Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Right on, Thomas. I'll join you in Hell. You sound like my kinda guy. Southeast Asia is my beat, so guess what: been there, done that. And your comments about the miserable pay of travel writers, and the need to cut corners, is entirely correct.
Right on, Thomas.
Best Article: Away on Business. Read it.
Thomas Kohnstamm Website
Thomas Kohnstamm MySpace
Thomas Kohnstamm Wikipedia
Lonely Planet Forum on Thomas Kohnstamm
Amazon Title: Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?
Amazon Books by Thomas Kohnstamm
The Age Australia April 13
Gadling April 13
Lonely Planet Profile April 14
Times Online April 14
WorldHum April 14
Brave New Traveler April 14
Away on Business April 15
Brave New Traveler April 18
Random House April 22
LA Times April 22
Jaunted April 22
New York Times Moment April 22
Vagabondish April 23
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
No matter whether you are a freelance travel writer under contract with Lonely Planet or Rough Guides, you will be give strict guidelines on the places you must go, the research you must do, and the correct copy you must turn in on a determined date. And then you get the second payment.
Another report from a new LP travel guidebook contract author.
I feel one of the biggest misconceptions about Lonely Planet is that the company pays its authors to swan around on holiday and then do a bit of writing as an afterthought. The reality is that you are on your feet for twelve hours a day, during torrential rain or baking heat or whatever testing conditions you’ve parachuted into: coups; insurgencies; dealing with the horror of warm beer in Britain. There’s very little time for actual sightseeing. It’s actually hard work.
As I mentioned before, reviewing chain hotels is a special form of torture and definitely a grind. But, also, I must stress again that time is always at a premium when doing guidebook work. Although I say I like to listen and observe, in reality financial constraints make it almost impossible to linger at leisure for days on end like some kind of bohemian flaneur, so you are really just crunching as much as possible into your day: visiting 10 hotels, dropping into 10 bars and restaurants (and not necessarily eating or drinking in them, either), visiting the tourist office, the bus station etc. If there’s a moment for quiet reflection then that’s a bonus and you seize on it and make the most of it.
Well, I’ve already spoken about the fact checking. Guidebooks have become a very streamlined business and there’s less and less chance to ’stretch your wings’ as a writer these days. Again, this is also a consequence of the fact that there are far fewer untouristed places on the globe today compared to say 15-20 years ago, when the content of an individual guidebook could still be groundbreaking. I mentioned boxed texts earlier — these are a chance to write as much as 800-1000 words on a topic — but for the most part it is very much templated work, there’s no getting around that. As for the pay, agreed: it’s not an especially well-paid job, and as that NY Times article highlights, there will always be a pool of eager young writers who will do it for next to nothing — a highly attractive prospect for any employer with a tight budget and a year-round schedule.
The travel writing community rarely has hot issues to discuss among themselves, but the recent issue of a book called "Smile While You're Lying" by travel writer Chuck Thompson has them up in arms.
Not sure why. He claims he was encouraged by his magazine publishers to write positive or at least not totally negative mentions of the tourist infrastructure (hotels, restaurants, airlines) when he went on assignment.
Yeah, so what. I'm a travel writer, but very few writers sculpt their verbiage; the bad shit is sometimes dropped and you find something interesting to write about your cookie cutter place. I only slam famous places that have gone bad and need a warning, and that's very unusual....I'd say less than five percent. And I have reviewed several hundred, perhaps thousands, of hotel properties in SE Asia.
Chuck Thompson came to San Francisco a few weeks ago and I had a chance to meet him at an Irish pub of the Tenderloin, and Chuck was a friendly guy with no pretensions about his book, which is mostly about his travel adventures and not his existential philosophy about the great good of humankind, but he does resent reviews of his book from journalists who have betrayed his trust, such as Rolf Potts.
New York Times
Brave New Traveler Interview with Chuck
World Hum Opinion by Rolf Potts
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Robert Reid is a Lonely Planet writer who publishes an amazing internet guide to Vietnam, and doesn't mince words in his recent interview with WorldHum. He laments the demise of experienced travel guidebook writers for novices who will work for peanuts under the illusion it will lead to fame and riches, and thinks internet travel guides will someday replace traditional published guides, when technology advances and handhelds can display the chief advantage printed guides continue to have over internet sources: maps.
Robert Reid: I used to think the most important thing we guidebook authors did for travelers was hotel reviews. People like to have some sense of security that the $5 or $300 place they’re staying in won’t be a brothel or rat-infested dump. But the Internet has already completely changed this. Previously if I had a new budget hotel in a town center, or a mid-ranger with pool, travelers would have to wait nine or 12 months from the time I “discovered” it until it appeared in a guide.
Now Internet booking sites often get them immediately. When I went to China a couple years ago, I stayed at a brand new hostel in Beijing that the Trans-Siberian author had just found, but that hadn’t yet appeared in the guide. It was already full! I was amazed at how nearly all the people there had found it online, and were booking their full China trip’s accommodations online.
At a Lonely Planet workshop a couple years ago, I asked a high-up at LP who they saw as their biggest competitor, and they immediately answered “Google.” I was impressed. So publishers like LP definitely see the Internet as a growing competitor, and have for a while. When the BBC bought LP a couple months ago, one of the key things they cited for future development was online content.
Another thing is that many sites with travel content online don’t have maps. And maps are HUGE. I sometimes think seasoned travelers need only a map, with barebones details of few places to stay, and barebones details of what to see and where to eat. If they trust the author—and that’s a big if, of course—not as much needs to be said as some people think. This, again, is for seasoned travelers only.
