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Messy Thoughts on Book Passage 2013

I was a bit flustered when, on the last day of class this year’s Book Passage writer’s conference, one of the participants asked where they could get work published. See, I lost three of my regular markets this year.

Oh, WAIT! Heads up! This is chock full of insider-y that could bore or annoy you. If you’re in that camp, get outta here and go read On the Rails in Phnom Penh, a nothing short of remarkable bit of writing by Lauren Quinn about expat life in Cambodia. Moving on… I lost three of my regular markets this year.

Conde Nast Traveler Online had, by default, put me in a position where I had to pay for my travels in order to produce work for them — and they were not paying me well enough to make that a viable choice. Gadling had implemented a “no press trips” policy and then, thanks to a big reorg, my post there was essentially eliminated. Lonely Planet was sold and had massive layoffs; my regular editor had jumped ship just before the layoffs hit.  These were all gigs where I liked my editors and enjoyed writing for them, but situations were such that continuing to write for them — save Lonely Planet, where I’m optimistic in the short term that I’ll land some more paying work — didn’t make sense.

I don’t write as a hobby; I do it for a living. I also have a happy pedestrian life with a husband (who I don’t pass off as “the photographer”) and a mortgage and couch. Low paying gigs where I’m expected to subsidize my own travel are unsustainable. Start up style e-magazines that allow press trips but don’t have any cachet offer a little more, but don’t help writers that have credible bylines already.  Content farms aren’t great shakes either, though for initial publication credits, I suppose they’re better than nothing as a launch pad. Get in, take your 25 dollars, get out, no one gets hurt.

“What about the Huffington Post?” someone asked.

“God, no.” I said, but was forced to revise my answer after some discussion about the potential benefits of landing a front page Huff Po slot. “If you’re trying to sell something — say, you’re releasing a book — think of the Huff Po as advertising for your project.”

To add some color to the conversation,  I shared what I know:  that bloggers making money right now in travel and the web are those involved in advertorial and or SEO initiatives.

Fact check me on this, but I’ve heard that bloggers are charging 300 plus dollars a day plus expenses to visit and cover a region on their individual blogs. Some deep pockets tech companies are building out “ambassador” programs that pay for travel and content — both on their site and the blogger’s site. There are some interesting content partnerships but on a recent hunting expedition I saw an attraction described as “something for everyone,” and I’m still shaking my head over reading “to eat like a local, go where the locals eat.” It’s not about the writing. Nestled quaint hidden authentic gems abound.

And there’s a great deal of SEO money changing hands. I’m contacted almost daily with sponsored content pitches. I recently learned that it’s a fairly standard procedure to take money for sponsored posts that are seen by Google but not by readers. Through the magic of a handy little WordPress plugin called Hide Posts, you can publish — and charge for — content that’s indexed by Google, benefiting your customer’s SEO and your wallet, but never polluting your reader’s experience. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

(When I heard about this method, I thought, dramatically, about a piece I’d read about clothing companies cheating at inspections to cover up sweatshop horrors. )

Selling coverage and SEO juice is good business right now. It is easy to be dragged into depression by the idea that these tactics are paying off, and I get in some black moods about it from time to time. I’m not alone. “It’s bad for journalism,” said one writer friend. “It needs to be stopped,” said an editor I’ve worked with. “Ewwwwwww,” said another editor. “Bleak times,” I think, when hit by the glum, “for writers who won’t cross the line between sales and editorial.”

But here’s the thing: My writing work is going well. I was offered an inflight magazine gig seemingly from nowhere; when I asked how the editor found me, he said, “It’s my job to find good writers and your blog is excellent.” I landed a tiny bit in National Geographic Traveler, no byline, but still, toes in the door. I was invited to travel to Alaska solo and am spooling out the stories to my blog and elsewhere. While my previous gigs have dried up, the connections are very much alive and I’m doing more pitching — with intermittent success, to be sure, but so it goes. I still have a quarterly travel column with a custom publication that pays me rather well, and I keep making new contacts, mostly through the word of mouth network I’ve built up via my blog. Thanks to a series I wrote for Skye (an AOL channel), I’ll be interviewing the world’s most popular living astronaut, Commander Hadfield, in person in November. Things are good.

