Mark Hodson is an excellent example of a writer who transitioned effectively from print to digital media: after 12 years working full-time for The Sunday Times, he decided to focus his efforts on writing for the online market (and he’s never looked back!). In this interview, Mark talks to me about the decision to transition to online travel writing, offers some great advice for freelancers, and talks a bit about his website and company 101 Holidays.
How did you get started in the travel journalism industry? What have been the “keys” to your success?
I already had a successful career as a newspaper sub-editor, but engineering a move across to travel writing was difficult. There were simply too many intelligent and experienced people chasing too few paid writing gigs. I sent articles “on spec” to about a dozen travel editors, without any success. Most didn’t even reply. Then I got a lucky break: an editor at the FT agreed to publish a few of my pieces. I tried approaching the other editors again– but this time I also included my FT cuttings – and suddenly I got a response and sold a few pieces.
Breaking into The Sunday Times was a little harder. I studied the travel section at the time and identified a regular slot on the inside back page that I thought the editor might have difficulty filling each week. I wrote a piece of exactly the right word count, selected a great photograph and – along with a friend – created a mock up of the finished page using the newspaper’s own typefaces.
I managed to get a meeting with the travel editor and presented her with the page. It looked great. She took the piece – even though it was never actually published – and asked if I wanted to come in to work two days a week.
So I think the keys to my initial success were: creativity, persistence and thoughtfulness (tailoring my writing to the editor’s needs). I kept getting work because I acquired a reputation for being 100% reliable: I would always deliver good work, simple ideas executed well, and on time.
According to what I’ve read about you, you left your office life at 27 and claimed to “never look back.” What inspired you to make this radical life change and how did you make those next 3 years of travel a reality?
I enjoyed the work but the office hours were unsociable and the environment was stressful. I looked around me and saw a lot of well-paid but unhappy middle-aged men and decided I didn’t want to become one of them. These days the idea of quitting your work to go travelling is quite commonplace, but back in the early 1990s it was pretty radical. I had a lot of explaining to do, introducing friends and colleagues to the idea of “backpacking”.
My initial plan was to travel for a year but I had to return after 6 months after an operation in the Philippines on a detached retina. I then had a revelation: I could work for 6 months over the British summer and travel for the other 6 months with the money I’d saved. That worked for 3 years before I got bored. You’ve got to remember that travelling in those days was a more immersive experience: we had no email or mobile phones and the only way to communicate with home was by poste restante. So after 3 years of that I felt I wanted a more normal life.
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?
Much the same. I would identify a few publications I wanted to write for, work out exactly what regular slots they need to fill and present the editor with a finished article that exactly fits the slot. You’d be amazed how few people bother to think like this. So many writers think their own musings are so fascinating that editors will be blown away by their genius. In reality, most editors aren’t searching for the next Bill Bryson or Bruce Chatwin. They just want people they can rely on to regularly deliver what they need to fill the gaps between the ads.
Where do you see your career going in the next three years? Five years? Ten years? How do you see new media impacting these projections?
I’ve got a rough idea of what I’ll be doing in a year’s time, but three or five years – who knows? The landscape for everyone working in the media is now changing at an exponential rate, so the best thing to say is that writers need to be adaptable and embrace change.
New media is affecting everybody, wherever they work. I feel pretty comfortable now that the vast majority of my work is online. If I was relying on income from print I’d be very worried.
Mark, tell us a little bit about the thought process behind creating and maintaining your site, 101 Holidays. How did you get it started and how have you been able to make the majority of your income through the site?
I set up 101 Holidays with David Wickers, another travel journalist, and Catherine Leech, who has been incredibly successful in a number of different industries including tour operating, PR and travel marketing. Catherine and I run it on a day-to-day basis.
The thinking was simple: we recognized that people find it easy to find travel content online, but find it hard to know who to trust and what is good advice.
Our business model is simple. If a company is selected by our editors, we invite it to join the site, for which it pays a fixed annual fee. We don’t accept any advertising, which keeps the pages clean, and we’ve chosen not to go down the affiliate route.
We’re now getting more than 3 unique millions visitors a year and delivering a lot of leads to our members. We think we’ve found a successful formula but we’re aware that it takes a lot of hard work and creativity to maintain that success.
Mark Hodson spent 12 years as a full-time freelance travel journalist with The Sunday Times before making the switch to working online. Four years ago he co-founded the travel inspiration website, 101 Holidays, and he also works as a SEO consultant and online media trainer.
Interview conducted in August, 2012 by Kristin Mock.