The question people always want to ask: how do you make a living?

I realize that I am fortunate to be doing the job I do. It’s hugely interesting and fun. But there’s one question that people I meet always want to ask me: how is it that you earn a living?

First, let me say that it is a living. I don’t have a private income (that would make life a lot easier). I didn’t make a fortune in my 15 years as a science editor that can subsidize me now. My significant other doesn’t have a high-paying job (indeed, when I started out wine writing we had young children and mine was the only income). And we live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Beyond that, I won’t say what I earn, other than it is just enough.

Second, the glory days of wine writing are long gone. Back in the day, specialist writers on newspapers were paid a proper salary. So a column with a national newspaper might have paid, say, £40k. Add on to that regular magazine work, and payment for gigs, plus the odd book here and there, and you have a tidy salary coming in.

In the internet age, newspapers simply can’t afford to pay this much for specialist wine columns. So many have disappeared, or writers are doing them for much less money. Also, the rate for magazine work hasn’t changed since I was first commissioned in 2002. Then, the pay was £200-£250 per thousand words. It’s still the same, and with few commissions over 2000 words, you’d have to write a lot of articles to make a living this way.

So, my income comes from several streams. I have a weekly Sunday Express column. I write articles for a range of magazines, which is something I’d like to do more of. The frustrating thing is that there are hardly any publications who can afford to commission you, pay for your travel/research, and then give you a decent enough rate that you can justify the time it takes to write a really serious article. And then I make money on advertising on this site, something that’s only possible because it’s been around a long time and gets a lot of traffic.

So that’s he writing bit. In addition I get paid to judge wine on a regular basis. Decent wine competitions pay their tasters because they know that without experienced, able judges the results will be simply noise. And I get paid to give talks and lectures, lead seminars and run tastings. This is a particularly fun part of the job, because it involves connecting with people, and it is of the moment.

Then there are books. These pay less well than you might think, even if you sell quite a few copies. I still use mainstream publishers because they add credibility to book projects, even though there’s money to be made from self publishing. But it’s worth doing books because they bring reputation, which then brings more work.

Finally, the C word. I do day rate consulting to companies who think I have expertise that they can tap into. The challenge with this is to avoid compromising yourself with conflicts of interest, and you have to consider what the expectations of the client are, and whether they are ever going to be someone you might cover journalistically.

So, if you are considering making wine writing your full time gig, it’s worth going in with your eyes open. You’ll likely need several income streams, which hopefully will add up to an income. The days of the professional wine writer are numbered, but if you are able to add elements other than just pure writing to your work, then it’s possible to make a living from it. But not easy. My one bit of advice though: don’t put yourself in a position where you are desperate for money. People scrabbling around for cash end up taking bad gigs and making poor choices, which then has an impact on their future career development.

5 comments to The question people always want to ask: how do you make a living?

  • Jamie, came across your great site, one which I have seen before in passing, but today read and enjoyed for the first time. I would like to congratulate you on your honest approach to wine and your excellently written articles since 2001! I will continue enjoying and seeking references to articles about aroma and taste, one of my growing interests. With better information we can all become more accomplished consumers and show more respect to the world’s best producers. WillH

  • A nice frank answer to a question that often hangs in the air over wine writers. I could answer similarly, with a few key differences. I don’t have a newspaper column nowadays, but le Grand Noir, the wine of which I am a third owner, is gradually growing into quite a nice brand, and I am pleased to be involved with Meininger’s Wine Business Intl and the Mundus Vini competition.

    To my mind, one of the biggest challenges confronting would-be wine writers lies in avoiding becoming a PR for a region. I’ve supplied consultancy services to the generic bodies for Australia, Brazil and Georgia in recent times, for example, but these efforts have involved strategic advice rather than active promotion on my part. Some might reasonably claim that it’s a fine distinction, but I think it is supportable – like the tradition of wine writers being paid to host tastings of wines about which they are happy to talk.

    Where the water gets murky is when writers who are on a regional or national generic payroll use their writing skills to promote that region in ways that readers might suppose to be impartial.

  • Luis Antunes

    Great to see such a straight answer to a difficult question. Myself, I go about some of the same tracks that you do. I have had a regular column in a news paper, which I don’t anymore. I have regular sections in Revista de Vinhos, and occasional jobs for other magazines, Portuguese and international. I also do courses and regional tastings. But I have to say that another option one can consider is just not to give up his day job. This is what I’ve done, and it can allow you sufficient slack that you don’t have to embrace the dangerous path of the #awesome industry (something I sometimes call the #ausone industry).

  • keith prothero

    Agree with Robert re writers who concentrate on a region. I could think of a couple,who concentrate on Portugal, for example. Do these writers think we are idiots and that we think their opinions are totally impartial and objective ?
    Suppose you have not considered an option to donate to your site as per Cellar Tracker and Wine-Pages ? I for one,would be happy to make an annual donation,as I am sure others would.

  • Yep, that’s about how it goes. Thanks for writing this Jamie. I’m a little shocked at the rate for 1000 words in a magazine over there across the pond, though it does put some offers I’ve received from UK publications in perspective. Seems like UK publications just pay much less than US outlets.

    The lure of doing marketing and PR writing for wineries is a pretty big lure for a lot of writers here in the U.S. I get approached to do that every so often, but feel it’s important to avoid going down that road. Several writers, though, have decided to make the plunge (Alan Goldfarb and Steve Heimoff being two prominent examples), and while they can hardly be blamed for doing what they need to in order to feed their families, it’s also hard not to feel like they’ve crossed a line that cannot be uncrossed. Their ties to the industry mean they can’t be objective critics anymore.

    The problem is, being an objective critic doesn’t pay (much).

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