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On Being a Food Writer in 2012 (or what the IACP conference in New York City taught me)

On Being a Food Writer in 2012 (or what the NYC IACP conference taught me)

A little over a week ago, I was sipping one last drink with Nikki in New York, feeling inspired and discouraged in equal measures. Over the course of the previous five days, during the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Annual Conference, I had been fed with incredible amounts of information about the state of the food writing world. My head felt heavy and clouded and I wasn’t sure what to do with all that newly acquired knowledge. I felt contradictory emotions: I’d had the chance to see and hear (and sometimes meet) many successful authors and writers, so I felt a little light-headed, like a star struck teenager; but what these professionals had to share didn’t amount to such a rosy picture, which made me a little queasy. Like all young writers (by young, I mean in the early stages of their career), I feel confident one minute and discouraged the next; writing is what feels like I’ve always been meant to do, yet I can’t help but notice what a bad time I have chosen to take this turn in my career. The publishing world is going through major shifts right now, platforms change from one month to the next, and little money (if any) is left to pay those who live to write. Who am I to think I’ll be able to carve myself a spot in this market?

And yet, if you know me, you’ll know how stubborn I am (my parents can attest to that). Tell me something’s not possible and I’ll focus all my time, efforts and energy on proving you wrong. I do believe in the age-old “if you believe in it then anything’s possible” principle, or the power of positive thinking. Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. I won’t pretend that I see myself becoming rich and famous within the next five years, but I do believe I can be happy doing what I love. Meeting people I admire does that to me. Although what I heard at IACP wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows, these authors, writers, chefs, agents and publishers all had one thing uniting them: a burning passion for food. Yes, some of them may have started their career in a time when all-expenses-paid meals and trips were the norm, but all of them still work in today’s market too. While they may have had to change jobs, learn new skills or reinvent themselves, they’ve found a way to keep on doing what they love: cook, write, photograph, design, publish.

Today’s uncertainty will undoubtedly steer many away from the food writing world. Somehow, it attracts me to it. “I’m a big believer in the written word”, said Ruth Reichl, former New York Times restaurant critic and Gourmet editor-in-chief, now editorial advisor of Gilt Taste, in a session I attended. Just now, I realized that I am too.

If you’re looking for tips to help you move forward, here are a few very interesting posts with great practical advice that have been published recently:

Coincidentally, Amanda Hesser, former New York Times restaurant critic, best-selling author and founder of popular food community site Food 52, published an immensely helpful post about food writing on Tuesday. If you’re thinking of a career in food writing, this is exactly the kind of clear-eyed advice you need before taking the big jump. Don’t miss it: Advice for Future Food Writers.

** Edit: Many more posts have been written in response to Amanda Hesser’s advice. All of them are worth the read:

Since all of these articles have covered the advice part so eloquently, I thought it would be a great complement to summarize the 5 best food writing-related sessions I attended. I feel lucky to have been able to listen to so many talented professionals that I can’t help but share the knowledge. I hope this condensed version of the conference will help you look forward in a positive way and keep on doing what you love, whatever it is, whichever difficulty comes your way.

The Fashion of Food

Speakers: Adam Rapoport (ed.-in-chief Bon Appetit), Chef Marcus Samuelsson, Susan Lyne (chairman, Gilt Groupe), moderated by Kim Severson (journalist, The New York Times).

The Fashion of Food Speakers: Adam Rapoport (ed.-in-chief Bon Appetit), Chef Marcus Samuelsson, Susan Lyne (chairman, Gilt Groupe), moderated by Kim Severson (journalist, The New York Times).

Fashion and food are two topics people are really passionate about. Fashion used to be a closed, exclusive industry but it has gotten more and more democratic with the arrival of the internet, which spreads new trends instantly, and street style blogs, which allow “regular people” to become trend setters. The same is now happening to the food world, with bloggers becoming major influencers and social critic sites allowing anyone to become an authority.

Adam Rapoport:

  • Instead of trying to please everyone, chefs now create restaurants that resemble them (i.e. David Chang). People who identify to their style become their customers.
  • Although there is a wealth of information out there, people still need authorities to find trusted advice through the noise (major publications, best-selling authors, successful chefs).
  • The trickling down of a trend takes time. Some trends will be widely written about but never adopted by home cooks. Others will truly change the way people eat.
  • The US is the one place in the world where the widest variety of cuisines is served. You can virtually have anything you crave, whenever you feel like it.
  • Putting a little effort if what you wear makes you feel better. Putting a little effort in what you choose to eat does the same.

