Travel Journalists Discuss Survivability and Profitability
By Lee Foster
We had a lively discussion in Portland, Oregon recently at a meeting of the Society of American Travel Writers on travel journalist survivability and profitability.
Almost everyone agrees that we are in a highly disruptive time when travel journalists yearn for more secure income paths.
I led a panel discussion in which four of us, with diverse paths, explained our strategies and practices.
This was one of 12 professional development sessions at the meeting.
The notes below and the Powerpoint are a summary of what was shared.
See the Powerpoint as a PDF at
You are welcome to look at and download and study the Powerpoint. Each of the four presenters offers an intriguing range of details in their Powerpoint slides.
The written thoughts below are from the panelists and then from other travel journalists. Travel journalists are welcome to add comments to the discussion. Jill Robinson has provided some insights below.
Send me your thoughts and I will append them at the bottom of the document, as they come in. Send to [email protected].
Here is more detail on what transpired in Portland.
The links to the presenters’ main websites:
This was the stated rationale of the panel:
How to Make Money from Your Website and Other Products
Lee Foster organized this panel of members creating profitable travel content with their articles, books, ebooks, apps, photos, websites, licensing, assignments, translations, tours, instruction, consultation, social media, and other products. Lee and other panelists Gary Arndt, April Orcutt, and Kim Grant showed how others can do it, too.
Bios for panelists:
Lee Foster is a diversified travel writer/photographer who pursues both traditional and innovative publishing paths at https://www.fostertravel.com. Lee argues that we must understand the changes in our modern media scene and position ourselves to benefit. Typical of Lee’s efforts are licensing articles from his robust website and publishing an ebook translation of his California travel book in Chinese.
Gary Arndt skipped entirely the usual path of traditional travel publishing and burst onto the scene with a direct-to-consumer approach presented on his website at https://www.everything-everywhere.com and in Social Media. Gary saw his niche as Planet Earth, and has coverage on 190 countries and 320 worldwide UNESCO sites. How did Gary do it? How does he fund it on Social Media?
April Orcutt is a viable illustration that traditional travel publishing continues to flourish, assuming the practitioner has talent and careful attention to detail. Fans following April delight frequently in her latest article in the Los Angeles Times or Travel + Leisure. April presents some of this on http://www.aprilorcutt.com. April can assess the size of the traditional market for others, plus ownership-of-writing and pay issues.
Kim Grant is a visionary on the future of travel publishing, but totally grounded in her past as acquisitions editor for Countryman Press and Sutro Media Apps. Kim’s new multi-author travel publishing website is Bindu Trips at https://bindutrips.com/, focusing on itineraries. What is Kim’s plan and why? Kim also has the best-selling traditional travel book on Cape Cod, among many books on her Amazon Author Page.
Written notes from the Presenters: So far notes have come in from Lee Foster and April Orcutt.
Profitable Travel Writing/Photo Content Publishing Today: Some Tips
By Lee Foster
-Traditional guidebooks dead?
Not so fast. DK (Dorling Kindersley) recently paid LF more than $15K for his writing/photography contribution to Back Roads California. Royalty books problematic. Independent books promising. Publishing ebooks in China possible. PDF of your book a licensable product. “Website book” a possible new product? See http://amzn.to/1jl9Lnz
-Impossible to sell a travel photo?
Not exactly. LF received as his monthly June 2017 payment $1,111 from his agency Alamy.com, selling his 5K images rights-managed in their system to the worldwide audience. Anyone in SATW can join Alamy. Your independent PhotoShelter photo selling site a good parallel investment. Traditional photo partners can disappoint you, as Lonely Planet sold $220k for LF, then closed down. See http://stockphotos.fostertravel.com
-Website not producing a dime?
Not true. LF’s www.fostertravel.com has produced some income for him every day since 2002 from Google AdSense ads, private ads, and sponsorships. Affiliates for tours and lodging represent a new income stream. Website helps sell saleable products. Robust presentation of content on the website leads to licensing, assignments, and paid talks.
-Licensing of content? What’s that all about?
Canadian travel agency system Uniglobe called Lee, said they liked his elaborate website essence-of-the-destination articles, wanted to get gravitas quickly on their site, and wished to license his top 100 worldwide articles. License for 3 years. Deal done, for 5 figures. Example: London at http://bit.ly/x8kcFp
-Robust website leads to assignments?
Answers.com called from St. Louis, said they are #23 website on Internet for traffic, liked LF’s www.fostertravel.com content on the San Francisco California area, wanted him to do about 100 short derivative articles for their website. Deal done, for 5 figures. Example: Oakland/Berkeley at http://bit.ly/Om6Bi6
-Exhausted your audience in English? Try Chinese.
