Vocation: Build a Career in Food: Beyond Blog Monetization



Tara Austen Weaver, moderator

Jess Thomson

Lara Ferroni

Melissa Lanz

Tara introduced the panel and serves as moderator. She says there is no one way to reach a post-blogging career in food, but the panelists represent four routes to lives outside of blogging that involved food.

Jess went to culinary school. She was a chef in the summer, and wrote in the winter. She moved to Seattle, and became a writer full time. She started her blog as a way to learn to write better, to write as much as she possibly could. In 2007, she wrote a recipe a day for a year. This helped her figure out who she was in a culinary sense. First person narrative writing, recipe testing for magazines

Photo Credit: Danielle Tsi.

Lara is a food photographer and writer. She was an English major who left college, found work in tech as a developer, and worked at Microsoft for nine years. She didn't plan to move into this. She traveled a lot and saw her photos when she got back, and they were all of food. She shot citrus photos, posted them on her bog. They contacted her a month later, said they loved her shots, and hired her to shoot their whole product line.

Melissa left corporate life due to burn out and a desire for a happier home life. She is a serial entrepreneur who loved blogging and says it felt like home. She knew that she needed to make it into something that would replace her corporate salary.

Tara worked in publishing. When she started blogging, she hid it from her writing clients, then people started seeking it out. She spent time refining her voice in blogging. Then she sent a post about bread to her friend who was a literary agent, and said that it could be turned into a book. The big theme here is building community. She had created a publishing community, so when she sent the post out, she found it had some traction. She still runs her blog and also writes for magazines, and does photography that comes out of the blog.

The panel began by discussing the necessity of looking at where you are now with all of the skills you developed in blogging, the importance of having a strong voice, and developing a visual style, then taking those skills to reach out to outlets and make money.

Tara says that although identity and mission statements can be hard for some people to conceptualize, they are important for assessing where you are and what you want to accomplish.

Melissa suggests using "What is my end game" as a guiding question. She solely speaks to people who want to make money, because that is her goal. She likes to be compensated for her work. When you treat what you're doing as a business, it's really important to create a mission statement for yourself, and understand from a very early space what you're going to be saying to the world, why, and to whom. She is a proponent of one-page mission statement, as though you were going to sit down and talk to someone who is going to invest in you. Identify your skill set. Take yourself seriously.

Jess says your voice is key to your personality. You need to know your own voice. She suggests finding three to five words that describe yourself. It's also crucial to know when not to use that voice, when you're writing for other outlets that don't belong to you. She gave examples of how to write the same story for different magazines like Food and Wine, Cook's Illustrated, etc.

Lara says the same thing holds true with photography. Don't be afraid to try to shoot in different styles, both so you can further define your shooting style and produce work for different publications.

All panelists talked about repurposing content for different publications. Melissa recently went to New Orleans, and ended up with enough content for different platforms, in words and pictures, including three blog posts plus her husband's photos. Jess says she never looks just at what a magazine is paying her for an assignment, rather considers ways to use what she sees and experiences for other work. Lara can add photos that aren't necessarily working for a particular assignment to her stock photo portfolio, or the leftovers for other purposes. She shot a restaurant for a magazine. After those pictures were chosen, the restaurant purchased more, and she did more photo work for them. The guiding question should be "How can you get the most value out of the work?"

Jess says that you have to be reliable. It doesn't matter how good your words or photos are if your stuff is late, if you are careless, have poor grammar. Melissa assumes most people in the room don't have Food & Wine and Sauveur editors on speed dial. It's important to talk about smaller publications and clients, too, to be resourceful, do your research on publications both large and small. Solve their problems. Give them what they need. Resourcefulness will get you work. Tara says if you put the time and energy into figuring out what that publication is for, and pitch and submit appropriately, doing your homework, this will make you stand out. Lara never met an editor who didn't have 200 percent more work than they had time to do. If you make their lives easier, they will give you more work.

Melissa asked if anyone on the panel had worked on spec. Jess has. Tara says she works harder on her pitches and doesn't do this, generally. You are developing a relationship with an editor. Start with the "front of the book" in a magazine. Editors are more likely to hire a new writer for a shorter piece. Tara quotes Neil Gaiman's recent commencement speech, where he said to be a freelancer, you have to be good-natured and fun to work with, you have to be prompt and deliver, and you have to be talented, but you don't have to be all three.

