The Value of Free

September 2, 2010

During the 2010 International Food Blogger Conference Amy Sherman of Cooking with Amy displayed a slide in her presentation on "The Art of Recipe Writing," where she declared to food bloggers: "DO NOT GIVE YOUR RECIPES AWAY FOR FREE." While I respect Amy greatly, I disagree. I saw the slide before the talk and welcomed the debate, but have been surprised by how strong and long-lasting it has been. Some of the best debate has happened on the blog of Dianne Jacobs, who was also on the panel.

Disclosure: I have a very strong feelings about this subject and a clear self-interest in my point of view. I am building a business,, based on the generosity of people giving their time, knowledge, and in some cases creative works. Still, there is a lot of power in giving and I fear many took away a message from the conference that will deprive them. So, I'm offering the following thoughts...

What is Free?

One problem with much of the conversation has been that it's been based on the notion that free = I give rights without receiving cash. In truth, people who give rights or licenses to their works often receive significant financial benefits in return. Similarly, it's not altruism that drives the multi-billion dollar coupon/product sample industry and Justin Bieber will tell you that posting his videos on Youtube for "free" has worked out pretty well financially. Here are some benefits that food bloggers may get from giving away blog posts:

  • More people to read your work and give you feedback
  • Build your brand/resume/portfolio
  • Have professional editors help improve your work
  • Connect with potential clients/publishers for related services/work
  • Receive a public stamp of approval from respected authorities

We recently announced the winners of "The Foodista Best of Food Blogs Cookbook," a competition where over 1,500 people submitted blog posts in the hopes of getting published in a printed book, but for no pay (they do get a book). For many, the above benefits are a great value exchange in return for a blog post. Similarly, if you use (Terms), (Terms), (Terms) and other blog platforms, you give them rights to your posts, including the right to sell advertising on your blog, in return for the service of hosting.

But What About Love?

Several attendees said they only blog because they love it, which I applaud. Others went so far as to be offended at the notion people would blog for money or care about traffic. However, I have a hard time reconciling that feeling with the paid advertising and popularity badges I found on their blogs.

Still, I agree that there can be great personal benefit to creating and giving away work for no money or promise of money, including:

  • Personal satisfaction of having your work seen
  • Social status
  • Advancement of your values/beliefs in society
  • Sending traffic to friends' blogs
  • Promotion of products and services you like and support

Of course, I also don't see a conflict in doing something both for money AND love!

What About Society?

Some went so far as to say that it's wrong to give away recipes because it hurts other people and that's it's wrong for companies to republish content they didn't pay cash for.  Again, I disagree and would use the free software movement as a comparison. Twenty-five years ago there was very little free software in use, today we are ALL using free software on the Web. Some of that software was created by companies in the pursuit of money, but much of it was written by individual programmers who contribute to projects for the simple love of doing the work...often anonymously! Without their efforts, we would all be much poorer (if this is making you feel guilty, you might want to consider donating to the Apache Foundation).

My big takeaway from this conversation is that there are many motivations for blogging about food and that they are all valid. Finally, I am thrilled that this conversation is happening! We are collectively exploring new territory and leading the way for future generations of food writers, bloggers, journalists, photographers, editors and READERS!



Jason Phelps's picture

Awesome post. I come from an IT background so this debate seems so weird to me, since we already dealt with this in our industry. Now as a food blogger, and a reader of Free by Chris Anderson, I am giving content away specifically to build a brand that MAY one day get paid in one way or another for something we do.

Good enough for me.


Sean Sullivan's picture

Advice with absolutes like NEVER should really be limited to things like blow-drying your hair in the bathtub or asking a child to pluck french fries bubbling in oil by hand.

Cheryl's picture

Wondering if your book will be free -- you know, to help advance the Foodista brand.

If not, why not?

Amy's picture

The one thing you left out was the context of the comment. That slide came directly after a slide that said "Going pro: Developing recipes beyond your blog." I have no issue with amateurs giving away content and participating in community or even contributing to a cookbook like yours. But bloggers often straddle the line between amateur and professional. If they want to be professionals, they cannot give their content away. It would be like you Barnaby, working at your job for no pay. Note: the slide show is up on the conference web site for anyone who would like to see it.

Barnaby Dorfman's picture

Amy, good point on the slide, sorry about that. But that's also part of my point, many people are repeating that line without any additional context. I hoped to add some more.

Chef Gwen's picture

Good conversation. By the way, I just picked up a free recipe at Cooking with Amy... but I guess that's not the same thing as giving it away for free...or is it?

Perhaps Amy meant "don't give away recipes" without some value exchange... which is what you are saying in this post.

Or maybe she meant "don't give away recipes for free" to people who could and should pay something (i.e., corporations, websites that will make money off said "free recipes/content" etc.)

Maybe it's just a case of semantics...or a free market society.

I don't know, I wasn't at the conference, but I did see the lively chatter on Twitter, and felt like someone should present the other side, and Foodista just did.

Mil Apostol's picture

There are many points for and against; it is hard to make a fast and hard rule here. The way I look at it, there are so many sites giving away recipes for free; I consulted some of them when I was cooking in a restaurant and writing menus. True, you don't know which ones are worth making, but neither do you know with published cookbooks.

Very interesting debate. I'm interested in hearing more.

A Tuscan Foodie in America's picture

If you have a blog, giving away things for "free" is a given. If you have a food recipe blog, you will give recipes for free, no question about that. In the hope, one day, of being paid for doing what you love.

A different thing though is when a magazine or a newspaper tells you they are ready to publish a long article of yours on which you have worked hours, but that they will do it "FOR FREE". Well, then, thanks but no thanks.

Karen's picture

If I knit sweaters because I love to knit and then give them away because ....well, how many can I wear at one time? If I concoct recipes because I love to, and give some away because I've already made the dish and am on to something new, well??? What if I knit sweaters or developed recipes as a profession --- would I even think of giving them away? I doubt it unless there were a specific reason for giving away a given number of them. It seems that it is the line drawn between the professional bloggers/recipe developers and those who are hobbyists/dreamers/creatives that is the sticking point here. The louder voice of dissent against giving some away seems to be that of the professional. Others seem not to have made up their minds which they are. And then there are the rest who are happy as the proverbial clam just giving things away because they are creating out of love and the pursuit of happiness.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it!

Eric's picture

@Amy: Theres a book called "Free" by Chris Anderson which is gaining popularity in the tech world (where I live when not doing my blog) and its something that every blogger, photographer and writer should read. There is a basic problem with the concept of "pay to view" content models of the 20th century: the internet. The music industry in the US is sticking to this model hard and fast and it is failing them miserably. Any product that exists (or could exist) digitally is going to hit the internet, and be distributed for free. The real question that needs to be addressed is not "how do you stop that?" but rather "how do you monetize that?"