Because everyone eats, the interest in talking and learning about food is universal. And in most places, it’s become accepted that even humble shacks or food trucks can produce critically acclaimed, universally loved food. In fact, authentic mastery of humble dishes often trumps ambitious flashy gastronomy. So, it’s no wonder that the food media and food marketing landscapes are equally sprawling, dynamic and difficult.
In food writing, anything goes when it comes to rates
Food writing is one of the most competitive arenas in all of content — and one where there’s absolutely no governance over pay rates. The same amount of work might pay $100, or $1000, or $5000, depending who commissioned it and whether the assignee has any negotiating power (98% of the time, they don’t). The barrier to entry is nonexistent, if you count self-published blogs and Pinterest boards as a potential career — which they certainly are. And, while some people absolutely insist that it takes specialized training to be a true culinary voice, a look at the success stories of the past decade proves that success takes no training at all.
The food media industry ranges from book packagers that turn around trend-centered cookbooks for grocery retail, to countless online publications and offshoots, to celebrity-bylined bestsellers and “lifestyle guides” (usually written by a team of talented no-names) to an ever-increasing smorgasbord of “digital series” and “social video channels” proffering 2-minute clips for the ADD masses. Food TV sorts through the YouTubers and the celebrities and the cookbooks and the humble cooks to find the next hit show. And of course, the glossy magazines struggle to maintain their position as the arbiters of taste.
And relevance… It can change on the whim of a tweet
But here’s the most maddening thing about food media: Last year’s unknown barbecue cook might become this year’s TV breakout star, next year’s hot restaurant personality, and the person all the glossy magazines are trying to land as a contributor. So, how do you keep your footing? With difficulty, most would say. But, there are people who manage to stay in the food media world for their entire career, without ever dabbling in another niche.
In this installment of the Niche Freelancer, we chat with Amy Sherman, who leveraged her blog to become a professional food writer and recipe developer 15 years ago, and hasn’t ever looked back.
Q&A With Amy Sherman, Recipe Developer and Food Writer
How did you start out in this field?
It depends on what you consider my start. When I was about 10 years old I sent in a recipe to a children’s TV show and got to see it demonstrated by the host. I worked in a gourmet food store when I was still in my teens. But my first paid recipe development project came not long after I began my food blog in 2003. It was after blogging for a short time that I began both editorial and food writing for corporate clients.
Did you have any specialized training/advanced degrees in culinary or hospitality?
None at all. I’ve never even worked in a restaurant.
Do you have even more specialized niches within food writing?
I represent the home cook. I have a focus in that my recipes are easy yet impressive and generally healthy but with minimal effort.
Describe the specialized skills that a recipe developer needs to have, different than a writer.
You need to be able to cook obviously, and be very detailed at capturing the nuances and measurements of recipes. Readers look to recipes for guidance, and you have to know how to provide that in a very articulate way.
What are some unexpected revenue streams or project sources you’ve been able to connect to food writing?
I’m not sure anything is unexpected. I have been able to take on some food copywriting since I have a background in branding.
Do you write for social channels as well, or just for digital?
I am not a paid social media consultant. I write for print publications as well as online, though mostly online.
Are you able to switch up to areas adjacent to food writing? If so, what’s a category that has become another area of interest/expertise?
I write about culinary travel. I also write for some trade publications. I write about whatever interests me and that changes frequently. I’m a writer first before anything else.
What is the biggest challenge in this field?
Making a living. It’s not a very lucrative field, but it does come with some nice perks like dining out and traveling on press trips.
What are the red flags or unsolvable issues that will force you to walk away from a project, even if you love the description of the product itself, and/or feel like you could do the work well?
I have to have a good working relationship with my clients and editors. They have to respect my time and the quality of my work. If they don’t, I will find other work and become “too busy” to take on their projects.
How do you keep yourself up-to-speed on new products and new markets?
I attend trade shows and conferences, read magazines and online publications. It’s really no different than in any other field.
What apps, cloud-based solutions, or other tech has changed your job for the better?
For the better? Maybe Dropbox. I hate working with Google Docs and Google Drive, even though many of my clients insist on it. I tend to be pretty old school. I write using Pages. I use spreadsheets for pitching stories and keeping track of invoices. I don’t really rely on anything cloud-based.
What do you think is the future of food writing?
I hope it’s positive. It’s certainly more challenging today than it was when I started 15 years ago. I got my start thanks to my blog. I think it would be hard to do that today. I hope readers will be interested in more weighty topics and lose interest in the same old listicles, but it’s hard to say.