The less I think about what I’m doing with my blog and the more I think about what I’m doing with my writing, the more projects I land as a writer.  This doesn’t mean I don’t blog, it just means that I focus on my writing, like I did before I knew what SEO and Content Farm and Payment in Exposure and Brand Ambassador and a bunch of other terms meant. It doesn’t mean that I pretend these things don’t exist, it means I make an active decision about what I want my writing to do and where I want it to live and who I want it to serve. Spoiler: I write for readers.

More importantly, the less I think about what I’m doing with my blog and the more I think about what I’m doing with my writing, the happier I am.  Now, I get that there’s a pressing desire to publish, to find validation — and money — by placing work elsewhere. It’s thrilling to see your name in old school print, or wrapped in logos of a publisher you love. I was delighted to land work on Lonely Planet, I’ve read their books for decades, and in my old home town paper, the San Francisco Chronicle. But publishing is not, in itself,  why I write. Any idiot can publish, and hell, you can do it yourself. The other pitch I get not quite daily is from new sites looking for unpaid content. Getting published is not why I write.

The exercise of re-focusing on why I write is what I love so much about being at Book Passage. It gives me the luxury of rediscovering why I write my blog, why I write about travel. It’s very easy to say why I do technical writing — it pays me very well and gives me a lot of freedom. But given that the money is not great in travel writing, that the field is increasingly crowded and dominated by advertising, why bother carving out an identity in that space?

Late in the afternoon on my last day at Book Passage, one of the attendees asked me a difficult question. Without tipping the cards, I’ll tell you that this writer — who struck me as likeable and thoughtful, and hopefully, will forgive me for this example — comes from a polarizing point of view.

“What do I do about this?” the writer asked.

My brain skidded to a halt. First I thought, “Why me?” and then, I thought, “Actually, I’m flattered to be asked.” I did my best to tackle it, and in doing so, was reminded me of why I read — and write travel.

It’s this: Great travel writing builds bridges, it helps us understand the world. It helps us connect to our neighbors and be better humans. I think Paul Theroux must be kind of a jerk, he seems like a misogynist and cranky old man, but his writings about the world bring unknown places to life for me. Bill Bryson seems an awful complainer and I might not want him as a house guest, but his travel writings are sharp and funny and real. Readers don’t have to like the writer, they have to like the writing, and those are two different things.

I don’t always get some great epiphany, I don’t always love the narrator, I don’t always love the story, even, but if it’s well written, if the writer takes me there, it is never wasted time. Good travel writing really can make us better citizens of the world. And if the story is about a failed effort, a trip gone bad, a cultural bridge uncrossable, it shows that we have more to learn.

I write about travel to share my world and to make sense of it. I am so glad to have been reminded of this during my third year at Book Passage.

Why are you writing about travel?

It turns out I have some ideas for where you might publish — if you were in my class, drop me a line.

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7 Responses to “Messy Thoughts on Book Passage 2013”

  1. you get to meet Commander Hadfield? I has such a jealous!

  2. Amanda Halm says:

    I write travel because I still want to see the world. As a writer/journalist I am trained in seeing things. I see the first brown-tipped leaves of fall. I see people others deem as invisible. I write travel because I want others to see the same things I do, in their imaginations.
    I am in the same boat as you. I am looking for work and finding that keywords, catchy headlines and lists, so many lists are taking over quality pieces by actual writers who work really hard perfecting their craft. I have worked for a few travel publications myself and I feel the rope is tightening. But I think your advice is dead-on. Thank you!

  3. Leigh says:

    I write, because I want to say something. I enjoy being heard, and I enjoy having conversations.

    I write, because I read. They’re the the same coin for me. Just as having someone read my writing is part of the writing process.

  4. There’s two big themes happening right now, one is the shift of travel blogging to marketing — and yes they should get paid day rates for their time if that’s what they are doing, and no the writing quality doesn’t matter, it’s a marketing campaign not a magazine feature. The second theme is that places like Gadling et al are increasingly under pressure to deliver clicks, and the kind of writing that you do won’t deliver. It’s not just top 10 anymore, it’s animated gifs, top ten, ripped from another source and given a misleading title. This isn’t a travel writing problem, it’s the state of journalism. You mention for-free-writing, sponsored posts, bad content, but really it’s slideshows, summary posts, marketing copy and ad space that matter. Wait, maybe I’m just agreeing with you. Ha. Well, I think the point is that NO ONE is making a full time living as a travel writer, save Lara Dunston who is a machine and travels constantly. I read the tweets/posts of New York Times Travel section writers and they are BROKE. Diversify, sell out your blog if that has to happen, get a day job, do the travel writing thing on the side, no judgments from me on how people make it work, but to do the kind of stories you’re talking about full-time doesn’t exist. Period. Every time you get paid well for something you love, well that’s a bonus. Books are another avenue too… although having a blog certainly helps. Teaching. Contract writing. I don’t know any writers that sit down and just pound out lovely travel narratives for a living. It’s impossible. But there is so much writing work out there and so many ways to make it work and still be happy about it. I hope your students weren’t discouraged because careers are long and trends are short.

