Rolf Potts on Travel Blogging
Rolf Potts is one of the best-known and most-respected travel writers of this generation. Yet he also follows in the literary tradition of vagabonders discussed in a previous interview in Transitions Abroad on the subject of long-term travel. Rolf stands out from his contemporaries with his acute sense of humor, insight into the nature of travel (and travelers), and compassion for those he meets along the road. He wrote the instant classic, Vagabonding, which soon became the book which inspired and still inspires so many travelers to take the plunge overseas. Rolf followed it up with a widely-acclaimed compilation of narrative travel stories, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, a book which features an unique and insightful mode of self-critique at the end of each piece. Rolf has written for a wide range of well-known print publications and websites, has been published in numerous travel writing anthologies, and has won several travel writing awards—even as he generously offers articles, advice, and interviews to smaller independent travel websites and blogs.
Rolf also teaches an annual writing workshop www.pariswritingworkshop.com at the Paris American Academy, which reflects an urge to inspire others and share his knowledge, insights, and explorations on the art of writing. A sample of his writing can be read online at rolfpotts.com, where his portfolio and other activities are updated as well. Rolf’s blog can be found at vagablogging.net, and features guest posts written by many very talented bloggers who offer a steady stream of useful and timely travel resources and perspectives.
In this interview with Transitions Abroad’s Matt Gibson, Rolf expresses his thoughts on, and experiences with, travel blogging.
Matt Gibson: You started Vagablogging.net in 2002. At the time you had already published Vagabonding, Storming the Beach had already appeared in the Best American Travel Writing, and you were writing articles for several websites in addition to answering questions in the Bootsnall forums. Why did you decide to start offering for free the very same service that you were being paid for?
Rolf Potts: Vagabonding actually didn't get published until January of 2003. By that time I had been blogging for a couple of months—but initially the blog was just meant to help promote the book. I was essentially just publishing travel quotes and book-tour diaries, and a bit of travel news and book reviews. There was no crossover at all to the paid work I was doing. And even to this day, the writing I do for books and magazines is very separate from the writing I do on the blog.
MG: What goals did you have when you first started Vagablogging.net? Have they changed over time?
RP: I don't know that I started with a clear set of goals, since I didn't really have a deep understanding of what blogging was all about. I started Vagablogging at the suggestion of Jen Leo, who of was one of the first travel-writers to blog. She thought a blog would help get the word out for the Vagabonding debut, so I started one. At first it was pretty personal, and I was even publishing poetry written by my 4-year-old nephew. Eventually my blog grew to be a resource and community hub for Vagabonding readers and long-term travelers, and this expanded once I had other people writing for me.
MG: Can you recall a time that you were surprised by a large unexpected increase in traffic to your blog? What happened?
RP: My blog traffic has been growing slowly ever since I started it, and it's never really had a huge spike in traffic. Occasionally I'll get big numbers for a few days, like when Tim Ferriss or Arts & Letters Daily links to me, but in time these numbers will level off and I'll go back to slow growth.
MG: The first guest blogger on Vagablogging.net that I could find (other than your four-year old nephew, who was awesome by the way) was Justin Glow. He wrote his first post in July, 2006. Why did you decide to start featuring guest bloggers?
RP: My first guest blogger was actually Tim Ferriss, who approached me about blogging before the Four Hour Work Week came out. But Tim's offerings were more like columns than blog posts, and eventually he got too busy to blog for me when his book took off. So yes, Justin Glow is my first true guest blogger, in that he was posting his own content on a variety of themes. Justin was a long-time Vagablogging reader who actually came to me about this when I posted an item about how I would be out of blog contact for several days. He suggested he co-blog and manage content in my absence, and eventually he just stayed on as a full-time co-blogger and editor. Eventually he recruited more writers, and it has grown from there.
MG: How did guest bloggers change your blog? Did they have any unexpected effects on it?
RP: I think bringing on guest bloggers has made Vagablogging much better, much more closely pegged to the themes in my book. When I was blogging solo, Vagablogging was essentially a repository for random travel thoughts and content, since most of my effort was going into paid articles and books. Once Vagabonding readers started volunteering to blog for me, Vagablogging got a lot more prolific content-wise, and more carefully tied to the needs and concerns and interests of long-term travelers. This happened more or less by accident, and in recent months I have consolidated this more ambitious blog content by renaming the categories, assigning certain specialties to specific bloggers, and (soon) altering the design of the blog. My guest bloggers do a great job for me—and many of them have gone on to land lucrative blogging, writing, and editing gigs on the strength of the work they've done for me.
MG: Part of this article series focuses on the earning potential of travel blogs. Does your blog earn money? If so, may I ask for a ballpark figure to give our readers and idea of how much a successful travel blog can make?
RP: I am only beginning to experiment with monetization, so I can't really give you any figures. I am in the process of redesigning my blog with the help of my sponsor, Bootsnall.com, and by the end of the year the blog might start to earn money.
MG: What non-monetary benefits, professional or personal, do you get from blogging?
RP: It creates community for my book Vagabonding, and it helps brand me as a writer and travel expert. I also do this on my personal website, RolfPotts.com, but Vagablogging showcases a lot more content. And of course it's enjoyable to get useful information out to people who love to (or want to) travel.
MG: You’ve said that, despite the lower pay, you enjoy writing for Internet publications because they offer more freedom, in both style and length, than print publications. Do you find blogging very different from writing for travel magazines and websites?
