Last week on the FBP podcast, Bjork talked with Jamie and Saukok from New York’s See Food Media, the go-to place to get professional food videos made. They had so much awesome info to share on making amazing food videos, so definitely make sure to check it out!
How to Find Your Voice and be Heard in a Noisy World
If ever there was a mentor you wished you had when it came to writing, Dianne Jacob is that person. And the awesome thing is that she has made it her job to help people like you and me write about food better. From helping new bloggers find their voice to assisting seasoned ones with a cookbook proposal, Dianne has done it all.
We were so excited to talk to Dianne about writing for this episode, and we definitely weren’t disappointed.
In this awesome episode, Dianne tells:
- The difference between self-publishing and working with a publisher
- What it means to get an advance & royalties
- What it takes to write a great book proposal
- When a recipe can be considered your own
- Why your voice is so important
- How to get over “writer’s block” and get the writing done
- How to manage your internal critic
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Bjork Ostrom: Welcome to episode number 15 of the Food Blogger Pro podcast. Hey there, my name is Bjork Ostrom. You are listening to the Food Blogger Pro podcast. This is episode number 15. I feel like I say this with every episode, but it’s really true. I am really excited about today’s episode with Dianne Jacob. She is the author behind “Will Write for Food.” She also blogs about food writing. You can get to her blog by going to diannej.com.
The reason I’m so excited for today’s podcast is because it’s about something that we hear about all the time. That is writing. We know that a lot of people start a food blog or a website related to food, because they love food, but oftentimes, we hear that people struggle with the writing process. It’s such an important part of building a blog or building a website.
We’re going to be talking to Dianne about all things writing, everything from blog posts to cookbooks. We’re going to be talking about advances. We’re going to be talking about working with agents and what that means, and how that process works. There are so many questions that I had answered in this podcast, and so I know that other people that have the same questions will get those answered as well. I’m really excited about it. I hope that you get a lot out of it.
One real quick thing here before we jump in, Dianne has an incredible book called Will Write for Food. I’d really encourage you to check that out, and get that from Amazon. She has links to it on her website as well. We’ll include a link in the show notes on the blog for Food Blogger Pro. We’re also going to be giving away five copies of this book. In order to be eligible to be a part of that giveaway, we want you to listen to this podcast, and find one thing that was a takeaway for you.
Then hop on to the Food Blogger Pro blog, specifically this episode which will be foodbloggerpro.com/episode15. Let the world know what your takeaway was. If you have time, I’d encourage you to read through those comments, because you can learn by learning what other people learned, which is a little meta. Let’s jump into the interview. Dianne, welcome to the Food Blogger Pro podcast.
Dianne Jacob: Thank you very much, thrilled to be here.
Bjork: It’s going to be great. Dianne, I have to say this. You’ve sent along the third edition of Will Write for Food. I was flipping through it, and it’s awesome. I’m super, super exited because there’s a ton of overlap. I didn’t tell you this, but I actually cleared out my schedule for the next five hours. I originally said one-hour interview, but I think we’re going to switch it to five. Would that be all right?
Dianne: I don’t think anybody wants that, thank you.
Bjork: I’ll try and compact it in here. There’s a ton of helpful information in the book, which I’m excited to talk about. I know that you have a wealth of knowledge, so it’s going to be awesome. I pulled out a little snippet of your bio here. It says for more than 15 years, writing coach editor and blogger Dianne Jacob has taught food lovers how to take their passion from their plate to their page. I understand editor. I understand blogger of course, but I’m not as familiar with writing coach. What does a writing coach do? I’m curious.
Dianne: That’s a good question. I wasn’t a writing coach the whole time. I was an editor. I was a newspaper editor, a magazine editor, and a book editor for years. All those had a stuff of writers. There were freelance writers also. It was a question of coaching them through the stories that they were writing for me, encouraging them, getting them the information, setting deadlines, setting goals, that sort of thing.
That was the start. Then when I started my own business, I missed working with writers, so I decided to become a coach. I’m not a life coach. Life coaches, they get their certification, and it’s all about life, work balance, and are you taking yoga, and are you doing enough meditation, and how many hours are you working. For me, we focused on specific tasks.
Someone contacts me because they want to write a book proposal. I coach them on how to write it. They want to change their blog, or up their presence or something. I coach them on how to do that. Right now, most of my clients want to write a book proposal. That’s what I’m focused on.
Bjork: That would be cookbooks primarily.
Dianne: Cookbooks primarily, yes.
Bjork: Let’s say hypothetically, Lindsay and I, my wife Lindsay, she has pinchofyum.com. I’m lucky enough to be included in that. I’m a terrible chef, but I’m interested in all of this food space and the online stuff. Let’s say that we come to you. We say, “Dianne, we are interested in writing a cookbook. Can you help us out?” What would be the initial process that you would take in working with us, some of the first questions you would ask?
Dianne: I want to know what your idea is. I’d want to know whether you have any expertise. In your case, I know the answers to whether you have any expertise on your subject, whether you want to be traditionally published. I assume that’s why you’re coming to me, but sometimes people want to self-publish a book. Then I help them with that. I might edit it also. I like to be very strategic about the book, figure out what is the right book for you, and the right book for your market.