Marcus Samuelsson:

  • Street style is what’s most interesting in fashion, and the same applies to food.
  • Cooking has gone from being the invisible trade to the visible trade. There’s always been cooks, but now it’s a legitimate, even prestigious job.
  • If restaurants use social media well, they can take advantage of it instead of being victims of it (hint: be transparent and straightforward).
  • Curation and knowledgeable voices will always be needed on any publishing platform.
  • Today’s platforms allow small, local cuisines to get into the spotlight, something that simply wasn’t possible before.
  • There is a difference between yummy food and junk food. Choosing to eat healthy doesn’t mean to eat boring. There’s nothing wrong with a little indulgence, but there’s no point in eating junk.

A special shout out to Kim Severson, who is the funniest and most clever moderator ever. Whenever her name is attached to a session, just go – you’ll have a good time, guaranteed.

Inside the Hudson Theater, at the International Association of Food Professionals Annual Conference in New York City

How to Write for Online Magazines

Speakers: Faith Durand (TheKitchn.com), J. Kenji Lopez-Alt (SeriousEats.com), Maureen Petrosky (FoodRepublic.com), Lynn Andriani (Oprah.com), moderated by Tara M. Desmond, writer, cookbook author and recipe developer.

  • Differences between writing for print and online: volume, tone, length, longevity of piece, audience behavior/interaction.
  • Online publications live on, an old post can be brought back to life, or a reader can easily search through a site and instantly access past published information, whereas print gets “lost in the stack”.
  • Print writing used to be a monologue, online writing is a dialogue.
  • Writers now have to know other crafts to be published online. They are now content distributors.
  • A writer simply cannot ignore online platforms anymore; they’re gonna get you further and do things for your career that print and TV cannot.
  • Being an established print writer doesn’t mean you’ll be a good online writer. Print and online are two different beasts.

About each represented site:

TheKitchn.com:

  • Team: 2 full-time editors, 1 half-time, 15-20 regular contributors.
  • Open to pitches: NOT accepting pitches right now, but they may in the future, depending on budget.
  • Editorial calendar: planned out for the full year.

SeriousEats.com:

  • Team: 10 full-time, 75-100 worldwide contributors.
  • Open to pitches: YES, pay is $25-$100 apiece. Looking for rigorously researched articles as well as off-the-cuff stories. Love reviews, first looks.
  • Editorial calendar: Bigger pieces are planned a month out, blog-like posts are planned weekly or even written daily.

FoodRepublic.com:

  • Team: 3 full-time, 50 freelancers.
  • Open to pitches: YES, pay varies according to content, contributor’s experience, deadline. Looking for design items, or food & wine topics that revolve around design.
  • Editorial calendar: Planned 3 weeks out, but flexible to accommodate newsworthy items.

Oprah.com:

  • Team: 10 full-time.
  • Open to pitches: NO. Editors at Oprah.com have to do everything: from writing to producing (including programming, photography, etc.)
  • Editorial calendar: Features are planned 6-8 weeks in advance, blog posts a week in advance or even daily.

10 reasons why the web is good for food writers:

  1. Finding your own space online is easy. Low risk and low investment.
  2. More volume for equal or higher cumulative pay. The web doesn’t always pay well but high volume of work available sometimes makes up for it.
  3. Break into new topics & markets more easily.
  4. Find new audiences & network more effectively.
  5. Better control over your brand.
  6. Your recipes will be better than ever because you get instant feedback.
  7. Your writing will be snappier and your editing stronger. The web challenges you to be articulate with fewer words.
  8. You can write whatever you want.
  9. You get credit. Online, it’s easier to trace a recipe or picture back to its source.
  10. You can be the entire masthead (if you want to!)

The New Frontier in Magazines: Finding a Model that Works for Readers, Writers…and at the Bank Speakers: Maile Carpenter (ed. Food Network Magazine), Peter Meehan (co-ed. Lucky Peach), Ruth Reichl (ed. advisor Gilt Taste), moderated by Mitchell David, VP James Beard Foundation.

The New Frontier in Magazines: Finding a Model that Works for Readers, Writers…and at the Bank

Speakers: Maile Carpenter (ed. Food Network Magazine), Peter Meehan (co-ed. Lucky Peach), Ruth Reichl (ed. advisor Gilt Taste), moderated by Mitchell David, VP James Beard Foundation.

  • What people expect of online magazines isn’t clear yet. For example, the Food Network Mag initially launched an enhanced version of their print mag (with video, etc.) and people didn’t like it. They started from scratch and now the e-mag is just a PDF of the print version and people love it.
  • Being advertising-dependant can be dangerous for a magazine. Big advertising revenues lower the subscription price, which gives more control to subscribers and less independence to the editorial team. Finding other ways to get revenues can be beneficial (such as Gilt Taste that sells products instead of advertising), although the model hasn’t been proven yet (the people who read Gilt’s articles are not those who buy from the site – they’re trying to bring the two together).
  • Magazines tend to be conducted like big focus-groups. Instead of asking “What do you like?”, some successful new magazines say “Here’s what we think is interesting.” (i.e. Lucky Peach).
  • Magazines are the last place where content is still being edited. Content isn’t edited online, and books are not really edited that much anymore.
  • Surprising facts: Gilt Taste gets lots of prestigious nominations for their writing pieces, but their traffic numbers show that people are really only interested in recipes. / Food Network Mag don’t write headnotes to recipes anymore because studies shows their readers just want to get to the recipe.