RP: I do find blogging different from writing for travel magazines and websites, since the information I post on my blog is different from what I write for other venues. I suppose there is a little crossover in, say, the "Ask Rolf" columns I write for World Hum and the travel advice I dispense on my blog—but for the most part my blog is service-oriented and my non-blog writing is narrative-oriented. There are, of course, bloggers who offer narrative content, but I rarely go in that direction. For the most part, my narrative writing goes into books, magazines and narrative websites, and my service writing goes into my blog.
MG: As a writer, I see blogging as a way to promote myself. But, while many well-known writers have blogs, I rarely see stories by writers who started as travel bloggers appearing on prominent websites or in print. Do you think that blogging has a literary glass ceiling?
RP: I wouldn't say that blogging has a literary glass ceiling, since the literary world tends to skew toward quality of writing rather than the background of the author. In fact a number of bloggers in recent years have landed book deals on the strength of their writing and its tendency to attract audiences. So I don't think it matters if you start out as a blogger so long as you write well and find an audience.
MG: Have you found there to be any stigma attached to blogging in literary circles?
RP: I think there has always been a stigma attached to blogging because blogging has always had a reputation as a repository for writing that is hastily done, overly personal, and light on reportage. Often this is for good reason, since blogging is a populist medium, and any kind of writing that has no entry standards is going to have plenty of crap in addition to the good stuff. So it's fine by me if blogging is stigmatized, so long as people realize that bloggers can be terrific writers, and terrific writers can be bloggers.
MG: Do you think that the line between blogging and traditional writing will continue to be blurred such that journalism schools and even conventional educational institutions will become less important in the development and appreciation of travel writing?
RP: I'm not sure that journalism schools have ever been all that essential for travel writers, and traditional educational institutions don't often touch on the literature of travel. It's a genre that readers tend to discover on their own—and for writers it's a genre that arises from a passion for travel and writing that is often independent of formal education. I say this as someone who teaches writing each summer in Paris, someone who has seen that the teaching of writing is more about guiding and enhancing existing skills than applying a generic pedagogic template to everyone.
As for the line between blogging and traditional writing, it's probably depends on who is doing the blogging. For the most part I think blogging will continue to be a slightly less digested form of writing than formal journalism or essay writing. In most cases, including mine, it bears as many similarities to letter writing as it does to journalism. And just like authors from years past approached letter writing with a different focus than essay writing, there's a similar difference with blog writing. There's simply less rewriting and polishing to be done with a blog entry.
MG: Does blogging make you want to read contemporary or even classical literature more or less? Is there a sense that living in the moment supersedes any study of traditional forms of writing?
RP: Again, I think these are separate categories. I don't digest blog information like I would classical literature. That said, however, blogs like Arts & Letters Daily or BookForum or Bookslut often point me in the direction of some of the finest writing and thinking out there. So blogs can promote great literature, even if they don't constitute great literature.
MG: Is the old distinction between the “tourist” and the” traveler” completely moot at this point? Do you ever find yourself annoyed by the actions or behaviors of tourists?
RP: I've been downplaying the tourist/traveler distinction for over a decade now, but people still obsess about it. Am I annoyed by the actions of tourists? Sure, but I'm also annoyed by the actions of people who consider themselves travelers. I guess I consider the distinction a tainted argument that is less an accurate assessment of the guest/host dynamic of travel than an attempt on the part of self-described "travelers" to make themselves feel superior (despite the fact that, as peripatetic wanderers, we are always guests of the host culture and hence outsiders).
MG: Do you consider yourself an outsider wherever you go no matter how long you stay and participate in the life and cultures about which you write? Is this reflected in your blog posts?
RP: Sure, I consider myself an outsider, but that role changes depending on how long you stay in various places. You're an outsider regardless of whether you stay in a place a day or a year—but obviously you're going to have a more intimate and complex relationship with that place if you stay longer. I don't know that this dynamic is reflected in my blog posts, since my blog posts tend to focus on travel advice and philosophy. As I noted before, my blog is might be considered "service" writing, whereas my more focused literary writing ends up in other venues.
MG: Do you find that being “connected” helps or hinders your work in the short run? In the long run, we all make connections for personal and business reasons, but when do you know that you are beginning to potentially “waste time.” Or is there no such thing, in your opinion, as wasted time when “connected” while blogging?
RP: I think being connected on the road is an ongoing experiential challenge that will always require a sense of balance and discipline. Being connected can help your travels in many ways, but so much of the time we spend connected is time wasted, time spent goofing off and distracting ourselves. And even someone with the best intentions of disconnecting and fully experiencing their travels can fall into bad habits when they get online or start fiddling with their smart phone. This is in essence a connection to home—what I call the "electronic umbilical cord"—and I think it's one of the biggest experiential challenges of travel these days.
MG: Do you think that blogs, and blog posts, follow the literary tradition as, perhaps, short installments of a larger story? Or do you think that blogging as a medium has completely changed the way we write?
RP: I think blogging is more a part of the epistolary tradition than the literary tradition. Blog posts are like little letters of advice or opinion or documented experience aimed at a specific audience. This kind of writing rarely stands the test of time, unless it comes from someone who is established as a literary writer or famous for something else. There are exceptions, of course—the New Testament epistles being a big one—but for the most part blog posts fall under the category of what has historically been considered letter writing. So, as with letters, I don't think blog writing will transform literature so much as augment it.