Bjork: What do you mean by that? I’m curious.
Dianne: I’ve gone through a lot of strategizing with people. Sometimes the first idea they have for their book is the right one, but then sometimes we look at the competition, and we find out that they could have a lot more of this and less of that, or they need to highlight something else.
I just worked with someone recently who had an idea for a book, but then she found out that when we got to that stage, all the competing books didn’t sell very well. I had to shock her down from a ledge, because she was pretty upset.
Bjork: For sure, everybody else has done the proof of concept, and the proof concept maybe didn’t prove anything, or did prove that the market wasn’t ready for it or it wasn’t a good fit.
Dianne: You don’t want to compare your book to books that have not done well when you’re writing a book proposal. You also don’t want to compare yourself to Ina Garten, and pioneer woman, and say, “Well of course my book will sell millions of copies.” You got to be somewhere in between. We repositioned her book so that she could be really proud of it, and make a really good argument as to why her book was going to be so different from these other books, and that it would succeed because she was tapping into a different market.
Bjork: I actually want to hone in on cookbooks for a little bit. I’m really fascinated by them. To be honest, I really have no idea how they work. I have the basic understanding of it, but I know for a lot of food bloggers and people that are publishing content online, that’s a lot of times one of their ultimate goals is to publish a cookbook. I’d love to dig into that a little bit if you’re OK with that.
I want to go back to one of the first things that you had said when you’re doing that walkthrough of the different things you’d help people process through. That is the question of self-publishing versus working with a publishing company. I know this is a huge question, and it gets more and more difficult as it becomes easier to self-publish. Can you talk us through the process that people should go through if they’re trying to figure out which way to go, and the benefits with each side, and maybe the negatives of each side?
Dianne: Let’s talk about self-publishing. I think self-publishing is the best way to go for two situations. One is you have a huge platform. You don’t need a publisher. You can sell directly to your readers. You’ve done that very successfully with your eBooks. There’s no reason to have a publisher.
Bjork: When you say huge, do you have any idea of what that might be in terms of followers or page views, or any type of metric on that?
Dianne: No, every publisher wants huge bloggers, but they won’t tell you what huge is. Obviously, you’re in the huge category, but for everybody else, it’s unknown. They want to know that you understand who your reader is, that you know how to find your reader, that you know how to talk to your reader. They’re interested in knowing that your readers interact with you, that you have a relationship with them.
If you go to a blog, and there’s just post after post after post, and no one ever says anything, then they wonder. For self-publishing, you really can carve out your own path if you feel that you can do well enough with selling your own books. You have to decide what that is. If it’s $100 a month, and that makes you happy, great. If it’s $1,000 a month and that makes you happy, great.
The other category that’s good for self-publishing is people who just want to write a book for their friends and family. They can get it published. They can circulate it. It can be grandma’s greatest recipes. It could have family photos in it, or your kids going off to college, and you want to publish a book of best recipes. Those are all fine. That is a great way to go. No publisher is going to be interested in working with you in those situations, but you could still have a book that you pay for yourself.
Bjork: Those would be people that maybe wouldn’t be interested in having the New York Times bestselling cookbook. They just want something that they can physically hold, and say, “This represents our family, or this represents …” We had a friend that did this. “This represents grandma’s Italian cooking.” They wanted to make sure that they took time to write down grandma’s recipes.
As a side note, it was a funny story, because they talked about how frustrating it was. She’s like, “I don’t measure. I just put this in. I don’t know how much it is.” They’re like, “You need to tell us the amount if we’re going to do a recipe for it.” A couple of things I heard you say there, engagement is a big piece, the interaction between the audience and the publisher. That a publishing company will come to that, and they’ll see the engagement. They’ll know that that’s important.
I’m guessing that’s important because it’s not just a page view, because we know that you can have a million page views, but those might not be engaged people that are following along. One of the things that’s interesting and that I’d love to know is it feels like there’s maybe this catch 22, where at the point where a publisher is interested in working with you, that’s probably the point when you can be OK or where you can justify self-publishing, so when both of those become OK in terms of the business side of it.
Dianne: Not always. Sometimes, publishers will reach and agents will reach out to a blogger, and they’ll say, “We would like to do a book on popsicles with booze in them. Would you like to do that?” You’re like, “Oh, I never even read about that.” Here is a publisher who is interested in having my name beyond the cover of the book, so then you have to decide whether that’s right for you.
That happened to a former client of mine. She had to decide if that was the right project. Now, another publisher has come to her and said, “We want to do a book on Asian salads. Would you like to do that?” Again, it’s too specific for her, but it’s also an opportunity. Again, she has to decide.
Bjork: When a publisher comes to a blogger in a situation like that, are they essentially looking for somebody to help produce the content, not necessarily somebody that has a following? I’ll say this. I remember it was maybe two years or three years after Lindsay had started Pinch of Yum. She was contacted by somebody, and they said, “We would love for you to do a book on donuts.” She had done one post on donuts.
Someone contacted us, and we’re like, “Somebody wants us to post a cookbook.” It was really awesome. It was hard to process through. Is this worth it? Is it not? We were just totally ignorant to the process. Can you explain on the publisher side what’s going on there, what they’re looking for?
