Writing for Pay, writing for fun


As I mentioned awhile back, I have signed a contract for a new book, tentatively titled “The United States of Cheddar” to be published by Chelsea Green. Because of that I likely will not be posting much here for the next few months. This blog isn’t dead, but may just be a little dormant for a while as I do research, interviews and a little travel – as well as work my regular job selling cheese at Rainbow Grocery Co-op.

But I do want to share a few thoughts about writing since I am back to focusing on a longer work. I wrote Cheesemonger, and I am writing this book, because I have things I want to say to (hopefully) an audience that wants to read them. Cheesemonger came out of writing a blog on LiveJournal and realizing that there was not (at that time) credible information available about the reality of working with cheese for a living. When I would write things about cheese, which at first was very rare, I could not believe the response and interest.

I did all that writing for free, of course. It was just me and an mostly unknown but small audience and I was working stuff out, figuring out what was interesting what wasn’t. LJ was a community as well –heck, it’s where I met my soon to be wife – and I did it for fun. When I decided to make it serious – writing a full manuscript and then trying to sell it – I took my writing off LJ and kept my writing on my own computer. I am repeating that process right now. I’m no expert on anyone else’s writing, but I need more breathing room when writing a longer work. It’s harder to hit that 500-1000 word sweet spot that this format demands.

I have been reflecting a little on the nature of this genre now, even as blogging seems to be in descent. I have written here before about the folks who have assumed that Cheesemonger was ghost-written, that is was clearly my attempt to be a food celebrity, to brand myself, a mere stepping stone on my way to the Big Time.* The view is echoed mostly not by folks who want to suck up to me in case I become someone famous, but by people who want to use their assumption of my ambition to get me to do things for them, mostly to supply work for free.

Again, I have written for free and I likely will again. I still write an LJ piece now and then because I enjoy that kind of writing. I write professional quality pieces (as opposed to blog-quality pieces) for free if I think there is a good political reason or if I am moved enough to do so. I even let HuffPo reprint a blog post I made once during initial publicity around Cheesemonger. I am not a purist in this regard.**

What appalls me though is the absolute lack of shame in paying everyone except the writer. For example, just recently I was asked to provide free content to a site sponsored by a large food corporation. This is cliché amongst my writer friends these days, but it may not be to the casual reader or cheeseworker so let me state the obvious: the web designer always gets paid, the person coordinating the website always gets paid, the advertising person always gets paid… everyone gets paid except the writer.

The large food corporation’s recent request is just one example. There are many others in my not-very-famous experience. I was asked to teach a cheese class (for free) to promote my book in one store. I guess they didn’t know how small the cheese world is and that I not only know the person who usually taught there, I know exactly how much they regularly get paid for the same thing I was being asked to do for “exposure.” At one website I provided original writing for free but that wasn’t enough for them. They demanded 15 free copies of the book for giveaways and threatened to promote and give away copies of someone else’s cheese book in conjunction with my article if I (or my publisher) didn’t comply.

I am in a unique position. I work at a cooperative as a cheesemonger. While that is not a job that will get me rich, my great healthcare, decent wages, and discount on food provides for my needs.*** Because of this — as a writer not looking for writing to be my main source of income — I am in prime position to be a scab of sorts. When that corporate-food sponsored site asked, I figured it was my role – especially since taking that unpaid gig would have been a potential conflict of interest with my current book – to at least make the asker answer the question and to make it explicit. Yes, everyone was getting paid except the writer. But, it’s great exposure.

And the thing is, that they aren’t necessarily wrong. If one is not counting on the small amount of income one would get for that kind of writing to pay the rent it, theoretically, does put someone in the position of a bigger pay-off down the road. But only if that person has a day job or a wealthy spouse to get by in the meantime.

But it’s not like that “bigger pay-off” is usually very big. Even though people kind of know better I still get a fair amount of “Wow, you still work here after the book came out?” from customers. Surprisingly, a book does not necessarily make one rich! Anyways, I am not complaining, just explaining. I’m sure I could have been smarter or more ambitious about my “brand”, optimizing my exposure for more monetization… but honestly, I would rather just do my day job most of the time.

I write here (in my non-monetized blog!) because I like to write or because I have something interesting for fun to share. I write elsewhere professionally for pay. It’s funny how often the former is seen as a reason to ignore the latter.

*(BTW, Food Network folks, my email is the best way to get hold of me gordon.zola.edgar at gmail dot com. Thanks!)
**A couple of articles here for further study: from The Nation. From the New York Times.
***In present-day San Francisco this is constantly a source of stress, but that’s another article for another day. If I got these wages/benefits/healthcare in another city I would probably own a home and have fewer worries.

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9 responses to “Writing for Pay, writing for fun

  1. Nobody who has ever met or spoken to you could possibly think your book was ghostwritten! You have one of the most unique and authentic voices of any writer – food or otherwise – that I have read in a long time. I hope you will keep posting from time to time – I love what you share here.

    • Thanks Karyn! The ghost-writing thing actually amuses me. It is such a intimate view into the mindset of someone who would just make those kind of assumptions.

  2. People actually still think writers get rich off their first book? Or their fifth? Oh my; that’s almost as cute as people thinking bookshop owners make a lot of money.

  3. John Gutierrez

    Was actually having a similar conversation with a writer-friend, here in Santa Fe, the other day, about the ubiquitous offer of “exposure” so prevalent in both the writing and music industry. It’s pretty analogous to all the for-profit companies asking for free catering handouts from cheese counters, with that familiar promise of “exposure” at their law office’s big holiday party. More people should put themselves in a position, like yourself where they’re able to be a scab, and help push to lengthen this end of the stick (not that doing our kind of work is conducive to having lot’s of extraneous time to do so). Anyways, all the best!

  4. Coming from a person who “consumes” more than she “contributes” on the internet, I have to say that this post was very thought-provoking. The way we receive information (and entertainment) is always shifting so quickly….thanks for sharing some of your experiences from the trenches. Best of luck to you as you prepare your next book. I just ordered Cheesemonger from Amazon and will content myself with your archives in your absence! You had me at “Barbara Mandrell.”

  5. Thank you for the ghost-mentoring (if that’s a thing?) as a cheese ingenue it can be easy to forget that my time and craft are worth more than the “exposure.”

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