How to Write for Today’s “Short Form” Audience Speakers: Andrea Nguyen (cookbook author, blogger, app developer), James Oseland (ed.-in-chief Saveur Magazine), Molly Stevens (cookbook author, teacher)

How to Write for Today’s “Short Form” Audience

Speakers: Andrea Nguyen (cookbook author, blogger, app developer), James Oseland (ed.-in-chief Saveur Magazine), Molly Stevens (cookbook author, teacher)

  • People don’t have a common body of knowledge anymore. Recipes used to be short and pretty vague in their instructions because authors assumed that people had basic knowledge in the kitchen. Today, everything must be explained, but everything must be said in fewer words. That is today’s challenge.
  • Everything’s short-form now. Even print publications want to repurpose content online, where articles need to be shortened.
  • eBooks come in three different formats: Regular eBook (book adapted to electronic reader formats); enhanced eBook (with video); straight-to-eBook (PDF version of book).
  • Apple iBook Author may be the next game-changer. It’ll make the layout of electronic books much easier and accessible to all.
  • Pricing eBooks is still guess work. Saveur finds that really cheap is really good ($0.99 – $4.99), and expensive is good too ($12 & up). Pricing an eBook between these two brackets doesn’t deliver good results.
  • About royalties: Authors usually receive separate advances for eBooks, but the same “earn your advance” principle applies (authors need to earn out their advance before making any money).
  • Writing for iPhone apps is a unique challenge. Need to write in very short form, but you still need the key steps so people can make your recipes successfully.
  • Reference apps do best. How-to videos, audio clips, reference pictures of ingredients, etc.
  • To write a successful cooking app, you have to think about your content differently from the onset. You need to find ways to present your content better and adequately for smaller screens and shorter attention spans. It’s a completely different mindset.

Inside the Hudson Theater, at the International Association of Food Professionals Annual Conference in New York City

Recipe Writing in Many Voices

Speakers: Melissa Clark (New York Times columnist, cookbook author), Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan (founding ed. TheKitchn.com).

  • Headnotes are what makes people want to make a recipe (or not). They are what makes people excited about a recipe.
  • Remember that some recipes may NOT need headnotes. Great titles are better than bad headnotes. Sometimes a dish is just yummy as it is.
  • Find the voice that fits the project. You may feel schizophrenic, but it’s an essential skill to develop. Who’s the audience? You need to choose one style for each project and be consistent.
  • To find your voice, give yourself the assignment of finding what is your housestyle. Take notes of what you discover and refer to it when in doubt.
  • Think about how you would describe a recipe instead of writing mechanically. Imagine yourself telling how to cook something to a friend. Some authors particularly excel at this craft (i.e. Jamie Oliver) which makes their recipes sound unique and just like the author themselves.
  • However you choose to say things, do it the same way, all the time. (i.e. abbreviations, measurements, etc.)
  • Keep the fun stuff for the headnote, footnote, or sidebars.
  • The exciting part of publishing online is when the conversation starts. Online platforms allow for instant feedback. The internet is the new, free, giant focus group.

If you are a food writer, how do you see your career evolving in the next few months, years? If you’re an avid reader, how would you like to see food publications evolve over the next few months, years? Let’s share ideas!

 

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6 Responses to On Being a Food Writer in 2012 (or what the IACP conference in New York City taught me)

  1. Great article.  Thanks for the thorough re-cap!

  2. [...] On Being a Food Writer in 2012 (or What the IACP Conference in New York City taught me), by Marie Asselin [...]

  3. [...] On Being a Food Writer in 2012 (or, What the IACP Conference in NYC Taught Me) [...]

  4. Andrea Nguyen says:

    Lord, fabulous and detailed highlights. Thanks for capturing the sessions well. Writers can and need to be entrepreneurial. If we don't frame our work as a business — it is not a wealthy person's hobby — we won't have viable careers. 

  5. Very thorough summary, Marie. I appreciate having all this information in one place and nice to know about a session I couldn't attend. Well done. Hope every new writer reads this!

  6. Dianne Jacob says:

    Fabulous summary of sessions I missed, Marie. Thank you, and thanks for the link. It's always great to see you at conferences. I'm glad we got a tiny bit of time together. 

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