Dianne: Publishers do their own research about what kind of books they should be doing. They might decide that this is the year for Asian salads for example. Then they have to figure out, “Well, who should write that book?” Quite frankly when they don’t want to pay a lot of money, they will find a blogger, and the blogger will be super excited to be given that opportunity. They’ll find a blogger who is doing a good job. It’s not like they will find anyone. They might want that blogger to take all the photos too, and they will make an offer.
Bjork: I think that’s exactly what the situation was for us, where they said, “Hey, we would like you to do these recipes, to do the photos. This is maybe 50 recipes. This is kind of a cook booklet. It was necessarily a huge cookbook.” It was a hard thing to process through like I said, so interesting to hear a little bit about that. That’s a common thing.
Self-publishing versus working with a publishing company, let’s say that we decided, “Hey, we want to self-publish. We’re going to do this.” That’s a huge undertaking. Let’s say that Pinch of Yum was doing this. Lindsay and I, we said, “Hey, we’re going to self-publish a cookbook.”
Would you recommend that we strategically bring people on? Obviously, you’re a writing coach, which would make a lot of sense, but would there be other people we should bring on and hire to help us with that process? Who would those people be that would help us go from idea to completed project?
Dianne: You’re in a situation where you can afford to pay for people to help you. Not everybody can. That’s why my book is good. It’s $12.95 on Amazon.
Bjork: That’s the ultimate coach, right?
Dianne: Yes, there’s a whole chapter about what’s a good idea for a cookbook, how does the publishing industry work. Do you need an agent, bla, bla, bla? Not everybody can afford. There’s a lot to think through when you self-publish a book, because you don’t know everything. You’re not necessarily a great photographer. You’re not necessarily a good editor.
You don’t know what a great cover looks like. You think that you do know these things, but then you’ve seen a million self-published books, and you’ve seen a million traditionally published books that are awful. You know that a lot can go wrong. Of course you don’t want anything to go wrong. I would say at a very minimum, you need an editor, very minimum.
Bjork: Bring somebody on as an editor. I know you mentioned this, but maybe somebody to take the photos and all of those things are extremely important. I wanted to talk a little bit more about the cookbooks just because I’m so fascinated by them. I know that a lot of people are interested in them as well.
Can you talk about when you publish a cookbook, how do you create an income from that? I know that it maybe seems like an elementary question. When you get into royalties and advances, and all of that stuff, it starts to get a little bit gray. I’m curious if you can provide some clarity around how the business side of a cookbook, how you can create an income from that.
Dianne: Let’s say that you did write a proposal for a cookbook, and a publisher offered you an advance. Let’s just say for the sake of easy numbers the advance is $10,000. It’s an advance against royalties. It’s not a loan, because you get it assuming that you do what the contract says that you’re going to do. You might get $3,333.33 when you sign the contract. Then you might get another third when they accept your manuscript. Then you might get the final third when your book comes out.
You get that money. That’s yours assuming you turned in the product that they accept. Then the minute your book goes on sale, any other money you’re going to get is royalties. Royalties mean that they will give you a percentage based on either the retail price of the book or the net price of the book. It’s a formula. It goes up. Your agent may have negotiated that it goes up based on the number of books sold.
Hardcover books are a different royalty rate than paperback books, but basically, you get money every time your book sells. Let’s say you get $1 every time you sell a book. This money is applied to your advance. How many books do you have to sell to earn out your advance? Ten thousand, right? When you sell 10,001 books, you have earned $1. If you have an agent, you have earned $.85 because the agent will take $.15.
Then once or twice a year, you will get a statement of how many books you’ve sold. It will be accompanied by a check if you are lucky. Most people never earn out. Most people, their advance is the only money they’re ever going to see.
Bjork: Percentage wise, would you say would be 90% of people will never earn out their advance?
Dianne: I think it’s 80 or 90%.
Bjork: Quite a few, enough to say that if you are going into the cookbook process, the advance should really be viewed as the transaction. It’s probably safe to say you shouldn’t also factor in royalties unless there is the 10 to 20% chance that maybe the book does really well or you do a really good job of promoting it. In which case, you start to collect royalties, and go and move to Mexico and sip on cocktails all the day long as the royalty checks.
Dianne: That’s right. You don’t have to do anything. It’s just passive income forever.
Bjork: The flip side of that is self-publishing. There is no advance, but then every cookbook that you sell is income that you created. Is that right?
Dianne: That is correct, but you have paid for everything. What’s nice about traditional publishing is that you get a check. With self-publishing, you write a check. You write many checks, because you have to pay for things. If you’re going to have them published, you have to pay for the books. You might have to pay for someone to design the cover, someone to lay it out, pay for an editor.
You might have pay for a photographer. You might pay someone for promotion. I don’t know. You might have to pay the distributor. You go in a certain catalog when you’re self-published. That is different from traditionally-published books. The distributor tries to get your book into places so that they sell it for you. If your book is on Amazon, you don’t get all that money back.
That’s all that has to be factored in what you are planning to spend. PDFs are tremendously inexpensive, and some people want to publish book, and that costs more money depending on whether it’s hardcover or paperback, and how many pages there are, and whether there are photos, and the type of paper. It’s a very complicated decision. When people ask me sometimes what does it cost to self-publish a book, there isn’t one answer to that. There’s lots of different ways to self-publish a book.
