How to be a Freelance Travel Writer for a Living
It is not easy being free. And by free I mean a freelancer. A contract worker cannot be sure where their next paycheck will come from.
But for some of us, we would not have it any other way. During this down economy, while our friends, neighbors and family are fretting over when (not if) they will be laid off from their day job, freelancers are doing what we have always done, albeit maybe a little more aggressively. We are hustling for that next byline, photo credit or client willing to pay for our wordsmithing.
The good news is that the increased reliability of technology throughout the world means that an individual can easily work in Buenos Aires, Paris, or Prague while their client sits in an office in New York. All one needs is a laptop and a Wifi connection at the local café. You can easily send a potential client your posted work online while social networking. Online recommendations via sites such as LinkedIn have taken the place of face-to-face meetings.
There are obvious benefits to this new way of life but it is not all positive. As a result of this lowering of the barrier, the market has become flooded with content that is now cheap or free. There are so many individuals that consider themselves to be travel writers and photographers, that they are willing to provide free content in exchange for exposure. Many, talented or not, make little to no money for their work: they receive $10-15 a blog post or web page if they are lucky.
In addition to the flooded market, advertising for print magazines and newspapers has all but dried up. Therefore print publications have folded at an alarming (but not unexpected) rate and cut back a workforce that is now focused on their websites—run by a far smaller staff at a fraction of the cost. Unfortunately, online advertising has not made up for the lost ad revenue which was provided by the print world.
Loyalty Towards Travel Writers is Old Fashioned
If you have been in the travel writing or photography business for any length of time, you have likely established some relationships with editors and publishers. These experienced men and women were people to whom you could pitch a story and they would provide some feedback on how that story might better fit with their readership. There was a collaboration and understanding based on their years of experience and your ability to deliver just what they needed in a timely manner.
More recently, you have probably discovered that your contacts no longer work at these publications—they may have been replaced by someone more tech savvy, the department has been shut down, or the publication is no longer in existence. Newspaper travel sections have been reduced to press releases and syndicated McLatchy stories.
If your editor is still holding on to her job, she may not be returning your calls or emails. Squeezed by her boss (who is in turn squeezed by shareholders), she probably cannot bear to tell you that funds have dried up for new stories and that, honestly, she is hoping to still have a job next month. Press trips that may have once stuffed your inbox, are now press releases sent by agencies hoping you will mention how wonderful their destination is sight unseen.
It is nothing personal. And whether you saw it coming or not, it has been creeping up for years.
No matter if you are a writer, photographer, guidebook researcher, or editor, do not expect loyalty, now or in the future, from any one of your best contacts. It is no longer in their hands.
Your Responsibilities as a Travel Writer
Just because things seem to be in freefall, that does not mean you should ignore common sense, due diligence, and your responsibilities in the process. For many who are just starting out as writers, for example, they do not realize the harm of broadcasting the same content on multiple websites at the same time. This diminishes the unique value of the work while (some believe) hurting search engine rankings or causing the same content to show up in search results and therefore casting doubt about its originality or exclusivity.
When you do land a gig or an editor accepts your pitch, it is up to you to understand the nature of the publication’s guidelines. Do they require original work only? Will they reprint previously published work? Once published, are you allowed to reprint this work elsewhere? If so, is there a timeframe before you can do so?
There is no quicker way to ruin a relationship with an editor than by ignoring their guidelines. If you are uncertain, simply ask. They will appreciate the fact that you are acting professionally, in good faith, and paying attention to the details!
Diversify as Much as Possible
In carving out your career as a travel writer and/or photographer, the only way to ensure that you do not find yourself in line at the local food bank is to diversify and excel at the skills you know and love best. It is foolish to think that you can still pay the bills by treating the current market as if it is business as usual or that things will improve. It is not and it will likely not. And, if the economic downturn has not hit you yet, it likely will directly or indirectly.
The Sky is Not Falling for Travel Writers
But the sky is not exactly falling. You just need to look at this transitional period as an opportunity to make some new friends and learn new skills. Ultimately, if you persevere and dedicate yourself to your writing or photography, you will come out on the other side a success.
- Read the publications/websites you enjoy most and get to know the style before submitting a query.
- Make friends with editors through social networking tools like Linked In, Facebook, and Twitter—and by commenting on their blogs. Send them memorable emails with sincere compliments and insight.
- Pitch stories and/or ask for help in getting started. We were all there at one time or another and with the right approach you just might find a mentor who is willing to share his/her time and knowledge.
- If you have one, do not quit your day job, at least not immediately. It is going to take time to build up a portfolio and for income to start rolling in.
- Search and exploit every opportunity available for visibility and income. Blog where you will get noticed. Make friends with the right people.
- Be professional and share information on social networking sites about noteworthy topics—no one cares how hung-over you are.
- Accept the fact that you might have to write about (or photograph) topics that are of little interest to you but pay the bills while you search for the projects that you care deeply about.
You have a passion for travel. Do not let anyone deter you from following your dream. It may not be easy, but with enough conviction and some ingenuity, you can become successful and un-tethered from a 9-5 job!
Editor's note: See Tim Leffel's book Travel Writing 2.0 for more information to help you become a successful freelance travel writer.