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.
Date: August 28th, 2013 @ 13:54
Categories: Independent Travel