Bjork: Depending on factors like if it’s hardcover, if its softcover, even the huge question of digital or [physical 00:21:17].
Dianne: If it’s a Kindle or if it’s an eBook. It’s a very complicated question, but then yes, you earn the money. You have to earn back the money that you’ve put out, and hopefully beyond that to make a profit.
Bjork: It’s interesting because in a lot of ways it comes down to risks, how much are you willing to risk in terms of putting your own money up front in order for the potential of a big reward and that you’re able to collect a higher percentage of each book that’s sold versus a low-risk situation, which would be working with a publisher that maybe they cut your check that you get in advanced. You take that, and you know that you’re going to have that money guaranteed. If it does really really well, you’ll get some royalty checks, but maybe not as much as what you could get if you self-published.
This is a big question that I have to ask, because I know that people are wondering that are listening. Do you have any guidance or parameters that you could say in terms of what a blogger or a writer could expect in terms of what they could get for an advance working with a publisher? It’s a big question.
Dianne: I worked with someone who got a $5,000 advance. I worked with someone who got $150,000 advance.
Bjork: Sliding scale.
Dianne: Very much so.
Bjork: What do you think on the higher end of that, for a publisher, why are they willing to give a higher advance? In that conversation, what is convincing them that this is going to be worth all of that money?
Dianne: The people I’ve worked with who’ve gotten six-figure advances, they have written a brilliant proposal with my help. They’re already really, really smart people who are doing well. They have everything in their proposal that would interest a publisher. They have a great idea for a book, a book where the publisher say, “We need that book. That is exactly the right book for us right now. This is the person to do it.”
They have the credentials. They don’t have a blog on gluten-free cooking, but then they want to write a book about the kitchen garden. That actually happened to somebody that I know. It’s like, “No, you don’t have any expertise with the kitchen garden. You do have a lot of expertise with gluten-free cooking.”
Bjork: I want to vamp on that phrase that you used, a brilliant proposal. Can you talk a little bit about what a proposal is, and what makes a proposal brilliant?
Dianne: A proposal is basically the business plan for your book. When you want to write a book, in nonfiction, you do not write the book itself. You write a proposal for the book. If you’re writing fiction, you write the whole book. Then it’s all about, “Are you a brilliant storyteller, and do you have great scenes. Is there excellent dialogue, and when does the story arch come?” Someone is overcome by the story, but not …
Bjork: I didn’t realize that differentiation between nonfiction and fiction with proposals, but it makes sense.
Dianne: Memoir is the exception in nonfiction, where a lot of times people would want to see a finished memoirs, not one chapter of a memoir.
Bjork: In the cookbook, you’d right a proposal. You’d say, “Here is my plan for it.”
Dianne: You say, “Here is my plan. I am already an expert in this category.” Let’s say you want to write a book on scones. You have a blog called Betty scones. It has received the Savor award for most entertaining blog because you are hilarious. You have been featured in the New York Times. You speak at conferences about your brilliance. Your recipes have been featured on Epicurious. The Washington Post has profiled you. You have appeared on television demonstrating how to make scones. You teach.
Bjork: You are the scone expert.
Dianne: Yes. You teach cooking classes on scones around the country. You have developed your own ready-made blueberry scone mix that you sell yourself and which has been featured on Serious Eats. Getting the picture?
Bjork: Yes, I’m getting the picture. I’m getting hungry with scones.
Dianne: You have thousands and thousands of followers on social media who adore you. Your Pinterest posts go viral.
Bjork: This would all be things that would be included in the proposal that you’d be sending out.
Dianne: Yes, they would.
Bjork: How long would a proposal be in terms of if you were to pull up a word document?
Dianne: It’s very long. It has a lot of different sections. You have to explain the competition. It’s not like you have the first book on scones ever written, so why does anyone care about yet another book on scones, and how do you compare to the books that are already out. You have to understand.
You have to explain to them who your target reader is, and why they love to make scones, and whether they shop at Whole Foods because they’re interested in organic produce, and whether they read Savor or Food and Wine.
What else? You have to explain your promotion plan, which has to be incredible on all the different ways that you will sell your book. Publishers like to rely more and more on the writer to be the main source of promotion for the book.
Bjork: That they’re not necessarily going to go and do a bunch of advertising for it. They’re going to use the platform that you have established, and hope that sales come through that versus doing a ton of advertising with their own dollars.
Dianne: Yes, that drive sales.
Bjork: Let’s say that somebody is listening right now, and they know that someday they want to publish a cookbook, but they’re not quite sure when it would be. They feel like maybe they’re not quite ready for that. What would the guidance be, or what would the advice be that you’d give to that person that can help them start preparing today for a cookbook that they might write two or three years from now as they’re developing their platform, as they’re engaging in social media? What would you say to that person?
Dianne: I’d say become an expert on something. A lot of blogs cover all kinds of food, which is not wrong. From a cookbook standpoint, the books that are all about everything are called the joy of cooking. You really don’t want to compete with that. First of all, you don’t want to write a book that has 1,000 recipes in it. Second, it would be very tough to compete with the joy of cooking.