LF has had positive sales for two years now, each month, for two of his travel books translated into Chinese and selling there as ebooks, mainly on Amazon.cn. Search Fiberead on my website for details. See the Chinese ebook from Amazon.cn on my US Amazon Author Page at http://amzn.to/1jl9Lnz
-Can you talk about your special travel area of competence?
And could you license a simple PDF of your travel content to be a speech follow-up giveaway? LF gave an entertaining paid talk/slideshow in SF to a meeting of financial people on “The SF Area’s Top 100 Travel attractions.” He licensed to the meeting planner the opportunity to email a PDF version of his latest ebook/app, titled SF Travel & Photo Guide. Lee charged $1 per email send to the meeting attendees of the PDF as an attachment. See PDF discussed at http://bit.ly/2sX3SaN
-Is there a “website book” in your future?
Folks will endure ads and affiliate links for a long time to get free content before they will pay for content. Could the future of your content, something that would have once been put in a travel guidebook, appear in a new form? As connectivity becomes ubiquitous, could a “website book” be funded by Google Ads, private ads, sponsorships, and affiliate income from tour, lodging, and transportation providers? LF has published a prototype as SF Travel & Photo Guide: The Top 100 Travel Experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area. See http://bit.ly/2wEJjyV
Written notes from April Orcutt:
Notes from April Orcutt’s Tips for
Magazines, Newspapers & Other Major Publishers
SATW Portland 2017
The traditional press – newspapers, magazines and other major publishers – is extremely important – and most editors are trained in proper and ethical journalism so that’s one of many reasons I love writing for major publications
Lee asked whether my success can be repeated by others: Yes. But it involves hard work. I’m honored to have had a feature in National Geographic Traveler and lead stories in many other publications – but these did not just fall into my lap.
Research is extremely important:
- Research the publication and see what kinds of stories it runs. Read the last year’s articles.
- Research the locations that the publication covers.
- Research the style, format and language that the publication uses.
- Research the story you want to tell – facts, history, people, etc.
You see that I emphasize RESEARCH so I researched this talk by asking a number of editors for their tips for writers.
Editor: “Understand that there are two kinds of stories: the one that writers want to write, and the one readers want to read. Spend more time writing the latter, and editors will notice.”
Start small: With magazines: front-of-the-book and back-of-the-book – shorter pieces. I had written four stories for National Geographic Traveler before I got the feature assignment. And each of those stories was for a different editor – and the features editor who wanted my Arizona story was yet another editor. So while my query to the features editor was essentially a cold query – meaning I had had no contact with the editor before – I had still proven that I was a good researcher and could write in National Geographic Traveler style.
Queries vs. Finished Stories
Newspaper editors usually want finished stories – so learn to write well.
Magazines and major-publisher websites want queries – so learn to write well.
Queries are how you sell an editor on the story you want to write:
- You only have the first sentence or two to hook the editor on the idea.
- Say what department your story would fit into – and why.
- What’s the point or focus of your story?
- Why that publication?
- Why now?
- Why are you the person to write the story?
Editor: “I can’t tell you how often I’ve had folks come back to me with arguments as to why their story is a fit when it clearly goes against our writers guidelines. That just bogs down my email and makes me less likely to want to give an assignment to that person in the future.”
More magazines allow press trips now because they won’t cover your travel expenses, but that’s up to individual magazines, newspapers and websites so writers would have to check the publications’ writers guidelines to know for sure.
Editor: “If you only take FAM and hosted trips, make a serious effort to find an actual story angle. Far too many stories are a forced jumble of the writer trying to get in every place he/she ate, slept and visited. That isn’t an angle or a story – it’s just a list.”
More information on the power of research and a strong query
Last winter I saw an Editor’s Alert on TravMedia that BBC Travel was looking for stories about remote, undiscovered areas of Canada in honor of Canada’s 150th anniversary. TravMedia’s Editor’s Alerts go to nearly 3,000 freelance writers so, again, writers need to research and write strong queries. Although I had met the BBC Travel editor briefly at last year’s SATW conference in China, I did not really know her. So: I did research, wrote a strong query – which was essentially a cold query – and got the assignment for British Columbia. But it took work!
Once you get an assignment, you have to work with editors.
When I first started travel writing, I heard a lot of writers griping about editors. But when I began working with editors, I found out they were generally pretty cool people. Believe it or not, editors know their publications better that freelancers do!
Do your part to make your relationship run smoothly:
- Be cooperative.
- Avoid excuses.
- Don’t argue.
- Hit deadlines.
- Be pleasant to work with.
- Double-check facts (and not with Wikipedia!).
- Double-check spelling (especially names).
- Ask someone – anyone – to proof-read your final story to catch typos you’ve seen so many times that you don’t notice them.
- When I taught television production, I continually reminded students that if you mess up facts or misspell something, your audience or readers will question everything else you say.
