Rob Goss is a freelance writer with an impressive pedigree: from publishing a number of award-winning guidebooks to writing for the likes of National Geographic Traveler and TIME, Rob knows what it’s like to juggle the many projects of a freelancer. In our interview today, he shares some of his personal success stories and offers some advice on how to work with editors and publishers. Enjoy!
You’re based in Tokyo. How did you end up there full-time?
After graduating from university in England, I spent a few months working in Norway. I was painting sewage pumping stations, so it wasn’t particularly glamorous work, but Norway was brilliant nonetheless. I really enjoyed the depth of experience you get living in a foreign country and it made me want to try working somewhere else overseas. Without knowing much at all about Japan, I ended up taking a job with an English conversation school in Tokyo (in 1999). After about six months here I then met my wife (who is Japanese). That was that!
Tell us a little bit about getting your start in the freelance writing business.
I’d been teaching for a few years, but it wasn’t the job for me, and like many other English teachers before and since I was finding out that it can be hard to get a job in Japan outside of the English teaching industry. By this time, however, I’d admitted to myself that I wanted to be a writer. That was a start. Still teaching full-time, I did a two-year post-graduate diploma in Journalism via distance learning with the University of Southern Queensland. I learned a lot about the nuts and bolts of researching and writing, and while studying started picking up freelance assignments.
The qualification also helped me get a full-time copy editing job (a great education in itself) during which time I put in a lot of late nights at home to build enough freelance work to scale down to a part-time job and then eventually go fully freelance in 2008. The staggered transition was very important. I had a young family by then, so I had to keep a steady income.
What have been the keys to your success?
Finding a niche has helped. From early on I had my own website (a simple bio with samples) and through it was getting assignments from overseas publications that my experience and ability honestly didn’t warrant. That hinted at a shortage of experienced freelance English-language writers in Japan and/or a lack of those marketing themselves effectively overseas. There was a niche to fill. These publications also tended to pay a lot more than Japan-based English-language publications. It made sense to aim internationally. It also gave me thousands of potential clients, rather than a couple of dozen.
Realizing that my writing is a business helped, too. Initially I was happy taking on any assignment. While that was a valuable learning experience, it wasn’t a suitable long-term business model. To make writing a viable full-time career, I became more selective. Is the assignment interesting? Does it pay for my time properly? If not, there are plenty more fish in the sea. If turning down work means a quiet week story-wise every so often, that’s fine. The time can be better spent coming up with ideas, working on pet projects, doing marketing or getting ahead of schedule on a book.
What advice do you have for budding writers who wish to become freelancers? What do you wish you’d known when you started that you know now?
First of all, enjoy the ride. It will be hard work at times, but it’s not supposed to be torture!
Don’t be afraid to act like a professional, even if you don’t feel like one yet. Be reliable, meet deadlines, and deliver exactly as briefed. Overcome any shyness about communicating with your editors. Good editors don’t get annoyed if you ask for guidance. It shows that you care. Before you start writing, for example, you need to be clear on what your editor wants. That can take a few emails to nail down, but it’s better for everyone than a rewrite and far less painful for you than a kill fee. Try not to react badly to their edits, either. We can all learn a lot by keeping an open mind and analyzing how editors handle our text. Analyze other people’s writing, too. What makes each story flow and bounce? Which structures are used effectively? Or overused? How do the good pieces grab your attention and hold it?
Market yourself. Be visible online so potential clients can find you, but also chase editors for work. Work hard on your pitches and pitch often. Let publications know you are there. Also, get to know other writers. You can share ideas, experiences and rants. We are all in it together, so don’t think of them as rivals. If you aren’t available for a gig, pass it on to someone else. It makes you feel good and might trigger some nice karma.
You’ve written three travel books and have a photo book coming out. What’s the process of publishing a book been like?
Writing my first full book from scratch (Tuttle Travel Pack: Japan) was very different to anything I’d done before, even having worked on book updates and edits. Fortunately, my publisher Tuttle guided me through it well. That was invaluable. The writing part aside, everything was new ground for me, from outlining the book and planning my writing schedule for several months ahead to helping the designers and cartographers and then getting involved with marketing. I’m on my fourth book now and it’s still and ongoing learning process, but one I enjoy a lot.
How do you see your income mix changing in the next 5 to 10 years?
The last couple of years I’ve moved into books a lot more and my aim is to keep focusing on them (or book-scale digital projects) alongside features and other articles; predominantly travel, but not exclusively. Until now my income has come almost entirely from Japan-related work, but that will change a little, too. I’ve got to a point with writing about Japan where creatively I want something else to go with it.
From this year onward we will be in the UK and Europe for a couple of months each summer. That’ll be great for many reasons beyond work, but it’ll also give me the opportunity to write more about things unrelated to Japan. Tied into that, another goal I’ve recently become focused on is fiction; short stories in particular. Whether fiction will have any impact on my income mix, who knows? It’ll be fun finding out.
What is working on a guidebook like versus a piece for TIME or National Geographic Traveler?
With a book there’s a lot longer between the various production stages. For example, I finished the final full draft of my second book with Tuttle (Tuttle Travel Pack: Tokyo) in December and we are doing the final tweaks right now, before it soon goes to the printers and then hits stores in August/September. The photo book coming out after that was also mostly written last year. A benefit of the long gap between submission and first reviews is that I assess my own work more objectively coming back to it after a break. A potential drawback is that book deadlines can seem way off, so it requires consistent self motivation to not fall behind schedule. With a feature or short, the deadline is always in sight – it cracks the whip for you!
What they have in common is also important. There’s an extra buzz about seeing your own book in a store or work in a big magazine. However, you have to go into every project with the same mindset. Book, story for TIME or freebie as a favor for your community newspaper, if you agree to do it, you agree to do your best. No matter what the pay or the “status”, every word matters just the same once you’ve said yes.
From the wilds of Hokkaido in the north to the beaches of Okinawa in the sub-tropical south, Rob Goss has been to almost every part of Japan on assignment, producing work that has ranged from this Kyoto city guide for TIME and simple Japan round-up for National Geographic Traveler to features like this hike through the Tanzawa range, this look at the history of the Ginza district, and this search for Tokyo’s best galleries.
Interview conducted in May, 2014 by Kristin Winet.