You do need to narrow in on what it is that you are really good at as a food blogger and as a recipe developer, and develop your expertise in that area. That doesn’t mean every post has to be about that, but when you pitch a book, it’s going to be about something. It’s not going to be, “I love food. Here’s a bunch of recipes.”
Bjork: Even as I think back to some previous podcast interviews we’ve done, we interviewed Gabe and Ashley Rodriguez from Not Without Salt. She did this series on her blog where she talked about dating her husband and what that was like. Then she came out on Valentine’s Day, I think it was, with her cookbook about different recipes for date night in with your husband.
I think of Sally in the third podcast episode we did. She did all Sally’s cookie, or it was Sally’s candy addiction. It was all these candy recipes. It was very niche. Another great example is our friends Jason and Lisa Leake from 100 Days of Real Food. What do they do? Of course they do a real food cookbook. Not only is it a great overlap with their audience, but it’s also a very specific niche which makes a lot of sense.
I think that’s a great takeaway for people that are listening that are maybe looking to do that down the line, to develop maybe one of those niche areas on their blog. I know Dianne that you do judging for cookbook competitions. James Beard Foundation, NIICP, so when you go and you sit down and they present you with however many cookbooks there are, when you look through those, what are you looking for? What is the criteria? How do you judge those? I feel like that would be a really hard job?
Dianne: I might get 30 or 40 books. The first thing I do is I make three piles. I make the probably not going to happen pile, and the interesting and possible pile, and then there is the front runner pile of big books that have done very well, that everybody knows about. I have to read all of them, because I have to see what the surprise. I love to be surprised. I love the dark horse and the up and comer.
It doesn’t always go that the people who have the biggest book are going to win. Biggest, I mean best known or biggest platform. I’ll look at the subject matter. They have to have something new to say. When I gave you the example of the scone book, what is new? A book on gluten-free scones that actually taste good would be news. Made with whole grains would be news. Savory scones might be news. There has to be something.
Bjork: It’s interesting because I would imagine the sweet spot is something that is new and noteworthy while also potentially tapping into a trend, which is difficult to do, because if it’s new and noteworthy, it’s probably at the beginning part of that trend. With that in mind, do you have recommendations for people in terms of how they can be aware of trends and cooking, how they can be attentive to those, and maybe how they can craft their proposal around something that could potentially be a trend? Would you recommend that people don’t go that way?
Dianne: It depends. Gluten-free, the publishers are always interested in that. It’s a huge market. If you’re not gluten-free, probably it’s not going to make sense a whole lot of sense for you to do this book and be known as the gluten-free scone queen. You have to find something that is right for you, and when this book comes out that you want to be known as the expert on whatever this is.
Yes, you should be aware of trends. Diet books are always going to be doing well, I mean the ones on losing weight sadly. The ones on special diets are always going to be doing well including fads. There are hipster fads, shrubs and certain types of food that hipsters are associated with right now.
Bjork: The hipster niche for sure.
Dianne: There is the clean eating. There’s 20 different definitions of what that is. What’s hard is coming in at the beginning of a trend, because by that time, you have to figure it out. It has to have a long tail, because by the time you write your proposal, get an agent if you want an agent. Get a book contract. The book goes into production. The book comes out. It could be a couple of years easily if you want it to be traditionally published.
Bjork: Something to be aware of. One of the questions that I had for you, I know that you’ve had a lot of exposure to multiple food writers. A lot of those people are operating at a really high level. Maybe they’re cookbook authors. Maybe they’re bloggers. Maybe they’re people that do freelance writing, but they do it really well.
I’m curious to know with those individuals that you would consider high caliber individuals, high caliber writers, what do you see as the commonalities with those people, the common traits that they might have and how they work, or where they work, or what they focus on? Is there anything that you can think of offhand that you can pull out and say, “This is something that I’ve noticed as pretty similar from individual to individual in terms of how they work?”
Dianne: I’d say that the people I have met who were at the top of their game are optimists, super inquisitive and curious people. They are interested in everything. They want to understand it. They are willing to do a deep dive into something that interests them or something they know they need to learn how to do. They really have boundless curiosity and enthusiasm.
They’re good researchers, very, very passionate about whatever it is that is keeping them going. Tireless workers really, I’m always amazed by the time that they put in. People wonder, “Oh, this person came out of nowhere.” Then whenever I look into it, I find out they never just came out of nowhere. They put in the time.
Bjork: That’s one of the most common things that we’ve seen with the people we’ve interviewed. Somebody said this before, but you work hard for 10 years, and then you’re an overnight success. I think that’s really true.
Maybe sometimes it’s because people will start one thing, and then that becomes really popular, but you look at their story, and they’ve been doing lots of stuff that have led up to it. Maybe somebody starts a blog, and it’s really successful after two or three years, but then if you look at their story, they’ve probably been working hard for five, 10, 15 years doing these things.
Dianne: My case is even longer. I became a news editor out of journalism school in 1976. You probably weren’t even born then.
Bjork: You pay your dues. Funny. We’re going to transition out of the cookbook conversation a little bit. This question here applies to both cookbooks and some of the stuff we’re going to talk about here in a little bit. I’m interested to talk about or I’m interested to hear you talk about recipe writing.
