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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Developing your travel writing career: commissions and content gathering, part 2

This post continues from yesterday's post in response to a reader's request for advice on developing a freelance travel writing career and financing research trips:
11. When you get a guidebook commission, start pitching story ideas on the destination - the fee for a single story could equal a quarter of your guidebook fee. Sell enough stories and you're finally profiting from travel writing. Keep in mind some publishers, such as Lonely Planet, forbid you from writing for their competitors on the same geographical area that you've written on for them, making the job less lucrative and making it difficult for you to develop destination expertise: read your contract so you don't breach it.

12. Can't get a guidebook commission? Consider fact-checking work - while it doesn't pay as much, it's a good way to develop research skills and it develop your contacts, and - if you're willing - can get you to a city or country. A fact-checking fee may only cover your air-fare, but once there you can be developing ideas and gathering content for stories to pitch and write when you get home.

13. Got a magazine commission but no guidebook work? - ask your editor for a letter or email confirming the commission tp forward to airlines, hotels, car rental companies, etc, to secure 'media rates' (established discounted rates, like corporate rates) and complimentary stays. (Check this is okay with your editor first as they may have a policy stipulating their writers can't accept discounts or freebies.)

14. Before jumping into full-time travel writing, ensure you have savings in the bank - even when you get a commission, the contract and cheque/bank transfer can be a long time coming. Sometimes projects are commissioned at the last minute (especially when another writer falls through or schedules change), so you need to be prepared to jump on a plane even if your payment hasn't gone through.

15. Do your guidebook research write-up at the destination - most writers go to a city or country, do their research, then fly home to write up the book. Consider renting an apartment in the destination (cheaper than moving between hotels), staying longer, and thus gathering more and better quality content from which to produce stories later on.
16. Embark on content-gathering trips in between commissions - you have a guidebook to research and write in one destination, then another book four weeks after manuscript submission in a nearby country. Don't waste air-fares flying home, but use the period in between to do some content-gathering; do an overland trip between the destinations or base yourself in a cheap but interesting place in-between to scout stories.
17. Can't get any commissions at all? Be creative - explore other options for getting to a destination that you can write about. Find work as an English teacher, yoga instructor, seasonal worker etc, and develop a story on working holidays focused on your experience. Line up some volunteer work with a charity or aid organization and write about volunteering abroad.
18. If you must self-finance your first research trip, then don't spend more than you'd ordinarily spend on a holiday, in case your investment doesn't pay off later, and seek out destinations and experiences that are unusual or rarely written about so you have a greater chance of getting something published.
19. Once you have been commissioned - develop your relationship with that editor, go the extra mile for them, stay in touch, and keep pitching ideas - especially if this is the only person who has commissioned you so far! If the editor likes what you do and keeps publishing you, then stick with that publication and take the opportunity to build your portfolio. You can branch out later on.
20. Ensure you continue to get commissioned - once you're established as a travel writer, continue to develop your greatest assets: your research and writing abilities, your travel and travel industry knowledge, your understanding of the market, travellers and readers, and your destination expertise. In other words, keep travelling, keep reading and writing, and always keep your readers in mind.


Angela Corrias said...

Thanks Lara, the more I read your tips the more ideas come to my mind. I find travel industry a tough and fascinating world. I like the idea of finding work in the destination I'm researching on, it's what I've done in Ireland and it's the best way to get in touch with local people and get a good insight of what to expect from the country.
I imagined that some editors, especially if it's a travel guide, prefer you not to write articles to other publications while you are in the destination they sent you to. Does this happen also with press trips? For example, if I'm on a press trip with an assignment letter, can I also pitch other publications about the same place or is it "unethical"?

laradunston said...

Hi Angela - fantastic news!

Our best experiences have been when we've based ourselves in a city to research and write up the books for a month or two, which we've done in Brussels/Antwerp, Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, Milan, and have started to get to know chefs, hoteliers, artists, museum curators, poets and so on, and therefore scratched another couple of layers or so beneath the surface of the city, which we couldn't have done had we just rushed through... and when you start to know a city like that in a deeper way, and meet more people, more stories start to reveal themselves, beyond the latest recent and hotel openings and whois the city's hottest fashion designer and so on...

