Could food writing be a profitable niche?
October 25, 2019 4:25 AM   Subscribe

I am a freelance writer looking to pivot from arts and culture to food. I see food writing as potentially an emerging trend with many writing opportunities popping up. To niche down would help me to strategise my nonfiction career via a clear speciality rather than the oversaturated market of literature and art.

Also as I'm struggling with profitable ideas in arts and culture, (and not enjoying as much) I do not see it as a wise business decision to keep pursuing it. I don't want to "write about everything" because I would prefer to position myself as a specialist, and go deep into a subject. Plus my creative, wandering, magpie brain needs a strategic, professional focus.

However. I also write fiction and worried that being a food writer would not be complimentary. I also feel if I fully commit to food, it would shut down other avenues, and I might end up despising it. There is also the difficulty of being based in the UK which doesn't have the vast, high paid writing landscape as the US. I have written for US publications before, but find the physical and cultural disconnect very isolating.

While I am passionate about cooking, food history and particular cuisines, would narrowing down to this niche be the answer? And isn't food just as saturated as arts & culture, and maybe I should look to pursue another area?

I really do not want to give up writing, but need to find a way to make it sustainable and happy.
posted by foxmardou to Work & Money (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I’ve known several people who could write, cook, and hustle who have tried to make a go of food writing, one as a a solo website critic and general review/copy freelancer, one working F/t for a major cooking website and doing freelance work for restaurants and industry.

Tough gig. Really tough. Everyone’s an expert on food. Even the real experts are a dime a dozen, at least in NYC, and food fads and fashions change so fast that you are always trying to become an expert on things you don’t know. As with other modes of writing about culture and consumer fashion, which is what it really is, the people making real money are hiring the writers (and conning their investors for a few years, because as far as I can tell nothing has had staying power in that space except maybe f’ing Yelp).

I have been waiting for a writer who debunks the restaurant business though. My friend who owns several successful restaurants explained the formula to me: you need to sell as many carbohydrates as you can at meat prices. Even as a former chef myself, I instantly had the light go on in my head.
posted by spitbull at 4:37 AM on October 25, 2019 [14 favorites]

I like to write about food sometimes. Reading Ed Levine’s memoir, Serious Eater, made me realize how impossible it would be to turn a profit doing so.
posted by ferret branca at 4:43 AM on October 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

the vast, high paid writing landscape as the US

Oh boy, as a former U.S. freelance writer I'm not sure it is so great out there, either, or anywhere. I read an article recently in one of those Gawker-ish blogs where they counted the number of people who could actually sustain a living wage off freelance magazine-style writing in the 2010s. I can't find it now but the number had dwindled since the financial collapse to something harshly low. In the three figures maybe?

Fiction-wise: I've found I have so much more creative energy for writing since separating it from work and the dollar incentive (I just work on apps now but I used to write $200 pieces.) Once I got some distance from the freelance writing scene, it was painful to me to see how much I used to bend myself out of shape to chase what I thought editors would pay for...was this what I had dreamed of in 8th grade English class?

There was a investigative documentary filmmaker I met back in the journalism days, who told me something I always remember. He said, "keep your life bourgeoise so you can be violent and original in your work," quoting Flaubert, and I sort of love that. (In context, he was justifying why his bread and butter at the moment was a cheesy doc he was filming for some men's entertainment channel, like Dave or something, about penises.)

Don't give up writing!
posted by johngoren at 4:56 AM on October 25, 2019 [11 favorites]

Food and travel are more over saturated than literature and art, not less.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:56 AM on October 25, 2019 [8 favorites]

I see food writing as potentially an emerging trend with many writing opportunities popping up.

Food writing was an emerging trend 15 years ago. It's fully established now, and oversaturated with content and writers.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 4:58 AM on October 25, 2019 [15 favorites]

Thanks so much everyone. Your replies have been very helpful.
posted by foxmardou at 5:30 AM on October 25, 2019

Can you use writing about food as an "angle" or point of view in another style?

I know there are several genre writers -- (particularly in mystery -- who use food as a theme. Could you use food as the pivot in another genre -- maybe fantasy (moving a step beyond the "Glamour in Glass" series, for example) or history?
posted by wenestvedt at 6:07 AM on October 25, 2019

The point about how food writing is a difficult path has already been made a few times over, so I won't pile on (though I certainly agree). And I understand that you don't want to be a generalist. But for what it's worth, I think there's room for having two specialties.

If you wanted to build up both the arts side of your clips and the food side of your clips, I think that could work. You'd pitch the arts stories with your arts clips and the food with the food. Yes, they would be different, but I don't think there's any inherent conflict or jarring cognitive dissonance -- you wouldn't be writing about nuclear weapons and then turning around and waxing poetic about petit fours.

Also, I lied when I said I'd leave alone the difficulty of the food writing thing: It's really hard.
posted by veggieboy at 7:12 AM on October 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm going to be the contrarian here. Most answers above basically say, forget it, there are too many food writers already, you're 15 years too late etc. And yet, new and successful food writers emerge every year. For instance, here's a writer who picked out a niche called "Best New Food Writing, 2019", a nice meta idea. She happens to have a pretty good track record, but anybody could have done that.) Go for it.
posted by beagle at 10:38 AM on October 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm also going to say it's not impossible.

