An Interview with The Practical Nomad

Edward Hasbrouck is, according to many, “the practical nomad” of travelers.  Author of the popular travel book series of the same name, he offers a brilliant perspective that’s perfect for both experienced explorers and first-time voyagers.  His sage advice covers such integral aspects of traveling as security procedures, travel documents, border crossings, as well as how to choose a destination and find a deal without getting duped.  A human rights activist and consumer advocate, he won the coveted Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award in 2003 for investigative reporting.  Check out his popular blog here.

You’ve done all kinds of work on the periphery of travel writing. How did you get into agency work and consulting?

I was working as a travel agent, but liked the educational component of the work more than the sales, and wanted to share some of my “insider” knowledge of how airfares work with a larger readership than just my clients.

So I wrote an FAQ about airfares, never thinking it would lead to paid writing opportunities. Consulting came later, when I finally left my travel agency job and was approached with paying offers by people familiar with my work through my writing.  It’s gone in a circle: other travel-related work got me into travel writing, and then travel writing got me other (still travel-related) work.

How did you “break in to travel writing”? What have been the keys to your success?

I started by posting an (unpaid) travel FAQ on Usenet in the early 1990′s. My writing, and the response of readers to it, was noticed by a (print) travel publisher, who approached me first to write a column for their (print) customer newsletter, and shortly after to write a travel advice book.  The book led me to build a Web site (originally as an advertisement for the book and for myself as a professional travel expert).  Today I make most of my money from related consulting work (mostly Web writing for a travel-related nonprofit organization), and for the last 2 years I’ve made more from my Web site than from book royalties.  I think the biggest key to my success has been a focus on building my personal brand equity rather than on “selling my writing”.

Where do you see your career as a travel writer being three years from now? How will your income mix change and what are you doing to adapt to the changing media landscape?

I hope to increase my online self-publishing revenue, both through better use of ads on my Web site and through online use of content from my books. I have one book that is out of print in hardcopy; I’m not sure whether to market it as a PDF or other e-book, or to put the content on my Web site with ads.  I’d like to reduce my current dependence or salaried writing or consulting for third parties.  Your survey of travel writers I participated in for your book posited a dichotomy: self-published work and “work you publish for others”.  I think there is really a 3rd option: salaried work that consists primarily of writing, such as the jobs of many “Web editors”, “content managers”, “newsletter editors”, and brochure and marketing copywriters for travel companies.

Knowing what you do now, if you were starting from scratch today to become established as a travel writer, what steps would you take to ensure success?

Self-publish, both online and in hardcopy. When my first book was published, I made a deliberate choice not to self-publish, and to give up a large percentage of per-copy revenue in exchange for the marketing
advantage (and, hopefully, wider recognition and larger numbers of copies sold) of being associated with a major travel publisher. I still think that was the right choice, at the time. But today technology has made it much easier to market and sell books directly to readers, and both brick- and-mortar and online bookstores are more open to self-published work.

What advice would you give to someone near and dear to you who wanted to become a travel writer—assuming they had zero credits to their name. (Besides “Don’t do it”?)

Don’t quit your day job.  I had a “day job” with a travel agency for about 15 years before I got to the point where I could make a living almost entirely from travel writing and related consulting.

Like me, you’ve lived through a couple of decades of changes in technology and how we travel. What bums you out the most and what excites you about the increasing convergence of travel and technology?

Much of what’s getting hyped today is far from new. Travel has been on the cutting edge of technology since long before the Internet. Even well into the Internet era, computerized travel reservation systems were the world’s
largest real-time computer networks and largest e-commerce systems. Usenet, where I first published my travel writing, made a global online social networking and community platform available starting in the early 1980′s — with travel as one its first recognized topic categories.

Online community is a double-edged sword, though. It’s great when learning about someone else’s travels, or knowing they will have the support of online community and technical tools, empowers a person to take a trip –
perhaps one that’s a life-changing educational and personal growth experience — that they wouldn’t have considered, or felt capable of, without those crutches.

But the web of online connections and community also holds some travelers back from fully immersing themselves in and experiencing the places they visit. Travelling in the virtual company of their Facebook friends and e-mail buddies, or with their iPod shutting out the sounds around them, they resemble people who drive through a place in a car with the doors and windows closed.  I much prefer it when I can travel without a computer or going online.

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Author, journalist, blogger, consumer advocate, and travel expert Edward Hasbrouck is the author of the “Practical Nomad” series of travel how-to and advice books and blogs at http://hasbrouck.org/blog.  He was the first travel writer to win a Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation for self-published online writing.  He’s currently working on travel-related civil liberties and human rights
issues for the Identity Project (PapersPlease.org) and on the forthcoming 5th edition of “The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World”,
scheduled for publication in 2011.

Interview conducted in October, 2010 by Travel Writing 2.0 author Tim Leffel and edited by Kristin Mock.

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