Re 'press trips', are you simply referring to a trip that a tourism organization has coordinated for you? Or do you mean a group press trip that you've joined? I'm can't speak for group press trips as we don't do them and won't do them, but I don't see them as fitting in with the kind of story you want to do to be honest. However, if it's simply a trip a tourist office has arranged for you, they'll probably be happy if you can do as many stories as possible that in some way promote their destination.

If you have an assignment letter from a magazine, for instance, and you fulfill the brief and give them the story they want, I don't see anything wrong with you continuing to pursue other stories. If the magazine has actually paid for your trip (which is extremely rare), then you need to check with them. But normally, you'd be the one to finance the trip and so you can therefore research as many stories as you want.

In relation to guidebooks, you really need to check with individual publishers. Lonely Planet for instance, won't allow you to work on other content on that same geographical area for a competitor. However, I've gone to a destination for one publisher, returned 'home', written that book, and then used that knowledge gained from that trip to update another book for another publisher and write stories for the magazine and web.

Angela Corrias said...

Hi Lara,

I wasn't referring to a specific press trip, I haven't been commissioned to any so far. I was just wondering about the topic in general and also referring to one of your previous posts on why you don't do press trips. I agree that you don't have the opportunity to catch the real essence of a place if you are on a press trip, maybe they can be useful as you have a guide who is supposed to be local and expert of the area (still true that they can show only what they want to show, though..).
But referring also to the financial advantages of press trips, ok, you might have everything paid but in case you are "tied up" with a contract that you can only write for the editor who signed your letter, if you know you have a few good possibilities to get published, it might be more convenient to pay flight and hotel by yourself and then pitch different publications.
I agree that press trips are a bit too "prepared" though...

laradunston said...

Hi Angela - I think if a press trip is led by a local guide and there is some flexibility in that you have some time to yourself to experience the destination as an independent traveller might and pursue your own stories, then that wouldn't be a bad thing.

You would need to establish up front with the PR manager organizing the press trip a) whether there would be free time available, and b) whether you can pursue your own leads to write additional stories (in addition to those you committed to) and whether that's okay. I expect the PR person would be happy that you were generating more than one story on the place. However...

The problem is with most press trips, from what I hear, is that the schedules are so tight it is exactly like being on a tour, that they try to cram as much in as possible, and that you don't get time alone and you are expected to be with the group the whole time. I have read on forums where not only the PR organizers get annoyed that a writer has slipped off, but also the other writers, as if they've betrayed the group or something... it's very strange.

This is something we didn't mention before in the post on press trips but there are writers addicted to press trips - many writing for second-rate regional papers and websites - who seem to do one press trip after another, always writing positive reviews, so always getting invitations to the next trip, and they see the same people again and again, so it's like an old boys club. I've heard stories of late night skinny dipping in hotel pools and drunken parties resulting from mini-bar raids, and writers sleeping in late so there's little time to cover anything other than the hotel swimming pool and spa. I don't know, it's not my idea of a way to experience a destination and it's not my idea of what being a travel writer is about, but each to their own I guess.

What's also worth keeping in mind is that many national tourism organizations have a budget for funding individual trips and that if you have an original idea for a story that hasn't been published before that promotes their destination, and you can secure a commission with a magazine, approach the tourism organization and they may contribute to financing the trip if not finance and coordinate the whole lot. What they don't cover, you can arrange yourself by contacting hotels you hope to feature directly.

meesposito said...

Interesting discussion! It seems that there are a number of approaches one can take. In the meantime, I'll continue with my Latin and Caribbean travel blog!

Lola said...

Solid tips (both the first 10 and these ones!). Thanks for sharing them.

Writing guidebooks is definitely hard work. I just did a small online travel guide (about 9-10 pages) and was exhausted!

Tammie Dooley said...

Lara, I've been following your site for sometime, but I'm only now beginning to take the time to read it. The information you've imparted here is difficult to find in one place. So thank you for the great tips. I've got a bit more direction now than I had previously. Direction is a really good thing!