Lan Sluder, standing here behind his daughter, Rose (a position he says he often occupies while traveling!) Lan is doing what he does best: traveling in Belize! A former newspaper editor, Lan has authored 10 books and ebooks on the beautiful little country of Belize, in addition to founding and editing Belize First Magazine. It’s no surprise, then, that Sluder is known as “Lan the Belize Answer Man,” as he promises he can answer just about any question on Belize. Over the years, Lan has written for and contributed to publications around the world, including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, and Caribbean Travel & Life. See a complete bio of him here!
How did you break into travel writing? What got you on your way?
I was a business newspaper editor in New Orleans in the 1980s and freelanced on the side, contributing to newspapers and magazines, so I had some background in writing and reporting. Later, in the 1990s, I developed an interest in the Outer Banks of North Carolina and put together some articles on the Banks, which I posted online. A travel editor saw the articles, liked them and hired me to do a Frommer’s guide to the coast of the Carolinas and Georgia. Although I had freelanced travel articles this was my first travel book. About the same time, I developed an interest in Belize and began publishing a newsletter and then a magazine on the country. This led to several books, including Fodor’s guides, on Belize. Likewise, I’ve done a travel guide on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and contributed to other guides on the mountains of North Carolina, where I was born and raised. What success I’ve had I would say comes from my interest in a specific destination, my writing about it and publishing information on that destination, then becoming recognized as an “expert” or at least as a specialist on the area, which in turn led to book and article assignments.
You’re a great example of someone who has achieved success by specializing in a certain region. Tell us what kind of assignments came your way after you started becoming known as a “Belize travel expert.”
After I had visited Belize a couple of times in the early 1990s, as a kind of hobby I started a newsletter on Belize called Belize First. After a year or so, I decided to convert the newsletter to a Reader’s Digest-size quarterly magazine, though in fact I rarely published four issues a year – usually it was two or three. It was always an ad-free magazine, because I didn’t like the hassle of selling ads; it was distributed through paid subscriptions. I also gave away quite a few copies. I made sure that resort and hotel owners in Belize got free copies, along with important people like lawyers, doctors, business owners and politicians in Belize. So, soon I became pretty well known in Belize, at least in the tourism industry.
I don’t recall now exactly how it happened – perhaps it was through the Society of American Travel Writers, of which I was a member, or just through some other contact — but in the mid-1990s an editor at Fodor’s approached me to update the Belize section of Fodor’s Belize and Guatemala guide. Later, Belize was spun off and given its own guidebook, and I’ve been doing that as the sole author ever since. I’m updating the current Fodor’s Belize again this spring, and the new edition will come out later in the year. I was also approached by someone at Avalon (the Moon Handbook folks) to do a book on living and retiring in Belize, Adapter Kit: Belize, and then Living Abroad in Belize. I also did some self-published books, including one on Ambergris Caye, San Pedro Cool, and Easy Belize.
Based on my track record as a guidebook writer, I managed to sell some travel articles on Belize to various magazines, such as Caribbean Travel & Life, and to large daily newspapers, including The Globe & Mail in Toronto and the St. Petersburg Times. But my “day job” as a marketing consultant in the restaurant and medical conference industries took up a lot of my time, and I didn’t pursue as much freelance work as I probably should have.
I should say that in many ways it was a travel writer named Paul Glassman who first got me interested in Belize and in Central America. I believe I’m correct in saying that Paul self-published the first single-country guide to Belize. It was called Belize Guide and came out in 1984. At that time there was very little being published about travel in Belize, and Paul’s guide was invaluable. The publisher was Passport Press, a company that I believe Paul owned. I misplaced my own copy and recently bought a first edition through ABE Books for around US$30. I just re-read it and realized that many of my early publications on Belize were influenced by what Paul wrote. Paul also did early guides to Costa Rica, Guatemala and probably other destinations in Central America. Incidentally, Paul was one of the people who nominated me for membership in SATW back in 1997. I believe that he remains active as travel writer and has done travel books for Michelin.
What advice would you give to someone near and dear to you who wanted to become a travel writer–besides “Don’t do it.”
Pick a destination that interests you and become an expert on it. Get to know the key people in tourism at the destination. Also, develop as many contacts as you can in the industry — with book and magazine editors, freelancers, web site developers, etc. However, don’t expect that you will be able to make a living at it. If you do, consider it a miracle. More likely your travel writing income may be a supplement to your other writing revenue or to income from your regular job.
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?
Travel guide writing is a young person’s game. I would like to do more writing that is not time-critical and that does not require so much personal research on hotels, restaurants, tours, etc. Or so many updates. I’ll probably do more “thematic” material with a longer shelf life — for example, how-to books and books on retirement. I suspect I’ll also do more self-published eBooks and also self-published hard-copy books.
You were an early pioneer on the web, participating in travel forums in the early days of CompuServe and putting up a destination site for Belize in 1996, plus you were ahead of the pack in self-publishing a guidebook to earn a larger share than a traditional publisher would offer. What have you learned from those experiences?
I do think that the internet has totally changed the playing field for travel writers … and mostly for the better. When I was publishing Belize First as a hard-copy magazine, and then for a few issues as a book-format magazine (sort of a low-rent Granta) I had to front thousands of dollars to pay for the printing. Then I had to store all those copies and send them out by mail. I can tell you that was quite a job. Now with outfits like Create Space we can publish our paperback books for almost nothing, and of course there are also eBooks, Kindle books, Nook books, iBooks and so on, and the author never has to get involved with paying printing fees or stocking inventory or sending out copies by Media Mail.
Not all self-published books sell, but if you have a topic of real interest to at least a niche audience, and provide specialized information that some people are willing to shell out cash for, you can make decent money. Amazon.com by itself has done more for travel writers than 99% of the publishing companies.
The web taketh away, but the web also giveth. The internet has eliminated or reduced the size (and payment rates!) of a lot of travel writing markets, especially in daily newspapers and magazines, but it also has created new opportunities. For the first time in history, anyone who can write can become a published author at virtually zero cost and with limited involvement in the production and distribution end. And that’s a blessing!
Lan Sluder is the author of 10 books and eBooks on Belize. Among Lan Sluder’s Belize books are Fodor’s Belize, Living Abroad in Belize, Adapter Kit: Belize, Belize Island Guide, Easy Belize, San Pedro Cool, Belize Book of Lists and Belize First Guide to Mainland. Sluder is also founder and editor of Belize First Magazine – the web edition can be found here! Additionally, Sluder has contributed articles on travel, retirement and business subjects to publications around the world, including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, Where to Retire, Globe and Mail, St. Petersburg Times, Bangkok Post, The Tico Times, Newsday and Caribbean Travel & Life. He also has authored the travel guides InFocus Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Frommer’s Best Beach Vacations: Carolinas and Georgia and co-authored several editions of Fodors’s The Carolinas & Georgia. Questions to Lan Sluder can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interview conducted in March, 2011 by Travel Writing 2.0 author Tim Leffel and edited by Kristin Winet.