  5. Thank you for this article. I love articles where I learn something. I’m a newbie blogger and also new to travel. I had no plans to make money from it, but its always interesting to learn what does. More than anything I hope, if I continue writing, that I will produce useful, helpful, entertaining copy. Can’t hope to educate and change opinion through my simple style, but hope my writing won’t bore too much!

  6. Hi Pam.

    I write about travel for several reasons and I can’t figure out which one goes out front, so let’s say just for the sake of this comment post they’re all equal.

    First is, writing about it helps me remember that it really did happen and it wasn’t just my imagination, especially for first visits to an area/country. Like when I arrived in Rome for the first time and saw ancient buildings I only saw pictures of before and said what most people have said when they first travel: “Wow, I can’t believe I’m actually here.” Writing helps the belief process for me through documentation. I didn’t just dream it.

    Second reason is that I want to write about something that is not at all about my day job where I spend days writing boring fact sheets, red lining other people’s work on boring fact sheets, forever putting together PowerPoint decks, writing performance reviews, composing emails begging for more budget or trying to persuade in some other fashion through writing. I turned to blogging about travel and about global birding because it’s not the day job. I don’t have a lawyer who pours over it. I don’t have to capitulate to someone else’s vision of it. I’ve said this before, but I actually really love my career (which I’m sure I didn’t really sell well here in this paragraph). Not only does it fund the travel I do (both in dollars and in paid vacation), but I actually believe I’m making a difference for the business that keeps all of us employed and I like to believe I make a difference for people who work for me. However, it’s draining and the travel alone helps with balance in my life. Writing about it allows me to take my skills and talent as a writer and grow it in a direction that ordinary business writing doesn’t allow. Blogging has turned out to be a great outlet for me and my first year I was committed to blog every week no matter what. That was a great discipline to begin with, because I do think frequency helps with improvement, yet I’ve recently begun to focus on quality rather than quantity. This is so hard for me because I want to hit “publish” oh so bad and oh so quickly. (Working on that.)

    Finally, when I write about travel I see things I didn’t see before. It’s like taking a photo and then when you look at it later you notice that something was happening in the background that you missed in the moment. I love that part of writing and I see it more and more when I work on my fifth or sixth iteration of my opening paragraph. What I originally thought was going to be the story was never the story at all.

    Postscript: My hope is that there will always be room for writers and good content won’t get overshadowed with SEO and to be frank, crappy writing. Yet, I do believe that there will be a backlash. It’s always going to have to be about good writing. Crap just isn’t sustainable. Very few people will go back to it.

    I hope.

  7. Bret @ GGT says:

    I feel you on the freelance thing: In the last 2 months I’ve had one publication go the way of the dodo (after AirTran merged with Southwest), one that needs a successful Kickstarter campaign to survive (Georgia Music Magazine, and two others where Mng Editors leaving suggests the writing may be on the wall.

    Luckily I managed to land a gig with the biggest publishing company in Atlanta, which is about to unveil the biggest travel magazine in the Southeast, so there’s still hope.

    But you’re right, the market for travel writing is in a HUGE state of flux, has been for some time, and will almost certainly get worse. Everybody wants quick blurbs, Top 10 lists and Buzzfeed-friendly fare, which was a big part of why we started our site in the first place: Freelance writing just wasn’t as fulfilling on a personal level as it used to be. And because we avoid 99% of the money-making schemes you mentioned, GGT damn sure isn’t paying the bills (yet). But I have faith and hope that there are ways to monetize without selling your soul, and our experiments thus far have started to bear fruit.

    As for why we travel, it’s pretty simple: We want to explore the world, engage with and learn more about local cultures, and share those discoveries with others in hopes of inspiring them in some small way. I have no idea if we’ll ever be able to sustain ourselves financially solely from travel writing, but that obstacles in the way of achieving that goal have done nothing to dampen my personal passion for pursuing it.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking discussion.

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