- Empathize and be a pro – think of how crazy your own life is and realize editors have it worse.
- Also, don’t bad-mouth editors.
Editor: “I view the editing process as a team effort. I’m reliant on the writer to research and present the information. However, I do know the tone, the style and the standards that story needs to match. I welcome a writer ensuring that the story is reported accurately, but it’s frustrating when they get possessive of the piece and argumentative about requested changes.”
Keep your editor informed as to what’s going on:
- I send occasional one-sentence updates saying “the research is going well” or “I should have an interview with so-and-so by Monday,” etc.
- But don’t be a pest.
- Don’t be a pill if your story gets shortened or your favorite photo gets left out.
Learn from editors. A TravelandLeisure.com editor asked me questions about stories, and I thought, “She knows the answer to that,” but she was getting me to think and write the way she needed the story to go – and I’ve used those techniques in many other stories I’ve written for others editors.
Again, be cooperative.
Editor: “If an editor asks you to redo something because he or she was not specific enough, you eat that crap sandwich because you know it is not personal. It is what that editor needs. You suck it up sometimes. If you need to tell someone, tell your cat, your dog, your husband, your wife, your therapist. Chances are the editor already knows he or she goofed.”
Editor: “Persistence is good. A query might not land at the right time for a publication, but if you pitch other ideas or send a reminder email or two about the original idea, it might end up filling a space that has suddenly opened up in an editorial lineup. This, of course, all depends on the writing being top notch. I can’t underscore importance of the query being A-game writing, whether it’s a piece of service journalism or a thoughtful personal essay.”
Editor: “Remain professional on all fronts. Too often writers complain about publications’ policies and payments (and PR reps) on social media – and we see it, too. It hurts writers when they do this. No one wants to work with someone who’s going to turn around and blast them on social media.”
Goal: Build a positive relationship with editors.
Over the years I’ve written a number of stories for the Travel section of the Los Angeles Times. Last summer when the Travel Editor added a weekly events column, she asked me to write it. Point: If your cooperative and professional, you can be given assignments.
Pay and Rights-to-Content
Pay: ranges from 50 cents/word to $2 or more.
Rights vary by contract. Magazines and major publishers online usually want exclusivity for 3-6 months – maybe longer. For newspapers: rights may revert to you immediately after publication or in 3 months. Some want rights forever. Check your contract.
Suggestion: Google yourself and titles of your stories (in quotes) to see who’s purloined your stories – and hope that they at least had the decency to keep your byline.
Suggestion: “Know Your Rights” PD session at this SATW convention in Portland, Oregon.
Write well, be a good researcher, be cooperative and be professional, and you can gain entry to the influential world of magazines, newspapers and major publishers’ online sites.
Thank you very much for your time.
Written notes from other travel journalists:
Jill Robinson, http://dangerjillrobinson.com/
Thanks so much for including me in your panel, even though I won’t be there in person.
I’m focusing on your title of how to make money, and while my points may seem simple, there are writers who skip past them every day, so perhaps they’re not simple after all.
* Be creative with how you view “travel.” There are publications without the word in their title that still take stories about destinations, travel trends, and events around the world.
* Study, study, study. Are you sure you know what kinds of stories the publication takes, and the voice they like? In your haste to pitch, don’t skip a thorough study. Inflight magazines often only publish stories about places their airline serves, but some stretch that rule a little. Find out which ones have which rules. Want to pitch a story about a Middle Eastern destination to a luxury magazine? You did your research and noticed the magazine hasn’t covered that destination recently… but they haven’t covered the Middle East at all in the past few years. Why? They may not cover the region at all. You’re only going to learn these things by intensely studying the publication, checking writers’ guidelines, and paying attention.
* Consider the sliding scale. We all can’t write badass adventure stories for Outside. When we’re writing about “adventure” for the general public, remember that while many love hearing about those seat-of-the-pants stories, they’re not likely to spend their vacation money recreating it. Consider adventures that can be dialed up or down, depending on the reader’s preferences.
* Don’t work for free. You should get compensation of some sort that you deem has enough value for your work. Is it $1-$2 per word for an article? (Check to see what publications pay and focus on the ones that pay those rates, because there are plenty still out there.) Is it a byline in a publication that establishes you as an expert in your field and that, in itself, is what’s going to get you more work? Do your research. Know what you’re worth. Ask for it. Work with publications who agree with you. There are plenty of people in the world who will sell you short. Don’t be one of them.
* Don’t be a jerk. Aside from being professional with editors, PR folks, and other writers when you’re working with them, remember that we all operate in a small world. Openly bashing an editor in front of a group of colleagues (even when we have cocktails in hand) is practically asking for that editor to eventually find out what you said and decide that it’s not worth it to work with you. Choose your battles, and moments of bravado, carefully.