The only other thing I fear regarding online guidebooks is if they follow the “I stayed here and it was great” TripAdvisor or Amazon.com model. Those are useful, no doubt, but they’re only based on isolated experiences. If publishers turn things over at some point to reader-generated content, you won’t have the authoritative overviews that guidebook writers can offer, and it’ll end up with deeper beaten tracks, with more travelers doing the same thing.
But I do want to say David Stanley is right, it’s sad and reckless if an old author who did good work on several editions is cut for a new author. In my opinion, in-house editors don’t completely understand what goes into researching these guides—I was an editor for years, and only figured it out once I started writing full time. The best experience for writing a guidebook to X is not living in X but actually having written a guidebook to X. Sometimes publishers forget that a bit.
Sometimes I think we’re living a doomed profession, and that we’ll look back on the wacky wild period from the 1970s to the 2000s when scores of notebook-toting travelers went and sought out the mysteries of places that are no longer mysterious. People will look back on the era like reading Graham Greene books about far-flung places at wilder times.
Will guidebooks in book form die? Probably so. But to be honest, I think there will always be room for the perspective of the “guidebook author,” at least online. Once hand-held devices get even more sophisticated, so that maps and reviews are more easily referred to—or we old folks die out and the younger generations who are not so soft on books take over—things will probably go online completely.
But I sometimes think people like holding those books. So far, though, the TripAdvisor-type sites are excellent resources, but don’t account for perspective. One person goes to Y hotel and says “it’s super!” But they don’t realize A, B, C are similar and $40 less. Who goes to all 15 museums in Bucharest but a guidebook author? So only they can tell you that something like the Romanian National Museum of the Peasant is about the best museum in the world?
WorldHum Interview with Robert Reid
Robert Haru Fisher is a New York based travel writer and author of the guidebook pictured above, available at Amazon at London Off-Season And On : A Guide To Special Pleasures, Better Rater And Shorter Lines. He also wrote the Crown Insiders Guide to Japan, which is from his own publishing company. Fisher also contributes to the Frommer website and has, over the last few months, published a series of "so you wanna be a travel writer" articles with enough positive spin to keep the dreamers happy, and enough reality to discourage all but the most brave. It comes in five parts.
I haven't mentioned money yet, so will say only that you should have resources of your own, or a spouse/partner with a regular job, so someone can pay the bills. The travel writers who have good incomes are either on the staff of some publication and drawing a salary, or have honed the art of freelancing well, usually after many years of hard practice. Newspapers pay chicken feed (e.g. $75 for a column of print), magazines maybe $1 a word at best for writers without a famous following, websites little, and books smallish advances (if any, maybe $5,000) or flat fees not much more than that for a small book.
Part Two is a short history of travel writing, with a well deserved plug for Arthur Frommer, a man I have great admiration for and was once interviewed by on The Travel Channel.
"You have a dream job!" Half the people I meet for the first time tell me that, and I agree. It's heaven for me because I am intensely curious, always wanting to know what's around the next corner. When you travel, there's always a new next corner, a new surprise. It's no way to get rich, and it can be hell on family and other relationships because you seem never to be home, from their point of view, anyhow. You can't be a new parent, for instance, or taking care of an ailing family member. The most prolific travel writers are away at least a quarter of the time, I believe, sometimes half the time.
Part Three tries to define what is travel writing.
Anyone can be a travel writer. You can write your blog, your memoir, your diary of a trip, and the only difference between you and, say, Pico Iyer, is that he writes more beautifully than almost anyone, and he may publish in Harper's and The New York Times while you are just broadcasting your thoughts on your own website, perhaps.
Fisher in Part Four espouses the advantages of having a travel blog, and claims he is not trying to sell anything to anyone these days, including his travel writing seminars in Key West as advertised at the bottom of each of these posts.
(Full disclosure here: I don't have a site or a blog myself, as I am not trying to sell anything to anybody these days.)
If you are freelancing, you should also be working on a book, as having a book under your belt makes you an expert, ipso facto.
Fisher in Part Five finishes with his analysis of the history of travel writing to reveal a few facts about the income side of the average travel writer. Finally.
"Get paid to travel" reads one headline. "How to Make a Six-Figure Income Traveling the World" is another. In the last few years, several websites have popped up urging you to learn how to become rich while writing about travel. For fees of several hundred dollars, they promise to teach you how to lead the good life.
It's a life I don't recognize as being anywhere near the reality of those led by many friends of mine who are freelance travel writers. To me, the freelancer is a knight errant, the leaderless samurai, a solo gun-slinger, and my hero much of the time.
My first advice to aspiring freelance writers is to marry rich, or otherwise obtain a partner who has, at least, a steady income. Markets are hard to break into, payment is often laughably cheap. One young writer for a major series of guidebooks approached me on a press trip a few years ago and asked me if I had worked for the series and what they paid. I mentioned some figures, and he said, "Good, I'm working for nothing right now, but they told me if I did a good job, they would pay me next time." The figures I mentioned then were a range from $75 for updating a small chapter of a book through a few thousand to revise the entire book up to about $15,000 for the original writing of a new, fairly small title (under 300 pages of print).
Your writing in a newspaper can pay as little as $75, in a magazine $250, though there are higher and lower figures, depending on the publication. When you are successful, you can command a figure of $1 a word or even higher, however. Traditional print outlets (general purpose newspapers) are down, but niche print publications (birding, ballooning, kayaking, etc.) are up. The Internet is fraught with possibilities, very few of them paying much, if anything, though. You may have to self-publish, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Moreover, one site has its sample author writing "In fact, my own editor is crying out for correspondents to report on destinations throughout the world ... and she's not the only editor seeking fresh talent. To be honest, I have to turn work down -- there simply aren't' enough hours in the day to take up all the writing commissions I'm offered." Not bloody likely, as many of my freelancer friends would say.