This interview is part of Freelance Wisdom's Mama Month - a month long celebration of freelancing moms.
Erin Gleeson is the author of New York Times bestseller The Forest Feast and new book The Forest Feast for Kids. She is a Bay Area-based artist specializing in food-related photography and illustration. Her primary clients include magazines, newspapers, cookbooks, and restaurants. She has an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York and teaches photography in Continuation Studies at Stanford University.
Hello Erin, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions! Can you tell us a little bit about your path to becoming a freelance photographer, illustrator, and author.
I have been a freelancer since the beginning. I was an art major in college and knew I wanted to go into photography so I moved to New York City right after I graduated to be in the middle of it all. I had no money and a lot of roommates and I loved it! After interning at a magazine, assisting several photographers, and doing lots of odd jobs to make ends meet as an unpaid or underpaid intern/assistant, I decided to go to grad school so that I could teach photography in addition to being a freelancer. I got an MFA in photography at SVA in NYC and then taught photography as an adjunct for 4 years at FIT in New York while freelancing as a food photographer, before moving to California for my then fiance's (now husband's) new job in 2011.
Up until this point I was taking freelance photo jobs I didn't love to get by and a bit disheartened by my often unstable freelance career. There were so many times I thought I should stop and get a more dependable job in an office, but I was always so hopeful that the right kind of art-related freelance work would come, so I stuck to it. When we moved cross-country, I had to start all over to create a new freelance clientele for my food photography business, which was scary. It was, however, a really pivotal time for me because I suddenly had breathing space from my fast-paced city life and a few months "break" while unpacking and settling to think about what direction I wanted to take.
"There were so many times I thought I should stop and get a more dependable job in an office, but I was always so hopeful that the right kind of art-related freelance work would come, so I stuck to it."
This quiet time in the woods allowed me to be free and creative in a way I hadn't been in a long time and from that I came up with my idea for The Forest Feast. It began as a personal food blog project and was a different aesthetic for me, as I started incorporating my watercolor illustrations and hand lettering into the photography, which I had never done before. I think this aesthetic was somewhat unique in the food blog space at that time, and people began to notice. About 6 months in, a literary agent saw my blog online and reached out to see if she could help me turn it into a book. I remember feeling like I wasn't ready and that this was something I hoped to do in the future (not yet!!!), but my agent reassured me, I dove in and the book came out in 2014.
It became a NYT Bestseller the year it came out which blew me away. This book has really opened a lot of doors for me and I am so grateful. Plus, it was a total dream project to work on for a year. My second book, The Forest Feast for Kids, came out earlier this year and is an adaptation for children of the first book. My third book, The Forest Feast Gatherings, is my biggest project to date and is a book full of menus for entertaining. It comes out this September (2016). In the past year I've also had a line of stationery and gift items come out, all featuring watercolors and photography from my books, and I am working on other food-related Forest Feast product collaborations. I still teach photography, currently at Stanford in Continuing Studies; I like the combination of freelancing and teaching.
You are a mom to your adorable son Ezra. How has becoming a mom changed how you work and/or the types of projects you take one?
I am working about 3 days a week now, so I have to be pickier about the jobs I take on. When I was starting out in New York, I took any job that came my way, and ended up shooting a lot of events, which I don't love to do. In the past couple years I have been able to phase out that type of work and focus on Forest Feast related work, which feels like a huge luxury. The blog has really opened up a lot of opportunities for me to work and shoot from home which is great as a parent. I partner with brands for posts on my blog and am able to do it all from my little studio at home.
Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
Deadlines! I work my best under deadlines so if I am not given one by a client, I try to give them to myself. I'm also an avid list-maker. A couple things that help me save time are Gmail's Boomerang for scheduling emails (so that things can go out first thing in the morning, even if you're writing late at night),Latergramme (to schedule Instagram posts), and Google Shopping Express /Instacart (grocery delivery!!). When Ezra was really small and I carried him all the time, I used my iPhone and Mac's dictation feature for sending emails, which was faster than making time to sit down and type with 2 hands.
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancing mom so far?
The work ebbs and flows. Some weeks are simple and 3 days of work feels like plenty, but some weeks are jam packed and I have to go up to my studio after Ezra goes to bed at night. I don't really have a 9-5, and since I work from home, the lines get blurred between work and life. In the beginning we had a nanny who came to our house part-time, but I quickly realized it was too distracting for me, and hard for him to see me pop in and out constantly. Daycare has been much better for everyone.
Do you have any advice for creative women hoping to attract a book deal?
I highly recommend working with a literary agent. They do take a percentage but I am convinced that mine paid for herself many times over by negotiating on my behalf. An agent can open your options up exponentially and introduce you to many more editors/publishers than you might be able to find on your own. Plus, my agent continues to bring in new opportunities for me beyond the book and is a constant support in all I do to grow my brand. If you're looking for an agent, look in the acknowledgements of books you like– authors usually thanks theirs.
What is your favorite thing about being self-employed?
Being able to travel whenever I want!
How do you continue to attract your ideal clients and collaborations?
I think the more good content you put out into the world, the more people will keep you in mind and reach out. I get a lot of emails daily from PR companies hoping to partner with my blog and most of them don't fit. But once in a while there is one that does. Luckily I haven't had to do a lot of reaching out lately, but I used to send regular emails to clients I wanted to work with to keep them thinking about me.
"I think the more good content you put out into the world, the more people will keep you in mind and reach out."
As you know well, freelancers are just as much small business owners as we are creatives. What are your tips for managing the nitty-gritty components of your business?
As a freelancer I think it's ideal if you can be open with other freelancers in your field to know what everyone is charging and how they are negotiating contracts. I am part of a group online that is very open about this, and we share business ideas, which is so helpful. Make sure you're not undercharging! There are also digital agencies popping up to partner influencers (bloggers, etc) with brands, which I am considering doing since my head is more on the art side than the business side. (Sometimes I think I should have gotten an MBA in addition to an MFA!). I'd love to have an agency handle the negotiation and paperwork side of working with clients so I can focus on the art.
As a busy mom and business owner, what is your best advice for finding a work-life balance?
After years of having my photo equipment under my bed in the city, I now have a little studio space (converted garage). Having a separate space has really helped me. Even if it's just a corner of a room or a walk-in closet, having a place to go that's separate can be key! Having a baby has also helped me work more regular hours. He eats dinner at 6 and goes to bed at 7:30, so I know I have to fit my work in before that (and hopefully not after). I used to be a real night-owl, so becoming a mom has given my days a better structure. No matter what, he's up at 7, so I can't pull an all-nighter.
Fill in the blank: The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Passion, business sense, and perseverance.