I write for a living; I am a writer by occupation. Not a travel writer, specifically, I’m “just” a writer. I sit at a keyboard, put words in a certain order to describe things, and then, I get paid. On technical projects, where I make most of my money, I’m paid by the hour. Rather well, I must say, and no, I’m not going to publish my rate here, please don’t ask. I do a little bit of copy editing, I’m paid hourly for that, too. Someone sends me a bunch of sentences, I move the words around and try to make them better. I’m pretty good at it, though I’m a lousy proof-reader, meaning it’s best you find someone else to scrub your documents for typos and grammar nits. When I have regular clients, I make a decent living, enough to pay for a mortgage and groceries and overpriced health insurance and the day to day stuff that a life lived mostly in one place is made of.
I also do some travel writing. Just over there sits a check for a short piece I wrote last month; and oh, I’m overdue on invoicing that site I write for regularly, and I have a magazine assignment related to a trip I’m doing this summer. That work pays poorly; my best gig right now pays 25c/word with no additional compensation for photos. I would be unable to pay my bills were I to pursue that line of work full time. I do it on the side because I enjoy it.
Sometimes, like over this last month, I need to focus on the bill-paying work, and the work that I enjoy suffers. I can’t do both things well at the same time, so I choose, in a tactical move, to focus on doing the work that pays well. I negotiate for understanding with my other markets. The best editors understand they’re not paying me well enough to demand my full attention. Those who can’t offer me that kind of flexibility find someone else — in my cynical moments I figure they’ve found someone who doesn’t need to be paid well for their time.
I spend a few hours every week reading blogs written by travelers. I enjoy it, I enjoy finding new writers, I love seeing where people are going and what they’re saying about it. My favorite bloggers are typically expats who really dig into writing about their location, but sometimes, I’ll find travelers who can keep my interest during their travels. Those travelers are most often people who are striving to become better writers, who are not just documenting their adventures. They head out into the world, carving out their identities as writers, the travel is sometimes secondary to the writing. Forgive the hairsplitting, but they seem to be traveling writers, rather than claiming they’re travel writers. There is a difference and if you spend any time reading, you’ll see it.
Recently, I read a piece by a blogger who had done the thing so many hope will launch them — quit the day job, gone traveling, started a blog, jumped on the well worn path of pursing the career of Travel Writer. This blogger was feeling a bit frustrated, like it was not coming to fruition, like there were no good answers, like Things Were Not Coming Together. The blogger in question is a decent writer, I’ve been following along for a while and been consistently engaged. And I really felt for this person, too. “Oh, honey,” I thought. “Don’t quit your day job.”
There’s a lot of flowery rhetoric out there about how to make money as a travel writer/travel blogger. I call bullshit on most of it. It sits on top of a layer of crappy writing or affiliate sales programs or specious get rich quick e-Books. You can pay for membership in echo-chamber forums where you’ll receive the same information you can get for free by doing a few targeted Google searches. You can engage in skeevy ad schemes (“Just publish it under a guest poster’s name, no one will know it’s you!” — Actual Ad Pitch) or you can sign away your rights to networks that promise you traffic bonuses and visibility. You can devote your energy to writing copy that Google loves or you can bait controversy for the traffic gains. If you’re really willing to slog, you can apply to write a guidebook and sign away several months of your life to “seeing everything, experiencing nothing” — as a friend at Lonely Planet put it. You can follow that up with months of tedious documentation, and then, oh, don’t calculate your hourly rate, that way lies madness.
Next month is the Travelblog Exchange (TBEX), a conference for travel bloggers. I had dearly wanted there to be some kind of reality check discussion, not because I want to depress hopeful writers, but because I wanted to blow away some of that fiction around what it really means to be a travel writer by profession. X1, who writes for a prestigious publication and travels a lot has told me, “Yeah, it’s great. I love the work. But I’m poor. I live in a tiny apartment.” X2 admitted to winning big in the technology lottery and living off those funds. X3 has a full time day job and a spouse with a full time day job. X4 admits to churning out fluffy, uninteresting stories for custom publication markets.
The folks I know who are full time freelance travel writers are in a continuous cycle of pitch, write, edit, research, travel, repeat. It’s a lot of work, and it’s not clear to me that money is that good. I know a few staffers, too, and you know what? They’re just like your friends with day jobs. They have meetings and process and office politics and frustrations. Sure, they get to go some places, but so does the outside sales guy, and he doesn’t have to see his story eviscerated before it goes to press.
What I wanted at TBEX was a session that presented the reality of writing as a profession, not as a quixotic pursuit or a weekend hobby or gap year boondoggle. Admittedly, I wanted this for myself as much as anything. Because I struggle with what I do (what is that, anyways?) all the time. I wanted to hear people who I think of as grown up, professional travel writers speak honestly about how they juggle all this stuff, how they manage to make it work. I’m always grateful for time with writers who will share, honestly, how they get by — a recent conversation revealed a writer’s need to sell multiple stories about one destination with every trip in order to make the travel pay off. “I can’t go just because I want to. I need to sell that story five times over to have it be worth my while.”
[Note added Sun, 5:21pm: Kim Mance, the mistress of TBEX, states in the comments below that these topics are, indeed part of the TBEX agenda. Just in case you don't see her response in all the conversation that follows.]
There are those who have made the jump to an itinerant lifestyle, bugging out to places where the low pay is enough, effectively outsourcing this work to places where 30 dollars goes much further than it does in my chosen home. That’s not something I’m willing to do. And keep in mind some basic math — even were I to make 1000/month blogging, I could not live on my annual income. There are also some who manage to generate a decent income, but they have a highly targeted market, they have a sophisticated understanding of what the web likes, they are backing up all their words with the sale of a product or service that people want to buy. Having none of those things, I don’t expect to live off the first person scribblings of this blog.
I have only my skill as a writer, such as it is, and it would be naive of me to believe that is enough. No, I also need a deep understanding of the market for the kind of writing I want to sell, the ability to package myself and my work as desirable, and the time to do exactly that. Ironically, it’s my understanding of what it takes to be a full time travel writer that keeps me from pursuing it full time.