistic than Amanda about the future of writing (and reading) in this new digital age. In the year since we founded Byliner, the single most important lesson we've learned is this: if you write a good story, people will buy it and read it. And they'll buy it in a quantity that allows you to pursue writing as a career, if that's what is important to you.
posted by Scoop at 3:16 PM on April 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


Lord knows I'm not looking for sympathy, but let's play this out. Let's say you started your career in the '80s or '90s.

Let's not, because then you're making it about something else. You used to make $100,000 a year and now you make $35,000? Yeah, that totally sucks. But the article's not talking about people who have been doing this for 25 years, it's talking about people who have never done it before and who are considering food writing as a new career.
posted by 23skidoo at 3:30 PM on April 10, 2012


I liked this, from the comments on her article:

I would second your advice to seek out a variety of experiences while developing some skills and expertise along the way. But with a cautionary note, paraphrasing the wisdom of Gabrielle Hamilton, that you need to be careful about what you get good at, because you might end up doing it for a very long time.
posted by rory at 3:36 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Freelance anything sucks. I've been a freelance writer. I've been a freelance web developer. In both I felt like I was just making it and that I could never do better than just barely being able to pay the bills. The problems in journalism mirror the problems for young people in many other sectors. In a country where your health insurance is tied to your job, freelancing is a precarious place to be. I know because I had to go to the ER when I was a freelancer. I thought I was going to be in debt forever and ever. Forget about supporting a family. The fertility rate for my class/generation is going to plunge. I feel like college-educated people have children when they feel like they are in a safe spot in their career. Some of us aren't going to ever get there. Or when we do, we'll be in our late thirties. Office space? Ha, I'm used to doing stuff at coffee shops. I'm an old pro at that now.

I took the first "real" job I could get. Later I joined a family business. At this point I'm still writing and I made enough money from it last year that I had to consider it in my taxes. I don't look to the people from the old journalism empires for inspiration. Those days are long-gone. It's people like Anthony Bourdain and Gabrielle Hamilton that drive me. They had their "pay the bills" careers and did writing on the side and made it big. I'm glad I never was a full-time writer. There are plenty of things to do with food that you can do as a hobby or a job. I have met some amazing people and had some incredible experiences because of writing. Those are worth way more than what I declare on my taxes. It's kind of like what the people I know in theater have to do- moonlight in plays and hope they make it big, while waiting tables or something.
posted by melissam at 3:39 PM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


But the article's not talking about people who have been doing this for 25 years, it's talking about people who have never done it before and who are considering food writing as a new career.

Realistically, though, if an employer can pay someone who used to make $100K only $35K, what are the prospects for new writers? This sounded to me kind of like various discussions I've heard and read of other jobs that used to carry a lot of prestige and/or make a lot of money and no longer do. Food writing doesn't seem any different in that respect.
posted by immlass at 3:49 PM on April 10, 2012


“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

- Dorothy Parker
posted by feistycakes at 4:03 PM on April 10, 2012 [11 favorites]


I'm going to become a freelance beer writer. Totally different.
posted by box at 4:05 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


the article's not talking about people who have been doing this for 25 years, it's talking about people who have never done it before and who are considering food writing as a new career.

Echoing what immlass said: If there's not even the hint of a chance for advancement, then many talented people won't be willing to start careers, and you'll never get the seasoned vets who do the kind of work that fills the pages of the good magazines (still!) and gets turned into books and movies and wins awards and all that.
posted by gompa at 4:14 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I started freelance writing for a few Linux sites 12 years ago. I got paid a flat $300 no matter how many words I turned out (close to 4,000 words for a Debian 2.2 review, but 2,000 was closer to the norm for reviews). People who'd been doing tech publishing for a while told me they could remember getting a dollar a word for the same sort of work, but I didn't know anybody like that at all by the time I started.

I wasn't interested in lining up a bunch of gigs, so I worked for a single editor and got a steady $1,500 a month or so. I didn't start making a living at freelancing until the editor I worked for needed a backup editor on a pair of his sites. That got me $2,000 a month per site plus my standing weekly assignments for a third site. I did that for a year, then got hired on as a full-time editor for a bit less cash than my assorted assignments, but with benefits, and with a book deal. The company got rid of most of the rest of the freelance editor types during the downturn.

Since then, I've worked with several freelancers who started out in the same boat I was in: Well under a dollar a word (I paid most of mine $300 for a thousand words and helped a few who were really good at helping me judge my audiences negotiate $450), just putting together gigs here and there to pay the mortgage.

A couple of them ended up doing the same thing I did: They started picking up gigs as editors (or curators or whatever you care to call "website maintainers"), and that was where the money ended up being for them: $2,000 - $4,000 a month to keep a site moving via a CMS, posting new stuff, keeping up comment moderation, etc.) and they'd manage several sites like that. One freelancer I worked with was pulling down $75,000 a year juggling a few sites and steady writing gigs; another was closer to $85,000. I know of a third making similar money from the same company.