Several years ago, I met a nonfiction writer who had created a very specific niche for herself writing about SPECIFIC ALTERNATIVE TO STANDARD AMERICAN DIET + SPECIFIC COOKING CONTRAPTION. At the time, she wrote cookbooks and articles for health-related publications, and she augmented her earnings through speaking engagements and teaching private classes.

She was the first to admit that 1) She stumbled onto a growing topic at the right time, and 2) There was a lot of hustle (social media! facebook groups! business cards! endless self-promotion! an uncanny talent for doing her own food photography!). But she was passionate about her experience, so it made it a natural fit for her personality.

She still makes her living this way, and she still writes, but her side projects now often become main projects, like starting a local cooking school.

Her original plan was just to write, but as her interest grew and she made her name more recognizable, she was happy to diversify.
posted by mochapickle at 11:10 AM on October 25, 2019

new and successful food writers emerge every year. For instance, here's a writer who picked out a niche called "Best New Food Writing, 2019", a nice meta idea. She happens to have a pretty good track record, but anybody could have done that

There are two errors here that make it a terrible example of why a writer with no connection to food writing could make it: one is that the Best American series is a stand-alone book with a neat premise and the other is that Samin Nosrat rose out of nowhere to write a cookbook and edit another.

While Best American Food writing itself has only had 2 editions, the overall Best American series has been around since 1915 and the first edition was edited by Ruth Reichl.

Samin Nosrat not only studied under Alice Waters (as a chef) and Michael Pollan (as a writer), her book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is a New York Times bestseller and James Beard award winner and has been made into a documentary on Netflix. She's also a food writer for New York Times Magazine. Nosrat is not simply a writer with a 'good track record.'
posted by carrioncomfort at 11:11 AM on October 25, 2019 [13 favorites]

There are two errors here
Thanks for pointing that out. To clarify, I actually meant to put the spotlight on the fact that there is in fact "New Food Writing" every year, from new food writers who didn't listen to the naysayers.
posted by beagle at 11:29 AM on October 25, 2019

To be clear I’m not saying anything is impossible. Just that it’s a super hard space to compete in and not an emerging space with tons of open vistas of opportunity, at least in the NYC-centric universe I inhabit.

It was hard to be a food writer before the Internet too. Basically there is truth to the notion that everyone is an expert on eating food. A lot of people are experts at making food. And a lot of people want to be writers. And everyone is interested in food, on one level or another.
posted by spitbull at 5:23 PM on October 25, 2019

Don't want to pile onto you, beagle, but I do feel the need to clarify that that series is the Best American Food Writing, not the Best New Food writing. So, many if not most of the writers included are very established—scanning the table of contents, I see a New Yorker columnist (Helen Rosner), the SF Chronicle food critic (Soleil Ho), the NYT food section's California critic (Tejal Rao), another frequent NYT contributor (Priya Krishna), the restaurant editor for Food & Wine magazine (Khushbu Shah) and several people with 1 or more books under their belt (Michael Twitty, Ruby Tandoh, Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft).

Again, not trying to single you out! But, I'm in the food media world and most people I know in it don't make their whole living doing food writing. A few manage to just write, often in a rare recurring or salaried position; some have become editors or co-write chef's cookbooks; others are doing consulting or product development or teaching or lawyering on the side; others have supportive spouses or parents.

To foxmardou, instead of only telling you how hard it is, maybe I can give you some data points.
I write about food but don't make my living on journalistic pieces—I'm writing a book and also do research for a TV show. I got to this point after a 10-year stretch of grad school (in food & wine science), working in an internationally famous restaurant and putting on conferences, and while doing those things, writing some not-very-well-compensated pieces in magazines and newspapers to figure out my niche. But I only am able to do what I do now because I spent that time building my profile doing other things in food.

I think there is a shift happening where stories about food in the context of systems and cultures (not just White American culture) are coming to the forefront—in the Best American 2019, you can see this in
"In the Twin Cities, Asian Chefs Feel the Sting of Andrew Zimmern's Insults..."
"In Kotzbue, Alaska, Hunters are Bringing Traditional Foods—and a Sense of Comfort—to Their Local Elders"
"The Life of a Restaurant Inspector..."
"Bison Bars Were Supposed to Restore Native Communities..."
"I Had Never Eaten in Ghana Before. But My Ancestors Had."

So if I were to give an aspiring food writer advice on starting out in 2019, it would be to try to write stories like those. I don't mean, copy them, but the really interesting stuff about food talks about economics, labor, migration, science, policy, diasporas, ecology, agriculture, and/or some unlikely mix of those things.

Since you're in the UK I'd encourage you to check out the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery next year—it's not a wholly academic conference, there are a lot of UK and other food writers there, it might help you make some connections and take the temperature of the scene.
posted by zingiberene at 5:33 PM on October 25, 2019 [10 favorites]

Mea culpa.
posted by beagle at 9:01 AM on October 27, 2019

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