It’s a really specific type of writing. I’d be interested to hear just in general how do you that well. More specifically, I’d be interested to hear you talk about how do you know when a recipe is your own, and how do you know when you should attribute a recipe to somebody else?
Dianne: Good one. This is a really big subject for bloggers. Most bloggers are self-trained. They haven’t been to culinary school. They’re not chefs. I think their confidence level is not as high as culinary school graduates and chefs. They tend to start with a pre-existing recipe. That’s the easiest place to get into trouble, because you see a recipe. You like it. You try it, and you want to put on your blog, but it’s not your recipe.
How do you change it into your recipe? Some people believe in the I changed three things concept that has been floating around for years. I’m not a big fan of that, because people can take that to mean that they changed the smallest possible amount of things. They changed the amount of salt, or they deconstruct what pumpkin pie spice is.
A good blogger will have tons of ideas about how to change it, and will add cherries or cumin, or make it differently. That all takes time, which also is something that bloggers fight with because they just want to get the post up. They have to photograph it, and bla, bla, bla.
Bjork: When you say it takes time, are you saying it takes time to develop the concept of the recipe, or it takes to get to the place where you’re able to add in ingredients in a way that really makes it your own?
Dianne: You have to decide how much time you’re going to spend adjusting the recipe. I was looking at Smitten Kitchen. I’m using scones as an example, because she did a post on blueberry scones, but then she said that she got the idea because she read Molly from Orangette’s post on scones, but she changed it.
Molly did dates. She did blueberries, but then it turned out that Molly took the idea from a cookbook where they changed the one that uses whole grains and white flour, I think. These are iterations of iterations. In their cases, they came up with their own ideas. They rewrote the method. They had their own head note in terms of it is their blog.
Maybe they didn’t even start off talking about scones, but they ended up there. It is quite changed, but they also acknowledged where they got the idea from, and linked to it. Deb Perelman linked to Molly’s post on Orangette. Then Molly linked to a cookbook on Amazon. It’s funny this progression.
Bjork: It reminds me a lot of music, where everything is in some way built off of another thing. That’s not always the case, but a lot of times you can trace music back and say, “This artist was inspired, or even this song was inspired by this song which is inspired by this song.”
You see that a lot of with food and recipes as well, where it’s, “This recipe was inspired by this recipe which was inspired by this recipe.” The hard part is knowing as a blogger. We hear this from people all the time. At what point is it your own?
Dianne: It’s never your own. It’s never yours. What is the definition of yours? You can’t copyright a recipe, and you’ve taken the idea from someone else. How is it yours? It’s a very difficult thing. I think the people who can claim that it’s theirs are doing something new. Alice Medrich just won a James Beard Award for her latest cookbook. She is experimenting with flours.
She’s putting tuff in chocolate cake. I don’t know that anybody is doing that. She will make a grid, and she might make that chocolate cake 25 times. She’s like a mathematician in her approach. She’ll make a grid. For this recipe, she used this amount. Then she tried it again, and she changed it to more. Then she added this. She is relentless, obsessive person.
I don’t think bloggers are really interested in that. They don’t have time. They’re not developing recipes the same way that she is. I’d give more credence to somebody like that saying it was hers than you want to make a pudding with chia seeds and coconut and lime, and you think it’s a really fabulous idea. Then you Google that, and you find out that there are already 25 recipes just like that on other blogs.
You’re like, “I thought of this. How could they possibly be appearing there?” Chia seed pudding is everywhere for one thing. It’s in your consciousness. Lime has been pretty hot the last couple of years as a flavoring. It’s an acid. It’s used in lots of different cuisines. Coconut has been really hot lately. These things are floating around in your subconscious, so how can you say that it’s your recipe?
Bjork: Would your recommendation in those situations be more specific to give credit where credits due in the form of a link to somebody else that’s something doing similar, and or maybe it’s both? Is it a general principle or understanding that nothing is yours? You don’t technically own it as yours. It’s always going to be inspired by other people.
Maybe it’s hard to say, but what I’m trying to get at and I’m interested to hear your opinion on is the credit in a blog post. For those that are listening, how do they go about doing that if they want to make sure that they’re giving credit to the reality that we’re all building off of other people?
Dianne: I think Molly and Deb did a great job, where Molly said she picked up this cookbook. It wasn’t new. She started paging through it. She decided to make the scones. Here is how she changed it up. It was an organic process. Then Deb said she read Molly’s post, and she decided that she wanted to make these scones too, but she was going to make them with blueberries instead of dates.
Molly had said that she had made them with three times more dates than what the recipe called for, so don’t do that. She had adjusted the recipe. I think they do it in a very natural way. Since bloggers are likely to start with one recipe, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I read this, and here is what I did to the recipe.” Then it’s clear that you altered it, You changed it, and you tried to make it into your own thing while you’re giving credit to the original source.
Bjork: That’s great. I want to be clear, and not pretending like I have any idea in recipe development or any of that stuff, because it’s way outside of my expertise. I know that the people that listen to this that that’s their world, and that’s what they do. I want to dig deep into that. The one thing I can say is as people, we appreciate when other people honor other individuals, and whether that be somebody that wins an award at a movie ceremony, and they say, “I would like to thank this person who inspired me.”