In my experience, someone in a pure writer's role won't earn much. The $300 I was paying out for 1,000 words was considered expensive by management just before I left the company last year. But it seems someone who likes to write, is comfortable dealing with basic Web technologies, and can deal with some extra work in the form of comment moderation or light editing can still make decent money in a hybrid editorial role.
posted by mph at 4:16 PM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


This isn't about food writing, but it's about another field that used to be a big earner for those who made it:

In my late teens I made a concerted effort to break into single-panel gag cartooning by targetting the leading newsmagazine in my country, which was where many prominent national cartoonists had their start. It took four years, but I finally cracked it, with first one appearing in print, then another, and another. Then they had some staffing changes, and their new art editor took several at once. Now I really thought I was on my way.

But those several didn't appear in the magazine, because a new editor-in-chief came in who axed all the freelance cartoons, including the ones I thought I'd sold. That market totally disappeared.

I placed a few cartoons elsewhere in subsequent years, but was studying and writing and working and travelling and got drawn off in other directions, and that was eventually that. In hindsight, I was at the tail-end of something that had once been big but was on its way out. The magazine in question closed a few years ago, but more importantly, single-panel gags disappeared from many newspapers and magazines in the 1990s. Mine were published in 1990-91.

This all happened too early to blame the web. In fact, if the web had been what it is today I would have had totally different aspirations. Any aspiring cartoonist today should be trying to get into web comics, not the New Yorker. Not that a gag in the New Yorker wouldn't be a nice feather in your cap, but spending four years sending them submissions on the off-chance is four years of effort you could devote to becoming the next Kate Beaton - who, once she became the first Kate Beaton, ended up getting her gags published in the New Yorker.

You might still get nowhere either way, but at least if you've tried the web path you'll have something to show for it other than rejection slips.
posted by rory at 4:24 PM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Food tweets are the way of the future I think:

HAD A BUN FROM A SHOP, IT WAS OK

SLICED BANANA INTO MY CEREAL THIS MORNING, FELT VERY MEDITERRANEAN

TOOK A BIG SHIT WHILE MY STEAK WAS FRYING AND NOW IT IS VERY TOUGH AND DRY

GOING THROUGH MCDONALD'S DRIVETHRU OLOLOOL!
posted by tumid dahlia at 4:35 PM on April 10, 2012 [11 favorites]


Er, Ms. Hesser, maybe freelancers who were part of a network that included stratospheric connections like your husband's. I was a freelancer 10 years ago, and 20 years ago, and $2/word gigs in food writing were plums. Plums. Most people were getting 50 or 75 cents a word for most gigs, and glad to get it. Dollar-a-word gigs were like winning a lottery.

Seconded, based on freelancing 6-7 years ago.
posted by desuetude at 4:49 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm on the restaurant side of things (or was until very recently.) Food writers are very important to the restauranteurs. They are able to get a restaurant's name into nationally circulated magazines and in front of a lot of potential customers. Up until a few years ago our PR people would channel writers from various media organizations to us. We'd have the writers in for dinner, for behind the scenes interviews and sometimes as observers in the kitchen. We'd already know that they were so-n-so from such-n-such monthly. The system moved smoothly along.

Suddenly, a few years ago, everything changed. We no longer saw experienced and credentialed writers from magazines, now we saw a lot of new media freelancers. This, at first, was totally fine. We knew enough about the internet and the media to understand a sea-change was underway. The writers were still informed and passionate. It didn't look any different. Except...

Now it's hard to know who to talk to. Instead of there being a few nodes of influence out there, all waiting to be contacted, there are hundreds of small hubs, most too busy to talk to you. In the past we could depend on getting a few well-placed articles in Food and Wine, for example, and go about our business (running a restaurant.) Now, we don't know who to reach out to without really getting into the twitter-blog-o-verse-a-sphere.

While this is going to be a good thing, eventually, right now it means the old restaurant PR and marketing business has fundamentally changed. We need a new PR model to meet our needs in a rapidly changing environment.

All of this is to say that the changes in the food writing industry are being felt in the industry they report on.
posted by elwoodwiles at 5:50 PM on April 10, 2012


this is going to be a good thing, eventually

What makes you say that?
posted by adamdschneider at 10:00 PM on April 10, 2012


adamschneider: I think social media will make people feel more involved in food culture which will lead them to actually be more involved. Fine dining can be very linear. The chef has his vision, the press communicates it and the guests sit back and receive it. Yet eating, at its root, is a participatory activity. The current state of affairs limits how a guest can participate (they can eat and pay.) But with social media, guests can actually be part of the menu building process. We in the kitchen have our ideas of what works, but it's really those at the tables who will judge the success or failure of a dish. With social media chefs can monitor people's reactions to their cooking in a very real way.
posted by elwoodwiles at 11:33 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or think of it this way: With the old model we were being reviewed 3 times a year. In the new model we are being reviewed 3 times a night (sometimes more.) We have more information that is produced by a much larger population making it easier to isolate the dishes that work vs those that don't.
posted by elwoodwiles at 11:45 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's also getting much harder to make a living as a writer in general. The mainstream Internet is still a baby. Wait till it grows up.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:25 AM on April 11, 2012


Oh no. Well, thank goodness I have a real job to fall back on.
posted by Decani at 12:12 PM on April 11, 2012


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