Melissa suggests pitching for practice. Editors will Google you. Know what's out there about you.

Tara supports starting small. Everyone gets rejected by The New Yorker, it's a rite of passage, but you want to go for jobs that are manageable and reasonable to go after.

Collaboration is key. Tara says the people sitting next to you are your colleagues in this business. Melissa believes strongly in collaboration. What you share will come back to you. Bloggers and content providers should be collaborating. It's her word for 2012.

Lara answered a Craigslist ad for a photographer, and it led to all kinds of new jobs, publication in Seattle magazine. You just never know what will happen. Melissa says that getting in with new businesses to offer your services is a great way to connect. Tara says that in-person contact is very valuable. She recommends going to conferences, nothing beats connections made in person and following up.

In the next section of the panel, they discussed different, highly specific means of pursuing projects beyond your blog:


Tara says you should know how to write one. Editors are looking to the blogosphere for great content. Proposals with a marketing plan are what sell nonfiction books. Your proposal now has to include your presence on social media platforms, Twitter followers, Facebook fans. Melissa says you have to be able to demonstrate your influence in various ways. Your reach is not only your numbers.

Melissa got a book deal without a proposal. Lara, Jess, and Tara have written successful proposals. Melissa met with Harper Collins with a business plan for her book after they approached her, and they called her an hour after she left with an offer. Tara says her book is sold on voice. Where do you fall on that spectrum?


Jess had bad luck with her first agent, whom she likens to choosing the wrong boyfriend She was focused on finding the best agent, and not the best agent for HER. She has written four cookbooks while working with her current agent, although she wasn't the selling agent on any of them, because she was not the appropriate person to sell those particular titles. She thinks she will work as the agent on her current proposal. It depends on what you're writing about, and where you want your product sold. Melissa believes you sell your own book. The agent is just there to facilitate certain conversations. Lara has been going back and forth on getting an agent. What she does need one for is contract negotiations. She wants to do one or two books a year, and has gotten herself into a bind with option clauses. She could have used a person smarter than her about this, also with negotiations. Tara says she is pro-agent. Her agent came up with the idea for her book, so she is indebted to her. When problems arise with the book, the agent is the bad guy with the publisher, and in her case, her agent also gives her career guidance.

PHOTOGRAPHY (Using it outside of your blog.)

Lara says that Getty and Stock USA are great sites to use as a source of revenue and building a portfolio if you want to do more of that kind of work. Sometimes she gets a check for $25, sometimes it's $700. She makes no money from her blog. That has never been her intention. She is more concerned with it as a portal to her portfolio. The intent of your portfolio should be to show your style and your voice. You don't need 100 photos in your portfolio -- you need maybe 15 that are great. Clients don't want to wade through ten pictures of the same tomato.

Tara says that a writing portfolio is important. She has her own landing page that is separate from her blog, for clients who don't want to wade through her "raving about watermelon". ML says that it should be clear to anyone visiting your site who wants to hire you what your skill set is.


Tara says they're going to talk about the hot-button issue of working for free. Jess got her first offer from a glossy food publication, and they offered no payment. She took it because it was her first assignment. She believes it has to have a worth for you besides the monetary work it's not giving you, whether it's connections, press, or a platform for your work.

Lara says that she sees opportunities as a reason to write for free, but a byline is not really appropriate compensation. When she did her book, she paid photographers herself before she got her advance.

Melissa thinks if there's a clear path to opportunity, you write for free.She thinks that over the past two years, brands have gone down the list until someone agrees to write for free. If there is no opportunity, then no.

Tara says editors value you more if you are paid. As far as photos go, if she provides one for free, that's a photographer who is out of a job. She responds to photo requests with a request for some kind of compensation. She gets responses that indicate that budgets are gone for photography, and the editors move on. She knows they'll find someone to contribute. She was advised years ago to sit back, breathe, and ask if there is "any kind of flexibility" if offers are too low.

Lara says she is not as good as Melissa at treating her work as a business. She is trying to be better at this, and understand how much she needs to make and how much she needs to work to earn what she is worth.

There was only time for one audience question, about Opt-In, which Melissa says is a space on your site where people can leave their email to be on your mailing list.