I don’t think that damages the credibility of that person at all. Sometimes, we can be worried about, “If people know that I was inspired by this thing, does that take away from my abilities or people’s perception of me?” I don’t think it does.
Dianne: I don’t think it does at least. I thought it was great that Deb said she was reading Molly’s blog. Molly probably got a little bump. Then the person who published the cookbook originally, I bet she got a little bump from Molly and then another one from Deb. Everybody wins in that situation. They are secure enough in themselves that they didn’t feel diminished by admitting.
That’s not really even admitting. It’s like they’re curious people. They’re looking around the world. They see something that they think is really fun, and they want to share it, but they have their own ideas about how it should be made. It comes across in a very organic way.
Bjork: The takeaway, I’m going to try and paraphrase. Let me now if I’m off in this. When possible when you can, if you’ve been inspired by somebody, do your best to give credit to that person, to acknowledge that. It would probably be in the form of a link back if we’re talking about people that are blogging.
Dianne: Yes, correct.
Bjork: I want to say vamp on the writing stuff a little bit longer, because it will be really helpful for people, and obviously, that’s what you do. It makes sense. One question that we often hear from people, and one thing that I don’t have a good answer for is the question of how do I find my voice.
Can you talked a little bit about what voice means first of all for those that aren’t really familiar with that term, and what you’d recommend for writers that are trying to find their authentic voice?
Dianne: What voice means is that when you read a pioneer woman post, you’re not going to confuse her with a post by Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes. You’re not going to confused pioneer woman with Heidi Swanson, right? You know that they have a different voice. What is that voice? Well, a pioneer woman is she’s self-deprecating. She cracks herself up. She writes about her kids.
She writes about church or the ranch. She doesn’t seem to take herself too seriously. She writes to you like you’re her sister or her friend. She’s confessional. Then you might read 101 Cookbooks, Heidi Swanson, and she has a completely different voice. She’s more worldly, and not as … Maybe her view is wider.
She doesn’t write about her family. She keeps that private. She might write about fashion or something that’s influenced her, or a trip she’s been on. Her food is different. You know what you’re going to get on Heidi’s blog versus what you’re going to get on pioneer woman’s blog. They have fashioned their persona to be a certain person. You know who it is instinctively. You know what you’re going to get.
Bjork: You said fashion. That’s actually the analogy that I was thinking of, where I can imagine it being like almost the clothes that you wear. I have a terrible sense of fashion. Lindsay has to struggle through this. I think she’s given up a little bit. Every once and a whole, for my own good, she tries to move me in the right direction.
Dianne: Bjork, you have a distinctive voice. No one confuses what you say with what Lindsay says.
Bjork: Right. I was speaking literally in terms of fashion. You talked about Ri. People can envision and that has the look and the feel. That’s similar to the fashion world, where you know if somebody has a certain style, a certain fashion, you’re going to expect the same things. You’re going to see the same things from them.
That takes a while to develop that whether it be fashion with clothes or fashion with the voice. I’m curious to know how do people get there. They have these examples of people that they have a really strong voice. They understand it, but how do you get to the point where you have that voice, where you have that ability to put yourself into words, and for people to know that that is you?
Dianne: You have to understand who you are. I know when I write a blog post what people are looking for from me. They’re looking for someone who they can trust, who is authoritative, who is friendly and approachable but has opinions. Sometimes, I’m funny. Sometimes, I’m controversial. I know that when people are coming to read a blog post that they’re hoping to get something, some useful information, so I try to be practical.
I am a pretty good sense of who I’m supposed to be, and I do my best to be that person. With new bloggers, I think they’re still trying to figure out who they are. You can decide who you are. You can decide that you’re hilarious. Then you have an obligation to be funny in all your blog posts, because that’s who you have decided you are. You can decide you’re sarcastic. You can make any decision you want about who you are. You can try it. At some point, you will have to become that person, and be consistent.
Bjork: That’s so interesting and so wise, and that you have to be consistent. Sometimes, we don’t feel like being the person that we are online, or that we represent. The reality is there is this fine line between being who you are, being authentic, and also not being a total roller coaster where people never know what they’re going to get.
One day, you’re crappy. One day you’re funny. One day, you hate the world. Another day, you love the world. If that happens, people will not know what to expect, and therefore won’t be as excited to consume your content. That’s wise.
Dianne: If you’re going to be crappy, and that’s your persona, and you could pull it off, because you’re funny while you’re being crappy. I think people might like that. As you say, you can’t be on this roller coaster where you’re a different person. A lot of people don’t even feel that they can be on the roller coaster.
They want to ride the most boring and generic copy possible like, “Here is a recipe for tortilla soup. Add a loaf of crusty bread and a salad, and your entire family will enjoy this meal.” It’s where people don’t even feel that they have the right to express their own thoughts about this meal. They feel like they have to write something generic that’s been published in bad magazines. Do you know what I mean?
Bjork: Absolutely. We talk about it sometimes, and the idea that you have to be 150 or 200% of yourself, where it probably isn’t in a lot of ways how you would normally talk with somebody, but you have to really focus that voice, and not be loud with it. I think that being loud would be a voice in and of itself if you’re a loud personality, but to be intentional about it and to amplify whoever it is that you are and that you’re trying to be as opposed to as the example you gave, depthening that a little bit. That’s great.
