Dianne Jacob dishes on everything from food blogs to making it as a writer
Dianne Jacob is the food writer all other food writers turn to for help.
Aspiring writers in most genres have countless comprehensive advice books to help them out. For food writers, there's really just one: Dianne Jacob's “Will Write For Food.” Even established writers track Jacob for ongoing advice and for a blog that smartly dissects the burning (no pun intended) issues of the day: What editors are looking for in cookbook proposals, whether food writers should be paid for their recipes, common recipe-writing errors.
In Jacob’s new edition of “Will Write for Food”, though, it’s clear that the menu for successful food writing has dramatically changed.
In the book's first edition in 2005, superstar Anthony Bourdain contributed a glowing cover blurb. In the new edition, blurbs from Bourdain and other prominent authors, chefs, and editors are inside. The cover spot went instead to blogger Ree Drummond, “The Pioneer Woman,” who wrote that, “I wish I’d read Dianne’s book before I started a tiny little food blog on a whim years ago.”
Drummond’s “tiny little blog” now, of course, draws some 13 million page views for month, making her a major force by anyone’s measure. Still, picking her for the cover seemed such a change, fitting right into our “Julie and Julia” world. I had to ask Jacob about that, and get some of her other insights. Here’s our e-mail exchange, soup to nuts:
Q: Wait…Anthony Bourdain gave you a great blurb for the book, and you used it on the back cover? Why did you choose a blurb from The Pioneer Woman to grace the front cover? (Had her own cookbook hit the bestseller lists when that decision was made?)
A: You noticed that! I wanted it there because the emphasis on the new edition is a huge new chapter on food blogging, and Ree Drummond is the ultimate self-made success story in that area. She also has a cookbook that's a New York Times bestseller, a memoir coming out next year, a movie deal based on the book with Reese Witherspoon playing her, and she sometimes gets close to 1,000 comments on a blog post. That's pretty darn impressive.
It seems like women are not taken as seriously in our business, and I'd like to change that. Even though most food writers are women, men outnumber them by a long shot at the top.
Q: Has food writing changed any more than other forms of writing over the years? Does any book on writing that was published when WWFF first came out need a new edition?
A: You know what's changed the most? Restaurant reviewing. It's because traditionally, reviewing has concentrated on high-end dining, and eating out has become less less formal and more frequent. It doesn't help that Yelp, Chowhound, blogs and other Internet citizen reviewer sites have made everyone an expert. Plus, many food bloggers get invited to private "soft openings" of upscale restaurants, where they dine for free and publish accounts – not reviews – immediately, scooping food magazines and newspapers. This infuriates the heck out of traditional print reviewers, who have lovely jobs with expense accounts. There aren't many of them left.
The other thing that's changed is that if you want to blog about cooking, you need to become an excellent photographer, not just a good writer. Readers want to see the food. They have high standards because they're accustomed to beauty shots in magazines. Drummond is famous for using dozens of shots in a single post.
To your second question, there was so much more to say after five years. In addition to 17,000+ words on food blogging, I updated the chapter on freelance writing (harder than ever) and enlarged the section on self-published books (easier than ever). I added more details on cookbook writing and production, because I co-wrote one ("Grilled Pizzas & Piadinas") with a chef after the first edition came out in 2005. I wanted tell readers more about what to expect.
In a few more years, I hope to write a third edition to explain writing apps for mobile devices. That was just starting when I turned in this version.
Q: In your chapter on being a successful freelance writer, you say that "you might have to write for free when you're starting out." Did you agonize over giving that advice?
A: Oh gosh yes. I would like beginning writers to get paid. But that's not how the system works these days for smaller publications, and they are the easiest ones to get into. I don't advise doing it for long, however. I tell people to do an excellent job, get a clip and make it clear they'll ask for money the next time. If the editor says no, try another publication.
Working for free has become a huge issue for food bloggers. Every day someone asks them to write about a product in exchange for keeping it, write a recipe to feature a product, or contribute a recipe to a website for no pay. And for every food blogger who's trying to get paid, there are 10 more who are thrilled to write for free, because they're blogging as a hobby. It's a big dilemma.
A: I started the blog as a marketing aid and because I couldn't write a huge chapter about blogging otherwise. It became an excellent way to build readership for the second edition. When I announced the new release on my blog, it was the first published information about the second edition of "Will Write for Food." The Amazon sales rank increased immediately, and the book became a top seller.
Since starting the blog in June 2009, I've been invited to speak at food blogging conferences, which has helped generate business. A reader of my blog convinced her publisher to have me edit her recipes in a soon-to-be published book. Other than that, the blog, Twitter, and Facebook all work together to expand my platform, as we say in the publishing business. That's the ability to attract potential purchasers.
Q: Which food books or blogs do you recommend for aspiring writers to read?
A: Ack! I'm going to get in trouble because I know so many good bloggers, and it's hard to pare down a list. Okay, here goes:
Ree Drummond home schools her kids from an Oklahoma cattle ranch and writes cooking posts to readers as if they are her best girlfriends (including lots about her sexy husband, Marlborough Man). A dependable comfort food cook, she doles out recipes with a light touch and dozens of step-by-step photos.
Molly Wizenberg's lyrical blog, Orangette, recounts, with great honesty and thoughtfulness, a young life in Seattle with the kitchen at its center. Soon after she launched her blog, Wizenberg began an e-mail correspondence with a reader who eventually came west, where they married and opened a pizza restaurant together.
Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com.