From the Editor’s Mouth: Larry Habegger of Travelers’ Tales

This week, we are thrilled to present Larry Habegger, executive editor of the coveted Travelers’ Tales publishing company and one of the brains behind the acclaimed The Best Travel Writing series, launched in 2004 to celebrate the world’s best travel writing from Nobel Prize winners to emerging new writers. Founded in 1993, Travelers’ Tales has become a mecca of anthologies and a place to find innovative, compelling travel writing–from the seasoned and novice alike. Aside from editing, Larry’s work has appeared in a number of renowned newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Travel & Leisure, and Outside, and he often teaches at writing conferences and hosts writing workshops. Check out his website here!

What path led you to the position you have now? What’s your background?

I was writing fiction in college, began writing about travel soon after graduating and turned primarily to travel writing a few years out of college. I co-wrote a series of mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly in the 1980s, and at the same time James and I had a freelance writing business together working for magazines and newspapers, eventually starting the syndicated column World Travel Watch (which I still write, but James left some years ago). In the early 1990s we started the publishing company Travelers’ Tales with James’s brother Tim, who was a successful computer book publisher. James and I have been running the company ever since.

You’re the executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, one of the premier travel writing presses out there. After reading so many travel stories and writing so many of your own over the years, what still captures your eye when you’re reading submissions?

A story has got to move me. There has to be something in the narrative to engage me emotionally or I won’t be that interested in it. It’s a cliché to say you have to make me laugh or make me cry, and if you can do both in the same story you’ve really accomplished something, but that’s essentially true. Engage me emotionally and I’ll read every word, start to finish. Leave me distant, and it would have to be a very good account of history or place to keep me reading.

What qualities do you look for and admire in someone you hire to write, edit, or update a book?

Writers must first be good writers, they must know their subjects, and if I’m going to consider them for writing or editing a book they have to be personable and flexible. Life is too short to work with someone you don’t like or respect, especially on a creative project that requires collaboration. They also need to be responsible and reliable, so I know they’re going to do what we’ve agreed they will do.

What mistakes do writers make in how they approach you and what do the good ones do right?

The main mistake is not knowing well enough what we publish and submitting material that isn’t suitable. Another absurd mistake is sending in stories with no contact information on the attached story. The good ones follow our guidelines and follow up with us in a friendly fashion.

Based on what you know in your position, what honest and unvarnished advice would you give to an aspiring book writer who wanted to become a successful travel writer? (Besides, “Don’t do it.”)

Know how difficult it will be to make a living from this. Being “successful” can be measured in many ways, so the first step is knowing what you want and hope to accomplish and what you will consider achieving success. The next thing is to write about what you love because that’s the truest way to get the best out of yourself. And then do as much networking as possible, online and offline, getting to know as many people as you can in the industry and building relationships. People who have the ability to hire prefer to hire people they like (assuming everything else is equal), so be sincere and get to know people.

As many writers transition into new media platforms, what is your opinion on the future of digital publishing?

You say “the future of digital publishing” but digital publishing is the future. This is where we’re all headed, whether it be e-books or social networks or blogs or websites. Print is still alive and will live a long time yet, but e-publishing of all sorts is where we’re going. So all of us, writers, editors, agents, publishers, need to be working in this dimension if we want to continue in this business. I think it’s actually a very exciting time because there’s so much opportunity for writers and publishers, but no one truly knows the way through the woods. There probably isn’t just one way through the woods, and we’re all trying to figure this out at the same time, so there will be lots of experimenting and lots of things won’t work. But some things will work and if we’re lucky enough to be part of that the future could be pretty bright.

Speaking of experimenting, I’ve just published the first in a series of e-books with a writers group I’ve been running for the past seven years. We call ourselves Townsend 11 because there are eleven of us in the group and we meet in a converted brick warehouse on Townsend Street in San Francisco. Our first book is No Fixed Destination: Eleven Stories of Life, Love, Travel. We have two more in the pipeline for publication in the coming weeks and are eager to see how this plays out. As I say, it’s an experiment. We’re looking to build an audience and see what happens.

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Larry Habegger is a writer, editor, journalist, and teacher who has been covering the world since his international travels began in the 1970s. As a freelance writer for more than 30 years and syndicated columnist since 1985, his work has appeared in many major newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Travel & Leisure, and Outside. In 1993 he cofounded the award-winning Travelers’ Tales publishing company with James and Tim O’Reilly, where he has helped edit all of the company’s more than 100 books, with cover credit on 30 of them. He is currently executive editor. Larry is an inspiring writing teacher and coach, emphasizing the craft and art of the personal travel story, and he regularly teaches at writing conferences, including annually at the Book Passage Travel and Food Writing & Photography Conference. He is also the founder and leader of the writers group, Townsend 11 (see the group’s e-books on Kindle, Nook, iBookstore, and elsewhere: No Fixed Destination is the first in the series); a founder of The Prose Doctors, an editors consortium; editor of the annual magazine Travel Guide to California; and editor-in-chief of the destination discovery site, Triporati.com.

Interview conducted in August, 2011 by Travel Writing 2.0 author Tim Leffel and edited by Kristin Mock.

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