We’re coming towards the end here. There is one question that I wanted to ask that I think will be really helpful for our listeners. That is the idea of actually getting the writing done. We talked about it in terms of writers block, which is the generic term. One of my favorite books is “The War of Art.” He talks about it as the resistance. Do you have any recommendations for people that are struggling to sit down and write?
Dianne: Yes. It is a struggle. What I find is that I sit down anyway, and I start enjoying myself. The worst part is getting into the chair. Sometimes, I have to procrastinate. I’m not one of those people who gets to the desk, and writes first thing in the morning. I have to read all my emails. I have to see what my clients have sent me, and how soon they want it back, and whether they want to talk to me and what’s going on in social media, and whether anyone retweeted anything that I said or whatever.
I have to go through all that first. That’s my source of procrastination. Some people vacuum. This is what I do. Then I feel like I can settle down, and I can write. Everybody has a routine. Some people are really good at just coming to the computer, and not answering any email or looking at anything else. They just start.
You have to figure out what works for you, but if you can’t even get into the chair, I think a lot of the time what is going on is the internal critique as it’s called has taken over, and is not helping you in any way. The internal critique is giving you negative messages.
Why should you bother? You’re going to do a terrible job. Nobody wants to read your writing. Your writing stinks. This is not interesting. You’ve got something more important to do than this. Shouldn’t you be doing X? No one’s going to read it.
There’s a million things that the internal critique says. That is really your job of managing the critique. The critique is never going to go away. The critique can be very useful when it’s time for you to edit your work if you can direct the critique. That’s probably what’s going on if you can’t get into the chair.
Bjork: That’s great. The point that you made about the reality that it never goes away is so important. The other piece that we’re trying to hit home a lot with this podcast is that it’s universal. Everybody from the most successful author to the person that’s just getting started has to deal with this. If nothing else, you know that you are in a good company if you are feeling that and experiencing that, because it’s universal.
Don’t let that overcome you. Push through that, and push through that critique. Push through the resistance as they say in the book “The War of Art,” which is a great book. If you haven’t checked it out, I’d encourage the listeners to check that out. That’s great and really good advice.
Before we wrap up, the last thing that I want to do Dianne is check in on this. Where can people find you? I know that you have a wealth of knowledge. We couldn’t go five hours today, which I would have loved to.
Dianne: Let’s do it again then.
Bjork: I would love to. In the in-between, where can people find you and follow along with your work, and potentially work with you if they’re interested in doing that?
Dianne: There’s my book “Will Write for Food,” which is very inexpensive. I’m proud of that, because people can afford it, which is great. There is my blog “Will Write for Food,” which is at diannej.com, diannej.com/b, or just click on blog on the right-hand side. I’m on Twitter. I’m on Facebook. Those are my two favorites. I do the rest, but since I’m not a food blogger, I’m not very good at Pinterest. I’m still trying to figure out Instagram. There’s only so many hours within the day, right?
Bjork: There is.
Dianne: You can find me anywhere. I answer my emails. If you have a question after this podcast, you can write to me. I do try to answer people.
Bjork: We’ll put all those links into the show notes of this podcast as well. One thing that we’re going to be doing that we do whenever somebody has a book that we’d like to give away, for anybody that’s listening, if you have something that you took away from this podcast interview, something that inspired you, something that you learned, I want you to go and leave a comment on the blog.
At the end of this episode, I’ll tell you where you can do that. Then we’re going to give away five copies of Dianne’s book. I’ll say this. If you’re thinking about buying it, buy it first. Then you can come back, and if you win, then we will refund you or give you beanie baby or something like that just to say thank you for purchasing that.
Go ahead and do that if you took something away from that. I’ll wrap up after this episode, and tell people where that is. I want to say while you’re still here Dianne, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I really, really enjoyed talking to you. I think that there will be a lot of stuff that people get out of this. Thanks for coming on.
Dianne: Thank you so much Bjork. I really enjoyed it. I’m a big fan of yours.
Bjork: Thanks, we really appreciate it. Hey, that’s a wrap for this episode. Again, thank you so much Dianne for coming on and sharing all your knowledge and expertise. I want to say this one more quick reminder for those of you that want to be entered in to the giveaway for the books Will Write for Food. We’re giving away five copies of those. You can go to foodbloggerpro.com/episode15.
That will redirect you to this blog post where we’ll have all the resource links, but we’ll also have comments down below. If you leave a comment, we’ll pick out five of those, and send you a copy of Will Write for Food, Dianne’s book. Do you have any ideas for people that would be good for interviews for this podcast? If you do, you can send an email to [email protected]
We are looking to start up. We’re viewing it as season, so we’re looking to start up as season number two here in building up a cue of different interviews that we can do with different food bloggers or people that do food-related stuff online. Again, that’s [email protected] Last, we’d really appreciate it if you have the time, you can find the iTunes and leave a rating for the podcast.
That helps to add coal into our train as we keep moving along with this podcast. It will help us pick up speed. It will be an encouragement to us to continue to do what we do. Thanks for checking out this episode. Thanks for subscribing to the podcast. We really appreciate you. I’m looking forward to talking to you next week, same time, same place. Until then, make it a great week. Thanks guys.